Styles & Forms | Greece & Rome | World of Music | Classical

Mousiké, the Greek word for music, came from the ‘Muses’ – nine sister goddesses who embodied the arts. Music was a part of public and private life: marriage and funeral rites, festivals, banquets, ceremonies and sporting events. It was closely associated with poetry and dance, and was shaped first and foremost by poetic metre.

The earliest composers of ancient Greece were poets – Homer, Archilochus, Sappho, Pindar and Sophocles – who intended their masterpieces to be intoned. It was Greek musical theory, however, that was speculatively revived in later medieval treatises, and came to influence the musical thought of Western Europe.

Greek Musical Theories

Pythagoras (c. 580–c. 500 bc) was the leading figure in Greek musical theory. He held that the motions of the planets produced a ‘music of the spheres’, a higher order of music of which earthly music was a mere reflection. His studies set out the mathematical relationships between string lengths and musical intervals: an octave resulted from a ratio of 1:2, a fifth from the ratio 2:3, a fourth from the ratio 3:4, and so on. The great philosophers Plato and Aristotle defined and rationalized the sacred, moral and therapeutic powers of music. Plato argued that the powerful forces of music required government control. Aristotle’s student Aristoxenus (fourth century bc) formalized the Greek scheme of modes that included Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian and Lydian. Each mode was thought to provoke a distinctive character – the Dorian could instil bravery, for example.

Music and Instruments

Some 40 fragments preserved on stone, papyrus and in manuscripts are the only records of ancient Greek music. The earliest is probably a fragment of Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis (c. 406 bc). Two systems of musical notation were developed, both using alphabetical or quasi alphabetical signs. One was for vocal, the other for instrumental music. Notable among Greek instruments were the lyre, associated with the god Apollo, the aulos, a reed-blown pipe with a shrill, licentious, oboe-like sound, and the kithara, a large lyre. Tambourines (tympana), castanets (krotala) and cymbals (kymbala) featured in orgiastic cults such as that of Dionysus.

Roman Music

Research in the twentieth century has dispelled the notion of ancient Romans as an unmusical people. Roman music was heard in diverse settings: religious, public, martial, theatrical and work. Rome absorbed musical influences from the Etruscans, the Greeks and the Orient. New genres were influenced by the music of conquered kingdoms: Syria, Macedonia, and Egypt. In what can be considered the golden age of Roman music (27 bcad 192), slave musicians and dancers were recruited from throughout the Roman Empire, virtuosos (mainly Greek) played for a living, and Greek and Roman musicians had professional organizations. Musical theatre flourished, despite being denounced as ‘demoralizing and effeminate’ by Tacitus, among others.

The diversity of instruments of ancient Rome reveals the international nature of this society. The kithara and lyre had been adopted,...

To read the full article please either login or register .


An extensive music information resource, bringing together the talents and expertise of a wide range of editors and musicologists, including Stanley Sadie, Charles Wilson, Paul Du Noyer, Tony Byworth, Bob Allen, Howard Mandel, Cliff Douse, William Schafer, John Wilson...


Classical, Rock, Blues, Jazz, Country and more. Flame Tree has been making encyclopaedias and guides about music for over 20 years. Now Flame Tree Pro brings together a huge canon of carefully curated information on genres, styles, artists and instruments. It's a perfect tool for study, and entertaining too, a great companion to our music books.

Rock, A Life Story

Rock, A Life Story

The ultimate story of a life of rock music, from the 1950s to the present day.

David Bowie

David Bowie

Fantastic new, unofficial biography covers his life, music, art and movies, with a sweep of incredible photographs.