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. While there are no tempo indications for ancient songs, it is often clear whether a metre should be sung fast or slow (until the invention of mechanical chronometers, tempo was in any case not fixed, and was bound to vary between performances). Setting an appropriate tempo is essential if music is to sound right.
What about the tunes – the melody and harmony? This is what most people mean when they claim that ancient Greek “music” is lost. Thousands of words about the theory of melody and harmony survive in the writings of ancient authors such as Plato, Aristotle, Aristoxenus, Ptolemy, and Aristides Quintilianus; and a few fragmentary scores with ancient musical notation first came to light in Florence in the late 16th century. But this evidence for actual music gave no real sense of the melodic and harmonic riches that we learn of from literary sources.
More documents with ancient notation on papyrus or stone have intermittently come to light since 1581, and now around 60 fragments exist. Carefully compiled, transcribed, and interpreted by scholars such as Martin West and Egert Pöhlmann, they give us a better chance of understanding how the music sounded.
Ancient Greek music performed
The earliest substantial musical document, found in 1892, preserves part of a chorus from the Athenian tragedian Euripides’ Orestes of 408BC. It has long posed problems for interpretation, mainly owing to its use of quarter-tone intervals, which have seemed to suggest an alien melodic sensibility. Western music operates with whole tones and semitones; any smaller interval sounds to our ears as if a note is being played or sung out of tune.
But my analyses of the Orestes fragment, published earlier this year, led to striking insights. First, I demonstrated that elements of the score clearly indicate word-painting – the imitation of the meaning of words by the shape of the melodic line. We find a falling cadence set to the word “lament”, and a large upward interval leap accompanying the word “leaps up”.