Torch:U.S. Volume LXIV Winter 2014-2015 - Page 13

Thank the Greeks

The first written evidence of music theory comes from the Greeks, and, luckily, they left more intel than the Romans. According to the Kelsey Museum at the University of Michigan, artifacts of Roman instruments exist from across the empire, proving it was a definite part of their cultural diffusion. But since Romans considered it to be recreational and not a serious, professional activity, we have no record of what it sounded like. Plus, during the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church suppressed all products of the pagan tradition, which included ceremonial music.

For the Greeks, music was a crucial part of their culture. JCLers know this from their study of mythology. Allyson Ping, a JCLer who studies mythology for the Boston Latin School Advanced Certamen team, says, "From Orpheus, the famous lyre player with a tragic story, to Linus, the poor music teacher who Heracles killed, there is a recurring theme of tragedy associated with the beauty of music [in mythology]."

Pythagoras's Night Job

The mathematician Pythagoras, although better known for his right triangle formula, also figured out the mathematical basis for music. According to Hall's The Secret Teachings of All Ages, he discovered that strings with lengths in the ratio 3:2 produce a perfect fifth. Using a method developed from this, his successors were able to write scales that corresponded to particular ethoi, or moods, of music.

How can mathematical equations be related to feelings? To give you a modern analogy, guitar chords are usually in the major or minor. Physically, this simply means that the middle note in the minor is a half step lower than in the major. Sensuously, though, these chords evoke different feelings in the listener. Generally speaking, people feel melancholy and gloomy listening to minor music and cheerful and pleasant listening to major music. For example, Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” is in the minor key, but her song “Edge of Glory” is in the major.

Similarly, Pythagoras’s followers came up with seven scales called harmoniai each with a different ethos. Today, composers often use these as modes to “color” their music. However, during the Renaissance, the names of Greek harmoniai were mixed up, so they’re known by different names today. Interestingly, these scales can be replicated on the piano by playing an octave of white keys from different notes. Above is a table of the Greek harmoniai with their ethoi and modern equivalents based on Hamilton's The Modes of Ancient Greece.

Is Greensleeves your pump up song? Does “Royals” make you want to speed down the highway? Do you associate the “The Edge of Glory” with lamentation? I doubt it.

It’s fascinating how the Greeks interpreted music so differently. It just goes to show that our emotional connection to music is not innate but something that’s culturally constructed.

Music is part of us, and either ennobles or degrades our behavior.

—Boethius, De Institutione Musica


Musicam naturaliter nobis esse coniunctam et mores vel honestare vel evertere.

FEATURE · Torch:U.S. · Winter, 2014-2015