Characteristics of Ancient Music: An Introduction

Characteristics of Ancient Music
Characteristics of Ancient Music

The subject of Ancient Music is a fascinating one and can be thought of as covering an enormous period of time. In an article from the BBC, scientists claimed to have discovered the earliest musical instrument dating from between 42,000 and 43,000 BC. This instrument was something resembling a flute, made from mammoth tusk.

It seems very probable that early man would have used a wide diversity of instruments and even more likely that they used their voices. Steven Mithen covers this in his intriguing book titled “The Singing Neanderthals” from 2006.

It then becomes a speculative account if we confine ourselves to this vast swathe of history. What does emerge from the mists of time is the culture and conventions of the Greeks, the Romans and other important cultures from across the globe.

Characteristics of Ancient Music

We have accounts of these cultures as writing develops around 3000 BC that gives us a valuable window into the music at the time, in particular, the Greek. There are even fragments of what are claimed to be musical notations although any present-day performance remains one based largely on supposition. Of equal importance are the surviving frescos, ceramics and sculptures that capture musicians and dancers from ancient times playing many different instruments.

The evidence points directly to the possibility that the Greeks, as they developed as a dominant culture in Europe, enjoyed the instrumental innovations of the Mesopotamians and the Egyptians. These would have included wind, percussion and string instruments, the lyre being amongst the most popular in Greece.

The Greek God Apollo was believed to play the lyre which could account for its popularity. Another instrument named the aulos was widely used in ancient Greece. This was a double reed instrument similar to a double oboe and would have had quite a powerful and penetrating timbre.

We are also aware that the ancient Greeks had their own theories that surrounded music, many developed by Pythagoras. This gave rise to a series of modal scales that closely resemble those that became the basis for music from the Medieval period onwards.

Pythagoras can reasonably be thought of as the Father of Music Theory, defining as he did, intervals, consonance and dissonance and notes. A fragment of a song by Euripides from Orestes has been shown to use these scales as well as the distinct possibility of word painting; allowing for contemporary interpretation of the text. Here is a link to a performance of this piece.

The interplay and interaction between music and poetry were of great importance to the ancient Greeks. Many of the musicians of the time would have been a poet, player and singer. Music would have accompanied both secular and sacred occasions. There were music, dance and poetry competitions where excellence would be given to honour the Gods themselves.

The Roman culture built on the traditions of the ancient Greeks. They took the elements of the music they liked and made it their own. As far as we are able to ascertain, the Romans used a similar set of modal scales to the Greeks and enjoyed music at occasions from funerals to festivals of celebration.

New instruments developed including some quite extraordinary ones. Hydraulus was a water organ reportedly of capable of immense dynamic subtlety and probably very similar in sound to the church organs found today. Other instruments typical of Roman times were the Lituus (Trumpet), the Sistrum (a bronze rattle); the Tibia (flute or pipe) and the Sambuca (large harp).

Of equal importance when looking at the world of ancient music, is the music of China. This culturally rich and diverse country claims to have one of the oldest musical traditions. According to legend, it was Ling Lun who founded Chinese music when he carved bamboo into pipes and tuned them to imitate the sound of the birds.

During the reign of the dynasties, it is thought that each Emperor had a certain pitch that was directly associated with their dynasty. Such was the importance of music the Chinesecategories were silk, bamboo, hide, clay, gourd, metal, stone, and wood; each producing a unique and descriptive tone. Here is a link to music from the Tang dynasty

Rather than using a string, it is thought that the Chinese used a bamboo pipe with a node placed at one end to allow different divisions of the overtone series to be produced. This gave rise to a 12-pitch system on which the music was based. From here came a series of scales similar to the modal system in Europe.

Ancient India made a significant contribution to the world of ancient music. Carnatic music was heavily influenced by the early music of Persia and Islam and is associated closely with Southern India. Much of the music of the time was written as songs with any instruments used to accompany only and in a singing style. The religious nature of many works is evident although more secular compositions may have also been common. Here is a link to explore

Even in these ancient times, we can discover the components of later Indian music called Raga. Carnatic music contained the Sruti (the chosen relative pitch), the raga (melodic mode) and the tala (or rhythmic element of the song). The use of a drone was a characteristic of the early music often played on the tambura. Accompanying one of two singers would also be a mridangam (double-headed drum), and a performer on an Indian violin. The melodic lines were probably similar to contemporary Indian music, with an often elaborately sparkling accompaniment that wove a complex texture.

From this brief glance at the key cultures of the ancient world certain characteristics emerge. Music, dominantly in song, featured as an integral part of life across most ancient cultures, whether in celebration or commiseration. It linked to the principles of Mathematics and Physics as well as other popular arts like poetry, dance and drama. Many of the characteristics of music we know today were already embedded in the ancient world in a rich and wonderful tapestry of astonishing sound.

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