You are on page 1of 11


Werner L Richmond

Theatre History

Dr. Dibennedeto


Music Design in the Ancient Greek Theatre

In 1987, my freshman year at Prairie View A&M, I was cast as a musician for the

chorus in a production of Medea. Medea was a Greek tragedy written 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 followeda 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 listeners emotions. The instrumentation was scarce but it

said a lot coming in only to point a moment out to the audience. Author George

Thomson on the subject of Aeschylus The Suppliants states, 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 dos

and dont 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 Aristotles 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 rythmn called, The

Elements of Rhythm, in which he gives instruction on metre. After hearing the recorded

music of Aristotles 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 Theatre

is essential to understanding modern music through its 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. Aristotles 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 choirs 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 Dithyramb. 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. Paeans 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 asks

the chorus of girls from Chalcis to entone 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 Odyssey 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 womens

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


The choregos 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 womens 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. Sapphos

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.