Ancient Greek Music

Michael Lahanas

Αρχαία Ελληνική Μουσική

Part 2: Musicians, Theory, Images

The Music of Greece, Edward MacDowell

Some famous musicians (True or Mythological)

  • Achilles Thus to show that music is of value in many situations, his poem describes Achilles digesting his anger with the help of music which he has learned from the wise Cheiron: "They found him beguiling his heart with the clear-sounding phorminx. It was beautiful and skilfully decorated, and the crossbar on it was silver: he had chosen it from the spoils when he sacked the city of Eëtion. With it he was giving delight to his heart, and singing the famous deeds of men." Pseudo-Plutarch De musica (Mus.) 1145e-1146a:
  • Demodocus "a figure in the Odyssey" who with his songs makes Odysseus weep at a banquet.
  • Odysseus played the lyre as Aristotle tells us in Politics.
  • Pronomus from Thebe was famous for his flute playing. He created a flute that played the Dorian, Phrygian and Lydian melodies equally well. He used more holes in the tube which could be closed with strips. He gave his audience untold delight by the expression of his face and by the movement of his whole body (Pausanias Guide to Greece).
  • Arion of Molyvos (Αρίων ο Μηθυμναίος) a native of Mythimna - Molyvos (625 - 585 BC), a lyre-player. He was the first man whom we know to compose and name the dithyramb which he afterwards taught at Corinth (Herodotus History). Arion , Arion and the Dolphin
  • Mimnermus, poet, flute player
  • Terpander of Antissa in Lesbos (Τέρπανδος ο Αντισσαίος) (c.712 - c.645 BC), poet and musician founder of lyric kithara performance (He "invented" the so-called nomoi of kitharoidia 'lyre singing'). Greek and famous as a singer. Terpander won a prize for music with the kithara at the 26th Olympiad in Sparta. He established a school for musicians and created a system of musical notation.
  • Thaletas of Gortyn, (c. 670 BC) singing hymns in Gymnopedia, Sparta, martial dance performed by two groups of nude (gymna) youths and children (pedia)
  • Alcman (or Alcmaeon) of Sparta (fl. around 620 BC), inventor of the love poetry, songs for girls who were dressed as doves Partheneion (Hymn to Artemis)
  • Sakadas (or Sacadas) of Argos (c. 585 BC) Flute player. "in performing the Pythikos Nomos he imitated the sounds of gnashing teeth and hissing serpents on the pipes when narrating Apollo's battle with the snake Pytho" Eric Csapo (Music and the Muses)
  • Pindar of Thebes (Πίνδαρος) (518-438 BC), whose odes represent the rise of Greek choral music. He died in the theater of Argos, at the time he was reciting one of his poems. See: Pindar of Thebes
  • Timotheus of Miletus (c. 450 – c. 357 BC), a virtuoso performer on the kithara whose inventions contributed to his infamy as well as his fame. He added a string to the kithara. Fragments of his dithyrambs survived. The musical and lyrical tradition reached its apex in the Athenian drama of the 5th and 4th centuries BC, a dramatic tradition in which solo and choral singing, instrumental music, and dance all played essential roles.
  • Timotheus (probably not the kithara player)' piper imitates a storm, at the climax of Nauplios, the screams of a woman in labour, in the Birth Pangs of Semele, and made a mime of dragging off the koryphaios in Skylla, doubtless while reproducing the monster's wild hisses and roars through his instrument”. Eric Csapo (Music and the Muses) unknown if he is identical with another aulos player with the same name: For Timotheus the piper, whom they say once piped the so-called orthios nomos of Athena, so greatly amazed Alexander with his melodies that in the middle of listening he rose up to arms; and he said that these things ought to be the royal pipe-tunes. Suda

    The dithyramb, for example, is acknowledged to be Phrygian, a fact of which the connoisseurs of music offer many proofs, saying, among other things, that Philoxenus, having attempted to compose his Mysians as a dithyramb in the Dorian mode, found it impossible, and fell back by the very nature of things into the more appropriate Phrygian. Aristotle, Politics

  • Philoxenus of Kythera (c. 435-380 BC) also a kithara player.
  • Epameinondas the famous General in Thebes was a talented flautist, lyre-player and, like the tragic poet Sophocles, an accomplished singer and dancer.
  • Pythokritos of Sikyon, six times consecutive Olympic victor in aulos in the Pythian games from 574 - 554 BC
  • Hesiod the poet was disqualified from the Pythian Games in Delphi for not knowing how to play a harp while he sang
  • Andron of Catane and Kleolas of Thebes, diaulos player, according to Theophrastus are the "first inventors" of the rhythmic gyrations of the body that musicians used to get a larger share of the audience attention in the theater. Eric Csapo (Music and the Muses)
  • Phrynis, a kitharoidos (citharoede)
  • Philotas
  • Stratonicus of Athens
  • Polygnota of Theben, a woman Chelys-Lyre player obtained 500 drachmae for her performance at Delphi
  • Ptolemy XII, the father of the well known Queen of Egypt Cleopatra (Cleopatra VII), was known (probably ironically) as Ptolemy Auletes (The flute player) because he was an aulos player.
  • Anaximader. “They say that when he sang, the children laughed; and that he, hearing of this, said, "We must then sing better for the sake of the children." Diogenes Laertius, Life of Anaximander
  • Socrates: "In the course of my life I have often had intimations in dreams ‘that I should compose music.’ The same dream came to me sometimes in one form, and sometimes in another, but always saying the same or nearly the same words: ‘Cultivate and make music,’ said the dream. And hitherto I had imagined that this was only intended to exhort and encourage me in the study of philosophy, which has been the pursuit of my life, and is the noblest and best of music."
  • Batalus, the flute player from Ephesus, appeared on the stage with women's shoes for which he was mentioned in a comedy of Antiphanes (Demosthenes was called later nick-named Battalus)
  • A sanctuary of Athena Trumpet they say was founded by Hegeleos. This Hegeleos, according to the story, was the son of Tyrsenus, and Tyrsenus was the son of Heracles and the Lydian woman; Tyrsenus invented the trumpet, and Hegeleos, the son of Tyrsenus, taught the Dorians with Temenus how to play the instrument, and for this reason gave Athena the surname Trumpet., Pausanias
  • Herodorus, the Megarian trumpeter, was a man three cubits and a half in height; ...had great strength in his chest, and that he could eat six pounds of bread, and twenty litræ of meat, of whatever sort was provided for him, .., and when playing on the trumpet he made a vast noise. Accordingly, when Demetrius the son of Antigonus was besieging Argos, and when his troops could not bring the battering ram against the walls on account of its weight, he, giving the signal with his two trumpets at once, by the great volume of sound which he poured forth, instigated the soldiers to move forward the engine with great zeal and earnestness; and he gained the prize in all the games ten times... Athenaeus

Theory of Music

Harmonics is an obscure and diffuclt musical subject, particularly for those who do not know Greek letters, Vitruvius De architectura

Archytas of Tarentum (Αρχύτας ο Ταραντίνος) (428-350 BC)

Aristoxenos (or Aristoxenus) of Tarentum (Αριστόξενος ο Ταραντίνος)(c. 354 – c. 300 BC) (a student of Aristotle and Xenophilos, philosopher and musicologist, among his many lost books, 3 books Αρμονικά ( Harmonic Elements)) Aristoxenus of Tarentum and the Birth of Musicology, Info

Ptolemaios Claudius or Ptolemy (Πτολεμαίος Κλαύδιος )(180 AD) Αρμονικά , Scientific Method in Ptolemy's Harmonics (PDF)

Manual of Harmonics, Nicomachus the Pythagorean, Flora R. Levin (Translator) , Phanes Press, 1994

Nikomachos (or Nicomachus) of Gerasa (Νικόμαχος ο Γερασηνός) (60 AD) , Αρμονικόν εγχειρίδιον (Handbook of Harmonics)

Cleonides (Κλεονίδης )(2nd to 4th century AD), Isagogi Armoniki (Introduction to Harmonic),

Aristides Quintilianus (Αριστείδης ο Κοϊντιλιανός ) (3rd century AD, Peri Mousikis), (Aristides Quintilianus on Music: In Three Books , Thomas J. Mathiesen (Translator ), Yale University Press 1983)

Alypius (Αλύπιος ) (360 AD Introduction to Music)

and others (Porphyry, Bacchius (Βάκχειος ο γέρων ), Theon of Smyrna...)

Diatonic Music in Greece (PDF File) A History of Early Music Theory , Greek musical thought

Damon, an Athenian philosopher of the late 5th century, “developed the first extensive theory of musical ethos. He named and catalogued a set of modal scales, describing their notes, rhythms and qualities. He also commended and condemned different rhythms and tempi.Damon’s most influential theory of ethos, however, came from his belief that dance and song arose from motions of the soul (Damon 1). In his treatise, he stated the primary tenet of all Greek musical ethics, that “liberal and beautiful songs and dances create a similar soul, and the reverse kind create a reverse kind of soul”According to this theory, music creates motions and patterns in the soul that mirror the quality of the music. Thus, the notes “mold through similarity a nonexistent ethos in children and in those already advanced in age and bring out a latent ethos”For this reason, Damon maintained that music should portray courage, moderation, and justice (Anderson 39). Through this imitation, similar motions would arise in the soul and produce the same qualities in those playing, singing, or listening to the music. Since music, according to Damon, possessed this power, it possessed a large potential for either good or harm to Greek culture.Musical styles are nowhere altered without (changes in) the most important laws of the state” (Anderson 41).He believed this so firmly that he published an essay addressed to the Areopagus Council, the Athenian assembly responsible for judicial functions and public morality, arguing that it was the duty of the state to regulate music and music education (West 246).” Autumn Gurgel Running head: Roots and Theories of the Doctrine of Ethos


Melos : Noun for song – root of Melody

Harmonia : Plutarch says that for Pythagoras and his disciples, the word harmonia meant "octave" in the sense of an atonement which manifests within its limits both the proper fitting together of the concordant intervals, fourth and fifth, and the difference between them, the whole tone.(from The Harmony of Spheres)

Chroma : Color, used for example in chromatic scale

Ode: Lyric poem meant for voice expressing lofty and fervent emotion

Rhapsody: Fragments from the great epics sung by rhapsodists to the kithara.

Some fragments of musical pieces survived

Limenios: Paean and Processional (Second Delphic Hymn) (138 BC). A hymn to Apollo, inscribed on a stone at Delphi

Orestes Stasimo, Chorus Fragment (first stasimon) from Euripides Orestes, Papyrus fragment,

Tecmessa's Lament. 2nd - 3th century (composed for Aeschylus Ajax?), Papyrus Berlin 6870

For more fragments :


Music and Theater .. some actors as horses.., Altes Museum - Antikensammlung , Berlin Germany

Playing a lyre, painted by the Achilles Painter, around 450-440 BC

A Kithara Player (a so-called Kitharoidos according to Herodotus) using a plektron (or plectron, or plectrum), a pick size piece of ivory, tortoise shell or metal held twixt forefinger and thumb to pluck or twang strings that is connected to the bottom of the soundbox by a cord. The usually highly professional players often wearing a complex robe. Image from a terracotta amphora, Attic, red-figure, ca. 490 BC, attributed to the Berlin Painter.

The Chelys Lyra with 4 strings and Contest of Apollo and Marsyas .

Terpsikhore (or Terpsichore) playing a Harp.

Harp Player around 2800-2300 BC (From Keros, Early Cycladic). A minimalistic style that could be considered even modern.

J. W. Waterhouse's Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus

Ancient Greek Music, Images

Death of Orpheus

Perseus Project.

470/50 BC Attic Red Figure Stamnos. Louvre.

460 BC Attic Red Figure Lekythos, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

440/30 BC Attic Red Figure Bell Krater. Harvard University Museum.

Greek lyre restored from remains found in Athens; fifth-fourth century BC London, British Museum. Credits: Barbara McManus, 1999

Quotes and Stories

Our songs are our laws.
Plato, The Republic

Themistocles said that he certainly could not make use of any stringed instrument; could only, were a small and obscure city put into his hands, make it great and glorious.

Plutarch, Life of Themistocles.

Not far from the Academy is the monument of Plato, to whom heaven foretold that he would be the prince of philosophers. The manner of the foretelling was this. On the night before Plato was to become his pupil Socrates in a dream saw a swan fly into his bosom. Now the swan is a bird with a reputation for music, because, they say, a musician of the name of Swan became king of the Ligyes on the other side of the Eridanus beyond the Celtic territory, and after his death by the will of Apollo he was changed into the bird. I am ready to believe that a musician became king of the Ligyes, but I cannot believe that a bird grew out of a man.

I am the grave of Baucis the bride. Passing by my stele, say to Hades beneath the earth,
"You are grudging, Hades. The lovely letters you see will tell the very cruel fate of Baucis:
how her bridegroom's father lighted the girl's funeral pyre with the same torches that blazed for the wedding song,
and you, Hymenaeus, exchanged the melodious marriage hymn for the mournful sound of threnodies sung for the dead."


Music is a secret arithmetical exercise and the person who indulges in it does not realize that he is manipulating numbers.
Gottfried Leibniz (If you are a mathematician read Guerino Mazzola, The Topos of Music, Geometric Logic of Concepts, Theory and Performance)

Without music life would be a mistake.
Friedrich Nietzsche

In Larisa I heard another story, how that on Olympus is a city Libethra, where the mountain faces, Macedonia, not far from which city is the tomb of Orpheus. The Libethrians, it is said, received out of Thrace an oracle from Dionysus, stating that when the sun should see the bones of Orpheus, then the city of Libethra would be destroyed by a boar. The citizens paid little regard to the oracle, thinking that no other beast was big or mighty enough to take their city, while a boar was bold rather than powerful. But when it seemed good to the god the following events befell the citizens. About midday a shepherd was asleep leaning against the grave of Orpheus, and even as he slept he began to sing poetry of Orpheus in a loud and sweet voice. Those who were pasturing or tilling nearest to him left their several tasks and gathered together to hear the shepherd sing in his sleep. And jostling one another and striving who could get nearest the shepherd they overturned the pillar, the urn fell from it and broke, and the sun saw whatever was left of the bones of Orpheus. Immediately when night came the god sent heavy rain, and the river Sys (Boar), one of the torrents about Olympus, on this occasion threw down the walls of Libethra, overturning sanctuaries of gods and houses of men, and drowning the inhabitants and all the animals in the city...

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. ...

St. Paul: 1Corinthians,Ch.13 The use of tuned Helmholz resonators as amplification in the ancient theaters.

A maybe better definition of music:
Sounds temporally organized by a person for the purpose of enriching or intensifying experience through active engagement (e.g., listening, dancing, performing) with the sounds regarded primarily, or in significant measure, as sounds. Jerrold Levinson

Send us at your earliest opportunity the flutist Petoun with the Phrygian flutes, plus the other flutes. If it is necessary to pay him, do so, and we will reimburse you. Also, send us the eunuch Zenobius with a drum, cymbals, and castanets. The women need them for their festival. Be sure he is wearing his most elegant clothing. Get the special goat from Aristion and sent it to us. Send us also as many cheeses as you can, a new jug, and vegetables of all kinds, and fish if you have it. Your health! Throw in some policemen at the same time to accompany the boat. Letter of Demophon to Ptolemaios, c. 245 BC from Paul Halsall Ancient History Sourcebook: Accounts of Personal Religion, c. 430 BCE - 300 CE

Girls were required to run and exercise so that their babies would grow in strong and healthy mothers. To make them brave, Lycurgus ordered that occasionally the girls had to dance and sing naked in front of all the young men. Therefore the girls were ashamed to be fat or weak, and they were happy to display their beauty to such an appreciative audience. In their songs, the girls praised the men who were brave and strong, and they made fun of those who were weak and cowardly, so they sharpened the men's love of glory and fear of shame. Plutarch, Lycurgus, The Father of Sparta

In other things there does not immediately follow upon the admiration and liking of the thing done any strong desire of doing the like. Nay, many times, on the very contrary, when we are pleased with the work, we slight and set little by the workman or artist himself, as for instance, in perfumes and purple dyes, we are taken with the things themselves well enough, but do not think dyers and perfumers otherwise than low and sordid people. It was not said amiss by Antisthenes, when people told him that one Ismenias was an excellent piper. "It may be so," said he, "but he is but a wretched human being, otherwise he would not have been an excellent piper." And King Philip, to the same purpose, told his son Alexander, who once at a merry-meeting played a piece of music charmingly and skilfully, "Are you not ashamed, son, to play so well?" For it is enough for a king or prince to find leisure sometimes to hear others sing, and he does the muses quite honour enough when he pleases to be but present, while others engage in such exercises and trials of skill. Plutarch Pericles

Then one comes to Iasus, which lies on an island close to the mainland. It has a harbor; and the people gain most of their livelihood from the sea, for the sea here is well supplied with fish, but the soil of the country is rather poor. Indeed, people fabricate stories of this kind in regard to Iasus: When a citharoede was giving a recital, the people all listened for a time, but when the bell that announced the sale of fish rang, they all left him and went away to the fish market, except one man who was hard of hearing. The citharoede, therefore, went up to him and said: "Sir, I am grateful to you for the honor you have done me and for your love of music, for all the others except you went away the moment they heard the sound of the bell." And the man said, "What's that you say? Has the bell already rung?" And when the citharoede said "Yes," the man said, "Fare thee well," and himself arose and went away. Strabo Geography 14

.... might tell you also the story of another, a brother to these--the subject of a myth, and a minstrel--Eunomos and Locrian and the Pythic grasshopper. A solemn Hellenic assembly had met at Phytho, to celebrate the death of the Pythic serpent, when Eunomos sang the reptile's epitaph. Whether his ode was a hymn in praise of the serpent, or a dirge, I am not able to say. But there was a contest, and Eunomos was playing the lyre in the summer time: it was when the grasshoppers, warmed by the sun, were chirping beneith the leaves along the hills; but they were singing not to that dead dragon, but to God All-wise,--a lay unfettered by rule, better the numbers of Eunomos.

The Locrian breaks a string. The grasshopper sprang on the neck of the instrument, and sang on it as on a branch; and the minstrel, adapting his strain to the grasshopper's song, made up for the want of the missing string. The grasshopper then was attracted by the song of Eunomos, as the fable represents, according to which also a brazen statue of Eunomos with his lyre, and the Locrian's ally in the contest, was erected at Pytho. But of its own accord it flew to the lyre, and of its own accord sang, and was regarded by the Greeks as a musical performer.. (Clement, Exhortation to the Heathen, Ante-Nicene, II, p. 171-172) Cicada in ancient Greece

We know from drama and poetry that Greeks were far more susceptible to suggested visual imagery than we are, it may well be that their impressions of a poem or a play approach the immediacy and dynamism we find in a well crafted cinematic performance, which makes the audience feel it is actually "there". Music seems to have impressed the Greeks just as deeply, and this continued well into the Classical period; different scales or "modes" suggested excitement, quiet, contemplation, or even frightening ecstasy. With a wider acoustic-psychological range, the Greeks may have felt a broader spectrum of emotions from music than we know William Harris, Land and Climate in the Greek Myths

The nine muses

Calliope (Beautiful Voice) epic poetry. (Mother of Orpheus) (Orpheus Illustrations)
Clio (kleos(glory) / kleiein (to celebrate) / Celebration/Fame) history.
Erato (eros (love) Lovely One) love poetry. (Roman Sculpture)
Euterpe (Delight) – music.
Melpomene (melpein (to sing) the Singing goddess) tragedy. (Roman Sculpture)
Polyhymnia (poly (many) and hymnos (hymn) or mnasthai (to remember) Many Songed/Hymned) sacred poetry. (considered also as inventor of the lyre) (Roman Sculpture)
Terpsichore (Delight of dancing/choruses) dance. (Roman Sculpture)
Thalia (thallein (to bloom), Festivity) comedy. (Copy of Greek Sculpture)
Urania (ouranos (sky) Heavenly One) – astronomy. (Roman Sculpture) (Another sculpture )

Only a few Greek music documents were found but almost everything original lost. Some examples were found inscribed in stones for example in Temples, others copies in Egypt written on Papyrus an example with some more information can be seen Here

Kitharoide Nomoi


Pentatonic, Heptatonic, Diatonic Systema Teleion.

Hypate, Parhypate, Lichanos, Mese, Paramese, Trite, Paranete, Nete

Music Education (Klick images to enlarge)

Part 1: Instruments

Ancient Greek Music Examples

Seikilos Song (Επιτάφιος Σεικίλου)

Mesomedes of Crete (Μεσομήδης ) (c.130 AD) a musician at the court of the Roman emperor Hadrian, Hymn to Nemesis Zipped MP3 File More examples from Petros Tabouris

Petros Tabouris , “Greek music is basically split and differentiated into two periods: the period of Greek Antiquity and the period of the Middle Ages and Christianity”, Music of Greek Antiquity by Aulites. Hyperlinked titles can be accessed via RealAudio. Lament (Threnos) By Simonides, First Pythian Ode By Pindar, Sikkinis, Epitaph Of Seikilos

Ancient Greek Music sounds very strange!

Most of these are epitaphs, Hymns and probably are not very representative of the music of ancient Greeks

The Modes of Ancient Greek Music, David Binning Monro

Ancient Greek music, Martin Litchfield West

Ancient Greek music: a new technical history, Stefan Hagel

Documents of ancient Greek music: the extant melodies and fragments. Egert Pöhlmann, Martin Litchfield West

Apollo's lyre: Greek music and music theory in antiquity and the Middle Ages, Thomas J. Mathiesen

Music and the Muses: the culture of 'mousikē' in the classical Athenian city, Penelope Murray, Peter Wilson

Woman's songs in Ancient Greece, Anne Lingard Klinck



Modern Ancient Greek Music and MP3 Files by Ioannidis Nikolaos
MP3 from Aristophanes Clouds (Reconstruction of course!)
Musical Instruments (German)
Reconstructions of Greek Music Instruments, an Album
Music in Ancient Greece (Metropolitan Images)
The creation of musical scales from a mathematic and acoustic point of view
Daemonia Nymphe Modern” Ancient Greek Music The Modern Sound of Ancient Hellenic Music (Info) The Bacchic Dance of the Nymphs (MP3), Calling the 12 Gods (MP3)
Music from Sikyon (A place close to Corinth)
Greek Music
The Music of the Spheres
Music and myth in ancient Greece
Using Ancient Greek Music for Care of the Soul: Hê Mousikê Therapeia (Esoteric)
The Greek Musical Tradition in South Italy

Homeric Singing - An Approach to the Original Performance



Dithyramb and the ‘Demise of Music' (PDF File)

Pitch perception models - a historical review (PDF File)

The Evolution of Ancient Greek Music in Byzantium

Sappho and Her Wedding Songs


Clay pyxis with a representation of a kithara player. It comes from a chamber tomb in the area of Koiliaris in Kalyves-Aptera and dates to 1300-1200 BC from the Archaeological Museum of Chania

Satyr with Krupezion Another view From a Webpage (Denmark)

Rattle in the Shape of a Boy Sitting on a Pig

Orpheus Charms the Beasts Metamorphoses Bk X: 143-144, Regius

The Displaying of Marsyas (A Powerpoint Presentation) See Text


Paideia Con Salsa Ancient Greek Education for Active Citizenship and the Role of Afro-Latin Dance-Music in Our Schools PERSEUS DatabaseAncient Greek texts on musical theory Preliminary version

Music and instruments of ancient Civilizations

The Biblical Musical Instruments , Sacred Music in Antiquity

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