That’s the title of a piece Armand D’Angour posted a couple of years ago, describing research into ancient Greek music. It starts with a terrifying anecdote about his viva at Oxford (we called them “orals” at Yale, and I used to have nightmares about them), then goes on to the discoveries made by Martin West and others:
Thanks to these publications, any classicist with a basic musical training can now attempt with (relative) ease and confidence to hear how dozens of ancient Greek songs might have sounded. The fascination of this material is enhanced by the astonishing musical notation invented by Greeks in the mid-fifth century BC, details of which are preserved for us by the late antique author Alypius. Consisting of letter-forms placed over the vowels of words to indicate their relative pitch – a letter A, for instance, represents a musical note a fifth higher than an N – the vocal notation preserves a faithful record of ancient melodies. Absolute pitch, by the way, can be approximated from the vocal ranges required to sing the surviving tunes, supplemented by measurements taken on ancient instruments.
Texts using this notation have been known of since the late 16th century, when some pieces of Greek music on papyrus were published by the musician Vincenzo Galilei, father of the more famous Galileo. Since then, around 50 documents have been discovered on papyrus or stone inscriptions, providing a small but precious corpus that allows us to understand something of how ancient Greek melodies were heard and rhythms realised. […]
Yet little attention is paid even to the rhythms so carefully inscribed into the words of these songs, which have long been known and studied under the forbidding aegis of Greek metre. Even less attention is paid to melodic structures, which thanks to the surviving fragments – as well voluminous writings by ancient authors and musical theorists (admirably translated and compiled by Andrew Barker in Greek Musical Writings) – is something on which we are now in a position to exercise an informed scholarly imagination. By neglecting the aural dimension, readers of ancient texts are bound to be missing something of the original aesthetic impact of these songs.
What difference to the appreciation of the poetry might the original melodies have made, in conjunction with their complex and often offbeat rhythms, and the sounds of lyres and reed-pipes? In October 2013 I embarked on a two-year project, supported by a British Academy Fellowship and sabbatical leave from Jesus College, to recover the sounds of Greek music and to try to answer this question. In pursuit of my inquiry I shall be visiting Greece, Sardinia, and Turkey, on the trail of surviving ancient musical traditions, and collaborating with experts from many countries on instruments, dance, and ancient musical texts.
I’ve got work to do, so I’m not going to go down what no doubt will be a time-consuming rabbit hole of investigating what has been learned since then, but of course I’ll be glad to hear from anyone who knows. Thanks to Lars for the link!