As in current Western culture, music played an immense role in the daily life of Ancient Greeks. Music played roles in history, theatre, religion, and societal behaviors. Ingalls (1999) summarizes that the role that music played in this culture with “Greece culture was a song culture. Poetry, either recited or sung, was the medium through which history was related, political realities and social status were affirmed, social sanctions were taught and upheld, and religious meaning was thought to be found” (372). Ideally, music embodied dance, poetry, and melody. Overall, music played the role of a backbone to many of the Ancient Greek customs. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, tells that most of our current knowledge of the role of music comes from fragments of scores, references to music in literature, (ex. The bards in the Odyssey) and in paintings found on pottery. From observations of these fragments of art and literature, the role of musicians in daily life, of music in philosophy, and music in religion are seen.
The Greeks experienced music in their daily festivities no matter the social class. Shepherds played pipes to herd their flock of sheep, women were known to sing in their homes, and in occupations such as oarsmen, music was used to keep rhythm (Hemingway). Music was representative of the entire society and their beliefs. Men were trained to play an instrument and taught to sing and perform choral dances. Women were educated about moral behavior especially with music. Other than education, music was most often apart of Greek celebration and festivals. Hemmingway explains that the music was the pattern and texture of festivals for religion, marriage and funerals, and banquet gatherings. Greek music reflected myths and ideology about the roots of their society. The story of Amphion and Zethus, the children of Zeus, are attributed to building the city of Thebes with Amphion’s music played by a lyre. (Merriam-Webster). Music played a role not only in pleasing gods and goddesses, but also telling the tales of them.
The most common embodiment of music in Ancient Greece was the Greek chorus. According to Ingalls (1999), the chorus sang during plays and poetry, for religious rights, and other festivities. Choral groups were often formed of aristocrats, especially men but with some women. They are described as the “surrogate for the community as a whole” (372), especially since not everyone could sing and dance. The role of these choruses was to project the society’s values such as religion, in addition to evoking various powers through emotion.
According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Greek philosophy behind the chorus and music in general was that music was a divine and healing process. Pythagoras is said to have believed that music and math, when joined, ultimately created a harmony of the cosmos. It is said that music “inspires souls.” This concept played out further through the works of Plato and Aristotle. The idea that music created the “ideal Greek City-State” was a common principle of these two philosophers. Music was the basis of purity and moral actions, and was a direct gift from gods. . It created a certain harmony with the universe, specifically in its relationship to deities. Pythagoras defined harmony with music as the cause of “calmness” for a complete whole. The influence music had on the society, was most greatly on the ethos, or character of an individual. In Greek society, individuals were thought to be shaped, by the rhythmic, balance, flow, words, and actions that came with Greek Music. As we’ve seen with the Odyssey and other Greek Myths, the bards can bring humans to tears, sirens sing shipmen to their deaths, and the oral tradition to pass stories was held as sacred. Music, as a whole, influenced the minds, actions, and beliefs of the Ancient Greek city-states. Most eloquently, a translation of Sophocles’ work entitle Music explains “Power there is in songs,/ What great happiness/ That can make bearable this/ Short narrow channel of life!” (Gibbons, 2007). Music reflected the deities, the culture, and the moral expectations of Ancient Greece.
“Lekythos” 480 B.C. Brygos Painter Image of aulos (clarinet) from ancient Greece.
Hemingway, C & Hemingway S. (2001). Music in Ancient Greece. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New york: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/grmu/hd_grmu.htm#top
Ingalls, W.B. (1999). Traditional Greek Choruses and the Education of Girls. History of Education. 28(4). EBSCOhost.
Lippman, E.A. (1964). Musical Thought in Ancient Greece. New York: Columbia University Press.
Merriam-Webster online dictionary. “Amphion and Zethura.” Retreived February 17, 2013. http://www.merriam-webster.com/concise/amphion%20and%20zethus
Sophocles (2007). Music. Poetry. 189(6). EBSCOhost.