Ancient Greek Musical Instruments


Resonance as a form of energy forms part of an important determinant which is commonly known as ‘harmony’.  In the world of ancient Greece, this term does not only used in relation to music but also to physics, philosophy, etc.  In music, the term harmony in its broader meaning constitutes the relationship between various sounds and musical intervals.  In it’s narrower sense it refers to the composition of a larger group of musical sounds.  The term “harmony” gained a deeply philosophical meaning as it was linked to the fact that there were mathematical elements in almost everything that composed the Universe.  It is through this philosophical approach that our ancestors sorted their music into Music for the Gods, “esoteric” music created for the worship of the Gods, and Music for the People, “exoteric” music, created for the various religious ceremonies and for pleasure.

Music (mousiki), together with its antonym (amousia) or lack of refinement, is derived from the root ma-(verb to ma) which refers to the quest, the research, the participation in the Holy Sacrament.  Hence music is the quest for the truth on all levels of existence.  Therefore the term Music includes the liberal arts, literature, exact and social sciences.  This is illustrated by the fact that the liberal arts and sciences have been designated to the nine Muses.  Calliope was the patroness of epic heroic poetry and later on of rhetoric, Efterpi of the art of playing the avlos, Terpsichori of dance, Erato of lyric poetry, Melpomeni of tragedy, Thalia of comedy, Polymnia of mime, Clio of history and Ourania of astronomy.  In this way the rhetoric, the artist, the poet, the astronomer each had their own patroness in the form of a Muse who were all musicians.  According to a dialogue between Socrates and Protagoras, the musician was the link between the Physical-Material state of existence and the Divine-Religious state of existence.

It is therefore understandable that the accumulation of all the qualities of the philosopher, the scientist and the artist into one entity represented for the ancient Greeks the embodiment of the perfectly spiritual individual.  Correct musical education during ancient times presumed the correct use of the Greek language, a good grasp of mathematics and music (as we know it today).  Using the greek alphabet  which consisted of vocal sounds, together with numerical or musical resonances, the ancient Greeks skillfully integrated the spoken word with mathematics and music.  In this way our ancestors were able to sing numerically or count while speaking.  In one of his poems the poet Angelos Sikelianos

writes : “When I die and rise to the heavens I shall speak to the angels in Greek……. for it is they who understand music”.

Using mathematical calculations Pythagoras was able to prove that celestial spheres (stars, planets, satellites) produced, when in motion, an “inaudible” sound to the human ear. This important resonance, which also exists in other dimensions, has been the eternal quest.  Pythagoras maintained that he could hear this constant and perpetual resonance not only with his ears but also with his soul.  The search for this resonance in its three-dimensional form and within the framework of an ”audible” sound was the main objective of “peripheral” music. The composite and complex way in which the universe surrounds us actually describes  the meaning of the term “harmony” in its narrower sense.  The analysis and breakdown of each of its elements guides us to a better understanding of the aesthetics of the ordinary and to the broader meaning of the term harmony. The in-depth study and understanding of a single resonance, leads to a deeper perception of the extensiveness of cosmic equilibrium of which we are part of.

My attempt at recreating ancient Greek musical instruments is based on this philosophical approach and the objective is not to achieve any ordinary resonance but a resonance that will lead us to a better understanding and conception of the reverberations of the universe.

It would be impossible to reconstruct an ancient Greek instrument relying solely on various archaeological findings or to documented ancient literary works.  In the interim the passage of so much time, over two and a half thousand years has unfortunately led to the loss of vital information which consequently leads to great difficulties in the reconstruction of the instruments and for many of these it is quite an impossible task to undertake.  Moreover a significant amount of information is derived from myths.  Many drawings on ancient earthen pots and frescoes belonging to the Roman period display scientific imperfections and inaccuracies as well as musical instruments that do not even exist; they serve only to enhance aesthetic balance.  The artists feel free to fill in as they see fit any missing elements on their subject, laying heavy emphasis on the aesthetic traits while overlooking the scientific anomalies associated with their subject and altogether ignoring its technical composition.   On the other hand the scientists and researchers usually refuse to reach a final conclusion once they have detected even one missing link in the chain of elements they are researching.

The multidimensional nature of a research program to reconstruct ancient Greek musical instruments, requires the exchange of knowledge and views between many researchers emanating from various disciplines who also enjoy topics such as :

1) pottery painting and other archaeological findings (sculptures, bas-reliefs, mosaics from later periods, etc.)

2) references to texts by ancient Greek writers

3) the relationship between the spoken Greek word with mathematics and ancient Greek music

4) theory, notation and instrumentation of ancient Greek music

5) philosophy

6) astronomy

7) Greek mythology

8) ancient Greek history

9) the constructive part:

a) plans
b) scales
c) construction material
d) production / demonstration
e) tuning
f) training to perform
g) analysis of the outcome
h) conclusions

The constant study and probing into higher levels of scientific themes leads us to the core of the ancient Greek spirit and of its civilization.  The musical instruments form a part of the spherical conception of this civilization and it is only in this light that they can be researched.  With the instruments of our ancestors once more in our possession after so many centuries, we will be better able to appreciate their aesthetic value not only  theoretically but practically this time.

It is however a well-known fact that the constant migration of scientists into specialist disciplines as well as the protection and concealment of records by different researchers for a variety of reasons (personal, financial, etc), makes any attempt at cooperation and teamwork an impossible task.  Moreover the funding of such an expensive project associated with an equally large research team is hardly feasible.  All this has contributed to the fact that the reconstruction of ancient Greek instruments has remained at a standstill for so many centuries.

This project on the recreation of ancient Greek musical instruments is not only based on scientific research but on the full perception of the myth through consciousness. Artistic imagination is used to complement the missing knowledge and attempts to apply alternative practical solutions to construction problems.  In this way the instrument resumes its resonance.  It is the degree of aesthetic arousal in the individual that is brought on by  the instrument’s resonance that determines how successful the attempt is.  The instruments exhibited are the result of my own personal research which has spanned a good number of years and which of course is a constant journey as it embodies what I consider to be the masterwork of my life.  Perhaps the visual contact we have with these instruments brings about a sense of the primitive.  This is not however unusual as all my facts and data are derived from reliable sources.

I hope that the results of my research to date, as well as any other research undertaken in the future, will serve as a driving force of motivation and a stimulant to other researchers willing to pursue this research.  My aim will always be the search for lost values and the aesthetic concept of our ancestors, who have been the architects establishing the charm and fascination of the contemporary civilized world.

Michalis Georgiou

Musician – educator – researcher

With devotion and tremor

I first touch with my fingers

Upon this silver-stringed

Paternal Kithara

Play on oh! Celestial carved wood

Reveal the boldness of my soul

And grant me the inspiration

That is the gift of the Muses

Andreas Kalvos

Extract from the ode “Elpis Patridos”