In its two great periods, Greek genius created two independent, individually complete bodies of music. These it cultivated for centuries and imparted to posterity with characteristic expansive and propagative power. These two great periods are usually designated by the terms “ancient Greek music,” which we
shall call simply Greek music, and “medieval” or “Byzantine music.” The unique achievement of Greek genius in the history of music can be realized only if we consider the remarkably enduring influence of both periods.
In our modern Western civilization we are accustomed to speaking of musical art in a dual sense; we deal with popular or folk music and with “art” music. There is not enough material at our disposal to enable us to make this distinction in Greek music. Our sources mention various songs that were sung at rural
festivals or which facilitated rhythmical work of all sorts, like threshing or rowing; there are even some texts which indicate by their rhythmic quality that they were originally sung, though the melodies are unknown.
The Greeks were constantly engaged in the intensification and improvement of their art. Music was no exception to this rule. They were keenly interested in its technical and theoretical possibilities and accorded recognition to the inventors and perpetuators in this domain. Their historians and philosophers give an account of the origins of Greek music according to their own conceptions. These conceptions are often similar to our own, with the difference that with our strong sense for the historical we are apt to center our attention around facts, whereas they are interested in persons and personalities. The long list of mythical musicians mentioned in their writings carries the beginning of Greek music back into mythological times.
Music is in all languages acknowledged, by its very name, to be a muse-inspired, muse-descended art. The Greek muses, later the guardians of all branches of art, were at first only three in number. Two of them embodied ideas characteristic of every art, study and memory; the third bore the name Song. Their first dwelling place was the Pierian plains at the foot of Mount Olympus, where they moved to Mount Helicon. The seat of the Apollo cult was the island of Delos and subsequently Delphi, in the shadow of Mount Parnassus. The myths suggested the controus of the primeval musical life of the Greek mainland, untouched by alien influences.
Greek musical practice centers around the lyre in its two main forms, the lyre proper, and its larger variety, the cithara. The lyre consisted of a hollow body, or sound chest, from which protruded two arms curved both outward and forward. These arms were connected near the top by a crossbar or yoke. Another crossbar, on the sound chest, formed a bridge to convey the vibrations of the strings to it. The cithara was similarly constructed, but was larger and more sonorous.
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