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What Did Ancient Greece Sound Like? Classicists Reconstruct Music From This Period


Missing from the world for thousands of years, the music of Ancient Greece has been reassembled to sound exactly as it did back then.

‘What song the Sirens sang?’ wondered Sir Thomas Browne in 1658. The present reconstruction of Ancient Greek music is bringing us closer the answer of this question. Armand D’Angour, a Classic Literature professor at the University of Oxford is bringing some of the melodies this classical civilization used to listen to thousands of years ago, back to life.

We often forget that the root-texts of Western literature —Homer’s epics, Sophos love poems, the tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides— where, originally, music. Written between 750 and 400 BC, these were composed with the purpose of being sung, musicalized by a lyre, reed pipes or flutes and drums. Over two thousand years later, academics have finally figured out a way of reconstructing and playing these songs with apparent precision. D’Angour explains:

The instruments are known from descriptions, paintings and archaeological remains, which allow us to establish the timbres and range of pitches they produced.

And now, new revelations about ancient Greek music have emerged from a few dozen ancient documents inscribed with a vocal notation devised around 450 BC, consisting of alphabetic letters and signs placed above the vowels of the Greek words.

The Greeks had worked out the mathematical ratios of musical intervals – an octave is 2:1, a fifth 3:2, a fourth 4:3, and so on.

So, what did Greek music sound like? You can listen to David Creese, a classicist from the University of Newcastle, playing an ancient Greek song interpreted from stone inscriptions on an eight-string ’canon’ (a zither-like instrument) with movable bridges. Creese plays a song, which according to Archaeology Magazine is attributed to Seikilos. Listening to it can transport us to the origins of our sonorous world. The lyrics can be translated as:

While you’re alive, shine:

never let your mood decline.

We’ve a brief span of life to spend:

Time necessitates an end.


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