And the Octave Formed a Circle
The Interaction of Classical Mythology and Music

The Octave formed a circle and gave our noble earth its form. -- Pythagoras

The world of the ancient Greeks and Romans seems very distant from us, but it is in fact very much a part of our daily lives. Music especially owes much of its present form to the men and women of Classical times. Where would we be if we had no Classical age to look back to for inspiration and ideas? Music was important to the Greeks and Romans, and their literature and stories reflect this. They viewed music and the mind as an important balance to the physical realm. One could not truly exist without the other. Such is it with Music and Classical Mythology.

Musical Influences on Greek and Roman Mythology

Although we have few surviving musical examples and instruments from ancient Greece, we can still know how the Greeks viewed music through their myths, writings, and art. Greek music was used for everything, from praising the gods to sharing news. All “proper” Greeks citizens and their wives were expected to take music lessons as part of a well-rounded education. Music was studied, thought about, and written of by all of the great thinkers of the time. The Greeks and Romans could not know or learn everything there was to know about music, and all that they could not learn they wrote myths to explain.

Instrumental Origins

The Lyre:

According to Greek Mythology the lyre was invented by Hermes, the god of tricksters, thieves, and merchants. On his first day of life Hermes had stolen the cattle of his brother Apollo, the god of music. Hermes knew that his brother would be furious when he figured out who had stolen the cattle, so he decided to make his brother a present so his punishment would not be so severe. Finding a tortoise shell and 7 pieces of sheep gut, Hermes fashioned an instrument. When Apollo came looking for him Hermes offered him the instrument as a peace offering. Enchanted by the sound it made, Apollo forgave his baby brother and took the instrument as his own, naming it the lyre.

The Syrinx:

Greek mythology claims that the god Pan invented the syrinx, or Pan Pipes. Pan was a lusty, good-natured god who was a horned man with goat legs. One of his favorite things to do was chase nymphs. One such nymph was named Syrinx, and when Pan started coming after her, Syrinx she ran off. Afraid of what he would do if he caught her, she ran to her father, who was the god of a river, and begged him for help. When she reached his banks he promptly turned her into a clump of reeds. Pan was heartbroken when he caught up to Syrinx only to find that she was no longer human, but when the wind started blowing across the reeds making a lovely sound, the ugly god got an idea. He cut stands of reeds of differing sizes and fashioned them together into an instrument. Now he could be with his love every time he played the instrument made from her transformed body.

The Aulos:

Athena, goddess of wisdom, war, and crafts, is said to have invented the aulos from the bones of a stag that she had killed. She was completely in love with the beautiful sound that her instrument made, but when she was her reflection she was horrified. With her cheeks puffed out she looked very undignified, and, in disgust, she threw her new instrument away. It was found soon after by a satyr named Marsyas, who kept the instrument, naming it the aulos. Dionysus also made the aulos his instrument, since all satyrs were said to be his companions, and he made Marsyas his primary musician.

Mythological Musicians

The ancient Greeks not only wrote about their athletes, but their musicians as well. Many references, both mythological and historical, are made to those who dabble in the musical arts. Apollo was both the god of athletes and musicians. Like the Greeks and Romans, Apollo believed that the mind, body, and soul were all equal parts of a whole. Linus was perhaps the first music teacher to be killed by a student. Herakles killed him during a particularly frustrating lyre lesson. No ancient mythological musician is as well known as Orpheus. His lyre playing rivaled even the god Apollo’s (but the god didn’t mind since Orpheus was his son), and his voice was said to be the sweetest ever heard. Sirens were half-human, half-bird singers who led sailors to their deaths with their beautiful voices. The nine Muses were the goddess of the arts and sciences. They formed a choir that entertained the gods, and inspired men to do great things. Pan was a pastoral god, and he was often portrayed as playing the syrinx, which is now more commonly known as the "Pan Pipes". Cheiron was an educated centaur who not only taught great heroes such as Jason, Achilles, and Herakles to fight, he taught them how to play the lyre.

One of the more interesting stories is about Amphion, a great hero from Thebes. He wasn’t the son of a god, like most of the ancient Greek heroes, but the gods did bless him with musical talent. Using this divine gift, he built walls around his city by actually moving stones into place with the sound of his lyre. Later in his life Amphion again used his lyre for the good of his city, using it to create one of the first "walls of sound", scaring off the invading Spartan army.

Historical Musicians

The Greek and Romans deified their famous people, and musicians were no exception. Lamprus was an Athenian who taught the playwright Sophokles how to play the lyre. Sophokles was so fond of Lamprus’ teachings that he gave the musician a part in many of his plays. Pindar, the great composer of Odes was also an accomplished musician. He wrote and performed his Odes at the Olympics. The first famous woman composer was Sappho the poet. She not only wrote and performed her own poems, she also came up with new lyric meters and pairs of tetrachords so that her music and words could more harmoniously fit together. The mathematician Pythagoras also dabbled in the musical arts. He studied music theory and wrote several essays on musical topics. It is from his writings, as well as those by other Greek philosophers, that we gained much of our basic knowledge of music theory.

Classical Heroes as Musicians

Music must have played a fairly important part of the ancient Greek life if even their legendary heroes had to take music lessons. Achilles, the great Greek hero of the Trojan War, took singing and lyre lessons from Cheiron the Centaur. Jason, the leader of the Argonaughts, and Theseus, slayer of the monstrous Minotaur also took music lessons from Cheiron. Even Herakles (Hercules) took music lessons. Being more of a fighter than a lover, though, he killed his Lyre teacher, Linus, by hitting him over the head with a lyre. The brutish Herakles was too full of masculine energy for the more feminine and balancing musical lessons. Orpheus was also considered a hero, for when he traveled with the Argonaughts his lyre playing kept the men rowing in time and drowned out the sirens’ song so the men would not walk off the ship to their deaths. Without music, these mythical heroes would not be the "model men" that they are shown to be in the myths about them.

Musical Contests

Musical contests were as popular as athletic contests to the ancient Greeks. Both pursuits were seen as essential to the well-rounded individual, and one without the other would make a man unbalanced. Apollo was not only the god of music, but the god of athletes as well. Some of his more interesting myths revolve around him using both his music and his brains to out-smart his opponents.

The most famous mythological music contest took place between the god Apollo and the Satyr Marsyas. Marsyas thought he was just as good at playing the Aulos as Apollo was playing the Lyre, so the Satyr challenged the god to a music contest. The two played for a jury of gods and mortals alike, and for a time it seemed as though no one would win. A bit worried that a satyr would be declared as good as a god in a music contest, Apollo came up with a way to win: he played his lyre upside-down, and said if Marsyas could do the same then the judges should declare the satyr the winner. Try as he might, Marsyas could not play his instrument upside-down (it’s hard to cover all those holes at once with your thumbs), and Apollo was declared the winner. It wasn’t really a fair contest, musically speaking, but it was decisive.

Classical Mythology in Music

Music in Greek Worship

Like today, the Ancient Greeks used music in their worship. To the Greeks, however, music was thought to be more than just the carrier for their prayers, it was thought to be as important as the words themselves. Depending on what was wanting to be told to or asked of the gods, a different combination of tetrachords was used, different pitches were accented, and a specific instrument was used. Hymns to praise the gods were usually set in a quasi-Dorian mode, since that set of tetrachords was thought to bring courage, dignity, and grandeur. Prayers to appease the gods were set in a Hypo-Phrygian mode, the mode of calm contentedness. A semi-Phrygian mode could be used if one wanted to ask the gods for temperance and moderation in life. Depending on which god you were singing about you would use a different instrument. Songs to Apollo, the Muses, and the Olympians were usually accompanied by a lyre or a reed flute. Songs to Dionysus and other “wild” gods were accompanied by a kithera or the aulos, and songs to pan and minor deities of rustic life were sung with the syrinx as accompaniment.


Although today’s musical modes did not necessarily come from Classical Mythology, they are named after regions in Greece: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Myxolydian, Aeolian and Locrian are some of our modern modes. All of them have Greek names, but they are not as the ancient Greeks called them.

Opera and Ballet

Many operas have been written that are based on Classical stories. In the Baroque epoch especially it appears that Classical stories are the favored plots for composers of Opera.

Orpheus and Eurydice is perhaps the most used myth for operas, especially during the Baroque epoch. Gluck, Offenbach, Peri, Caccini, Landi, Clerambault, and Monteverdi all used the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as the basis for operas, but tweaked the story a bit to fit better with their ideals. The ancient story is about Orpheus, the son of the muse Calliope and the god Apollo. Orpheus falls in love with a nymph named Eurydice, and the two get married. Soon after their marriage Eurydice is bitten by a snake and dies. In grief, Orpheus travels to the Underworld to convince Hades and Persephone, the king and queen of the dead, to allow Eurydice to come back to life. At first the gods wouldn’t listen, but Orpheus’ enchanting lyre playing made them change their minds. They would allow the nymph to return to earth with Orpheus if Orpheus would agree not to look at her until he reached the entrance to the Underworld. He made his way up to the surface with Eurydice in tow. As he reached the last few steps of his journey out he stopped hearing Eurydice’s footfalls. Thinking the gods had for some reason gone back on their word, Orpheus turned around to look for his wife. As his eyes reached her, her spirit returned to the underworld, this time forever. In grief Orpheus wondered the earth until the end of his days, pining for his lost love. In opera this myth is always slightly altered from its original form. The most common variation has Orpheus going into Hell to save his love from the Devil. Sometimes, as is the case in Monteverdi’s La Favola d’Orfeo (1607), the tragic story had a happy ending, with Orpheus and Eurydice living happily together at the end. I suppose that even Classicists will change a myth to fit with the times and the popular religion.

Another myth popular in early operas was the myth of Apollo and Daphne. The story is this: The god Apollo saw the nymph Daphne bathing by a stream one day and fell madly in love with her. She wanted nothing to do with him, but he pursued her anyway. Just as Apollo thought he had caught her she begged the gods for help and they turned her into a Laurel tree. In remembrance of his love Apollo took the Laurel tree as his own, and gave a crown of its leaves to the winners of music, poetry, and athletic contests. Composers who used the story of Apollo and Daphne for an opera include Schutz, Monteverdi, and Handel.

Operatic plots were not limited to the stories of Apollo and Daphne, and Orpheus and Eurydice. Dido and Aeneas, Ariadne, Circe, Venus and Adonis, Anthony and Cleopatra, and even Hercules were popular characters for operas. Like in Opera, it was popular to base the plot of a Ballet to a fairytale or story, especially ones from Classical Mythology. Stravinsky wrote a ballet about Apollo called Apollo, Leader of the Muses. Samuel Barber wrote a ballet called Medea. Like the ancient Greeks characters they were based on, Operatic and Ballet characters were often mortal (or Gods acting like mortals), and were having problems with either love, religion, or the state. Those themes seemed to be universal and timeless, and intrigued the composers of Opera as much as they did the writers of Classical mythology.

Although music and mythology seem separate, they are in fact very closely related. They have influenced each other since ancient times, and continue to do so today. Classical mythology would be quite bland if it didn’t have music in it, and music would not be what it is today if it had not had the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome to look back to. Music in the theater was thought by the Greeks to improve it, making it easier for the audience to interpret and relate to. This same idea is still in use in Opera and Musical Theater, and to some extent movies and television. Both music and ancient stories have universal themes and emotions at their cores, and when they are used together they form something as timeless as human history.

Back to Writings Page