The Music of Ancient Greece
as well as of Vedic India was intimately associated with the recitation and rhythms of poetry or sacred texts. The Greek word mousike
apparently referred to both the words and the musical intonation. In Homer's time (eighth or ninth century B.C., according to modern chronology) every class practiced music: professional bards and persons of social importance accompanied themselves on the lyre and (later on) kithara. There was music for public dances, agricultural festivals, and during the performance of the Mysteries. Woodwind instruments, the syrinx and the aulos, were used.
The tones used apparently were organized on the basis of the tetrachord, not the octave — at least in the classical era of Greek culture (the fifth century B.C., the time of Pindar and the great days of Athens). However, nothing is certain about Greek music before the
fourth century B.C.
Just after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C., Aristoxenus wrote a long history and commentary on music, but a revolution in music had occurred earlier in the fourth century. It freed instrumental music from dependence upon poetry. The classical period of Athenian culture had ended at the death of Plato, around 347 B.C.
A broad but interesting parallel exists between Alexander's conquests and his vision of a Greco-Asiatic empire (which led to the spread of Greek ideas and art in northern India and probably China) and the activities and dreams of the French emperor, Napoleon. Two similar eras ended with these two conquerors and disseminators of culture. Socrates in Greece parallels the French Encyclopedists of the eighteenth century; the age of Pericles parallels the seventeenth century in Europe. In this scheme of correspondences, the sixth century B.C., during which Pythagoras lived and taught, would be comparable to the period in which Humanism developed and the Copernican revolution occurred. The new music (ars nova) of the fourteenth century marked the end of the Medieval Church's plainchant and of a subservience to a mixture of misunderstood Pythagorean concepts and late
Greek modal music perpetuated by the Byzantine Church.
The value of such a parallel is to show that to speak of European music during the Christian era is as vague and confusing as to speak of Greek music from the Trojan war to the late period of Hellenistic culture in Alexandria. We do not know anything about the use of tones during the sacromagical period of Greek culture, which probably lasted at least a millennium and saw the descent of tribes from the north and their implantation not only on the Greek peninsula, but throughout the whole Greek archipelago. We have no idea what type of music the mythical (but also undoubtedly actual) Orpheus brought to the nascent Greek culture. Neither do we know what influences the cultures of Egypt and Crete had on the development of the early Greek culture.
During the classical age of Athens, when musicians — not philosophers — wrote about musical modes (presumably seven) the modes still carried the names of tribes or localities: Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian. Much later the modes were classified as components of a more inclusive musical culture, somewhat as tones and rhythms from various parts of Europe were included in the suites of the eighteenth century.
The music used in the Mysteries and particularly in the Orphic tradition has been either neglected in published treatises or misunderstood. When the remarkable musicologist Kathleen Schlesinger wrote the following, I believe she totally misunderstood the early development of music:(1
From his earliest days, when the world was young, man has absorbed the language of Natural Intonation. He became aware through his ear of all natural sounds, the wind in the trees, the roar of the sea, the humming and droning of insects, the songs of the birds and more especially did he revel in the tones of his own voice.
The harmonic overtones of his voice, to which his ear was extraordinarily sensitive, gave him what we call the major mode (the Harmonic Series ascending), while the minor mode (the Harmonic Series reversed) came to him later quite naturally when he attempted to make music with reed pipes and oaten straws. When Man, therefore, found out how to bore holes in the length of his river reeds, whereby one pipe was made to give many sounds, he came upon the beautiful Tropos scales. Of these he became so enamored that they ultimately formed the mystery language of the Ancient East, being connected with all forms of Sun Worship throughout the ages. It was upon such simple pipes and with those natural scales that Ishtar wailed for Tammuz, and the same kind of music accompanied the Dionysian mysteries of Ancient Greece.
No evidence exists to justify such assertions, particularly the one about how "the mystery language of the Ancient East" was formed. The romantic idea of natural man stumbling by chance upon principles of form and musical organization and using the pleasure motive and his feeling-sensations as formative agencies of culture are as obsolete as Jean Jacques Rousseau's social contract and his eulogization of nature. True, a spider's web and the patterns of growth in sea shells show the existence of an innate, instinctual sense of proportion and form that human beings living in a natural state may have had. But with the development of abstract intelligence and inventiveness, man probably surrendered the capacity for many instinctual activities; nevertheless, some instincts still operate at the biological level of human activity. Moreover, one should never dismiss the possibility that some early groups of human beings may have learned some basic principles of cultural organization from the remnants of an earlier humanity — a process which in time became mythified and attributed to divine beings.
Archaeologists and musicologists do not discover the true meaning of the scattered data they gather and try to interpret because they minimize the difference between vocal and instrumental tones and because they do not understand the essential meaning of Sound. Sound is essentially the energy of creative power as this power seeks to act upon matter, and this action operates in seven basic ways. A particular type of matter responds to only one of these ways. This material resonance gives rise to what I call a "Fundamental" — that is, one of the seven basic qualities of response to the creative power.(2
) There are seven Fundamentals, because the transmission of the power operates in seven ways. The seven rays said to emanate from the creative source are really currents of Sound.
Primitive cultures identified the seven Fundamentals with (or symbolized them by) animal cries, because archaic peoples regarded self-induced motion as the demonstration of spiritual power, and animals can displace their bodies in space while plants and masses of matter such as rocks cannot. But while each animal species could utter only one tone quality, one Fundamental, human beings could vocalize all seven Fundamentals. These, in time, became the vowels of human speech. Speech was originally magical and sacred because through it man could resonate fully to the entire transmitting stream of creative Sound. Within the field of physical activity, he could act as God (or as all the creative gods) acted at the moment of creation; and this moment, though reflected in what human beings experienced as cyclic time, was felt to be a perpetual 'now' — a time always present because without a conditioning past.
When we considered the grama as the basis of the music of ancient India, we referred to the way in which inspired musicians felt
that the seven aspects of the creative power and the seven currents of Sound were related. The grama was (and in principle remains) the pattern of interrelationship linking the seven Fundamentals of tone in cyclic time. The Fundamentals do not refer to what the ear and especially technological instruments detect as overtones. They are seven basic manifestations of the One Life of the universe — seven types of resonance and tone-quality. Each Fundamental can then be considered the origin of its own harmonic series of overtones.
Each of these series differs according to the distribution of the energy of the material resonance
in specific areas of resonance (formants), yet they all follow a single pattern, the harmonic series. All modes of material resonance have to
follow such an arithmetic progression, because the resonance of matter reflects the essential oneness of the creative power and unfolds symmetrically. In resonating to the power, the material instrument (and the human or animal body) does so as a whole
The harmonic series of ascending overtones represents the self-multiplication or differentiation of the wholeness of the resonant instrument or organism. This process of self-multiplication varies according to the prototypal category to which the material whole belongs, yet it can only vary in terms of the possibilities universally defined by the harmonic series. If the instrument or organism is a relatively simple whole of material organization, the tone it produces is a harmonic tone. If the resonating whole is extremely complex, it may produce a nonharmonic tone — as the tone of a medieval bell, a Chinese or Japanese gong, or the noise of a factory or a city. In these cases no harmonic analysis may be possible.
In ancient and most non-European music, two types of musical progression have to be considered. In a general sense, I shall speak of scales
, which are basic systems of organizing Fundamentals. Modes
not only organize the series of overtones of a single fundamental, they also are associated with other considerations regarding the performance of modal melodies. The following discussion of scales and modes will lay the foundation for understanding tonality, which from about 1500 to 1900 has been nearly unchallenged not only as the foundation of Western music but of the musical consciousness of Western people.
Kathleen Schlesinger's main work was her book, The Greek Aulos
(London: Methuen, 1939). in 1919 an Australian composer, Elsie Hamilton, applied the natural intonation modes Miss Schlesinger claimed had been used everywhere in ancient times in composing music for a play, Sensa
, produced in London. Kathleen Schlesinger's discoveries and ideas seem to have made little impression on the minds of specialists in Greek and Indian music, in spite of the mass of data she accumulated. Return
I capitalize the term to distinguish it from the fundamental of a series of overtones. Return