Music of Greece

The Past is Present


Age range: 15 - 18

Estimated Time: You can listen to all of the audio in about 45 minutes, but you may want to allow some extra time to reflect on what you hear.

Key Technology: This multimedia resource is bandwidth-intensive, requiring a high-speed Internet connection. Users should be equipped with speakers (or headphones in a lab or classroom setting) and will need iTunes or Quicktime installed on their computers.

MP3 players, tape or digital audio recorders would be useful for collecting and playing music samples

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In this three-part series, John Franklin, professor in the Department of Classics at the University of Vermont, explains how incomplete fragments of papyrus and stone provide clues to recreating music that hasn’t been heard for thousands of years. Discover the influence of the ancient Greeks on classical music, opera and modern jazz; and join contemporary Greek musicians and scholars as they discuss cultural and historical influences that have contributed to the music of Greece today.

Think About

Ready, Set, Learn!

Before you get started, think of what you already know about ancient Greece and music. If you have been studying ancient Greek Civilization or visited other ARTSEDGE lessons on this topic use what you have learned to give you a deeper perspective on the music of Greece. Think about how the different facets of Greek culture are connected.

If this is your first stop and you don’t know much yet, don’t worry. Keep your note book handy and jot down ideas and questions that pop up while you’re listening, then after you’re done here check them out.

Take a break now and then to sum up what you have learned or back upthe audio to listen again.

This story is downloadable- grab it for your MP3 player for repeated listening.

Music of Greece: Influence of Greece

A Culture Survives
Even though the Romans conquered Greece thousands of years ago Greek ideas continue to influence us today. According to John Franklin, that's particularly true in music where the ancient Greeks had an impact on the creation and development of opera, classical music and jazz. In a way, it was because of the Romans that Greek culture was preserved. The Romans borrowed the Greeks musical ideals and incorporated them into manuscripts that continued to be copied across centuries. Many of our musical terms come from the Greeks such as: symphony, chord, chorus, melody harmony rhythm, ode, stereo, mono, and synthesizer, to name a few. Imagine what it would have been like for Roman soldiers to observe a completely different culture when they invaded Greece. Why do you think the Romans became interested in the music of Greece? Imagine the citizens of Greece being vanquished and then seeing cultural aspects of their way of life being adopted by the invaders. What do you think might have been the reaction of the Greek citizenry to this new reality?

The First Greek Revival
The Renaissance came after the dark ages when people looked to ancient Greece and Rome for inspiration. Latin had been in use since ancient times but Greek had been lost until the Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453 forcing Greek refuges into Italy where they sparked a revival of the Greek language and culture. In Florence in the late 1500’s a group of Italian composers enamored of antiquity, called the Camerata, wrote music inspired by the Greek chorus which led to the birth of opera. Why do you think Europeans at that particular moment in time would have sought out the Greek ideal as a model?

The Ancient Roots of Modern Jazz
Decades of chord playing brought jazz musicians to a dead end artistically. Inspired by music theory developed by George Russell based on the ancient Greek music system of 7scales, Miles Davis wrote and released his breakthrough album Kind of Blue giving birth to modal jazz. Modern jazz musicians are still making creative use of the Greek modes in their music. Imagine that an art form that is considered to be quintessentially American can be traced back across centuries to another continent. Besides the link of Greek origins, what common thread would you find in Opera, jazz and classical music?

Classical Musicians Look Back Too
Modern classical musicians are also inspired by Greek culture and mythology, mining its famous tales for contemporary works. In a world premier at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Michael Daugherty set poet Ann Carson’s work Troy Jam to music. Troy Jam is a twist on The Iliad, Homer’s epic poem about the Trojan war. In Carson’s version the Greeks fight Troy with their instruments and music instead of weapons. If modern composers still are inspired by ancient Greek dramatic and musical structures where do imagine they will go from here for new ideas? Do you think that Greek influences can go another 2500 years into the future? Considering how swiftly technology advances what would you guess that future would look and sound like?

An Enlightened People
It’s hard to think of an area of modern life that hasn’t been influenced by the ancient Greeks. Architecture, literature, philosophy, rhetoric, mathematics, astronomy, astrology, and medicine all have foundations in ancient Greek culture. Think about genres of music that we haven’t discussed here, for example, country, pop, rap, rock and roll, big band, show tunes, marching band and so on. Do you imagine that there are connections to ancient Greek in these forms too? How would you go about researching that question? Many people agree that the music of ancient Greek has influenced and inspired music making around the globe and over the centuries. What do you think influenced the Greeks? Where do you think they went for inspiration? The natural world? Serendipity? Each other?

Music of Greece: Ancient Melodies

Fill In The Blanks
There are only a handful of pieces of music remaining from ancient Greece. And we do mean pieces; tiny scraps of papyrus and bits of stone with musical notes that are thousands of years old. Yet it is possible to work out the puzzle of missing pieces to bring this ancient music back from the dead and appreciate it anew. Think of the patience and determination to learn foreign languages and study ancient texts to find clues to what the music sounded like 2500 years ago. Considering that it would be easier and simpler to write a brand new piece of music, what do you think it is that motivates someone to recreate the ancient past? Do you think it is something about the history? Or the music? Or something inherent in the person? What do you think they hope to accomplish besides hearing a beautiful piece of music?

Famous Last Words
“Sekilos” a song about living life to the fullest is the most famous piece of music to survive from antiquity and is actually carved on a tombstone. Historians think that this song is a message from the grave meant to inspire visitors to sing rather than weep at the gravesite. What can we guess about the person who chose this song to be engraved on his or her tombstone?

Get It In Writing
Some of the people who have left clues about the music of ancient Greece were not even musicians. Philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle commented on music in their writing. Others who listened to music and knew what was going on wrote treatises that dealt with scale systems and tonal relationships. Musicians did not always bother to write down the music because they were too busy playing it! They might write down a piece only for a special occasion or if they had to teach it to someone to sing in a chorus or play. What does this tell you about how historians figure out what happened in the past? How do you think we could help the historians of the future know about what the music of our time is like?

More Than a Melody
Even if we have the melody notation for a piece of ancient music we still need much more to recreate it. We don’t know about the tempo or the arrangement of the instruments or chords or harmonies. Sometimes the lyrics give indications of rhythm or a pitch accent. From that we can see how the voice rises and falls, which can be mirrored in the melody. You would need to have a lot of knowledge to be able to guess about all of the parts of the music. Today’s music scholars have a lot in common with the camerata who thought they were recreating ancient Greek tunes. How important is it do you think to know for certain what ancient Greek music sounded like in order to play it? Why do you think so? What do you think is really important about recreating music from antiquity?

Out of Many Hats
Music scholars in search of ancient sounds are part musician, part composer, part detective, and part sorcerer. They strive to recreate sounds that they have never heard and that may sound radically different from anything they have ever heard. What do you think is more exciting to these scholars, the question or the answer? Has what you heard made you curious about something which may be elusive?

Music of Greece: Contemporary Greece

Name That Tune
As you listen to the sound clips of the music of contemporary Greek artists in this audio you may be surprised by what you hear. Many modern Greek musicians will tell you that their art is influenced by the ideas of the ancients, but not everybody agrees that is so. What comes to your mind when you think of Greek Music? Is that what you expected to hear? What did you hear that you didn’t expect?

A Little of This, A Little of That
Traditional contemporary Greek music has its roots in the Byzantine era in the music of the Greek Orthodox church’s liturgical hymns and modal chants. Situated where it is in the east surrounded by the cultural influences of Africa, Asia and Europe the Greeks gathered a variety of musical influences. Even today artists mix up sounds putting jazz on top of a traditional folk tune for example. Listen closely to the audio clips and you will hear elements of tribal music, eastern and western music. How many cultural influences can you identify? One of the artists suggests that it is not for the Greeks but for foreign ears to define Greek music. Another artist says that Greek children learn complicated and additive rhythms at an early age and so by their immersion it is second nature to them. Listen again to the audio clips. As a foreigner, how would you define Greek music?

Its Greek to Me
Some of the music in this segment may have sounded familiar to you; some of it may have sounded foreign. Before listening to this audio how do you think you would have defined Greek music? Are you surprised or inspired by what you’ve heard? What do you think now? Has your idea changed and if so how?

Quiz Yourself!

  1. The word ________which translates the art of the muses comes to us from the Greek language.
  2. Name the musician/author whose music theory based on Greek modes inspired Miles Davis to create modal jazz – the foundation of modern jazz harmony.
  3. Give an example of a time signature used in ancient Greek music.
  4. Many of our musical terms come from the Greek language. Give an example of three of them.
  5. Who was it that first suggested that ancient Greek culture represented a perfect ideal? (Hint: it wasn’t the Greeks)


  1. Music
  2. George Russell
  3. 5/4, 8/, 15/8
  4. Melody, harmony, rhythm, meter, tune, ode, chord, timpani, chorus, mono, stereo, synthesize, etc.
  5. Western Europeans

Learn More

Dig Deeper!

Wondering more about the ancient Greeks? Check out www.historyforkids.org/learn/greeks

Check out this site for directions to make your own ancient Greek instrument.

Other Ancient Cultures

Think about ancient cultures that had no exposure to the Greeks (The Americas). What is known about their music? Did their music have anything in common with the Greeks? Did anything distinguish it from them? Check out your local library or the internet to learn more.

For the Educator

Getting Ready

Take some time to listen to the audio before presenting this lesson to the class/student. You can down load it to your MP3 player and listen to it on your morning commute. Think about questions/comments your students may have when they listen to it and be ready for any questions they may have on the content.

Make copies of historical sheet music and make it into fragments.

In this series, you will hear three episodes that each explore a different aspect of Greek music; the reconstructed music of ancient Greece, the influence of Greece on contemporary Western music, and the diverse influences on the music of today’s Greece.

Instructional Strategies

How to Teach It

There are many ways you can use this audio. Think about these options:

  • An introduction to a jazz, classical music or opera field trip
  • As an introduction to music appreciation lesson
  • For a music theory lesson
  • For part of a unit on ancient Greece Civilization
  • Before a field trip to an antiquities museum

Here are some activities you can do with your students

Be a Music Detective

  1. Select a genre of music from the past i.e., big band music, rag time, early rock and roll.
  2. Get a piece of sheet music from the genre, the less famous the piece is the better. You can find downloadable historical sheet music at library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/hasm/
  3. Take the music and break it up into fragments. If you want to make it look “authentic” crumple it up and flatten it out and stain it with a used tea bag or coffee grounds.
  4. Divide your class into 3 or 4 groups, give each of them some of the fragments and ask them to recreate the melody.
  5. Suggest that they do some research to come up with the melody, for example
    • Find another similar piece of sheet music (if they find your original piece, they can’t use it, but give them a star for good research technique!
    • Find out what was written about music at that time in music publications, newspapers, literature, speeches etc. What were the prominent voices at that time saying?
    • Learn about the music and instruments used at that time
  6. Play the melody they recreated for the class
  7. Compare and contrast each groups melody and exchange research results Who Else Borrowed From the Greeks? Choose another genre of music like country, pop, rap, rock and roll, big band, show tunes, marching band, etc. Can you find any evidence in the music theory or style that may be related to the ancient Greeks? Look for things like:
    • Meter and time signature: do they follow western patterns or ancient Greek ones
    • Subjects or themes: do they relate to the Greek genres of comedy and tragedy or mythology?
    • Are they using more than one scale, chords or modes?
    • Listen to them, how do they sound compared to what you heard on the audios? Listen to Greek Music Today Have modern day Greek Music Festival or concert and gather music of contemporary Greek artists listen to it and discuss it.
    • Gather promotional materials and reviews about the artists to distribute
    • Collect recordings of modern Greek artists.
    • Make a poster to “advertise” your festival (use Greek letters in your design)
    • Play the music.
    • Set up a panel with a moderator and audience to discuss the music
    • Define categories like Best Melody, Best Singer, etc. and select winners

What the heck did you learn?

Ask the group what they think they learned from this lesson. Did the content and activities give you different ideas or reinforce what you already knew about the music of ancient Greece? Would you recommend this activity to other students who want to learn about the music of Greece? Why or why not? Are you more curious about ancient Greek civilization now that you have done this lesson?



Ann Reilly


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