Music Design in the Ancient Greek Theatre

Music Design in the Ancient Greek Theatre

In my freshman year at Prairie View A&M, I was cast as a musician for the chorus in a production of Medea by Euripides. I was intrigued by the use of music in the play. As I thought about the origin of music design in the Ancient Greek theatre I began to research the subject and encountered a recording of some music designed for the early Greek theatre. The music was directed by Gregorio Paniagua and the pieces that were performed were the Anakrousis, the Orestes Stasimo and the Premiere Hymne: Delphique A Apollon. At first the music resembled something out of an episode of Star Trek, but as I listened I realized that the music designers for Star Trek were following a formula that was set centuries ago. All songs were equal in intensity and character. What I mean by that is the music in Ancient Greek theatre was a character in itself. The songs started out quietly then peaked later on to arouse the listener’s emotions. The instrumentation was scarce but it said a lot coming in only to point a moment out to the audience.

Author George Thomson states, on the subject of Aeschylus’ The Suppliants, “in order to appreciate fully the choral element in the play we must regard each ode, not as an independent unity, but as part of a larger musical design which runs parallel with the plot and accelerates or retards its pace in accordance with the dramatic necessities of the
moment.” (100).

The tour guide through all of this was Aristotle who wrote a list of do’s and don’ts when it came to music design in the theatre of his day. Aristotle has written the Poetics as a guide to acting and writing tragedies and comedies. In the De Anima Aristotle distinguishes between sound and voice. Using two passages Aristotle states that, “Voice is a kind of sound characteristic of what has soul in it; nothing that is without soul utters voice” (111). Aristotle goes on further by stating that, “…What produces the impact must have soul in it and must be accompanied by an act of imagination, for voice is sound with a meaning” (West 111). Aristoxenus, one of Aristotle’s followers, took the matter further when he wrote the first of three books dedicated to music design called the Principles and Elements of Harmonics or for short , “The Harmonics”. The Harmonics dealt with a general range of subjects from voice movements, pitch, notes, intervals and scales. Aristoxenus also writes a book based on rhythm called, The Elements of Rhythm, in which he gives instruction on metre. After hearing the recorded music of Aristotle’s and Aristoxenus’ time, I realized that music from soap operas to movies were shaped by these two men. The key to making a bright future is to understand where you have come from. The music design in the Ancient Greek Theatreis essential to understanding modern music through it’s usage of voice, instrumentation and development of the lyric.

Aristotle was born in 384 B.C. at Stagirus, a Greek colony and seaport on the coast of Thrace. Aristotle’s father died when he was young so he moved in with his uncle who later sent Aristotle to Athens to further his studies. When arriving in Athens Aristotle registered in the Academy and would study under Socrates for the next 20 years. Aristoxenus was a Greek writer on music and other subjects. Aristoxenus was born at Taras in southeast Italy in about 370 B.C. After moving to Athens when he was a young man, he enrolled into the Academy and began his studies with Aristotle.Aristoxenus wrote many books in his lifetime but only portions of 3 book-rolls on music has survived. Aristoxenus said that in order to sing effectively, “The notes of the song were attacked cleanly, without swooping or sliding from one note to the next. This is what differentiates song from speech” (West 43).

Other vocal techniques were in vogue as well in the Ancient theatre. One technique was the singing of male choruses in one octave. An octave is a musical interval embracing 8 diatonic degrees.

In most cases the older gentlemen would sing the bottom note of the octave and the younger gentlemen would sing the top note. In the book, Ancient Greek Music, by M.L.West American musicologist Alan Lomax describes the vocal stylings of the Ancient Greeks by stating: “The variables include vocal width and tension raspiness, gutterality, tremolo, nasality, emphasis, tempo, volume pitch level in relation to the singers’ natural range, amount and type of ornamentation, strictness of intonation and rhythm, precision enunciation and where there are several voices, the degree of blending” (West 42).

“Blending”, in a music sense is the ability to allow voices to sing together affectively without one voice standing out. West goes on further by saying, “In choral singing a good blend of voices was admired. The Muses sing with voices coinciding and Alcman pretends that his choir’s voice is a single Muse or Siren voice” (45). All voices should be equal whether complex harmonies are being sung or songs being sung in unison. Unison is identity in musical pitch, in other words, everyone sings the same note either at the high end or low end of the octave. This is usually how the Greek choruses would sing in plays causing more tension in the mood of the scene. This concept is like watching a movie with the score being sung by a choir beside the screen. Besides singing there was an ancient rap going on with recited verse and music accompaniment this was called the parakataloge which was invented by Archilochus. This method was generally implemented when the chorus would go on and off stage. Poetry also played an important role in the development of the vocal song. Thomson states that, “If poetry and music went hand in hand, there was no question but that poetry was the mistress and music the handmaid” (1).

In most cultures during that period people would use their voices in many ways. Some cultures would yodel, make noises of animals, hum and croon wordlessly. This type of vocalizing could be considered an ancient form of “scatting”.

Singers would also go through great pains to maintain suitable singing voices. As a vocalist sometimes before a performance I gargle with warm water and salt to loosen any phlegm that could be on the throat and to relax the vocal chords for a night of singing. The Greek singers trained as if they were going to compete in the Olympics. The Greek singers would practice before breakfast because they felt that food would impair their voices. The Greeks would refrain from any intoxication because it would make the voice hoarse and they would sometimes fast and diet so their voice would stay in mint condition. The Greeks would also supply the sound effects with their voices. The “ligyra” voice was refined and concentrated. This person with the ligyra voice would be responsible for bird-calls, cicadas which is a type of insect, grasshoppers, people weeping and smooth tongued orators. However, the Greeks songs according to West, “their songs (so far as our knowledge goes) were settings of
thoroughly articulate, often highly sophisticated poetic texts, with little verbal repitition”(39). One type of song sung by the Greeks was the Dthyramb. A Dithyramb is a song or hymn sung to and danced for the god Dionysius. The lead singer or the Coryphaeus would lead the chorus. The Premiere Hymne: Delphique A Apollon started out like a Gregorian chant and evolved into limited instrumentation with a hundred voiced mass choir. The Greeks did not mix their instruments well with their vocals which leads us to our second point.


In Ancient Greece there were three groups of instruments; they were stringed, wind and percussive instruments. The standard stringed instrument of this time was the lyre. Lyres had many forms from as early as the seventh century. West describes the lyre as, “having two arms projecting from the body and linked by a crossbar or yoke: the strings extend from the crossbar over an open space and then over a bridge on the front sound board to a fastening at the base. The strings are of equal length” (48). There were several distinctive types of Lyres. The first type of Lyre was the Box Lyre. The Box lyre had three shapes 1) Round-based, 2) Square-based and 3) Rectangular. The second type of lyre was the Bowl lyre which was of standard type and long armed. This instrument is the ancestor of the guitar. It was played by either plucking the strings or
by strumming the instrument. Bowed instruments such as the violin did not appear until the Middle Ages. Arched Harps are the oldest form of stringed instrument having dated back to the times of the Sumerians from about 3400 B.C. or earlier. Zithers was another form of ancient stringed instrument that was not used for performance but education. The first lute appeared in Mesopotamia at the end of the third millennium
and in the middle of the fourth it had spread to Egypt.

The wind instruments according to West, “work by setting up vibrations in air that is enclosed in a pipe or pipes”(81). Some wind instruments could be blown in sideways across the air into the pipe resembling the technique of playing the flute. Another means is to blow down the pipe with your mouth shut vibrating your lips which is the principle to playing trumpet. And finally, a wooden reed could be used in some wind instruments to get a certain sound. This technique is similar to the clarinet or oboe.

The aulos was a musical instrument resembling a type of flute with finger holes and a reed mouthpiece. The auloi players played two of them at once. Other pipe instruments included the panpipe and the pitch-pipe, designed to keep the singers in tune. The Ancient Greeks were not as dependant on rhythm as other cultures might have been in that time. The Greeks percussive instruments were limited but there were two parts of percussive instrumentation. The first group of percussion instruments were clappers and castanets. Castanets were little cymbals that could be attached to players fingers. Clappers were men who would generally clap their hands to the beat supporting the aulos or the lyre music. The other form of percussion was the cymbals or kymbala, or the drums known to the Greeks as tympanum.

The Five Lyric Genres

As I sat and listened to the recordings of the Anakrousis, the Orestes Stasimo and the Premiere Hymne: Delphique A Apollon it was quite clear that musical accompinament played a small part in the actual musical theatre experience. It was all about the singer and the lyric. According to West, “A choir of many voices was not balanced by an equivalent band of musicians very often a single piper supplied the accompaniment, even for a chorus of 50 as in the Athenian Dithyramb” (39). As stated earlier, Dithyrambs were hymns being sung to the god Dionysus. But, through reading
the book , Choruses of Young Women in Ancient Greece by Claude Calame he explains that different hymns were sung to different gods.

For instance there were hymns written for Apollo, Aphrodite and Zeus . The Greeks believed that most of these songs were passed from the gods to them so that they could be glorified. These hymns often carried a story for example Calame explains that, “Helen, in the tragedy that bears
her name, replies to the chorus of young Greek captives with her in Egypt that she envies the fate of the virgin Kallisto, metamorphosed by Zeus, and the fate of the daughter of Merops, whom Artemis chased away from her chorus because of her beauty and then turned into a deer”(91). Hymns were also a big part of the types of songs that were sung by the Greeks. Calame describes hymns as, “songs in which gods and heroes are celebrated” (75). In the hymn to Apollo the muse sings of gods and the miseries that befall mankind and in the Hymn to Artemis Leto and her children are celebrated. Paean’s are defined by Calame as, “songs of propitiation or gratitude, two complementary aspects of the prayer addressed to the gods. Sung as early as the Archaic period for occasions such as battles, banquets, or marriages, it was addressed to Apollo, or to Artemis, both of whom were the protecting gods with power over calamities” (77). Calame gives an example of a Paean by stating, “Another example of a girls’ chorus singing a paean is found in Euripides; before her sacrifice, Iphigenia asksthe chorus of girls from Chalcis to intone a propitiating paean to Artemis” (76). The feminine counterpart of the paean is the ololyge which is the function of the women in the chorus. For example in the dyssey ritual cries accompany the sacrificed ox that Nestor dedicated to Athena. The paean and the ololyge are poetic forms which showed distinctive features. The ololyge accompanied the Dithyramb. Usually the women’s chorus would answer what the male chorus members had to say in the particular song.

This method is similar to the call and response technique used in Africa. This method can be seen today in the form of the black Baptist Church. The Hymn usually is led by a man or the choreagos and he is encouraged by the cries of the church sisters or the ololyge.

The choreagos is basically the lead singer and the chorus members are the back-ground singers. In the book , Greek Lyric Metre, George Thomson says, “The words of the singer were the dominant element, and often reached, both in sense and in rhythm, a degree of elaboration rarely equaled in the poetry of other ages” (2). There were some cases when the choregos would sing and then the chorus would start dancing and singing this was another type of song called the kitharodia.

This genre goes back no further than Plato. These types of performances were generally saved for theatre festivals. There were cases when the mixed chorus of men and women would stop singing altogether and start to dance to a melody this was called a nomos Referred to by this name as early as Homer the Threnos was a song usually reserved for funerals. The song is sung by the choregos, who is either male or female and is accompanied rhythmically by a chorus of women. The epithalamium/hymenaeus were love songs used at weddings. These nuptial songs originate from the refrain of women crying out at every interval. Calame states that, “If the passage cited from Euripides’ Trojan Women suggests a performance in which the wedding song is sung by a single person accompanied by dancing and by repetitions of the refrain by the chorus, other sources have a choral song sung by a women’s or a mixed chorus” (84).

Aeschylus is the person responsible for turning the Dithyramb into drama.Born in 525 B.C. Aeschylus was a playwright who turned the Ancient theatre of Thespis the first actor into an art form. After fighting in the battle of Marathon Aeschylus then turned his attentions to theatre winning 13 of the play competitions in Athens. Aeschylus was responsible for making the Dithyramb literate, adding a second actor in the scene and reducing the chorus from 50 to 12. Aeschylus also introduced props and scenery. His play Persians written in 472 B.C. is the oldest play in existence.

In Aeschylus’ early years the chorus had most of the lines sharing them with a single actor. In Aeschylus’ crowning achievement The Oresteia, George Thomson, author of the book , Greek Lyric Metre says, “ the long choral odes are worked with such skill into the dramatic framework that they are no less essential to the effect of the whole than the action of the plot itself” (81). Websters dictionary describes an ode as a lyric poem
usually marked by exaltation of feeling and style, varying length of line, and complexity of stanza forms.

So far we have discussed the Voice and how the Greeks implemented that art form into theatre. The instrumentation has been established. Meaning, we now know what the Greeks were playing while the show was going on. And, we have discussed the genre of songs that the choregos and the chorus were performing. Little has been said about the psyche of the chorus itself. What were these men and women thinking?

How did they prepare for their roles and what did they do in their spare time? As stated earlier the Greeks believed in staying fit for the show by fasting and dieting and so on. But, what about their social function? The role of the lyric chorus was to be a channel for a certain deity to interact with humans. Calame states that, “the lyric chorus is thus the line of communication between the deity and its followers, and therefore the status
of the chorus members, either adolescents, marriageable women, or young wives, and so on, corresponds in most cases to the sphere of influence of the divinity and thus to the characteristics of the divinity itself” (206). Some choruses took more of a sexual tone and eroticism was wide spread. There were heterosexual relationships as well as same sex relationships designed for a whole chorus. For instance, the circle of Sappho was a chorus made up of a group of yound women on the Isle of Lesbos. Sappho’s rivals Andromeda and Gorgo also had their own girl groups where they could perform orgies as well as worship through their art. Men generally did the same thing. Older gentlemen if they wished could find a young lover with the minimum age being twelve and abduct him, shower him with gifts and then have sex with him in a span of two months. After the two months were over the lad could then go back home and his lover would give him an ox to remember him by. This was considered educational by Cretan laws and was institutionalized.

Understanding your past is the key to understanding your future. As old as some things are there is nothing new under the sun. It is safe to say that the Ancient Greeks truly lived a riotous life enjoying every thing that life had to offer. The Greeks enjoyed and understood their theatre and paved the way for the art form to flourish. The Greeks took that same zest that they had for their arts and placed it into the lives
that they led.