Ancient Greek music to be brought back to life

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The music of ancient Greece played 2,500 years ago is to be reconstructed to enable modern-day audiences to hear how it sounded.

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Dr Armand D’Angour, a musician and tutor in classics at the University of Oxford, is using ancient documents inscribed with vocal notation to bring Greek music back to life.

Around 60 documents, found on stones in Greece and papyrus in Egypt, feature Greek words with signs and letters of the alphabet placed above the vowels.

Devised around 450 BC, these notations give an accurate indication of relative pitch. Ancient manuals survive explaining exactly how the notation should be interpreted.

Dr D’Angour will use the documents, which have long been known to classicists, to recreate the music.

In 2015 he will present reconstructions of ancient music in public auditoria. Highlights will include a tragic chorus of Euripides and the singing of Homeric epic.

Dr D’Angour told historyextra: “We know the almost magical effect music was supposed to have had on the ancient Greeks listening to it, and we know more or less what it sounded like. Now, I want to bring it to life.

“We have long had the material to do this, so it’s surprising it has not been done successfully before. We have the rhythm from the lyrics and the melody from the ancient documents, and we are able to reconstruct ancient Greek musical instruments.

“I now want to bring all those together and recreate the music as authentically as possible. The project is like an archaeological detective story.”

Describing ancient Greek music, Dr D’Angour said: “We can liken the music of classical times to Middle Eastern music of today. It used microtones, so would sound somewhat alien to the western ear.

“The latest music that survives, however, is definitely melodious, and bears comparison to early plainchant [music that involves chanting].

“Short songs and little ditties were commonplace, and music was hugely topical.

“Some of it was very socially engaged. Lyric poetry – which was sung to the lyre – addressed all kinds of social and political issues as well as personal ones.

“And music itself became the subject of plays – there were ancient comedies about the way music in the fifth century BC was being ‘violated’. It was the equivalent of the furore surrounding the introduction of jazz music.        

“Music was central to ancient Greek life.”

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The two-year project is being funded by the British Academy and Jesus College Oxford.