Torch:U.S. Volume LXIV Winter 2014-2015 - Page 12



Music in Ancient Greece (and Rome)

A Neglected Art

A Roman senator commands his slave to dress him in a dinner party synthesis. When he is satisfied with his toga, he boards his sedan chair and is carried across town. He enters the consul’s villa and is graciously welcomed into the dining room. There, he shakes hands with political enemies, contemplates frescoes on the wall, soaks up the imported aromas, and relishes his wine and olives.

But, almost like bread without yeast, this stock impression of a Roman convivium lacks a simple ingredient. It’s a sine qua non for a party atmosphere, something that can remove inhibitions and bring out passions like nothing else. Do you hear it?

Sadly, you probably don’t. We have no evidence of what Roman music sounded like. Like most things, according to The Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome, they stole it from the Greeks. But how can we speculate on ancient Greek music without knowing how music itself started?

How It Might’ve Went Down

It’s thought-provoking to ponder how the first humans might have stumbled upon music. Today, we have Western musical institutions: all types of music are split up into different keys, chords, and scales. Your favorite band, believe it or not, doesn’t have divine intervention when they compose the next Billboard Hit. They write their lyrics, pick a chord progression, and find notes and rhythms that fit. But ancients had no scales, no instruments, not even the concept of pitch.

In a class I took with him, Professor Stephen Halloran, the head of the music theory department at the Rivers School Conservatory, once hypothesized this: two cavemen were hitting logs together around a fire and coincidentally found two pairs. When hit together at the same time, these logs sounded different than other logs—as if they matched. Then, the more intelligent of the two tries to hum the sounds created by both logs and notices that there is a definite distance between them. He tries to repeat this “distance” above the second sound and finds a third sound that also matches. He does this two more times and on his third time he arrives at a sound that is very similar to what came from the original two logs…too similar. The cavemen have created the first real music.

Wait, slow down: what’s the theory behind all this? According to Halloran, every note that the cavemen found sounded harmonious together because they have a perfect fifth between them (the distance between the bottom and top notes in a three-note chord). If you start on a note and keep going a fifth up you will end up with five notes repeating over and over: the pentatonic scale. You might know this better as just the black keys on a piano. Try playing them in any random order and you’ll notice it sounds a little tribal and foreign. Kind of like cavemen.