Music and Greek Theatre

Music and Theatre were highly influential forces in the Greek world. Music was as important as physical ability, and was considered to be an abstract science. All educated Greek men, and some Greek women, were expected to learn how to play an instrument and sing as part of their education. Music permeated the everyday lives of the Ancient Greeks. Theatre, too, was a part of the daily life of Ancient Greeks. Its origins came from the cults of the god Dionysus, whose members would sing and dance themselves into a euphoric state during festivals and rites. These singing and dancing festivals evolved over time; words were added, and it became theatre.

Greek music was not like the music of today, with accompaniment and a chordal structure. The Greeks disliked wholly instrumental music, and when they used instruments it was to accompany singing. This accompaniment was simply a doubling of the vocal line, and not a musical part in and of itself. Music to the Greeks implied not only singing and playing, but dance, rhythm, and words as well. They were all parts of the whole, and were a vital part of their philosophy. One could simply not exist without any of the others. In theatre, Aristophanes wrote monodies into his plays, which were lines in the script that were meant to be sung. Other playwrights used them as well, including Sophocles and Euripides. From the playwright Eurypides we have an example of actual written music, though his exact melody is a mystery. We simply do not know how to read it as music. Greek music was written using letters, not notes as we use today. Certain letter and combinations of letters were thought to have certain melodic and rhythmic qualities. In his play The Frogs, Aristophanes parodied the rhythmic and musical style of Eurypides, which Aristophanes referred to as "occasional musical stuttering". The authors of tragedy not only had to be aware of their actual words, but how the words sounded musically.

The festivals dedicated to Dionysus are thought to be the basis for Greek Theatre. Strophic Dithyrambs were strictly regulated songs and dances dedicated to Dionysus, and performed at these festivals in his honour. Strophic Dithyrambs were performed instrict verses by groups of twelve to fifty men. The Chorus in a Greek play was made up of twelve to twenty four amateur male musicians who were shosen to sing in a play as part of their religious and civic education as Greek citizens. The Greek Chorus is the continuation of Strophic Dithyrambs, and serves as the voice for/of the masses in Greek plays. The Chorus appeals to the gods in the plays, and exists to be logic in nature, the way Strophic Dithyrambs were a sort of organised chaos in the rites of Dionysus.

Early bards and storytellers in Greece would travel throughout the city and countryside reciting ancient myths in song and carrying a lyre or kithara to augment their melody. The early hymns to the gods were meant to be sung, not only recited like we do today. These hymns were often performed at festivals to the gods. The participants of these festivals would sing, dance, and play instruments. Music was part of the life of not only the gods, but a part of the lives of men as well. It was something that everyone could take part in and enjoy. Music gave the myths emotion and life. They were written as poetry, not prose. Some poets such as Pindar wrote about the singing ability of the bards as well as their words. The music sung by Ancient Greeks was most likely improvised, and had simple musical accompaniment. It was "through composed", which basically means that each line of text had a different melody to go with it. The melody fits the text instead of the other way around.. The important thing to the Greeks was not the melody itself, but how the melody came through the singer and interacted with and augmented his words. The music took the words to a higher level, higher than words along ever could. It added a new dimension to the performance.

Music was the embodiment of pathos, which is roughly the human experience and condition, the emotions of what it is to exist. Pathos is the opposite of logos, or the spoken/written word and all that is logical. Logos could be applied to music, but it could never control it, just like reason can be used as a mask over the emotions. In Greek theatre, pathos represented the spirit of Dionysus. It was surpressed for a while, but always won out in the end, just like nature always won out over reason and logic.

To the Greek music and theatre were both ways to express the gods and the world around them. The ancient festivals and rites that theatre evolved from heavily employed music and dance, so it is probable that they would be incorporated into theatre as well. Music and theatre were both essential parts of the life of an Ancient Greek person. All men were expected to, as part of their civic education and duties, to learn how to and participate in both musical and theatrical events as spectators and as participants. To deny or neglect either would be to lose part of themselves, and they would not be a complete or well-balanced person. Theatre and dance are also ways of learning about the past and ourselves.. Entertainment they may both be, but educational entertainment.


Bibliography:
  • Hart, Avery and Paul Mantell. Ancient Greece!: 40 Hands-On Activities to Experience This Wonderous Age. Charlotte, VT: Williamson Publishing, 1999.
  • Osheim, Noble Strauss and Neuschel Choen Roberts. Western Civilization: The Continuing Experiment. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.
  • Stolba, Marie K.. The Development of Western Music. San Francisco: McGraw-Hill, 1998.

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