What did ancient Greek music sound like?

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Apollo playing the lyre

Apollo playing the lyre

People in ancient Greece loved music, and made it an important part of their lives. Greek people thought of music as a way of honoring the gods, and making the world a more human, civilized place. Unfortunately nobody knows what Greek music sounded like, because there were no microphones to record music then, and the Greeks had no way of writing down music either. People who try to play Greek music now are just guessing.

Greek musicians, like earlier Egyptian musicians, played pipes, and lyres, and drums, and cymbals. Their pipes were made from wood or reeds, with holes cut in them for your fingers to play the tune. Some people played pipes vertically, like a recorder, and some played sideways, like a flute. Sometimes people played more than one pipe at a time. People played pipes and drums in a loud, lively way, for dancing, especially when they were worshipping Dionysos, the god of wine and parties.

Woman playing double pipes (Athens, ca. 500 BC)

Woman playing double pipes (Athens, ca. 500 BC)

Greek musicians also had lyres, which are like small harps, and sounded something like a guitar. According to the Greek story, the first lyre was made from a turtle shell by the god Hermes when he was a baby, and then Hermes gave it to Apollo. Apollo was the god of reason and logic, and the Greeks thought of music as a great expression of order and patterns. Lyre music was usually played more calmly, and more soothingly, than the pipes and drums.

Learn by doing: make a Greek lyre
Who played 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).

Who played Greek music?
Ancient Greece
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By |2018-04-19T12:15:01+00:00July 2nd, 2017|History|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. What did ancient Greek music sound like?. Quatr.us Study Guides, July 2, 2017. Web. December 12, 2018.

About the Author:

Dr. 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 Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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