Mousikē : the Art of the Muses
‘Let us begin to sing from the Muses of Helicon...’
(Hes. Th. 1.1)
‘Sing, o Goddess, the wrath of Achilles son of Peleus...’
(Hom. Il. 1.1)
These archetypal beginnings of what we call ancient Greek ‘poetry’ show that the art of the Muses was in fact more complex than ‘simple’ poetry and was fundamentally musical in origin and nature.
Ancient Greek poems were songs performed to the accompaniment of musical instruments; an indissoluble blend of melody, rhythm, and words that originated from the Muses and celebrated them first and foremost—the mythical daughters of Memory and Zeus and their power to inspire and create beauty, preserve knowledge of the past, and grant imperishable glory to human beings and their deeds through immortal songs (Hes. Op. 1.1).
Muse playing the kithára on Mount Helicon—Attic white-ground lēkythos attributed to the Achilles Painter (440–30 BC). Staatlichen Antikensammlungen München, Public Domain
This mindset was still alive in Imperial times, as shown by a traditional hymn attributed to the Cretan musician Mesomedes that survives in musical notation to this day (DAGM 24). This short piece begins with an invocation that echoes the opening lines of the great epic poems and asks for literal inspiration, a creative musical breath sent by the Goddess to stir the imagination of human composers:
'Sing to me, beloved Muse, and start my tuneful strain; may a breeze from your sacred groves now come and rouse my wits'
Ἄειδε μοῦσά μοι φίλη, / μολπῆς δ᾽ ἐμῆς κατάρχου, / αὔρη δὲ σῶν ἀπ᾽ ἀλσέων / ἐμὰς φρένας δονείτω.
Besides witnessing to the continuity of a key cultural model, this short piece reflects the foundational role that Greek music had in the Roman world—a relationship enshrined in the word musica (sc. ars), the Latin translation of the Greek word mousikē (sc. technē).
Given this key cultural dynamic and the nature of the evidence (to be discussed in a separate page in due course), the material showcased on this website is mostly concerned with Greek sources, ideas and practices, with only occasional references to their Roman counterparts.
But this choice does not imply that music had a negligible or wholly derivative status in the Roman world. It is simply a reflection of the overwhelmingly larger amount of evidence we have concerning Greek musical theory and practice, and their crucial impact on ancient culture and beyond. After all, it is to the Greeks that we owe most of the words that we still use to talk about music, such as harmony, rhythm, melody, metre, tone, and so on.
So, in many ways, the Greeks defined the essence and grammar of our musical thinking. But ancient Greek mousikē did not embrace only music in the modern sense of the word. It also included many other ‘products’ of the divine ‘art of the Muses’ such as poetry, prose, rhetoric, drama, and dance.
Detail of the Pronomus vase, ca. 410 BC. Naples Archaeological Museum 3240. Image courtesy of Dr R. Wyles
A seamless combination of these aesthetic components with instrumental and vocal music produced a variety of artistic expressions that permeated the lives of Graeco-Roman communities at all levels, including private performances and intimate recitals that took place at symposia as well as choral and instrumental practices typical of educational settings or Orphic-related mysteries, up to multimedia productions such as tragedies and comedies that were performed on public occasions such as religious festivals and professional competitions.
In keeping with its pervasive cultural presence, the Graeco-Roman discourse on mousikē concerned much more than a set of practices and artistic techniques and involved a complex repertoire of cultural values that were expressed by means of, and associated with, specific musical languages, preferences and styles.
For these reasons, mousikē was often the subject of heated cultural debates that were by no means limited to a purely aesthetic dimension, but concerned the whole realm of social experience: ethical, political, psychological, educational, as well as medical and religious controversies were deeply concerned with musical concepts, models and practices. Hence expressions such as ‘lyreless’ or ‘chorusless’ were self-evident symbols of deep sadness appropriate for desperate dirges (Eur. IT 143–7; Hel. 185–91; Soph. OC 1220–23). Similarly, not knowing how to play the lyre or sing and dance in a chorus revealed a lack of the most basic kind of education (Ar. Vesp. 959–9; Pl. Leg. 654a–b).