the Art of the Muses and the Origins of Greek Science
The multifaceted ‘art of the Muses’ (mousikē) was one the first, if not the very first, areas of Greek culture to be conceptualised as a unitary craft governed by well-defined principles, premises, and practices. This extraordinary theoretical achievement paved the way for the subsequent development of scientific thought and was fuelled by the distinctively intense amalgam of emotional, aesthetic and intellectual stimuli characteristic of ancient mousikē.
Ptolemy's Harmonica — Bodleian Library MS Barocci 124 fol. 23v–24r
Photo: © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, CC-BY-NC 4.0.
Echoes of early attempts to define key elements of this craft are attested in the 6th-5th century BC, when Lasus is thought to have written the first Greek technical treatise on music (perì mousikēs). We know very little about the content of this work but Aristoxenus reports that Lasus regarded notes as ‘having breadth’ (Harm. 7.20–23), a comment that shows how his treatise addressed theoretical as well as technical issues.
A different approach is ascribed to the quasi-mythical character of Pythagoras, who is often credited with key musical discoveries such as the ratios that define different consonances (to be discussed in a forthcoming page on Harmonics) as well as educational, spiritual and therapeutic uses of particular types of music.
These anecdotes are almost entirely fictional and at times factually misguided, as in the famous case of the 'harmonious blacksmith' reported by Nicomachus (Ench. 246–247) and Iamblichus (Vit. Pyth. 115–19). As pointed out by Andrew Barker, ‘It is not true that the ratios between the pitches will correspond to those between the weights of the hammer-heads' (1989, 257 n. 47).
They nevertheless testify to the tight combination of scientific, practical and aesthetic issues that characterised the study and practice of ancient Greek music.
Woodcut illustrating famous, if often misguided, anecdotes about Pythagoras and ancient harmonics. Franchino Gaffurio (1492; 1480?), Theorica musicae, Gallica Digital Library, Public Domain.
An essential turn in this process of conceptualisation took place in the late 5th and 4th centuries BC, when we encounter the first formalised attempts to engage with music as a coherent system of scientifically sound knowledge (epistēmē). This process culminated in an orderly organisation of the science of music into separate but related branches devoted to different components of musico-poetic performances, which jointly gave rise to what the Greeks called ‘complete melody … composed of mode, rhythm and diction’ (Aristid. Quint. De Mus. 28.8–9; Anon. Bell. §29)—that is to say, song.
The exact number of these branches varies in different sources, which reflect contrasting theoretical approaches (e.g. Aristox. Harm. 41.9–11; Aristid. Quint. De Mus. 4.18–5.4, 6.8–24). A good summary of the main areas covered by the science of ancient Greek music is offered in the opening section of an anonymous treatise on music that defines the scope of mousikē and its ‘limit’ (Ὅρος μουσικῆς):
Music is a theoretical science (epistēmē) that concerns melody in its complete form, both as a science in itself and in its different branches (…).
A mousikos is an expert in ‘complete’ melody and is able to observe as well as judge with precision what is appropriate [in different contexts]. There are six parts of the discipline of music: harmonics, rhythmics, metre, instruments, composition and delivery.
(Anon. Bell. §12–13).
Μουσική ἐστιν ἐπιστήμη περὶ μέλος τὸ τέλειον θεωρητική τε τῶν ἐν αὐτῇ καὶ τοῖς μέρεσιν αὐτῆς (...) μουσικὸς δέ ἐστιν ὁ ἔμπειρος τοῦ τελείου μέλους καὶ δυνάμενος ἐπ' ἀκριβείας τὸ πρέπον τηρῆσαί τε καὶ κρῖναι. ἔστι δὲ τῆς μουσικῆς εἴδη ἕξ· ἁρμονικόν, ῥυθμικόν, μετρικόν, ὀργανικόν, ποιητικόν, ὑποκριτικόν.
Forthcoming pages of this website will look at each of these areas individually. For now, it is worth mentioning that the earliest manuscript which preserves ancient Greek music theory is Heidelbergensis Palatinus gr. 281 (1040 AD). This remarkable codex features several diagrams that illustrate important aspects of ancient Greek harmonics, including the only detailed diagram of the so-called ‘Division of the Canon’. The diagram reproduced below is followed by an extract from a treatise by Theon of Symrna which describes precisely 'the division of Canon’ (ἡ δὲ τοῦ κανόνος κατατομή) handed down by Thrasyllus.
As Ptolemy points out, ‘the string stretched over what is called the ‘ruler’ (kanōn) will show us the ratios of the concords more accurately and readily’ (Ptol. Harm. 17.20–22) than auloi or other musical instruments.
The kanōn consisted in a single string stretched over a graduated ruler equipped with a movable bridge that could divide the string into precise fractions of its total length, illustrating the ratios that corresponded to different intervals. As mentioned above, its invention is often associated with Pythagoras and a lesser-known theorist called Simos, but there is no evidence that this instrument was in use before the time of the Euclidean Sectio Canonis.
The figure below reproduces the Canon diagram and also illustrates the Hypolydian Unchanging Perfect System defined by the notation signs included in the diagram and their modern equivalents.
‘The Canon’ (Heidelbergensis Palatinus 281, fol. 173 v, public domain image) and the structure of the Hypolydian Unchanging Perfect System. From Lynch, T.A.C. (forthcoming), ‘Music’, Oxford Classical Dictionary online.
Ptolemy’s Harmonics includes a detailed discussion of the monochord and its limitation, and recommends the use of an eight- or fifteen-stringed kanōn instead of a single string.
Ptolemy’s eight-string kanōn—reconstruction by Dr David Creese. From Lynch, T.A.C. (forthcoming), ‘Music’, Oxford Classical Dictionary online.
Ptolemy also proposed to enhance the eight-stringed kanōn by adding a diagonal bridge that was featured in another instrument called Helikōn, an innovation that made it possible to produce all the notes of the octave and effortlessly transpose them to a different pitch.
Ptolemy’s adaptation of the Helikōn: at the top, Ms Barocci 124, fol. 32r; at the bottom, diagram from Lynch, T.A.C. (forthcoming), ‘Music’, Oxford Classical Dictionary online.
On the other hand, we know that other experimental instruments were developed in Classical times in connection with the study of harmonics (Papyrus Hibeh I 13), and were often named after the scientists who created them in order to demonstrate their theories in public lectures (epideixeis).
‘... those good men who harass the strings and put them to the torture, racking them on the pegs...’ (Pl. Resp. 7.531a–b)
Most harmonic theorists seem to have used zithers, instruments that featured a large number of strings stretched horizontally across a simple soundboard. The 40-string epigoneion, named after the 6th-century musician Epigonus, and 35-string simikon probably belonged to this category. Pythagoras of Zakynthos, in contrast, invented an experimental lyre called ‘tripod’, which allowed him to modulate between Dorian, Phrygian and Lydian tunings without interruptions (see Lynch 2018, 2022a, 2022b).
Suggested readings to find out more about these issues
Barker, Andrew (2007) The Science of Harmonics in Classical Greece. Cambridge: CUP.
Creese, David (2010) The Monochord in Ancient Greek Harmonic Science. Cambridge: CUP.
West, Martin L. (1992) Ancient Greek Music. Oxford: OUP.