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by Archaeology Newsroom

The sources of ancient Greek music

Music in ancient Greece played an important part on all occasions – marriages, funerals, banquets sacrifices, religious processions – and prevailed in public entertainments – competitions or demonstrations. Music was also a serious topic of thought in the schools of philosophy. As a matter of philosophic concern, it caught philosophers’ attention for centuries and even the Fathers of the Church got involved. Greeks never disputed either the impressive effect music has on the human soul – a unique quality that distinguishes music from other arts – or its close relation to the supreme laws of the universe. The passion Greeks had for music materialized in a multitude of treatises on Harmony and Rhythmics that have come down to us through written tradition. On the other hand, the representations of music scenes on pottery and reliefs exhibit the music instruments played by virtuosos and amateurs and help us to understand their technique. Needless to say that archaeological excavations enriched our knowledge on the subject, since they brought to light a considerable number of flutes and more rarely of lyres, in fragments. The wonder, however, of Greek music is that it included lyrics as can be proved by the few such texts that have survived. Parts of a tragedy on a fragmentary papyrus, two hymns dedicated to Apollo, the epitaph of a music lover inscribed on a stela. Therefore, we must admit that the study of ancient Greek music takes the combined efforts of more than one disciplines. Musicologists, in the first place, philologists for the interpretation of complex treatises, papyrologists for the deciphering of music symbols on tattered papyri, and finally archaeologists who discover, unfortunately quite seldom, parts of music inscriptions or instruments, so badly destroyed that they cannot produce even a single note of music. However, music in ancient Greece was a field in which both philosophical thought and mathematic calculations participated.