From the historical perspective many scholars believe that music played an integral role in the lives of ordinary ancient Greeks, given its role in most social occasions – ranging from religious rites, funerals to theater and public recitation of ballads and epic-poetry. Both archaeological and literary evidences rather bolster such a theory that points to the crucial nature of music in ancient Greece. In fact, the Greeks attributed the ‘creativity’ of musical compositions to divine entities, and as such etymologically the very word ‘music’ is derived from ‘Muses‘, the personifications of knowledge and art who were the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne. Interestingly, Mnemosyne herself was the personification of memory, and was also one of the Titans, the children of Uranus the Sky and Gaia the Earth.
Furthermore when it came to the ancient Greek musical instruments, the musicians had a penchant for lyres (and kithara), aulos pipes and syrinx, and even the hydraulis – a setup that was the precursor to the modern organ. And with the aid of the flurry of archaeological and literary evidences of vocal notations and musical ratios, combined with the identification of these instruments, researchers have been able to recreate precise renditions of ancient Greek music. For example, Dr David Creese, Head of Classics & Ancient History at the University of Newcastle, has devised the following reconstruction of a musical piece that was etched on the ‘Seikilos epitaph’ dating from 1st century AD –
Now in case you are interested, the ‘song’ that was recreated by Dr David Creese is actually the world’s oldest known complete song. Inscribed on the Seikilos epitaph, the ancient Greek characters on the slab allude to the piece’s Hellenistic Ionic origin. Interestingly, the completeness of its composition is partly due its short nature. To that end, the lyrics has been roughly translated to English, excluding the musical notation –
While you live, shine
have no grief at all
life exists only for a short while
and time demands its toll.
This lyrical part is also accompanied by a poignant etching that takes narrative of the epitaph itself – “I am a tombstone, an image. Seikilos placed me here as an everlasting sign of deathless remembrance.” In any case, as opposed to the Hurrian Hymns (the oldest known song in the world), the Greek composition on the Seikilos epitaph is complete – and thus is less open to interpretation. Simply put, there is more chance of hearing the originally ‘intended’ rendition of this Ionic song, even when recreated in our modern times. So if interested, you can check out this vocal rendition of the enchanting ‘Song of Seikilos’ – the oldest known complete song in the world –
And in case you are in mood for something more jovial, take a gander at the modern guitar-fueled cover of the ‘Song of Seikilos’, sung and played by famous internet teacher Hank Green –