Classical Greek music

Music is a Greek word and comes directly from the nine Muses, daughters of Zeus who inspired men in the arts.  Mousike techne was the technique of music.  The particular Muse who inspired music was named Euterpe, a name that will be familiar to readers of my books since it's also the name of my heroine Diotima's mother.  

As it happens, we have some surviving notated ancient music.  Which means we can play it.

The ancient Greeks created a tuning system that was the direct ancestor of our major scale.  Their idea was to use a sequence of perfect fifths that wrap around at the octave boundary.  This idea was so successful that we still use it today, slightly modified.

If you check the sequence of major scale notes in our modern tuning system, you'll find that the sequence of root -> fifth -> second -> sixth -> third -> seventh -> fourth is indeed a sequence of fifths (7 semitones each jump), except for the fourth, which is only a 6 semitone jump so that the gap from fourth to the octave would be a perfect fifth and thus complete the cycle.  This was squeezing the ancient system onto a modern instrument with twelve equally spaced pitches, but it works well enough.

So the Greeks invented the white keys on the piano, but they had no idea that the black keys existed. The old tuning system is called Pythagorean, because the first person to write about it was Pythagoras. That's the same Pythagoras who did the theorem about triangle sides that you learned at school. Pythagoras's book is lost, but we know bits of it because Plato, Aristotle and a few others quoted Pythagoras in their own books.

Thus the major scale is at least 2,600 years old (and is probably much older). 

There's also a surviving gravestone on which was written a short piece of ancient music. It's called the Song of Seikilos.  That's it to the left.

The first section is a standard inscription.  It says something like:  I am a gravestone. Seikilos placed me here, an everlasting monument of deathless remembrance.

 Then the next section is a song!  This is hugely important because it's the oldest known complete song for which there is no doubt whatsoever what the notes are.  The lyrics are the engraved words (of course).  But just above the letters you'll see funny, smaller symbols.  That's the music notation.  The position of the symbol above the word shows when to play the note as you sing.  Since it has the lyrics and the melody, this is a lead sheet, in modern parlance.

This gravestone dates to zero AD, give or take a hundred years.  There are fragments of music that are very much older, but none complete, and everything older than the Song of Seikilos requires some educated guess work to reconstruct it.

The lyrics say this:

While you live, shine,
Have no grief at all.
Life exists only for a short while,
And time demands its toll.
There have been lots of renditions of the song.  Here's an instrumental only version that I suspect is very close to what you would have heard if you'd met Seikilos.  This is played by researcher Michael Levy, who built a period instrument.


Ruth Muir said...


PT said...

OK, now I'm getting very curious…

Your previous post was about poisonous honey. Now you are telling about tuning. And before the honey, a graveyard was moved. And not to mention the Hyperborean.

In the early life of the blog you said it will be a place where you spill all the backstories.

So, what is the working title of #5?

Btw, enjoyed a lot #4, Death Ex Machina. Two of my friends work at a theater / opera – they'll get their copies as Xmas present.

Gary Corby said...

Ha! That's very observant of you, PT.

The title of the next book is THE SINGER FROM MEMPHIS. That's Memphis, Egypt, of course. We're doing the final copyedit review even as I type this.

But the blog post about ancient music is because I happen to be an enthusiastic player of guitar and bass. Another bass player foolishly asked in my presence where the major scale came from. So I told him. After his eyes had completely glazed over, I realized I didn't have quite the right audience for a dissertation on ancient Greek tuning systems, so I moved the explanation to here.

The Honey of Trebizond comes from talking to a fellow author who is a foodie. He was talking about a murder mystery themed restaurant. I suggested keeping Honey of Trebizond off the menu.

The Hyperborean and graveyard moving posts are indeed book research! I'm 10,000 words into writing the book to come after The Singer From Memphis. The working title of the book to come out in 2017 is...


I'm glad you liked Death Ex Machina, and thanks for making it a present! I had a lot of fun writing that one.