Music, for the ancient Greeks, included poetry, dance, song, instrumental music, and other art forms. To say that someone was unmusical meant that that person did not understand or appreciate the arts. The Greeks considered music a link to the gods, as well as a branch of the highest forms of human thought, such as philosophy* and mathematics. The Romans had a somewhat more limited definition of music, regarding music as just one of many art forms and not necessarily the most interesting or the most important. Still, music played a part in Roman public and private life, just as it had among the Greeks.

Music in Society. Music was highly valued throughout Greek history. The Greeks told myths in which their gods and goddesses created the first music and musical instruments. They believed that music had many powers, including the power to communicate with the gods. From earliest times, music was a central part of religious ceremonies. Soloists or choruses* sang hymns of praise to the gods. Greek drama most likely grew out of these religious festivals. The Olympic Games and the other great games that were held regularly in Greece included competitions for solo singers, choruses, and instrumentalists, as well as for athletes.

* philosophy study of ideas, including science

Music was closely linked to poetry and dance. Poet-composers created both the words and the music of their compositions, and the Greeks would not have understood the idea of writing music to accompany the words of someone else. These poet-composers often worked for royal or noble households and wrote music on demand. Some were employed by the Greek city-states* to create music for special occasions, such as a celebration of an important victory by a local athlete or a victory in war.

Folk songs and traditional music were part of everyday life. People sang at weddings, harvest celebrations, and other occasions. Shepherds sang or played pipes to their flocks in the fields, rowers sang to keep time as they worked the oars, and women sang as they performed their domestic tasks. Soldiers and athletes trained to musical accompaniment. Among the most valuable slaves were skilled musicians. Most citizens were expected to have some musical training and ability, and Athenian youths attended dancing classes as part of their education. Although party guests often listened to music provided by hired entertainers or slaves, they sometimes made their own music by singing and playing instruments.

Some Greek thinkers saw a close connection between music and philosophy. In the 500s B.C., the philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras claimed that the world and the human soul were organized in mathematical relationships similar to those between musical notes. Pythagoras’s belief in the concept of a “music of the spheres” was shared by Plato, one of the most influential thinkers of classical Greece. Plato believed that music had a direct effect on a person’s soul and actions, and he called philosophy “the greatest music.”

* chorus in ancient Greek drama, a group of actors whose singing or dancing accompanies and comments upon the action of a play

* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory

Most scholars think that music was less important in Roman society and education than in Greek life. To the Romans, poetry and music were not part of a single art form as they were for the Greeks. However, music did have many roles in Roman life. Romans of various classes sang traditional folk songs, wedding songs, and work songs. Songs and instrumental music were a necessary part of religious ceremonies, public games, and funeral processions. The Roman armies used horn players to relay signals over great distances. Musicians played an important role in Roman theater, which featured song and dance performances between plays or sections of plays. Pantomime and mime, two popular forms of Roman theater, depended upon singers and players. Although some knowledge of music was part of a good Roman education, no Roman citizen would consider making a career as a professional musician, since music making was something fit only for foreigners and slaves.

Musical Instruments. Although the Greeks knew about many kinds of instruments, including ones that were developed in western Asia or Egypt, most Greek musicians relied on two main instruments, the aulos and the lyre. The aulos was a reed instrument similar to the modern oboe. In its most common form, the aulos consisted of two pipes with holes along each pipe that the player covered with his or her fingers to create different tones. The pipes were joined at one end to a round, hollow bulb. The player blew across a piece of reed into this bulb, producing whistling, flutelike sounds, as well as a deeper-toned booming sound. The Greeks also played a similar instrument called the syrinx. The syrinx, or panpipes, consisted of a set of small pipes of varying lengths. The player blew across the tops of the pipes to produce different tones.

The lyre was a wooden frame with strings stretched across it. Although all of the strings were the same length, each had a different thickness and tightness, so that each made a different tone when plucked. The musician usually played the lyre by bracing the bottom of the frame against his or her waist. The kithara was a larger type of lyre that produced a greater variety of sounds. The musician plucked the kithara strings with a plectrum, or pick, which was usually a small piece of horn or ivory. While the Greeks rarely used brass horns or percussion instruments, such as handheld drums, cymbals, and wooden clappers, the Romans played these instruments. The Romans also developed a water organ that used water pressure to force air through pipes of different lengths, producing loud sounds. In general, the Romans were more tolerant of foreign musical styles and instruments than the Greeks, and they were quicker to adapt foreign elements to their own use.

Only a few fragments of written music from Greece and Rome survive, and little is known about how this music sounded. But the Greeks and Romans contributed to the development of music in a number of ways. The Greeks conceived of a mathematical basis for music. They devised musical scales, called modes, which in Roman times were replaced with a standard diatonic (seven-note) scale. The Greeks also created a system of musical notation. The heritage of Greek music and Hebrew liturgy* blended in the Roman world and influenced the music of the early Christian church. (See also Drama, Greek; Drama, Roman; Poetry, Greek and Hellenistic.)


The ancient Greeks saw a connection between music and war, and that connection was dancing. Some festivals featured dances in which the performers carried weapons or acted out battles. Such performances were also part of cultural life in the city-state of Sparta, a highly military society. Good dancers were agile and strong, qualities that made them good at sports—and at war. The philosopher Socrates supposedly said that the best dancers were also the best fighters.

* liturgy form of a religious service, including spoken words, songs, and actions

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