Ancient Greek Music
Ancient Greek Written Music

Music has been a key component to daily lifestyle for thousands of years. It can conjure up many different emotions, and particularly good composers have the ability to re-create certain scenes or situations easily recognizable to the listener through the music they hear. Although music had been around for thousands of years before the Ancient Greeks, they made huge innovations to the system, and many of the musical schemes/instruments invented are still used today.


Music has always been a key part of society. It has a huge impact on society because of its ability to convey feelings and emotion, and is a key way of expressing oneself. The Greek god Apollo was the god of music, as was seen frequently with a lyre in hand.

Apollo with Lyre in Hand

Obviously, music had existed long before the Ancient Greeks, yet as the Greek culture developed, as did the common musical theory. In 7th century B.C., Terpander of Lesbos, credited as being one of the first composers, completed the octave system, which is still used today. Along with music, other Lesbos poets began writing lyrics to go along with pieces of music. Some of the Lesbos lyricists included Archilochus, Sappho, and Anacreon. It was until 6th century B.C. that the poet Pindar was able to complete the "ode", which was developed for use in dramas. The system was blown away when the mathematician Pythagoras came around in c. 580 B.C. Using a monochord (a small, one string instrument that can have its sound/pitch adjusted), he used mathematics in order to determine the numerical relation between tones and a stretched string
Using this system, one could create notes and such, therefore there could be a more common way of writing/seeing music. Other composers came later, such as Phrynus of Mitylene (450 B.C.). A lesser-known Greek composer was Seikilos, who wrote a song about his wife's death on a cave wall in 200 B.C., and has accompanying lyrics to it. Many music of the time has been lost, due to the fact that the papyrus did not survive or it simply was not written down. The music of Seikilos was kept, and has been re-recorded to this day.

Song of Seikilos:

Music began different than it is nowadays. It typically began with just one instrument, and there was very or no harmony. As years progressed, so did music. People began harmonizing instruments, as well as using lyrics in songs, something that is usually taken for granted but was, at the time, a very large development to the system. Many aspects of Greek music can be seen in the modern world.

Another Example of Ancient Greek Music:


Many different instruments were utilized by the Ancient Greek to compose music. Some of these instruments were created by the Ancient Greeks, and others were variations/innovations of other instruments invented by previous cultures.


The lute is a very old instrument, having been around long before the Ancient Greeks (it was, in fact, used in Ancient Egypt). The lute is made almost completely of wood, with a round sound deck and a tapering neck. The lute is still very commonly in use, with many professional lutenists all around Europe.

A Double-Aulos


A reed instrument, the aulos resembles an oboe or a recorder. This instrument has a couple of different variations, either a single aulos or a double aulos are used. This instrument was very present in society; used at plays, sacrifices, or sporting events, such as wrestling matches.


The lyre is another instrument that existed long before the Ancient Greeks, but was widely utilized in that society. The lyre is a small harp, and is very customizable through different cultures. It has many different sizes, ranging from lyres that can lay and one's lap to lyres the size of a grown man. Also, the number of strings on a lyre ranges, either 4 strings, 7 strings, or 10 stings. It has three other relatives: the kithara, the barbiton, and the phorminx.


Greek Soldier Playing Salpinx

The Salpinx is another very old instrument, and is referenced in Homers The Illiad (8th or 9th B.C.). It is also believed to have been utilized by Ancient Egyptians. The Salpinx is trumpet-like, and was used by soldiers in wartime situations, particularly during marches. The Salpinx was also used during festivals, and being able to play it softly was believed to have a calming effect.


The Hydraulis was a pipe organ that utilized water in order to create sound. The water forced air pressure into the pipes, therefore allowing it to be played. Invented by the Greeks in 3rd Century B.C., the Hydraulis was the first keyboard instrument ever created. Many instruments have been conceived from the original idea of the Hydraulis, such as electric organs and pianos, as well as any other sort of keyboard instrument.

Other Instruments

Other Ancient Greek Instruments included the Trigonon, which was a small, triangular harp. Another instrument was the Crotalum, which were essentially clappers/castanets.

Influence on Modern Culture

There are many different ways the Greek musical system influences modern culture. Octaves are used in almost any sort of musical composition, thanks to Terpander of Lesbos. Pythagorus utilized mathematics in order to invent a series of notes from the different frequencies/pitches off a stretched strings, something that is ESSENTIAL to composing music. The use of lyrics with musical accompaniment is often overlooked, but it was indeed the Ancient Greeks who came up with such a solid system. Other influences extend so far as to ancestor instruments. The lute influenced the guitar, the hydraulis influenced the piano as well as other keyboard instruments. The aulos influenced the oboe and the recorder, and the salpinx influenced the trumpet. Without the advancements made by the Ancient Greeks, music would not be at all where it is today.