1902 Encyclopedia > Music > History of Music: Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome

(Part 2)


Origins of Music: Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome

It has been ingeniously suggested and well sustained by Mr. J. F. Rowbothan that in prehistoric times music passed through three stages of development, each characterized by a separate class of instrument, and the analogy of existing uses in barbarous nations tends to confirm the assumption. Instruments of percussion are supposed to be the oldest, wind instruments the next in order of time and of civilization, and string instruments the latest invention of every separate race. The clapping of hands and stamping of feet, let us say, in marking rhythm exemplify the first element of music, and the large family of drums and cymbals and bells is a development of the same principle. Untutored ears are quicker to perceive rhythmical accentuation than variations of pitch, so the organ of time makes earlier manifestation than the organ of tune, though, musical sound being a periodic succession of vibrations, the operation of the latter is truly but a refinement on that of the former. The sighing of wind, eminently when passing over a bed of reeds, is Nature’s suggestion of instruments of breath; hence have been reached the four methods of producing sound through pipes, —by blowing at the end, as in the case of the English flute and the flageolet; at the side, as in that of the ordinary concert flute; through a double reed, as in that of the hautboy or oboe and bassoon; and over a single reed, as in that of the clarionet—all of which date from oldest existing records ; and also upon the collection of multitudinous pipes in that colossal wind instrument, the organ. An Egyptian fable ascribes the invention of the lyre to the god Thoth; a different Greek fable gives the same credit to the god Hermes; and both refer it, though under different circumstances, to the straining of the sinews of a tortoise across it shell, —whence can only be inferred that the origin of the highest advanced class of musical instruments is unknown. This class includes the lyre and the harp, which give but one note from each stretched ; the lute, which, having a neck or finger-board, admits of the production of several notes from each string by stopping it at different lengths with the fingers ;the viol, the addition of the bow to which gives capability of sustaining the tone ; and the dulcimer, finally matured into the pianoforte, wherein the extremes of instrumental fabrication meet, since this is at once a string instrument and an instrument of percussion, having the hammer of the drum to strike the string of the lyre. Musical intervals are named numerically from any given note, say C as the 1st, the note next to which is thus D the 2d, the one beyond is E the 3d, and so on to another C, the 8th. Beyond the 8th, musical names are only used for the rare combinations of the 9th, the 11th and the 13th. This is because the 8th is in some sense a reproduction of the 1st, as all intervals beyond it are reproductions of the 8th below them—reproductions, that is, uniting identity and difference, the relation of tones in the higher octave being just what it is in the lower, while each tone is so or so much more acute than its under 8th, an analogy to which may be sought in the reduction of any visual object to half its size while all its proportions are preserved, the larger and the smaller, as in the interval of the 8th, thus uniting identity with difference. When two voices or instruments produce the same sound they are in unison or 1st1 is styled perfect ; so too is its reproduction, the 8th is unequally divisible into a 5th and a 4th, and these two are classed with the 1st and 8th as perfect. There are many specialities that distinguish the four perfect intervals in music from every other. The two notes of which each is constituted are, save in one instance, of the same quality—as natural, or sharp, or flat; to raise or lower either of the two notes by a chromatic semitone1 changes a perfect interval into a discord, whereas the other intervals are elastic, that is they may be major or minor from having a chromatic semitone more or less in their extent, and are not changed from concords to discords, or the reverse, by the modification. To invert a perfect interval by a placing the higher note beneath the lower produces another perfect interval, whereas to invert any of the other Intervals reverses its character of major or minor. The progression of two parts together from one to another 1st and 8th, from one to another 5th and 4th, has save in exceptional instances, the bad effect that all musical grammar forbids, whereas the progression of two parts in 3ds or 6ths with each other has a good effect. In the resolution of fundamental discords the progression of perfect intervals is free, whereas that of the imperfect intervals is restricted; and further, in the relation of subject and answer in a fugue, one perfect interval may be changed for another, but never for an imperfect interval. Many technicalities are anticipated in the foregoing which can only be explained in the sequel, but present mention of them is unavoidable in reference to a position now to be stated. The Egyptians perceived the distinction of the perfect intervals from others, if not all the above specialities, and regarded them as typical of the seasons, spring bearing the proportion of a 4th to autumn, of a 5th to winter, and of an 8th to summer. The distinction, then has been observed for many centuries, but neither ancients nor moderns have adduced any explanation of the phenomenon, and the wondrous fact that perfect intervals differ in constitution and treatment from other intervals appears to defy reason, and not even to incite speculation.

The anciently supposed affinity of music of astronomy was taught by Pythagoras (585 B.C), who derived the notion from the Egyptians, and exemplified it by comparison of the lyre of seven strings with the planetary system. The Sun, then believed to rotate round the earth, was deemed the chief were, on the one side Mercury, Venus, and the Moon, and on the other side Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. The strings of the lyre, not the notes they sounded, were thus named: —Mese (middle), being the principal or keynote, corresponding with our A on the fifth line with the bass clef, and likened to the Sun ; Paramese (next to middle) or B flat, likened to Mercury ; Paranete (next to lowest, i.e., shortest = highest in pitch) or C, likened to Venus ; and Nete or Neate (lowest) or D, likened to the Moon ; these constituted the upper tetrachord or scale of four notes, to which the lower tetrachord was conjoined by having Mese for its acutest note, which was the gravest of the other tetrachord ; next to it was Lichanos (forefinger string) or G, likened to Mars ; then Parhypate (next to highest, i. e., longest = lowest in pitch) or F, likened to Jupiter ; and lastly Hypate (highest or E, likened to Saturn. The Moon being of all the planets the nearest to, and Saturn the farthest from, the earth, they are analogous to the shortest and the longest string.

The Greek lyre (see LYRE, vol. xv. P. 113) had at first four strings, to which subsequently were added the longest three ; than an 8th, corresponding with our E, tuned to an 8th above Hypate ; then three below the latter, which took the scale down in pitch to B on the second line with the bass clef; afterwards three above the former, which took the scale up to A in the second space with the treble clef ; and finally Proslambanomenos, corresponding with our A in the first space with the bass clef, extended the "greater system" of fifteen notes to an 8th below Mese and an 8th above it.3

Tradition has it that Pythagoras made his discovery of the ratios of the perfect intervals by listening to some smiths who struck the iron on their anvil with hammers of different weights, and thus produced different notes from the metal. But the narrator of the tale has disregarded the obvious fact that, save for slight variation due to the greater or less heat of its different parts, a metallic bar, like a string, always sounds a note of the same pitch whatever be the weight of the instrument with which it is stuck.4 The smithy wherein Pythagoras worked his musical problems was the land of Egypt, where he is said to have acquired and whence he imported his knowledge. His division of the 1st and 2d degree and the 2d and 3d degrees of the tetrachord, counting downward in pitch into equal intervals of a major tone, left but a leimma (remnant), which was less than a semitone between the 3d and 4th degrees. Aristoxenus(300 B.C),who has been called the father of temperament, discovered the difference between the major and minor tones, the first having the ratio 9/8, and the second having that of 10/9. His followers formed a school opposed to that of Pythagoras, and there was severe contention between the two. Subsequent theorists disputed whether the major or the minor tone should be above the other, and it was Claudius Ptolemy (c. 150 A.D.) who enunciated that the major tone should be below the minor, which is the principle that directs the intonation of our present scale. This intonation may account for the difference between the effect in proceeding from the minor chord of the supertonic to the major chord of the tonic, and the effect in proceeding from the minor chord of the submediant to the major chord of the dominant, of which the latter, at the interval of a minor tone, is acceptable and the former, the interval of a major tone, is repugnant to cultivated ears.

The Greeks had four modes or scales included in their "greater system." The Dorian comprised a series of eight notes from D to D, of which GREEKB was the 6th, and had its semitones between the 2d and 3d and the 5th and 6th degrees counting upward. The others were exact transpositions of this, as all our modern scales are transpositions of the scale of C, the identity of intervals being induced by the various turning of the lyre strings. The Phrygian mode lay between E and E, and had #F and #B, the Lydian between #F and #F had #G and #C, and the Mixo-Lydian between G and G had GREEKB and GREEKE. These four were styled authentic, and were distinguished by having the dominant (or predominant note) at the interval of a 5th above the tonic. Each had a plagal or relative mode at the interval of a 4th below the authentic, distinguished by having the dominant a 4th below the tonic, and defined by the prefix "hypo" to the name of the authentic mode, as Hypo-Dorian beginning on A. Hypo-Phrygian on B, &c. To each mode was assigned its special character of subject, which may be accounted for by the different qualities of voices that could sing in lower or higher keys, the majestic being fitted to a bass, who would sing in the Dorian, the tender to a tenor, who would sing in the Lydian, and so forth. In latter but still classic times other modes were added to these, but on the same principle of precise notal transposition.

The tetrachords above described—having a semitone between the lowest note and that next above it, a tone between the 2d and 3d, and a tone between the 3d and 4th, the latter of which Ptolemy made smaller than the other, and so left a semitone between the 2d and 1st degrees—were called diatonica, as A, GREEKB, C, D. To lower by a semitone the 2d note from the highest produced a chromatic tetrachord, as A, GREEKB, #B, D. To tune the 2d string from the top yet a semitone lower reduced it to the same pitch as the 3d string, which was equivalent to its total rejection, and this form of tetrachord was the enharmonic, the invention of which was ascribed to Olympus (640 B. C.) If we observe the two tetrachords that occur, for instance, in the Dorian mode—that from D down to A, and that from A down to E—with the addiction of the tonic D below, it will be seen that our modern scale of D minor with the omission of the 4th degrees was in the enharmonic genus, and that the chromatic genus gave the minor and major 3d and the minor and major 6th with still the omission of the 4th and 7th : –enharmonic, D, E, F, A, GREEK B, D; chromatic, D, E, F, #F, A, GREEK, #B, D; and the other authentic modes were transpositions of this. In the harmonic scale of nature the 7th from the generator is too flat, and the 11th (octave above the 4th) is too sharp, for accepted use; the rejection of these two notes indicates a refinement of ear that shrank from the natural and equality refused the artificial intonation of these degrees of the scale. Mr Carl Engel proves the rejection of the said 4th and 7th from the keynote by nations of high civilization in remote parts of the world ; we call a scale that is so formed Scottish, but in China, Mexico, and other places than Great Britain the same arrangement is found to have prevailed in the remotest periods of which we have knowledge. An important principle is here involved which has affected all musical theory directly or indirectly, and is now seen to lie at the foundation of modern rules of harmony or the combining of musical sounds. The Pythagoreans advocated the use of the enharmonic genus, and so received the appellation of Enharmonicists, or were as often called Harmonicists, and hence the twofold application of the term "harmonia."

Anacreon (540 B. C) sang to the accompaniment of the magadis (doubling bridge), in instrument imported from Egypt to Greece ; it had a bridge, across which the strings were drawn at one-third of their entire length, when of course the shorter division sounded the note an 8th higher than the longer. Aristotle (384 B.C) describes antiphon (GREEK) as the singing of a melody by men an 8th lower than it is sung at the same time by boys—in other words, what is miscalled in modern church congregations "singing in unison." The same writer enunciates that the antiphon may not be at either of the other perfect intervals, the 5th or the 4th below a melody, and in this he anticipates a rule till lately deemed inflexible in modern music. Beyond these two instances of the combination of the 8th, no allusion has been found in ancient writings to the use of harmony in the modern sense of the word, and the only three examples of ancient Greek music that are known to exist are melodies (notes in succession), and supposition assigns them to the 3d or 4th century A.D. They are hymns to Apollo, Nemesis, and Calliope, with the respective verses, and their translation into modern notation has only been possible through reference to the verbal accent, because there are no extant rules of that era for purely musical measure. Nevertheless we have Egyptian paintings of the period of Dynasty IV., and Greek sculptures of players on pipes of different lengths which mush have produced notes of different pitches, and sometimes in the same party players on string instruments with necks whereon two strings, differently stopped and yet sounded together, would have yielded a combination of different notes ; and this, though a speechless, is a strong evidence that the muscians so represented made at least a forecast of modern harmony. One cannot but marvel that, while copious treatises have come down to us upon niceties that have here been adduced, nothing has been brought to light but pictorial testimony as to ancient knowledge of chords; and the three specimens just mentioned are all that have been found of musical composition in any form.

The classic Greeks used music in rhapsodizing or chanting with vocal inflexions that epic poems ; they employed it in religious rites and to accompany military evolutions ; and prizes were awarded for its performance by voices and on instruments (including, during the last two centuries B.C., the organ ) at their Olympic and other games, It belonged essentially to the drama, which had its origin in the dithyrambic hymns; these gradually developed into the tragedy, which took its name from the tragos (goat) that was sacrificed to Dionysus during the performance. Possibly Thespis (536 B.C) may have spoken the recitations with which he was the first to intersperse the hymns ; but some interpreters of Greek writings affirm, and others while doubting do not disprove, that in the mature drama all the characters sang or chanted, seemingly after the manner of the rhapsodists, and the impersonal chorus sang to instrumental accompaniment during their orchestric evolutions, from motions or marchings the part of the theatre wherein the chorus were stationed between the audience and the proscenium was called the orchestra. Here, then, was the prototype of the modern opera, the main departure from which is the transplanting of the chorus to the stages and giving to its members participation in the in the action. Aeschylus wrote the music to his own tragedies ; Sophocles accompanied on the cithara the performance of his Thamyris, if not of other of his plays; Euripides left the composition of the music for his works to another genius than his own, and such was the case with after dramatists.

In ancient Rome the choristers in tragedies were very numerous, including female as well as male singers ; they were accompanied by a large number of instruments, among which trumpets were conspicuous. This we learn from Seneca, who employs the idea of multitudinous unity it presents to illustrate figuratively the organization of a state.


77-1 From the Greek GREEK ; but this included all arts and sciences over which the Muses presided—the encyclopedia of learning. The science of sounds was particularly involved in that of the stars, and hence the word had special reference to these two in their relation to numbers ; and in its comprehensive sense it was employed to denote the entire mental training of a Greek youth. In Latin the word had a more restricted meaning.

77-2 William Chappell’s History of Music is the authority for the correction of errors in the works wherein the history and theory of Greek music were first treated in modern times, errors that have been repeated by intervening writers ; and it is the authority for explanation of Greek technicalities that are misrepresented in Latin translations, and falsely understood in our own day.

77-3 Harmonia had a special signification with the disciples of Pythagoras, who used the word in place of enharmonia, of which more hereafter.

78-1 Literally, the 1st is not a musical distance ; but as it is a frequent combination in counterpoint, and as its repetition is not rare in melody, it is conveniently classed as an interval.

78-2 Chromatic or minor semitone is between two notes of the same alphabetical name, as C and #C, or D and GREEK D ; a diatonic or major semitone is between two notes of different alphabetical names, as C. and GREEK D, or C and b ; the ratio of the latter is 16/15, and that of the former varies with the place of the interval in the chromatic scale.

78-3 Terpander (700 B.C) was the first of whom it is said that "he added a new string to the lyre," but the ascription to him was probably figurative and not literal, for the proverbial expression was applied to any one who discovered a novelty in science or excelled in art.

78-4 Not only was this manifest fiction repeated from age to age, but it was transferred from the ancient philosopher to Handel by a writer of some sixty years since, who assumed that the composer derived a melody from the various sounds of smiths’ hammers on one piece of iron.

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