Music was important in the life of ancient Greece

Written by on February 27, 2021

Although music was important in the life of ancient Greece, it is not now known how that music actually sounded. Only a few notated fragments have survived, and no key exists for restoring even these.

The Greeks were given to theoretical speculation about music; they had a system of notation, and they “practiced music,” as Socrates himself, in a vision, had been enjoined to do.

But the Greek term from which the word music is derived was a generic one, referring to any art or science practiced under the aegis of the Muses. Music, therefore, as distinct from gymnastics, was all-encompassing.

(Much speculation, however, was clearly directed toward that more-restricted meaning with which we are familiar.) Music was virtually a department of mathematics for the philosopher Pythagoras (c. 550 BCE), who was the first musical numerologist and who laid the foundations for acoustics.

In acoustics, the Greeks discovered the correspondence between the pitch of a note and the length of a string. But they did not progress to a calculation of pitch on the basis of vibrations, though an attempt was made to connect sounds with underlying motions.

Plato (428–348/347 BCE), like Confucius, looked on music as a department of ethics. And like Confucius he was anxious to regulate the use of particular modes (i.e., arrangements of notes, like scales) because of their supposed effects on people.

Plato was a stern musical disciplinarian; he saw a correspondence between the character of a person and the music that represented him or her.

Straightforward simplicity was best.

In the Laws, Plato declared that rhythmic and melodic complexities were to be avoided because they led to depression and disorder.

Music echoes divine harmony; rhythm and melody imitate the movements of heavenly bodies, thus delineating the music of the spheres and reflecting the moral order of the universe.

Earthly music, however, is suspect; Plato distrusted its emotional power.

Music must therefore be of the right sort; the sensuous qualities of certain modes are dangerous, and a strong censorship must be imposed.

Music and gymnastics in the correct balance would constitute the desirable curriculum in education. Plato valued music in its ethically approved forms; his concern was primarily with the effects of music, and he therefore regarded it as a psychosociological phenomenon.

Yet Plato, in treating earthly music as a shadow of the ideal, saw a symbolic significance in the art. Aristotle carried forward the concept of the art as imitation, but music could express the universal as well.

His idea that works of art could contain a measure of truth in themselves—an idea voiced more explicitly by Plotinus in the 3rd century CE—gave added strength to the symbolic view.

Aristotle, following Plato, thought that music has power to mold human character, but he would admit all the modes, recognizing happiness and pleasure as values to both the individual and the state.

He advocated a rich musical diet. Aristotle made a distin

 

ction between those who have only theoretical knowledge and those who produce music, maintaining that persons who do not perform cannot be good judges of the performances of others.

Aristoxenus, a pupil of Aristotle, gave considerable credit to human listeners, their importance, and their powers of perception. He denigrated the dominance of mathematical and acoustical considerations.

For Aristoxenus, music was emotional and fulfilled a functional role, for which both the hearing and the intellect of the listener were essential.

Individual tones were to be understood in their relations to one another and in the context of larger formal units. The Epicureans and Stoics adopted a more naturalistic view of music and its function, which they accepted as an adjunct to the good life.

 

 

They gave more emphasis to sensation than did Plato, but they nevertheless placed music in the service of moderation and virtue. A dissenting 3rd-century voice was that of Sextus Empiricus, who said that music was an art of tones and rhythms only that meant nothing outside itself.

 

The Platonic influence in musical thought was to be dominant for at least a millennium.

Following that period of unquestioned philosophical allegiance, there were times of rededication to Greek concepts, accompanied by reverent and insistent homage (e.g., the group of late 16th-century Florentines, known as the Camerata, who were instrumental in the development of opera).

Such returns to simplicity, directness, and the primacy of the word have been made periodically, out of loyalty to Platonic imperatives, however much these “neo” practices may have differed from those of the Greeks themselves.

In the 21st century the effects of Greek thought are still strongly evident in the belief that music influences the ethical life; in the idea that music can be explained in terms of some component such as number (that may itself be only a reflection of another, higher source),in the view that music has specific effects and functions that can be appropriately labelled and in the recurrent observation that music is connected with human emotion. In every historical period there have been defectors from one or more of these views, and there are, of course, differences of emphasis.

Music in Christianity Yet Plato, in treating earthly music as a shadow of the ideal, saw a symbolic significance in the art. Aristotle carried forward the concept of the art as imitation, but music could express the universal as well. His idea that works of art could contain a measure of truth in themselves—an idea voiced more explicitly by Plotinus in the 3rd century CE—gave added strength to the symbolic view.

Aristotle, following Plato, thought that music has power to mold human character, but he would admit all the modes, recognizing happiness and pleasure as values to both the individual and the state.

He advocated a rich musical diet. Aristotle made a distinction between those who have only theoretical knowledge and those who produce music, maintaining that persons who do not perform cannot be good judges of the performances of others.

Aristoxenus, a pupil of Aristotle, gave considerable credit to human listeners, their importance, and their powers of perception. He denigrated the dominance of mathematical and acoustical considerations.

For Aristoxenus, music was emotional and fulfilled a functional role, for which both the hearing and the intellect of the listener were essential. Individual tones were to be understood in their relations to one another and in the context of larger formal units.

The Epicureans and Stoics adopted a more naturalistic view of music and its function, which they accepted as an adjunct to the good life. They gave more emphasis to sensation than did Plato, but they nevertheless placed music in the service of moderation and virtue.

A dissenting 3rd-century voice was that of Sextus Empiricus, who said that music was an art of tones and rhythms only that meant nothing outside itself.

The Platonic influence in musical thought was to be dominant for at least a millennium.

Following that period of unquestioned philosophical allegiance, there were times of rededication to Greek concepts, accompanied by reverent and insistent homage (e.g., the group of late 16th-century Florentines, known as the Camerata, who were instrumental

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