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Ancient Greek Music Heard Again
October 31, 2013

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The sounds of ancient Greece are once again lilting through the air, as a British musician and educator has found a way to reconstruct them.

Armand D'Angour, a classics tutor at Oxford, has created a symphony of available research, new discoveries, and painstaking linguistic detective work to produce what he says is an approximation of the sounds that once accompanied the likes of Sophocles, Euripides, and Homer. Historians have long known that the works of these pioneering dramatists and liturgists were set to music, but the musical notes have not survived nearly as well as have the words.

Capitalizing on new research into fragments of documents carved into papyrus and stone in Egypt and Greece written from 300 B.C. to A.D. 3000, D'Angour and others have set forth a theory for how that music would have sounded as it provided the background for the famous words. The key was a revised interpretation of the documents, which contain a kind of vocal notation containing pitch directions above the Greek vowels. The pitch directions are in the form of signs and letters.

The research builds on the Greek study of the mathematical ratios of intervals: 2:1 for an octave, 3:2 for a fifth, 4:3 for a fourth. The rhythms have long been there, in the form of the cadence formed by the reading of the words.

Musical instruments of ancient Greece included the lyre, the reed pipe, and various means of percussion. The music is closer to that of Indian or other Eastern traditions than what Western ears would be familiar with, the researchers said.

Homer is remembered as a bard, a singing poet, but his poetry's music has not survived. Given the new research, however, we could be on the way to hearing musical versions of the Iliad and the Odyssey.

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