Musicians in ancient Greece

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A teacher shows a boy how to play pipes; a lyre hangs on the wall

A teacher shows a boy how to play pipes; a lyre hangs on the wall

Both women and men played musical instruments. We often see Greek musicians painted on vases. Boys from rich families learned at school to play on the lyre, and to sing.

Girls from rich families probably learned to play instruments at home, because they usually could not go to school. But most of the women playing instruments on vases are slaves who are working as entertainers at parties.

A lyre lesson (the teacher has a beard)

A lyre lesson (the teacher has a beard)

Rich teenage boys, on the other hand, often competed for prizes in musical contests. Each town had its own competitions, and there were also competitions like the Olympic Games (in honor of Zeus) or the Pythian Games (in honor of Apollo) where men came from all over Greece to compete. A panel of judges decided who won. Adult men, too, played and sang as part of public competitions during religious festivals, including for the comedies and tragedies of Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes.

A rich woman plays a harp

A rich woman plays a harp

A slave woman plays a lyre

A slave woman plays a lyre

Some of the words we use to describe music today come from Greek words. The word “music” itself comes from the Greek Muses. Some Greek words that became English words are “rhythmos,” our word “rhythm”, and “melos” which now is our word “melody.”

 

Learn by doing: play the recorder
Listen to Greek music

Bibliography and further reading about Greek music:

Usborne Story of Music, by Eileen O’Brien (1998). Easy reading.

Music of the World, by Andrea Bergamini (1999). For teens.

Ancient Greek Music (Clarendon Paperbacks) by M. L. West (reprinted 1994). Not so easy to read, but it doesn’t assume that you know a lot of music theory.

Music in Ancient Greece and Rome, by John G. Landels (2001). Mainly about the practical side of music rather than music theory – who played it, and where, and for whom?

Apollo’s Lyre: Greek Music and Music Theory in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, by Thomas J. Mathiesen (2000) 0803230796 This one is more about Greek musical theory.

Music and the Muses: The Culture of Mousike in the Classical Athenian City, by Penelope Murray and Peter Wilson (2004).

Listen to Greek music
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By | 2017-07-02T03:20:34+00:00 July 2nd, 2017|Art, Greeks|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Musicians in ancient Greece. Quatr.us Study Guides, July 2, 2017. Web. December 12, 2017.

About the Author:

Karen Carr

Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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