August 13, 2004

"This site contains all published fragments of Ancient Greek music which contain more than a few scattered notes. All of them are recorded under the use of tunings whose exact ratios have been transmitted to us by ancient theoreticians (of the Pythagorean school, most of them cited by Ptolemaios)." (RealAudio samples and MIDI files.)

These ancient tunings sound strange and wrong to our modern ear so accustomed to the the equal temperament that came to the fore in J.S. Bach's day (the early 18th century) and which he took advantage of to write the famous Well-Tempered Clavier. (The last link provides fascinating Flash movies that guide you through many of the fugues of the WTC.)

  • Oh, superb!
  • This is wonderful, thanks! Having been raised on the 50's Hollywood versions of what truly ancient music was, I've always been curious about the reality. The midi files sound to my (untrained) ears quite a lot like the pieces I heard a while back on a site devoted to purely mathematical composition. (Wish I could find that now.) The 'Homeric Singing' files are particularly awesome.
  • Great links and thank you, Jerry. I need to spend a bit more time reading your more technical ones but the thing that strikes me is how much we tend to think of our 12 note musical scale as being "natural" when it was such as recent innovation. The problem for early musicians was how to evenly divide up the frequency space from the lowest to the highest. What we now call the octave is the simplest division because the frequency of one octave is merely the doubling of the frequency of the previous one and it this can be easy achieved by simply cutting the length of the string in half. Where to go from there was the hard bit and every folk tradition seems to have divided up the octave using different set of ratios. The result was workable in each case for composing and remmebering tunes but these scales tend have what we would call "flat" notes and the number of possible harmonic note combinations are generally quite small so folk music traditions have tended to avoid harmonies and concentrate on (at times very complex) single-voiced melodies and rhythms. The well-tempered scale as popularised by JS Bach removed the flat spots from the traditional Western scale and allowed musicians to use an unprecedented range of harmonic possibilities. This innovation required some serious improvements in music technology, however, and instead of relying on ratios, the note relationships are based on irrational numbers: the length of each successive string needs to be divided by the twelfth root of two. Not what you would call a trivial mathematical exercise.
  • Is that right?
  • Excellent link! I have always hoped to encounter some ancient music that was rendered correctly... the RA versions are welcomed for making sure my MIDI codecs aren't goofing it up. I've bookmarked this one. ) ) ) )
  • Is that right? posted by ZippityBuddah at 02:10AM UTC on August 14 Absolutely! The only comment I'd add is that the popularization of fixed-pitch instruments (guitars and keyboards) limited the range of scales that sounded good, so composers stopped using some modes. Open-pitch instruments (strings, woodwinds and brass) can be automatically 'tempered' for the scale during playing; in fact, most players do so without thinking. Oh, yeah- this is a great link!
  • I've bookmarked this one, too -- thanks, Jerry.
  • A performance of the Orestes fragment.