Music in the Ancient World: Greece & Rome

Sep 28, 2016

blog - Music in the Ancient World - Greece & Rome

Music has been a part of human cultures for as long as humans have had cultures. Even ruins from some of the the most ancient of human communities have uncovered musical instruments of every variety. Unfortunately, these preserved instruments are often all we know about these long gone societies’ relationships with music. But what about the ancient cultures we do know more about? How did some of the civilizations that we base our modern systems on feel about the importance of music? Given the state of music in our educational systems today, it may be important to look back on these philosophers for guidance in our modern lives.

The Greek and Roman cultures form much of the basis for a lot of our modern education system, philosophy, government, and, yes, even our own culture. As a culture and society, we tend to hold these civilizations in high esteem for their accomplishments and great thinkers. And each of them had their own unique relationship with the art of music.

Ancient Greece

While the Greeks knew about and placed a lot of importance on music’s therapeutic and comforting nature, the great philosophers also saw music through an academic lens. It was the ancient Greeks who first considered music to be one of the four main branches of mathematics. Music was such an important part of their mathematics education that no one could become a master without completing their studies in arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and, you guessed it, music. Music was included because the Greeks considered it to have a significant relationship with quantities, specifically dealing with the ratios that are an inherent part of melody and harmony.

The Greeks realized that the way music deals with, and can help teach, ratios went much deeper than one level. They were referring to how ratios factor into the construction of harmony and melody. What creates a melody isn’t so much the frequency of the notes, but their relationships with one another. This is why most of us can recognize a melody, regardless of the key it’s played in, even though most people cannot recognize a single note. The Greeks knew that the next note is the one that counts, with the one before it providing context. Without that context, a note is essentially meaningless. Miles Davis, the jazz legend, once mused, “It’s not the note you play that’s the wrong note – it’s the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong.” The Greeks would have been proud.

No civilization before or since has held music in such a high regard as the Ancient Greeks. Music dominated every aspect of life in the Greek isles; religion, aesthetics, morals, and even scientific life. Any free person living in Greece who did not have any musical ability or education was considered “brutish.” Music permeated all classes and all regions; in Ancient Greece, it was simply everywhere. Music had a central role in building character, and even health. The Greeks believed that music held the power to put humans in touch with the eternal vibrations of the universe, the Gods, and all of creation.

Unfortunately, despite the amount we know about how much the Ancient Greeks revered music, and how important is was to their education and everyday lives, we know know next to nothing about what their actual music sounded like. There are a handful of excerpts of musical texts, but the surviving bits of compositions aren’t nearly enough to give us a full idea of what their music actually sounded like.

Ancient Rome

Coming a little bit later in human history, Ancient Roman culture has also has a significant impact on our modern society. And they, in turn, took a lot of their own culture from the Greeks that came before them. And while Greek music may have had an effect on Roman culture and music, the Romans did not hold music in the same high regard as their Greek predecessors.

Roman music was less concerned with the ratios of melody and harmony than the Greeks were. In fact, most Roman music has been said to be far less creative or complex when compared to Greek, often utilizing only a single instrument playing a melody, without any harmony. Music was used ceremonially, usually for funerals, but it was also of extreme importance in the military.

Unlike the Greeks, music wasn’t part of every Roman’s education. Though they did value musical ability, and being able to read and play music was a sign of a highly educated person. Music tended to be a pursuit saved for the upper class of the society. Similar to some people’s ideas of music today, the only the wealthy and/or royal class had the free time and disposable income to learn to play and afford an instrument.

Despite the facts that Roman music is widely considered to lack a certain amount of musical creativity, and only the rich and powerful could really play, musical competitions were quite popular among the nobility, and could attract a wide range of competitors, including famed fiddler Emperor Nero, who performed all around Rome as an amateur, and even traveled to Greece to compete on one occasion. There have been countless references to trumpeters and pipers playing together in massive groups of hundreds of individual musicians at games and festivals.

Regardless of this shift in attitude about music, and it moving from a central pillar of Greek education to something only the wealthy could afford, popular music was still considered rather “lowbrow,” and as a means of entertainment music was largely thought of as a plain attraction for the simple-minded, not a sophisticated form of art. There seems to have been an odd distinction between making music, and listening to is as a form of entertainment. The Romans were far more detached from the academic or spiritual pursuit of music than their Greek cousins. In fact, music as we think of it today, as an important, multi-functional, and integral part of any advanced culture, as a legitimate occupation, as well as a valid form of entertainment for people of all walks of life, simply did not exist in Ancient Rome.