Ancient Music

The term “ancient music” is used by historians to represent the music of Western civilization up to 450 A. D. This category includes the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome and the first few centuries of the Christian Church. While we do have scattered bits of information about this music, unfortunately, we have very little idea of how it actually sounded.

In Greece most music was closely connected to poetry and drama, so it follows that the principle instrument was the human voice. The other main instruments were the lyre and the aulos. The lyre was a harp-like instrument with five to eleven strings. It was associated with the cult of Apollo. Connected to the cult of Dionysus was the aulos — a reed instrument with two pipes. Both of these instruments would have been played solo or used to accompany a singer.

The music of ancient Greece was almost entirely [i]monophonic[i] — consisting of a single melody without any contrasting line or harmony. If a singer was accompanied by another instrument, that instrument would play the same melody with slight alterations. Improvisation was an important part of their music and it is doubtful that any performance ever sounded the same way twice.

The Greeks took their music very seriously. Competitions were held to determine the best singers and instrumentalists. Also, the Greeks believed that music has tremendous powers that effect individuals and society, and they openly debated what types of music were appropriate and what types were not. Both Plato and Aristotle wrote extensively about how music can effect the morals, character, and soul of a person, and Plato went so far as to say that music should be governed by laws and that the ideal man should have a balance between athletic and musical activities.

The ancient Romans developed their art from Greek ideals, and it is probable that they also borrowed their music from Greece. As the Roman Empire expanded though, other cultures entered their society and inevitably had some effect on Roman music. Besides the lyre and the aulos, the Romans had brass instruments that were used in fanfares and military processions.

The first Christians probably adopted their music from that of Jewish services. Like the music of ancient Greece and Rome, it was monophonic, tied to the words being sung, and often improvised. An important part of the Christian church service consisted of the singing of psalms with a pattern of soloist singing one line followed by the congregation singing the next line. In its first few centuries of its existence, the Christian Church quickly spread to much of Europe, as well as Africa and Asia Minor. It undoubtedly absorbed many of the musical traditions of these parts of the world.