Music of the Greeks: Scales

When we think of Greece, it is Athens, the centre of Greek art and culture, that comes to mind. An ancient city, Athens, as history teaches us. The record is that it was founded by Cecrops, who brought a colony from Egypt, in 1556 B. C., a period when Egypt was a centre of power, wealth, education and science. Therefore we infer that these colonists brought with them to Greece the ordinary, popular music and instruments to which they had become accustomed in their home. But there was an older Greece; for late discoveries show that there were five cities, each built upon the ruins of an older city, the first one going back to 2500 B. C. These earlier inhabitants, themselves an offshoot of the great Aryan race, were absorbed by the colonists.

Music and Myth in Greece.—The beginnings of music in Greece are mingled with myths: Pan, Apollo, Mercury, Athene and others appear as the patrons and exemplars of the musical art. Aside from the names of the mythical gods and goddesses, there are names of human beings that stand out with clearness. These early musicians were singers or bards who chanted the songs composed in honor of chiefs and tribal heroes. Such were Hyagnis, 1506 B. C., Marsyas, his son, and Olympus the elder, Orpheus, Musæus (1426 B. C.), chief of the Eleusinian mysteries, Linus, Amphion, Thaletes, whose songs were favorites of Pythagoras; the greatest of these bards was the blind Homer, to whom the date 900 B. C. is assigned. “By the Greeks, music as an art was considered an aid in regulating by rule the inflections of the voice, to mark the places of emphasis, and to define the pauses in the recitation of their epicpoetry; and the rhythm of their songs followed strictly laws that had been laid down; innovation was reprehended, and even prohibited.”

Early Greek Musicians and Writers.—The earliest musician’s name met with in the annals of music is that of Terpander (676 B. C), who is said to have increased the number of strings on the lyre from four to seven. Next in order was Pythagoras (585-505 B. C.), who added an eighth string to the lyre. He was called the discoverer of the Tetrachord, which is still known by this name, the inventor or discoverer of the Octave Scale, also the discoverer of the ratios of the consonances; but there is no doubt that he learned all these things during his sojourn in Egypt. He is also credited with the invention of the Canon or Monochord with movable bridges, a contrivance still in use for investigating the ratios of intervals. Unfortunately none of the writings—if any ever existed—of Pythagoras have come down to us. Our knowledge of his theories is second-hand, gathered from the writings of his disciples. Pythagoras seems to have studied sound more in the manner of the acoustician than of the musician; hence his followers, or rather those who called themselves by his name, were more concerned with the ratios of sounds than with their musical effects.

Among the great philosophers who treated on music, Aristotle (384 B. C.) holds an important place. We find his theories expressed in one of his works called “Problems.” A pupil of his—Aristoxenus (350-320 B. C.), has left the most valuable treatise on music, of any of the ancients, the oldest musical work known at the present time; it is, unfortunately, not complete. Aristoxenus was a practical, in addition to being a theoretical musician; he thought that the ear was the final court of appeal in matters musical. Hence the musical world was divided into two factions: the Pythagoreans, who held that music was purely a matter for arithmetical investigation, and the [Pg 48]Aristoxenians, who claimed that the chief end of music was to be listened to. This dispute lasted for many centuries. Boethius, the Roman philosopher, in his writings takes sides with the Pythagoreans and pours contempt on the mere musician. The successors of the Pythagoreans are even yet not extinct, as every now and again some wiseacre turns up with a scheme to secure just intonation, at the price of losing all that music has gained under our present system. Plato (430 B. C.), the greatest of philosophers, has much to say about music; but these sayings are largely incomprehensible to modern understandings. Euclid (323 B. C.), the great mathematician, treated largely of music. Aristides Quintilianus was another author of great weight. Plutarch, in his Symposia, has one devoted to music, but unfortunately the meaning of these authors is often so obscure that it cannot now be discovered. Alexandria, in Egypt, came into prominence in music when the great library was founded there by Alexander the Great, in 332 B. C. Eratosthenes (276-196 B. C.), the librarian, figures in the mathematics of music. When we reach the Christian Era, we meet with two more writers, Didymus (A. D. 60), who introduced the “minor” tone into the scale, and Claudius Ptolemy (A. D. 130).