Music speaks to your soul. No matter what language you speak, you can enjoy “Kung Fu Fighting” as much as the next person. When it comes to ancient Greece, there has been a lot of mystery around what their music sounded like. In 1932, musicologist Wilfrid Perrett told an Royal Musical Association audience that “Nobody has ever made head or tail of ancient Greek music, and nobody ever will. That way madness lies.”
Luckily, there have been some breakthroughs in that arena since that time.
Kids won’t appreciate these tunes
While they weren’t U2’s level, ancient Greece did have their own rockstars. Composers such as Athenaeus and Philotas delivered some popular jams to their people. In 1892, a sheet of music from Euripides’ play, Orestes, was discovered. This piece of paper held the notes to the oldest surviving written song to date.
Orestes deals with the consequences following the title character who murdered their own mother. With lines such as: “I cry, I cry, your mother’s blood that drives you mad, great happiness in mortals never lasting,” you might expect some death metal jams thrown in.
Here’s what we thought it sounded like:
Putting together the pieces
Armand D’Angour, who co-wrote Music, Text, and Culture in Ancient Greece, was able to better piece together just how this number sounded. “[T]he sense and sound of ancient Greek music have proved incredibly elusive. This is because the terms and notions found in ancient sources – mode, enharmonic, diesis, and so on – are complicated and unfamiliar. And while notated music exists and can be reliably interpreted, it is scarce and fragmentary. What could be reconstructed in practice has often sounded quite strange and unappealing [see YouTube above] – so ancient Greek music had by many been deemed a lost art,” Armand wrote.
In his book, he determined that the piece was done in a tonal fashion. “This should not be very surprising, as such tonality exists in all the documents of ancient music from later centuries, including the large-scale Delphic Paeans preserved on stone,” he elaborated.
Bringing it back in style?
D’Angour took things a bit further by composing this music himself in 2016. The following year, he unveiled a live performance over at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England. For the live show, he decided to flush things out with a ten-person choir. While it wasn’t a sold-out show at Madison Square Garden, D’Angour felt joy in bringing this lost tune back to life.
In 500 years, there’s a great chance the same thing can happen with today’s music. It’s going to be hard for future researchers to decipher “Closer” by The Chainsmokers.