Roman and Greek Musical Discoveries

The lyre was an early string instrument invented by the Greeks.

Western music is rooted in the music of Ancient Greece and Rome. Philosophers and musicians sought to create music that uplifted the spirits, provided a complete education and prevented discord and disharmony among citizens. Certain modes were deemed inappropriate and considered harmful to the listener's constitution. From 800 B.C. to 476 A.D. the music of Ancient Rome and Greece gave rise to music of sophistication and pathos.

Types of Music

Music in Ancient Greece and Rome were directly connected and used many of the same types of songs and music in their ceremonies. There were several types of songs available for just about any occasion. The ancients created dancing songs, wedding songs, funeral dirges, patriotic songs and even hymns to celebrate their gods. These songs were often lightly orchestrated and consisted of few mechanical instruments. Most music had lyrics and was intended to be part of a dramatic event.

Music Notation

The Ancient Greeks and Romans were the first to begin a system of musical notation. The notation looks nothing like our modern musical notation. Instead, accomplished musicians would interpret music written with letters from the Greek alphabet and grammatical usage. It was a complex system that had over 60 different symbols for a typical scale. They had three basic types of notes that relate to our modern-day usage. The chronos was a small note value equivalent to our eighth note and receives half a beat. The diseme was equivalent to a quarter note, which gets one full beat. The triseme was the equivalent of our dotted quarter and gets a beat and a half.

Musical Instruments

Both Aristotle and Socrates believed that vocal music was superior to instrumental music. This could explain why almost every piece of recovered Greek music includes a vocal part. Instruments supported the vocal music and rarely were the primary instruments. The ancients had percussion instruments that consisted of drums, rattles, tambourines, cymbals, and chimes. They also had plucked and strummed string instruments called lyres and larger versions called kitharas. A wind instrument called an aulos was played. It was somewhat similar to our modern oboe and used a reed to create the vibrations through the instrument.

Greek Musical Scales

The Ancient Greeks and Romans had several scales. To understand these scales from a modern perspective, you would have to relate it to a modern day major scale. A major diatonic scale can be played with all of the white notes on the keyboard, by starting on C and moving up the keyboard. This scale in Greek and Roman music was called the Lydian scale. This can be confusing for those that understand church modes. While church modes use some of the same names as Greek modes, they are not the same scales. The Greeks had as many as 15 scales, but we generally have reduced them to one scale per pitch of the diatonic scale. The scales are Mixolydian, Lydian, Phrygian, Dorian, Hypolydian, Hypophrygian, and Hypodorian.


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