The Story of Music (part 1)

Ancient Greece and Rome are somehow the birth places of western music. Not much ancient music has survived but particularly their music theory and ancient writings about music had a great influence on the western music. Mostly, early music was produced in churches for religious and spiritual purposes, though one could find other types of music too. The music was monophonic, and notation wasn’t a great concern back then. Therefore, it was more about improvisation and learning by ear. Some may argue that even early Greek music was affected by Asian music, since Asia has a richer history and there are many elements in common (e.g. scales).

Anyway, many musicians and composers of the time were inspired by Greek philosophers (e.g. Plato and Aristotle). Many ancient Greek thinkers linked music and astronomy because both studies were dominated by numerical relationships. Medieval Christian philosophers believed these relationships provided the foundation for knowledge about the order of the entire universe. The music was mostly written on poems, so rhythm and pitch contour were very much according to the text. On the other hand, the economic decline in Rome, paused the musical production there and they were affected by Greek musical culture and couldn’t have a distinct impact on the musical developments in Europe.

Plato believed that music can have an important role in education, he discussed that the right kind of music disciplined the mind and aroused temperance and courage. Meanwhile, church fathers discovered the power of music and they tried to inspire divine thoughts via music and influence the listeners. In contrary, some church leaders found some music dangerous and believed that people should listen to music for divine purposes only and not for pleasure. Furthermore, church leaders rejected and excluded instrumental music from church services, addressing them as pagan use of music. Later on, the church absorbed influences from many areas (e.g. Syria and Milan) due to the spread of Christianity. Thus, between 5th and 8th century different regions produced several distinct Western liturgies and bodies of liturgical music. Eventually, most regional dialects were replaced with a common liturgy and a set of melodies authorized by the Roman Catholic Church.

Some Christian writers (such as Boethius) were interested in Greek thoughts and philosophy, so they summarized the Greek music theory and philosophy and played an important role in keeping this knowledge. Actually, De institutione musica (The Fundamentals of Music) by Boethius(ca. 480–524) played the main role in transmitting Greek music theory to the Middle Ages. Boethius saw music primarily as a science and listed three kinds of music: musica mundana (cosmic music), the orderly numerical relations that control the natural world; musica humana (human music), which controls the human body and soul; and musica instrumentalis, audible music produced by voices or instruments. Also, Gregorian chant was preserved for centuries by monks and nuns who sang, memorized, and wrote down melodies.

To be continued…

To listen to the music of this era and some analysis, click here.

By Arash A.

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