Music in Ancient Greece

Ancient Greece

Music in ancient Greece was taught as early at the 4th century BCE using similar approaches found in modern day music education including the study of music theory and its relation to mathematics. The importance of an education in music has been documented in ancient Cretan texts. Many aspects of music were studied during this time period including music theory. Music was studied in schools, and passed down in tradition. Music was an active part of learning in ancient Greece; the impact Greek philosophers had during this time influenced the way music was being taught then, and as a result shaped the way in which we study music today.

Poetry, an important part of the arts, was often paired with music and Plato was highly interested in both. His studies were broad, and included not only politics and mathematics, but poetry and music and more specifically how poetry and music related to one another. Plato was a scholar of Greek literature, and a poet himself. Because of this, Plato always considered the text to be the leading factor, and the music to be sub-servant to the text. His studies of literature impacted his view on the relationship between music and poetry and as such he taught others the importance of poetry his school named The Academy, which he funded later in his career outside of the walls of Athens. The text was usually sung as a single, homophonic melody with rhythm; however, sometimes harmonies were added. The importance of poetry was evident in ancient Greece, as many Greek words were given to describe a poem including the word hymm.

The Impact of Greek Philosophers

Few people understand the impact the Greeks had on European music. Being unclear whether music in Ancient Greece was tonal or atonal, many scholars believe that modes were used, a couple of which were favored: one of them major, and the other one minor. Plato taught during the fifth century BCE and dating tonal music back this far could prove the Greeks were the first to create modal music. This modal music was undoubtedly influenced by philosophers like Plato and their beliefs including personal biases. As result, this knowledge was passed down throughout the ages and migrated into western culture. Just as the importance of certain modes could have been passed down, the importance Plato placed on the poetry within music could have shaped the way poetry in music is viewed in later periods.

Poetry was not the only thing studied in music during this time. The Greeks were fascinated by mathematical equations and using it to understand the cosmos. They studied mathematics to figure out modes and correct temperaments on an instrument. In Athens during the 5th and 6th century BCE, music schools were established for pupils aged thirteen to sixteen who were taught to sing and play musical instruments including the lyre and kithara. Singing in the classroom was often accompanied by the music teacher on the aulos. Plato studied music education and its importance on society as a whole. He thought music was important for educational purposes, and pushed for a balance between music and athletics which were considered to be a valuable part in education. Music began to accompany athletics and sporting events during practice drills and in game play to increase synchronism amongst the players. Music taught discipline and organization, both traits the society valued in an individual. Highly educated member of society benefited from an education in music by being able to better understand and appreciate it when it was performed.


Plato was responsible for much of the text written on music theory. It is highly unlikely this is because he was the only person writing about music, but more so because he came from a family of great wealth and political power and had to means to get his works out to the public. He was interested in songs and song form, and believed that a song should be made up of speech, rhythm, and harmony. He studied the modes, and recommended using only two of them for their feelings bestowed on the listener of temperance and courage. Those mode, Dorian and Phrygian, were in Plato’s mind the best modes to use and he discouraged the use of other modes. He also discouraged the use of too many notes, complex scales, and the mixing of genres.

The chromatic scale as we know today, a scale with equal distance between each semitone which is twelve divisible by two, was not considered in ancient Greek music theory. Instead, their songs were based on a smaller number of common scales. Their scales were restricted to a small number of semitones, tones and intervals (i.e. minor thirds). Greek philosophers also wrote on the formation of ratios using different intervals in the scale and how that sound would harmonize with the twelfth scale degree. This way of considering music theory was a highly advanced and technical way to look at music. This part of music has been taught generation after generation across Western Europe, and later into the Americas.

Plato had pull in his society, coming from a political family with strong ties to the government. He was praised for his teaching, and his opinions were often considered as fact. Music theory including the study of modes and what is considered to be the correct scale temperament is still important to Western European musical education, and continues to be studied. It must be consider; however, that this way of studying music theory might not be the best way and instead that it is just what has been passed down generation after generation. Plato, along with other Greek philosophers, may be responsible for the way music is being studied in your very own school.


After Plato came other Greek philosopher who continued the study of music where he left off. Music theory studied in the sixth century BCE in Greece and consisted of harmonic, acoustic, scalar (a study of music relating to motion and physics), and melodic studies. Pythagoras was an important philosopher who studied music theory in relation to mathematics. He looked at intervals and the ratios between those notes when forming harmonies, and related it to mathematics by giving those intervals computational numbers. Pythagoras developed a new measure of tuning called Pythagoras tuning. This was based on a ratio of 3:2 which incorporated the perfect fifth, found in the harmonic series. It is any scale constructed from pure perfect fifths (3:2) and octaves (2:1). Pythagoras also considered the interval of the fourth perfect, just like the perfect fifth. The size of intervals he used was based on precise mathematical calculations called frequencies. Pythagoras used his method of using mathematics to compute musical intervals, and related it to the cosmos to try and understanding the balance of the universe.

The Pythagoras tuning is still being used today. It might be the most advanced tuning system that we know of, but it is not the only tuning method invented. There are parts of Asia that have a tuning system all their own, as in other parts of the world as well. It is surprising that in a society considered to be diverse with vast opportunity for work and education like our own, other methods of tuning aren't being utilized or even considered by our educational system, in pop culture, or by the instrument dealers. There seems to be no demand in today’s society to have any other method of tuning. And with the influence the United States has on the world, many other countries imitate our styles of music and therefore most have adapted the Pythagoras tuning system.


The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, was a student of Plato and made large contributions to logic, mathematics, physics, ethics, politics, medicine, dance and theater. Aristotle felt that music had very powerful effects on one’s mind and body, had the ability to arise certain passions, and shape ones character and therefore sound be handled responsibility to ensure music’s power was not being used to corrupt society. He noted that since music has the ability to reveal inner passions, it should be considered when performed and listened to so the listener and performer aren't swept away in unclean emotions. Habitual listening of the same musical genres could impact ones personality and character. He feared that listening to music with a message not accepted in society could have negative effects including the rebellion of youth, the collapse of regime, and disregard for religious beliefs. Aristotle had very strong beliefs on the power of music over one’s thoughts and self-control that considered the abstract possibilities of things not previously considered.

Aristotle was able to look at both sides of his argument and see good uses for music in society as well. He felt that music could be used for entertainment as well as for intellectual reasons such as in education. If used correctly, the listener could stimulate their mind and expand their thought process and cognitive ability. Aristotle often considered the ethical and political impacts of the subjects he wrote about, including the influences of music.

Much of Aristotle’s work has been interpreted through the notes he wrote for his lectures, because most of his teachings were done orally to the public. He wrote around two hundred treaties, thirty-one of which survived. So we know he was a well-known philosopher that brought about many new innovations to a variety of subjects, some of which we use today. But to what extent his teachings covered can only be inferred. Even though we don’t have much of his work documented, it is likely that Aristotle shaped today’s society indirectly through the work of the individuals he taught.

Greek Philosopher's tradition

Philosophers in ancient Greece were considered to be very intelligent, sophisticated, and motivational. Their teaching shaped their culture, society, and education. Because the Greeks were an advanced civilization, neighboring countries held their teachings in high esteem and adapted them as their own. As a result, their teaching spread throughout the world and became popular and other methods were disregarded. Since music in ancient Greece was regarded as an important part of life, musicians during that time were educated. They focused a great amount of time into the study of music and left behind their teachings to the world.

Most of the Greek music was improvised, and even though much about music theory was studied, there was no musical notation left behind by that culture. Instead, the writings of scholars and philosophers, and the remains of art depicting musicians and their instruments is what remains to tell the story. Music was a big influence on society and they felt it was highly important to pass down the traditions of music, and to educate the youth on how to play musical instruments while in school. Considering the way music studied by the Greeks bled into Europe, later on to the United States, and eventually worldwide, it is truly remarkable how far teachings, and education can go.