Ancient Music. What did it sound like?

I saw Ben Hur several months ago and noticed the music. It seemed to be what I would call “generic Roman.” That is, lots of trumpets, with that sort of “Here comes the Emporer” sound to it. I don’t know how to describe it, but you hear it in every movie with Romans.

Is this an authentic sound? If so, how do we know? My understanding is that modern musical notation was developed after the fall of the Empire. How did they write songs? What did they sound like? Has anyone ever recorded an ancient song?

Jeez, how much time have you got?

The short answer is that it’s pretty darned unlikely that you heard anything like what they might have played in ancient Rome, for a variety of reasons.

I don’t want to type in the entire first chapter of my “A History of Western Music” here (nor would the mods like it); suffice it to say that while there are writings from ancient Greece (and a few from Rome as well) on music, its production and the theory behind it (Pythagoras is a key author in this regard), there is virtually nothing in the way of written music, and even this can only be interpreted with a great deal of guesswork.

For example, we have some idea what sorts of instruments the Romans had and what they sounded like from pictures and writings – we know, for example, that they had a long straight trumpet (called, confusingly enough, a tuba) and other brass instruments, as well as some plucked stringed instruments. So we know what the Romans were playing music on, which limits what they could have played. As brass instruments didn’t acquire valves (which allows for a wider range of notes) until the late 18th/early 19th centuries, they would have been stuck to the basic harmonic series. Which is not as much of a hindrance as you might think, given the pre-1800 repertoire for trumpets, horns, etc. that exists; that being said (and bearing in mind that I don’t remember what the music in Ben Hur sounds like), I’m guessing that the filmmakers went for '60’s dramatic effect rather than historical accuracy.

If I may quote for a moment from the abovementioned source, here’s what we do know about music in the ancient world:

Much of the structure of modern Western music as we now know it comes from medieval chant, with notational systems coming into being about a thousand years or so ago. Popular tunes continued to be passed along by word of mouth alone for a while longer, before eventually creeping into liturgical settings (as tropes, mostly).

If you’re really interested, the book I mentioned, A History of Western Music by Donald Jay Grout and Claude Palisca is a good survey textbook and more likely to be available in your local library than other similar texts.

If you want to know more about the history of notation, Willi Apel’s your man – but by God, it’s dry reading.

And if you’re interested in performance practice issues in general and how musicians attempt to stay true to what composers intended, there are heaps of books and music journals on the subject. Robert Donington has a number of books out on this topic, but I think he’s a bit out of date already. Try searching for “Performance Practice” and “Historically Informed Performance”, which are separate but related topics you might find interesting.

So that’s a very, very quick attempt to touch on some of the rather complex issues in your questions. If you need me to clarify something I said, just ask and I’ll do my best.

[ul]:smiley: [sup]Chariot racers sing this song, Do Dah, Do Dah
Bet my money on Ben Hur’s ass, ** Oh, De Do Dah Day**[/sup[/ul]

There are several websites I know where you can download illegal pirated mp3s of paolithic pop and caveman choirs, but due to board policy of course I can’t post any links. :frowning:

Let’s leave Status Quo and Fleetwood Mac out of this! :wink:

You may jest, but I have encountered people who thought that “Early Music” meant “Elvis”. It’s a sad, sad state of affairs.

…a few years back, NPR did a show on music composed on different tonal scales. They had samples of music played with 10, 12, and 14 notes to the scale, instead of the 8-note scale that all modern musicians use. The sounds were very strange, but quite nice. Anybody know where you can obtan this rather odd music?

Technically, the Western chromatic scale has twelve notes in it (C, C#/D-flat, D, D#/E-flat, E, F, F#/G-flat, G, G#/A-flat, A, A#/B-flat, and B) from which only eight are used in specific keys. If you want something that specifically makes use of all 12 tones, look no farther than Schoenberg, Webern, Berg and other serialist composers.

In some older (Western) tuning systems, notes such as G# and A-flat (which in the modern, even temperament are the same note) are different, with A-flat lower than G#. It takes some getting used to.

Traditional Indian (as in “from India”, not Native American) music often makes use of quartertones (the notes between the notes in the Western scale), as does some modern Western composers (such as Krysztof Penderecki); both use them for dramatic effect, but in very different ways. Conversely, some traditional Oriental music is based on a five-tone (“pentatonic”) scale.

Does that give you some ideas?

Arabic and Turkish music uses those quartertones. Indian and Persian music goes even farther into microtones. Ghaaaa.

I’m glad I’m just a drummer. All I have to deal with are funky time signatures.


Heck, we don’t even know for sure what 16th century Irish music sounded like. Thanks, Protestants!

Viking music is pretty much lost, too. Darn that oral tradition dying off and all that.

Nitpick: If you don’t count the duplicate at the octave, there’s only seven distinct tones in a Western scale, as in: C,D,E,F,G,A,B.
I know it’s called an OCTave and all that, but that includes the C above. It’s an important distinction, since there are octotonic scales (such as the diminished scale, or also the bebop scale) which have eight separate notes.

In (Scientific American?) a few years back, there was an article about a several-thousand-year-old bone flute somebody found, and the holes were in positions that would make notes very similar to modern notes (not exact), but what was very compelling was that the relationship of the notes put them all in a scale (it didn’t have all the notes of the scale - I think it had 5, but those were in relative pitch so they’d be members of a modern major scale).

No, they didn’t play the flute - for one thing, it was too damaged - they used a computer model.

The Epitat of Sekilos is the first extant written piece of music (a few thousand years old if I remember correctly). It has pitch dictated throughout. It sounds very plain similar to Gregorian chant though the tonality is not exactly like you would expect. The harmony that existed would have been incidental and not actually planned. (The piece can be found in the Norton Scores, I believe.)

When taking music history classes in college we studied a lot of the pre-written performance styles and such. Most of the music Pre-Renaissance was a simple melody usually sung. Instruments were brought about to either act as a drone or double of the melody. Also, the instruments at first tried to mimic the human voice with at least the tambour. (From Groves)

True enough. I was trying to avoid getting into the different types of scales, such as the major, harmonic minor, melodic minor, and octotonic variants, all of which can be built from the 12-tone chromatic scale. If you keep that up, I’ll be forced to start lecturing on church modes, and we definitely don’t want that. Hypomixolydian, anyone?

The Seikilos Epitaph is first century AD. The bone flute was the subject of heated academic debate over whether it was really a flute and whether it was really as old as it was purported to be. I don’t recall the outcome of the debate, but I don’t think it was quite as cut and dried as it initially appeared.

This is even more fascinating than I suspected. Thanks to jr8 for providing such valuable information. I am less ignorant than I was 48 hours ago.

Welcome to the wonderful world of Music History. You will be issued a worn tweed jacket with elbow patches shortly.

In the meantime, here is a brief summary of the Neanderthal bone flute debate.

And here is a group attempting to reconstruct the music of ancient Rome (caveat: the pictures on the page wouldn’t load on my computer, and I haven’t heard the recording in question). They do admit, as I mentioned above, that such reconstructions involve a large amount of guesswork, but you have to start somewhere.


Technically that’s Teutonic music, BMalion. However, recent research has uncovered the words to an old Viking song, which go something like this:


Fleetwood Mac?? AAAAG!?!? Blasphemer! :wink:

An accompanied version of the Epitaph of Seikilos.

Correction to jr8’s dates. This link puts the Epitaph at the 2nd century BC, regardless of that the piece is still roughly a couple thousand years old. It also lists some other contemporary extant pieces.

[This site makes the oldest extant piece even older; however, I had not learned about this one in music school. It states, "The oldest pexisting piece of music ever written dates back to 408 BC. It was sung by an ancient Greek choir called Orestes and was written by Euripides.’

Information about some of the oldest extant instruments. These being tuned stones roughly 6000 years old.