Ancient Music


Table Summary

Summary of Ancient Music
Greek and Roman ages
ca. 1200 BC-500 AD
monophonic, mode-based music
basic music theory
Early Christian period
ca. 200-500
adaptation of Roman
melodies to chant

The Earliest Music

The world's earliest visual art dates to the Upper Paleolithic (ca. 50,000-10,000 BC). This appears to be true of music as well; at any rate, the oldest discovered musical instruments belong to this period. Little is known about pre-civilized music, however; only with the development of writing (ca. 3000 BC) do historical records of musical practices begin. Eventually, music notation systems were invented, allowing actual works of music to be recorded.

Ancient Greek Music Notation

A few fragments of ancient Western notation (mostly Greek) survive. Even these can only be partly deciphered, however, such that any modern performance is highly speculative.4 Knowledge of ancient Western music is limited mainly to descriptions found in Greek and Roman literature.

Scales vs. Modes

A scale is a set of "standard notes" from which a song is composed. The C major scale contains seven notes; a song in the key of C major is comprised mainly of these seven notes. While a mode also contains a set of standard notes, it often includes additional standard features, such as patterns of rhythm and melody. Living traditions of mode-based music include Islamic and South Asian art music (see World Literature and Music).

Main Article

Greek Music

A relatively young civilization, the Greeks drew much from Mesopotamian and Egyptian culture. Indeed, by the time the Greeks emerged on the stage of history, these elder civilizations had invented all the major instrument families, including strings (plucked and bowed), flutes, reeds, brass, and drums. From the dawn of civilization (and probably much earlier), music played two major roles in human society: ceremony (social, religious, and/or civic) and entertainment.3

Ancient Greek music was based on a set of eight Greek modes; texture was homophonic (see Musical Texture). The most popular Greek instruments were the lyre (a harp-like instrument) and aulos (an oboe-like instrument).2,3

Greek philosophers generally viewed music as a reflection of the underlying harmony of the universe; some even argued that performances could influence human health or behaviour. Philosophers also analyzed music from a technical standpoint, thus founding Western music theory. The foremost Greek music theorist was Pythagoras, who discovered that pitches can be described in terms of string length ratios.2,3

To illustrate this concept, consider a simple plucked string instrument with two identical strings.

Two-string Plucked Instrument

The length of a vibrating string can be shortened by pressing one's finger against it (which raises the pitch). Now suppose that these strings are tuned to the note of C, and one wishes to perform the C major scale on the lower string. In order to play the first note (C), one simply plucks the string. In order to play the second note (D), one must shorten the string with one's finger.

String Length Ratio of Second Note

As Pythagoras discovered, the length of the shortened string is a precise fraction of the full string. The same can be said of the remaining notes of the scale.

String Length Ratios of the Scale

Theory was the most lasting Greek contribution to Western music. Ancient Greek theory included a range of fundamental concepts (e.g. notes, intervals, consonance/dissonance), as well as the mathematically defined scale described above. While the Romans added little to this body of theory, they did preserve it for composers of the Middle Ages.I2-7

Roman Music

Ancient Greek culture, including music, was eagerly absorbed by the Romans. As in other forms of art, the Romans adjusted and developed upon Greek music to suit their own tastes. No revolutionary transformation ensued, however; Roman music remained monophonic and mode-based, and the clear descendent of Greek music.3

During the Early Christian period (ca. 200-500), Roman art forms were adapted to Christian purposes (see Early Christian Art). In the field of music, portions of scripture were set to traditional Roman melodies (which were themselves descended from Greek melodies). These compositions are known as Early Christian chant.I3,3

Initially, Early Christian chant flourished in a variety of regional styles. All were eventually superseded, however, by the style that emerged in Rome. From the medieval period onward, the Roman style is known as Gregorian chant.I13,2,3

1 - "Music", Encarta 2004.
2 - "Western music", Encarta 2004.
3 - "Western music", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed September 2010.
4 - "Music", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed September 2010.
5 - "Musical notation", Encarta 2004.