In Brief

VIDEO: Researchers reveal how Ancient Greek music sounded

Pioneering study leads to first hearing of songs for thousands of years

A centuries-old puzzle about the music that Ancient Greeks listened to has finally been solved, thanks to a pioneering new study.

Music was an integral part of Ancient Greek culture, with the work of artists such as Homer and Sappho intended to be performed in song. But while literary texts have provided plenty of detail about the notes, scales, effects and instruments used, the terms and notations found in such sources are unfamiliar to modern-day musicians.

Now, however, a major project led by an Oxford University professor has seen Ancient Greek music performed for the first time in thousands of years.

In order to replicate the ancient performance, Armand D’Angour, an associate professor in Classics, helped to design a replica of an Ancient Greek aulos - a two double-reed pipe - as well as organising musicians to sing and play the lyre. 

In an article published on news site Quartz, D’Angour writes: “Central to ancient song was its rhythms, and the rhythms of Ancient Greek music can be derived from the metres of the poetry. These were based strictly on the durations of syllables of words, which create patterns of long and short elements.”

His research also revealed that elements of ancient scores indicate a technique called word-painting, “the imitation of the meaning of words by the shape of the melodic line”.

D’Angour found that if the quarter-tones functioned as “passing notes”, the composition was, in fact, tonal (focused on a pitch to which the tune regularly reverts) - a discovery that he says has major implications.

 “The Western tradition of classical music is often said to begin with the Gregorian plainsong of the ninth century AD. But the reconstruction and performance of Greek music has demonstrated that Ancient Greek music should be recognized as the root of the European musical tradition,” D’Angour writes.

For his next project, he hopes to stage a complete ancient drama with historically informed music.

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