Music in Greece 

Music in ancient Greece remains one of the least lighted chapters of the History of Greek Culture. Despite the fact that we have access to information concerning the role of music in daily life, a great deal of significant information concerning the sound and the way it was played remains unknown.



Music, was an integral part of life in the ancient Greek world and the term covered not only music but also lyrics, dance and poetry. A wide range of instruments were used to perform music which was played in every occasions such as religious ceremonies, festivals, drinking parties, weddings, funerals, and during athletic activities. Music was also an important element of Greek education and dramatic performances held in theatres in For the ancient Greeks, music was viewed as a gift from the gods. The invention of specific instruments is attributed to particular deities. Hermes the lyre, Pan the syrinx and Athena the flute. In Greek mythology the Muses personified the various elements of music and were said to entertain the gods on mount Olympus with their divine music, dancing, and singing. Other mythical figures in Greece strongly associated with music are the god of wine Dionysus and his followers the Satyrs and Maenads. Amphion and Thamyres were both famed for their skills playing the guitar whilst Orpheus was celebrated as a magnificent singer and lyre player.  It was believed that the music could have a beneficial effect on both the mind and body of the listener.Greece, such as plays, recitals, and competitions.

Music in Greece is as diverse and celebrated as its history. Greek music separates into two parts. Greek traditional music and Byzantine music, with more eastern sounds. These compositions have existed for millennia. They originated in the Byzantine period and Greek antiquity. There is a continuous development which appears in the language, the rhythm, the structure and the melody. Music is a significant aspect of the Greek culture.

There exist very few documents of actual written Greek music simply because the Greeks rarely wrote their music down.  Most of the existing writings that we have about Greek music are not about what we call the 'Art of Music',  but rather the 'Science of Harmonics'. This Harmonic Science has little to do with music that is performed, it is primarily concerned with the acoustical properties of sound and how these sounds relates to each other theoretically.

Greek Music as an art, lost much of its prestige during the Roman dominance over Europe and the Mediterranean world. Writers such as Aristides Quintilianus, Athenaeus, and Boethius tried to reconstruct music from Ancient Greek principles, but they all wrote after the 3rd century CE. Long after the music of even the late Classical period of Greece had been largely forgotten.

The oldest of the surviving documents in Greece, that includes written melodies, dates from 250 BC, the Hellenistic Period of Greek History, which gives us little insight into the music of Archaic and Classical Greece.

Scholars of ancient music, from the time of Plato through Cleonides in the Hellenistic Era, and Aristides Quintilianus in the Roman Era, greatly confused dozens of technical terms.

The great confusion of Ancient Greek music did not prevent many future generations of Greek musicians from attempting to understand its nature and try to recreate its sounds. However. Musical forms of the Ancients Greeks have influenced music since the Medieval Ages. As an example, all of the medieval 'church modes' were inspired by the modes of Classical Greece, Also, the dithyramb, a dramatic work with singing and dancing, inspired the early Italian opera composers of the 16th century CE. 

Music Theory

We are aware, that the Greeks began to study music theory as early as the 6th century BC. This consisted of harmonic, scalar, acoustic and melody studies. The earliest surviving text in Greece on the subject, is the Harmonic Elements by Aristoxenos, written in the 4th century BC. Music also became an element of philosophical study, notably by the followers of Pythagoras, who believed that music was a mathematical expression of the cosmic order. Music in Greece was also held to have certain therapeutic benefits, even medicinal powers over physical and mental illnesses.

Also, one of the Greek unique contributions made to the history and development of music, was that it can have a moral and emotional effect on the listener and his or her soul. In short, that music has an ethical role in society.

For this reason, Plato, considering them rather decadent , banned instruments capable of producing all of the scales. Similarly, over-complicated rhythms and music with too fast a tempo were considered morally dangerous in the great philosopher’s ideal republic.

Regarding written music, 52 pieces of Greek music survived, albeit in a fragmentary form. As an example, a musical excerpt from Euripides’ play Orestes survives, as does an inscription of music from the Athenian Treasury at Delphi. The most complete surviving piece of Greek music is the song of Seikilos from a 2nd century BC tombstone found at Tralleis near Ephesus.

The divine nature of Music

Based on the ancient Greeks, music was divine as it assisted in healing both soul and body. It purified and soothed people’s souls and it inspired, encouraged and helped them relax. The above mentioned features justified the presence of Music, Asma and Orchitis in religious festivities such as the “Panathenaea” held in Athens.

Music and other Art forms

Greek Music is closely related to other sciences such as mathematics and philosophy thus it was one of the important subjects in young people’s education. Apart that, its connection to the theatre and poetry was of major significance. Masterpieces of the Greek literature such as the Homeric epics and Ancient Tragedies were preserved thanks to music. It is an indisputable fact that music has made an invaluable contribution to the development and diversity of the Ancient Greek culture.

Music & Religion

Music and dancing accompanied processions on special Greek religious occasions in various Greek cities and amongst the most famous in the Greek world, were the Panathenaia and Great Dionysia festivals of Athens. Certain religious practices were usually performed to music. As an example, sacrifices and the pouring of libations. Hymns and prayers were also sung during processions and at the altar itself. These were provided by choral groups of professional musicians, notably aulos players, often attached to particular sanctuaries.

As an example the paeanists in Athens and the 'aoidoi' and 'epispondorchestai' in the sanctuary of Asklepios at Epidaurus.

Music, Poetry, dance and drama recitals were also a competitive activity in events in Greece such as the panHellenic festivals held at Isthmia, Delphi and Nemea. However, as with the athletic competitions, the music contests were of a religious nature in that excellence was offered to honour the gods.

There were two types of such musical contest: ‘stephanites' and 'chrematites'.  Sparta, Argos and Paros held the earliest such competitions from the 7th century BC. In Hellenistic times, musical festivals and competitions became so common that musicians and performing artists began to organize themselves into guilds.

Music of ancient Greece

In ancient Greece, men usually performed choruses performed for entertainment, celebration and spiritual reasons. Instruments included the double-reed aulos and the plucked string instrument, the lyre, especially the special kind called a quitar.

Music was an important part of education in ancient Greece and boys were taught music starting at age six. Greek musical literacy created a flowering of development. Greek music theory included the Greek musical modes, eventually became the basis for Western religious music and classical music.

Musical Instruments

The musical instruments in Greece, included stringed, wind, and percussion. By far the most popular were the lyre, aulos, and syrinx. Other instruments, however, included the rattle, cymbals, guitar, bagpipe, conch and triton shells, trumpet, horn, tambourine, shallow drum, clappers, maracas, xylophone, various versions of the lyre such as the four-stringed lyre and the multi-stringed, elongated barbiton and various types of harps, usually triangular shaped. Two unusual instruments were the rhombus which was a flat rhombus pierced with holes, strung on a cord and played by spinning the cord. The second was the hydraulis, a sophisticated Hellenistic organ which used compressed air and water pressure maintained by two pedals. Incidentally, stringed instruments were always played with the fingers or a plectrum rather than with a bow and in the Classical period, stringed instruments were favoured over wind as they allowed the player to also sing, and for the Greeks words were considered more important than musical sounds.



Byzantine era

The Greek tradition of eastern liturgical chant, encompassing the Greek speaking world, developed in the Byzantine Empire from the establishment of its capital, Constantinople, in 330 until its fall in 1453. It is undeniably of composite origin, drawing on the artistic and technical productions of the classical Greek age, on Jewish music, and inspired by the monophonic vocal music that evolved in the early Christian cities of Alexandria, Antioch and Ephesus. In his lexicographical discussion of instruments, the Persian geographer Ibn Khurradadhbih cited the lyra as a typical instrument of the Byzantines along with the organ, shilyani and the bagpipe.

Greece in the Roman Empire

Due to Rome's reverence for Greek culture, the Romans borrowed the Greek method of 'enchiriadic notation' (marks which indicated the general shape of the tune but not the exact notes or rhythms) to record their music.


Greek music in the Ottoman Empire

The Greeks were familiar, in a period that stretched from the 15th century to the time of the war of independence, with Greek folk music and dances from Byzantine music and more specifically, with hymns Church music. These music types have certainly reached a high degree of evolution. They were forms of a 'mono' music that had many elements of ancient Greek origin but also they had nothing to do with western polyphonic music. By the beginning of the 20th century, music cafés were popular in Greek cities like Constantinople and Smyrna. There were small groups of musicians from Greece playing. The bands were typically led by a female vocalist and included a violin. The improvised songs typically exclaimed 'amán amán', which led to the name 'amanédhes'. Greek musicians of this period included Marika Papagika, Rosa Eskenazi and Rita Abatzi. This period also brought in the Rebetiko movement, which had local Smyrna and Byzantine influences.


Different types of Music

Rebetiko, was initially associated with the lower and poor classes, but later reached greater general acceptance as the rough edges of its overt subcultural character were softened and polished. Rebetiko probably originated in the music of the larger Greek cities, most of them coastal, in today's Greece and Asia Minor. Emerged by the 1920s as the urban folk music of Greek society's outcasts. The earliest Greek rebetiko singers (refugees, drug-users, criminals and itinerants) were scorned by mainstream society. They sang heartrending tales of drug abuse, prison and violence, usually accompanied by the bouzouki.

Éntekhno, arose in the late 1950s. Éntekhno ( art song) is orchestral music with elements from Greek folk rhythm and melody. Its lyrical themes are often based on the work of famous Greek poets. As opposed to other forms of Greek urban folk music, éntekhno concerts would often take place outside a hall or a night club in the open air. Mikis Theodorakis and Manos Hadjidakis were the most popular early composers of éntekhno song cycles in Greece. They were both educated in Classical music and -among other reasons, the lacking of a wide public for this kind of music in Greece, drove them to the invention of Éntekhno, in which they transferred some values of Classical Music alias Western Art Music

Laïkó (popular song), is a music genre that is composed in Greek language in accordance with the tradition of the Greek people. Laïkó followed after the commercialization of rebetiko music. Until the 1930s the Greek discography was dominated by two musical genres: 'Demotiká and 'Elafró tragoudi' (light song). The latter was the Greek version of the international urban music of the era. Classic laïkó as it is known today, was the mainstream popular music of Greece during the 60s and 70s. It was dominated by singers such as Grigoris Bithikotsis, Marinella, Stelios Kazantzidis, and others. Among the most significant songwriters and lyricists of this period are considered George Zambetas, Manolis Hiotis and Vassilis Tsitsanis.

Dimotika, (folk music) are accompanied by clarinets, guitars, tambourines and violins and include dance music forms like syrtó, kalamatianó, tsámiko and hasaposérviko, as well as vocal music like kléftiko. Many of the earliest recordings were done by Arvanites like Giorgia Mitaki and Giorgos Papasideris. Instrumentalists include clarinet virtuosos like Petroloukas Halkias, Yiorgos Yevyelis and Yiannis Vassilopoulos, as well as oud and fiddle players like Nikos Saragoudas and Yiorgos Koros.

Greek folk music is found all throughout Greece Cyprus and many regions of Turkey, as well as among communities in countries like the United States, Canada and Australia.The island of Cyprus and several regions of Turkey are home to long standing communities of Greeks in Turkey with their own unique styles of music.

Nisiotika, is a general term denoting folk songs from the Greek islands. Among the most popular types of them is Ikariótiko traghoúdhi, 'song from Ikaria island'



New Wave, folk singer, songwriters first appeared in the 1960. Many of these musicians started out playing 'New wave', a mixture of éntekhno and chansons from France. Savvopoulos mixed American musicians like Bob Dylan and Frank Zappa with Macedonian folk music and politically incisive lyrics. In his wake came more folk influenced performers like Arleta, Mariza Koch, Mihalis Violaris, Kostas Hatzis and the composer Giannis Spanos. This music scene flourished in a specific type of boîte de nuit.


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