Background information 13


General Introduction

The Ancient Greeks were music lovers. Music was an important part of almost every aspect of their daily lives. It was valued partly because it could control peoples' moods;


  • kithara
A large wooden, stringed instrument, played with a plectrum. The plectrum was usually made of animal horn, whilst early sound boxes were made of tortoise-shells.
  • aulos
A pair of pipes with vibrating reeds, rather like a modern bassoon's mouthpiece. It was made up of 5 pieces and carried in a long narrow double pouch. Musicians are sometimes seen playing them whilst wearing head gear.
  • lyre
A smaller version of the kithara
  • cymbals
  • syrinx
A panpipe.
  • trumpet
Used only as a tool for giving commands on the battlefield - not really a musical instrument.

Music in Public

  • Festivals
The two main festivals were the Panathenaia and the Great Dionysia. The first (NB the Parthenon frieze) included a large procession of musicians. In pottery, their representation is reduced to 2 aulos players and 2 kithara players - on sculpture, to 4. Festivals usually involved formal musical competitions with categories for soloists and choirs etc. The Pythian games at Delphi were held in honour of Apollo, the divine musician. Competition was fierce. Victory odes for athletic and musical competition winners were composed specially.
  • Sport
Not only was music played at sporting events, but athletes trained to music.
  • War
Music was played on the battlefields, possibly to help soldiers march in time. Commands were given on a war trumpet. On war boats, percussion instruments (usually) were played to keep the oarsmen rowing in time. A trireme boat for example, had 170 rowers who needed to keep to a rhythm.
  • Entertainment
Music was vital in theatre. Greek playwrights were expected to compose the music, train the singers AND direct the performance of their plays! Large amounts of the story in a Greek play was narrated in song rather than acted. Similarly, the performance of narrative poems was more likely to be said in a sing-song chant - NB -professional performers of Homeric poems were called rhapsodes.
  • Education
Athenian youths learnt the lyre as part of their education. The kithara was more difficult and therefore left to professionals.

Music in Private

  • Symposion
A drinking party! Musicians and entertainers were employed for these occasions. Women seen playing instruments at such parties, were high-class prostitutes. The word for them is auletris - derived from aulos-player.

Song / Poetry Types

  • paian
Most commonly written in honour of Apollo (also Athena). Solemn - in hope of deliverance form peril.
  • prosodion
A processional piece, written to invoke praise.
  • dithyramb
Began as just a merry, bawdy song - but became a competitive choral piece. In the Great Dionysia, each of the 10 Athenian tribes had to provide two choirs for a competition.
  • lyric poetry
(ignore modern meaning) - a song sung to a lyre's accompaniment.
  • elegiac poetry
A verse form derived from metre of epic poetry.


Key Characters

Music in Private

  • Terpsichore
A Muse (a minor deity who looked after the arts).
  • Musaios
A legendary musician
  • Apollo
Divine musician