Chapter 1: Music in Antiquity

Chapter Outline

European culture has deep roots in the civilizations of antiquity. Its agriculture, writing, cities, and systems of trade derive from the ancient Near East. Its mathematics, calendar, astronomy, and medicine grew from Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman sources. Its philosophy is founded on Plato and Aristotle. Its primary religions, Christianity and Judaism, arose in the ancient Near East and were influenced by Greek thought. Its literature grew out of Greek and Latin traditions and drew on ancient myth and scripture. Its artists imitated ancient sculpture and architecture. From medieval empires to modern democracies, governments have looked to Greece and Rome for examples.

Western music also has roots in antiquity, from concepts such as notes, intervals, and scales to ideas about how music affects emotions and character. The strongest direct influence comes through Greek writings, which became the foundation for European views of music. The influence of ancient music itself is more difficult to trace. Little notated music survived, and few if any European musicians before the sixteenth century could read the ancient notation. Yet some musical practices continued, passed down through oral tradition.

These echoes of ancient music in the European tradition are reason enough to begin our survey by examining the roles of music in ancient cultures, the links between ancient practices and those of later centuries, and the debt Western music owes to ancient Greece. Starting with ancient music also lets us consider how we can learn about music of the past.

Music is sound, and sound is by its nature impermanent. What remains of the music from past eras are its historical traces, which we can divide into four main types: (1) musical instruments and other physical remains; (2) visual images of musicians and instruments; (3) writings about music and musicians; and (4) music itself, preserved in notation, through oral tradition, or (since the 1890s) in recordings. Using these traces, we can try to reconstruct what music of a past culture was like, recognizing that our understanding will always be partial and will be influenced by our own values and concerns.

We are most confident of success when we have all four types of evidence in abundance. But for ancient music, relatively little remains. Even for Greece, by far the best-documented ancient musical tradition, we have only a small portion of the instruments, images, writings, and music that once existed. For other cultures we have no music at all. By examining what traces survive and what we can conclude from them, we can explore how each type of evidence contributes to our understanding of music of the past.

Chapter Outline:

  1. Music in Antiquity
    1. Only historical traces of the music from past eras survive.
      1. Physical objects, such as musical instruments
      2. Visual images of musicians and instruments
      3. Writings about music and musicians
      4. Music as preserved in notation
    2. Ancient Greek music influenced Western music.
      1. The ancient Greeks left more surviving evidence than other ancient cultures.
      2. Western music has its roots in antiquity, especially in ancient Greek theoretical writings.
  2. Prehistoric Music-Making
    1. Before 36,000 B.C.E.: Whistles and flutes made from animal bones survive from the Stone Age in Europe (HWM Figure 1.1).
    2. Sixth millennium B.C.E.: Images in Turkish cave paintings show drummers accompanying dancers and driving out game.
    3. Fourth millennium B.C.E.
      1. Surviving Bronze Age metal instruments include bells, cymbals, rattles, and horns.
      2. Stone carvings show plucked stringed instruments.
  3. Ancient Mesopotamia (see map, HWM Figure 1.2)
    1. Home to several cultures, the first true cities, and the first known forms of writing (cuneiform)
    2. Some clay tablets written in cuneiform mention music.
    3. Pictures show music-making with instruments.
    4. Surviving instruments include lyres and harps.
      1. Lyres (see HWM Figures 1.3 and 1.4)
        1. Strings run parallel to the resonating soundboard.
        2. A crossbar supported by two arms secures the strings.
        3. The number of strings varies.
      2. Harps
        1. Strings are perpendicular to the soundboard.
        2. A neck attached to the soundbox secures the strings.
    5. Other instruments from the period include lutes, pipes, drums, bells, and other percussion instruments.
    6. The ruling class left the most evidence because they could buy instruments and hire scribes.
    7. Most uses of music in ancient Mesopotamia were similar to those of today.
      1. For rituals, including weddings and funerals
      2. In daily life, including nursery songs, work songs, and dance music
      3. For entertainment at feasts
      4. For religious ceremonies and processions
      5. Epics sung with instrumental accompaniment
    8. Written documentation from Mesopotamia
      1. Word lists from ca. 2500 B.C.E. include terms for instruments, tuning procedures, performers, techniques, and genres (types of musical composition).
      2. The earliest known composer is Enheduanna (fl. ca. 2300 B.C.E.).
        1. She was a high priestess at Ur.
        2. She composed hymns (songs to a god) to the god and goddess of the moon.
        3. Only the texts of her hymns survive.
      3. Babylonian musicians began writing about music ca. 1800 B.C.E.
        1. Instructions for tuning a string instrument using a seven-note diatonic scale (playable on the white keys of a piano)
        2. Interval theory, with names of intervals used to create the earliest known notation (see HWM Figure 1.5)
          1. HWM Figure 1.5 dates from ca. 1400-1250 B.C.E.
          2. Not enough is known about the notation to transcribe it.
          3. The poem seems to be a hymn to the wife of the moon god, but the language (Hurrian) cannot be translated entirely.
        3. Although Babylonians had a form of notation, musicians most likely performed from memory, improvised, or used notation as a recipe for reconstructing a melody.
        4. Babylonian music theory seems to have influenced later Greek theory.
  4. Other Civilizations
    1. Instruments, images, and writings about East Asian musical cultures survive, but they seem not to have influenced Greek or European music.
    2. Egyptian sources include artifacts, paintings, and hieroglyphic writings in tombs, but scholars have not been able to determine whether there is any notated music.
    3. The Bible describes ancient musical practices in Israel (which in turn influenced Christian music), but ancient copies of the Bible may not have any notation.
  5. Ancient Greece (see HWM Figure 1.6) comprised a wide area and left us enough evidence to construct a well-rounded view of its musical culture.
  6. Instruments and Their Uses
    1. Evidence of Greek instruments survives in writings, archaeological remains, and hundreds of images on pots.
    2. Aulos (see HWM Figure 1.7)
      1. A reed instrument
      2. The body consisted of two pipes with fingerholes.
      3. Pitch could be changed by position in the mouth, air pressure, and fingering.
      4. Images show the two pipes being fingered the same, but they could produce octaves, parallel fifths or fourths, drone, and unisons.
      5. The aulos was used in the worship of Dionysus.
        1. Dionysus was the god of fertility and wine, hence the drinking scene in HWM Figure 1.7.
        2. The aulos accompanied or alternated with choruses in the great tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides that were written for Dionysian festivals.
    3. The lyre (see HWM Figure 1.8)
      1. There were several types, but they usually had seven strings and would be strummed with a plectrum, or pick.
      2. The player held the instrument in front, supporting it on the hip and from a strap around the left wrist.
      3. Both hands were free to touch the strings.
        1. The right hand strummed the strings.
        2. The fingers of the left hand touched the strings, perhaps to dampen them or to create harmonics.
      4. The lyre was associated with Apollo, god of light, prophecy, learning, and the arts (especially music and poetry).
        1. Both men and women played the lyre.
        2. Learning to play the lyre was a core element of education in Athens.
        3. The lyre was used to accompany dancing, singing, weddings, and the recitation of epic poetry such as Homer’s Iliad andOdyssey.
        4. The lyre was also played for recreation.
      5. The kithara was a large lyre.
        1. Used in processions, sacred ceremonies, and in the theater
        2. Played standing up (see HWM Figure 1.9)
    4. Rise of virtuosity
      1. By the sixth century B.C.E. or earlier, the aulos and kithara were played as solo instruments.
      2. Contests and music festivals became popular after the fifth century B.C.E.
        1. An account of a musical competition in 582 B.C.E. describes a performance for aulos.
        2. HWM Figure 1.9 comes from a jar (amphora) awarded as a prize in a contest.
      3. Famous artists performed for large crowds, gave concert tours, and demanded high fees from wealthy patrons.
      4. Women were excluded from competition but could perform recitals, often to critical acclaim.
      5. Other than the virtuoso soloists, the majority of professional performers were slaves or servants.
  7. Greek Musical Thought
    1. We know about Greek musical thought through two kinds of writings:
      1. Philosophical doctrines that describe music’s place in the cosmos, its effects, and its proper uses in society
      2. Systematic descriptions of the materials of music (music theory)
    2. Music in Greek mythology
      1. Gods and demigods were musical practitioners.
      2. The word music (from mousiké) comes from the Muses.
    3. Performance of music
      1. Music as a performing art was called melos (the root of the word melody).
      2. Music was monophonic, consisting of one melodic line.
      3. There was no concept of harmony or counterpoint.
      4. Instruments embellished the melody while a soloist or chorus sang the original version, creating heterophony.
      5. Music and poetry were nearly synonymous.
        1. There was no word for artful speech without music.
        2. Many Greek words for poetic types are musical terms-e.g., hymn.
    4. Music and number
      1. Pythagoras and his followers recognized the numerical relationships that underlay musical intervals-e.g., 2:1 results in an octave, 3:2 a fifth, and 4:3 a fourth.
      2. Harmonia was the concept of an orderly whole divisible by parts.
        1. The term applied to the order of the universe.
        2. Music was allied to astronomy through the notion of harmonia.
        3. Mathematical laws were the underpinnings of musical intervals and the movements of heavenly bodies alike.
        4. From Plato’s time until the beginning of modern astronomy, philosophers believed in a “harmony of the spheres,” unheard music created by the movement of planets and other heavenly bodies.
    5. Music and ethos
      1. Greek writers believed that music could affect ethos, one’s ethical character.
        1. Music’s mathematical laws permeated the visible and invisible world, including the human soul.
        2. The parts of the human soul could be restored to a healthy balance (harmony) by the correct type of music.
      2. Aristotle’s Politics sets out a theory of how music affects behavior (see HWM Source Reading, page 16).
        1. The Mixolydian, Dorian, and Phrygian melodies (combinations of mode, melodic turns, and general style) each had specific effects on the listener.
        2. Aristotle argued that music should be part of education because of its power to influence a person’s soul.
        3. The theory of imitation holds that a person will imitate the ethos of the music they hear.
        4. Aristotle admits that music is enjoyable (see last sentence of HWM Source Reading, page 16) and enjoyment is acceptable when part of education and ethos.
        5. He discourages high-born citizens from training to become professionals or entering in competitions because performing for pleasure alone is menial and vulgar.
      3. Plato’s Republic urges balance between gymnastics and music, and only certain types of music, in education.
        1. The Dorian and Phrygian harmoniai fostered the virtues of temperance and courage.
        2. Music should not have complex scales or mixed genres, rhythms or instruments.
        3. Changes in musical conventions could lead to lawlessness in art and anarchy in society.
        4. Plato’s uses for music are more restrictive than Aristotle’s.
  8. Greek Music Theory
    1. Aristoxenus, Harmonic Elements and Rhythmic Elements (ca. 330 B.C.E.)
      1. Distinguishes between continuous movement of voice and diastematic (intervallic) movement
      2. Defines note, interval, and scale
      3. Intervals defined abstractly (versus Babylonian definition based on specific strings of the lyre or harp)
    2. Tetrachord theory
      1. Tetrachord: four notes bounded by a perfect fourth
      2. Three genera (classes) of tetrachord, defined by the second and third pitches, descending (see HWM Example 1.1)
        1. Diatonic: tone – semitone – tone
        2. Chromatic: minor third – semitone – semitone
        3. Enharmonic: major third – quartertone – semitone
        4. Intervals varied in size, creating “shades” within each genus.
      3. The genera were an attempt to explain actual musical practices.
      4. Aristoxenus said the diatonic was the oldest genera; the enharmonic, the most difficult to hear.
    3. Greater Perfect System (see HWM Example 1.2)
      1. Tetrachords put together to form a two-octave range
        1. Tetrachords with common outer notes are conjunct
        2. Tetrachords with a tone between them are disjunct
      2. One added note at the bottom (Proslambanomenos)
      3. The middle note was called mese.
      4. Each of the four tetrachords was named.
        1. Meson: the tetrachord beginning with mese and descending
        2. Diezeugmenon (disjunct): beginning a tone above mese and ascending
        3. Hypaton (conjunct): the tetrachord below Meson
        4. Hyperbolaion (conjunct): the tetrachord above Diezeugmenon
      5. Although the pitches had names, there was no absolute fixed pitch.
    4. Species (the ways that perfect consonances could be divided)
      1. Cleonides noted that the perfect fourth, fifth, and octave could be subdivided in a limited number of ways in the diatonic genus.
      2. The perfect fourth could be divided three ways (see HWM Example 1.3a).
        1. S – T – T (semitone – tone – tone)
        2. T – T – S
        3. T – S – T
      3. The perfect fifth has four species (see HWM Example 1.3b).
      4. The octave has seven species (see HWM Example 1.3c).
        1. Octave species result from combinations of species of fourth and fifth.
        2. Cleonides used names the “ancients” supposedly used:
          1. B-b: Mixolydian
          2. c-c’: Lydian
          3. d-d’: Phrygian
          4. e-e’: Dorian
          5. f-f’: Hypolydian
          6. g-g’: Hypophrygian
          7. a-a’: Hypodorian
        3. The Babylonians recognized the same diatonic tunings.
        4. Medieval theorists used the same names for their modes but they do not match Cleonides’ species.
    5. Other meanings for the names used by Cleonides
      1. Styles of music practiced in different regions of the Greek world (see map, HWM Figure 1.6)
      2. Harmoniai
        1. Scale types or melodic styles
        2. Plato and Aristotle used the ethnic names with and without prefixes
      3. Tonoi (singular: tonos)
        1. Scale or set of pitches within a specific range
        2. Associated with character and mood, the higher tonoi being more energetic.
  9. Ancient Greek Music
    1. Surviving pieces and fragments
      1. About forty-five survive.
      2. Most are from relatively late periods, i.e., from the fifth century B.C.E. to the fourth.
      3. All employ a notation that places letters above the text to indicate notes and durations.
      4. The earliest fragments are choruses from plays by Euripides (ca. 485-406 B.C.E.).
      5. Later works include hymns and an epitaph on a tombstone.
      6. The musical style is consistent with music theory of the time.
    2. NAWM 1 Epitaph of Seikilos (see HWM Figure 1.10 and Example 1.4)
      1. HWM Example 1.4 shows the Greek notation above the transcription.
        1. Alphabetical signs indicate the notes.
        2. Marks indicating doubling or tripling of the basic rhythmic unit are above the alphabetical signs.
      2. Melody
        1. Diatonic
        2. The range is an octave.
        3. The octave species is Phrygian.
        4. The tonos is Iastian, a transposed version of HWM Example 1.2.
        5. The melody balances rising and falling gestures with each line.
      3. Text
        1. In keeping with the Iastian tonos, the text suggests moderation.
        2. The epitaph urges readers to be light hearted while also acknowledging death.
    3. NAWM 2 Fragment from Euripides’ Orestes
      1. Survives on a scrap of papyrus from ca. 200 B.C.E. (see HWM Figure 1.11)
      2. Only the middle portion of its seven lines of text survives.
      3. The style is consistent with descriptions of Euripides’ music.
        1. Combines diatonic with either chromatic or enharmonic genus
        2. Instrumental notes are interspersed with vocal.
      4. The text is a chorus for women.
      5. The meter of the text uses dochmaic foot, used for passages of intense agitation and grief.
      6. Chromatic or enharmonic notes reinforce the ethos of the poetry.
  10. Music in Ancient Rome
    1. Less evidence survives for music of ancient Rome than for ancient Greece.
      1. No settings of texts survive.
      2. Images, written descriptions, and some instruments are all that remain.
    2. Romans took much of their musical culture from Greece.
      1. Lyric poetry was often sung.
      2. Cicero, Quintilian, and others believed cultured people should be educated in music.
      3. In the first and second centuries C.E., when other aspects of Greek culture were imported, virtuosity, choruses, and competitions became popular.
    3. Roman instruments
      1. The tibia, an instrument similar to the aulos, was used for ceremonies and theater.
      2. Other instruments included the tuba, a long straight trumpet.
      3. The most characteristic instruments were the cornu and buccina, circular horns.
      4. HWM Figure 1.12 shows tibias and cornus used in a funeral procession.
    4. Production of music declined when the Roman economy declined.
    5. Roman music seems not to have influenced later musical developments in Europe.
  11. The Greek Heritage
    1. Many characteristics of Greek music continued in later Western music.
      1. Music remained essentially melodic until the eleventh century.
      2. The meter and rhythm of the text influenced the music.
      3. Memory and musical conventions played an important part in many later traditions.
    2. Greek musical thought influenced later generations.
      1. Plato’s idea that music can influence character persists today.
      2. Medieval music theory and church music used Greek concepts.
      3. Opera composers looked to the Greek tragedies for models of how to combine music and drama.
      4. In the twentieth century, composers looked to the Greeks for inspiration.

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