L.C. Elson, Curiosities of Music: The Public Games of Greece

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Chapter VI. The Philosophers, and Greek Social Music

From the sixth century B. C., music may date its entrance into the positive sciences, for Pythagoras, born about 570 B. C., first began to analyze music from a scientific point of view, and to ascertain how far it rested upon natural laws. Pythagoras is said to have been the son of a wealthy merchant. He was as before mentioned, one of the earliest Greeks in Egypt, and after having been instructed for some time by the priests, had at last the honor of being admitted into the Egyptian college of priesthood.

After remaining in Egypt twenty-two years, he spent some time among the Chaldeans, and at last returned, full of wisdom, to his native Samos. But here the sensuality of the court of Polycrates was so little to his taste, that he departed to the city of Croton in southern Italy, where he founded the order of Pythagoreans.

With the order itself, we have little to do, but when we consider that its founder was the pioneer of scientific musical research, its proceedings become in some degree interesting.

“All is number and harmony” was the fundamental maxim of this philosopher,1 and he sought for the laws in music, therefore, in nature. This led to some mistakes of course, for the laws of nature had not been made clear enough for thorough guidance, in that era. It is said that Pythagoras one day, passing by a blacksmith’s shop heard the blows of different hammers sound the fundamental, fourth, fifth, and octave, and entering, he weighed the different hammers, thereby obtaining the proportion of these intervals to each other.

This story has been proved to be a silly myth, for the proportions given are wrong. He should have weighed the anvils not the hammers, and anvils of such difference in size as would be requisite to produce these intervals would not be seen in blacksmiths’ shops.

Pythagoras taught that not the ear, but mathematics, should be the guide in music. He held that the universe was constructed on a musical plan, and was probably the first to introduce among the Greeks the theory of the music of the spheres. The fact that man could not hear this music,2 was explained by the statement that the sounds were either too deep or too high for our ears. The reasoning was plausible enough, and has been confirmed by science, for sounds of less than sixteen vibrations in a second are inaudible on account of their depth, and those exceeding 38,100 vibrations in a second are too high for the human ear to perceive.3 Starting from this premise Pythagoras formed a scale founded on the seven planets, as known to the astronomers of that time. This was its form:

Moon. Mercury. Venus. Sun. Mars. Jupiter. Saturn.

The sun was Mese, the controlling middle note, around which all the others circled.

The order of Pythagoreans were held together by the firmest ties, and Pythagoras has been, not inaptly, compared in this capacity with Ignatius Loyola. His adherents, who numbered about three hundred were, in most cases, wealthy and noble, and the power of the society was always upon the side of aristocracy.

Pythagoras was very select in the admission of members, exercising great vigilance lest improper or undesirable persons should be allowed to enter; in this he was guided not a little by his skill in Physiognomy. The initiates had, it is said, to pass through a most rigorous and lengthy period of probation, they were obliged to maintain silence for five years,4 and in other ways had their powers of endurance, severely tested. After entering the brotherhood,5 the mode of life was entirely dictated by Pythagoras. The members were clothed in pure white. They were forbidden all animal food, and beans. They had different grades of advancement among themselves, the highest being undoubtedly instructed in a purer religion than that which obtained around them, though outwardly they conformed with the religion of the populace. Mathematics, music, and astronomy were studied, and gymnastics regularly practised.

Playing upon the lyre was obligatory, and none of the order went to sleep at night, without having previously purified his soul, and set it in harmony through music; and at rising in the morning, the strength for the day’s labors and duties, was sought for in the same manner. Pythagoras wrote many songs as correctives to undue excitement and passion; he is said once to have brought to reason a young man beside himself with jealousy and wine, by the power of a song.

Clinias, a Pythagorean, took up his harp and played whenever any passion arose in his breast; to a person who asked him the reason of the action, he replied, “I play to compose myself.”

While the music of Terpander, Olympus, etc., was intended for high state and religious purposes, that of Pythagoras was intended to bring the art into domestic and inner life. Choruses were, however, also chanted by his followers, and were adapted to various occasions, as for example, at the opening of Spring, the scholars would gather in a circle around the harper, who played the accompaniment, and sing pæans of welcome to the opening season. Other philosophers also allowed music to enter into their teachings, though not to so great a degree, but almost all of them understood enough of music to form an opinion.

Plato seemed decidedly to object to instrumental music, for he says “the using of instruments without the voice is barbarism and charlatanry.”6

Aristotle was disposed to allow more freedom, for he spoke of music as a delicious pleasure, either alone (instrumental) or accompanied with voice; but in instrumental solos he admitted the lyre and kithara only, and rejected the flute, which he thought not to be a moral instrument, and only capable of inflaming the passions.

The philosophers as a class were really not very advantageous to musical progress, for they fought tooth and nail for the old school of music.

They sought only moral effects by the means of great simplicity, and any intricate innovations displeased them; but in spite of their resistance the art began to improve.

The Skolion, or banquet song had a great influence on the music of Athens. At the banquet, or symposium, the harp was passed from hand to hand, and each person who made any pretence to education or good breeding was expected to be able to improvise or at least to sing a good skolion.

There was certainly in the time of Pericles, music enough to choose from, for there is much evidence that the Athenians of that day possessed an extensive library of music;7 and it was in this era, the early part of the fifth century B. C., that the social music reached its height.

Themistocles once being present at a banquet had the harp (kithara) presented to him, and was desired to sing his skolion; full of confusion and shame he was obliged to acknowledge his ignorance of music, and we can judge of the value in which the art was held, by the sneers and jests which were pointed at him. At last stung to the quick by the sharp witticisms, he retorted, “it is true I do not know how to play the kithara, but I know how to raise an insignificant city to a position of glory.”

The skolion was a really poetical and worthy song, and must not be confounded with those lower and vulgar songs which were sung to the guests by hired jesters and buffoons.8

The subjects of the skolion were sometimes of rather a lofty style; praise of heroes,9 calls to the gods, rules of life, often joyous, sometimes sedate; but in all of them a less exact rhythm and style were allowed than in other compositions. A few have been preserved to our day; one begins, “my kingdom is my spear and sword,” another composed by Chilon contains the following beautiful thought; “Gold is rubbed upon the touchstone, and thus is tested, but the soul of man is tested by the gold, if it be good or evil.” But the kithara, although used in the skolion, was not the only instrument of the fashionable young men of ancient Athens, for the flute found great favor among them; in fact flute playing grew to be quite a mania for a time. It was part of the musical education of youth. Most of the teachers of the instrument came from Bœotia.

Flute players of ability were held in high honor; the art of flute playing received such an impetus that different flute schools were established in Athens; even rival methods of playing and teaching existed.10

Flutes were played in almost every place where music was required, to accompany hymns, at worship, and even sometimes the Greeks represented the combat of Apollo and the Python on this instrument, with kithara accompaniment; this may be considered as the earliest “song without words” in existence.

The ancients had some other attempts at tone pictures. Once an Athenian kitharist played to Dorian, a representation of a storm at sea; on being asked how he liked it, that ancient wit answered, “I have seen a better storm in a pot of boiling water.” This would make the origin of the phrase “a tempest in a teapot,” over two-thousand years old.

Sometimes all Athens was divided into cliques for this or that flute player; and the price paid for flutes were appalling, some being sold as high as three thousand dollars, many flute-makers becoming immensely wealthy.

It received a slight check however, when Alcibiades, about 409 B. C., declined to play it, alleging as a reason, that it spoilt the shape of the mouth. Alcibiades stood at the head of the fashion as well as of the state, and after such a dictum the beau monde of Athens laid aside the flute; but some ingenious flute maker took alarm, and invented a mouth-piece which obviated the difficulty, and which Alcibiades found more to his taste, on which it resumed its place in popular favor.

In Sparta it led the chorus, and was the military instrument, but the Spartans disdained to make it a study, and only felt bound, at this era, to discriminate between good and bad music.

In some Ionian cities, the human victims were led to the sacrifice, or to their execution to the sound of flutes; and this dead march (called the Nome of Kradias) was said to be peculiarly depressing.

Plutarch makes a warm defence of the flute, against the criticisms of Plato and Aristotle. “The flute” he says “cannot be spared from the banquet, leads the hymns to the gods, and with its rich and full tones spreads peace and tranquillity throughout the soul;” but we must remember that this was written at a much later epoch, when flute playing became more universal than in the days of Pericles, and when the instrument had probably been altered and improved.

Flute players sometimes made large fortunes. Nicomachus was known for his wealth in jewels acquired by his skill on the instrument.

Lamia was one of the most famous of Athenian flutists. This female was celebrated through Greece and Egypt for her skill, as well as for her wit and beauty. The latter was not overrated, for a portrait of her has been discovered in a signet, which amply confirms the accounts of her charms. Although born in Athens, she went early to Alexandria, in Egypt, to study her art; somewhat as our modern musicians go to Italy or Germany. She was received with open arms at the Egyptian court, and was detained for a long time. Captured by Demetrius Polyorcetes, she soon succeeded in conquering her conqueror, and on her return to Athens, a temple was built to her, and she was worshipped under the name of Venus Lamia. Her powerful “friend” Demetrius, may have had something to do with this deification, but at all events, there were still left some Greeks (Lysimachus for example) who had the manliness to protest against the desecration, for the character of Lamia was far different from that of Sappho.

It was not flute players only who earned immense salaries, for we learn that Amabœus the kitharist, received nearly one thousand dollars for each performance, and all flute-players, and kitharists, were welcomed and honored at the courts of Greece, Egypt and Asia.

Ptolemy Philadelphus gave a large musical festival in Alexandria, Egypt, about 280 B. C., at which six hundred skilled singers, kitharists and flutists assisted; there have been larger festivals in point of numbers in ancient times, but few, where so much educated talent assisted. Ptolemy Physcon11, an amiable Egyptian ruler, 146 B. C., who married his brother’s wife, killed his baby nephew, or step-son on the wedding day and afterwards married his niece, or step-daughter (for he made the relationship very mixed) winding up by killing all the progeny as finale, seems to have patronized and enjoyed music, in spite of his family troubles.

Ptolemy Auletes, 80 B. C., was known as the “flute lover,” and though king of Egypt was yet a very skilful virtuoso on this instrument.

We must not omit here to mention a species of Greek music which was an outgrowth of the sacred games.

We have already stated how great the honor of achieving a victory at these games was considered; and it was very natural that when a whole city celebrated with joy the triumph of one of its sons, the poets would also sing in high strains, the praises of the successful hero. These poems soon became a necessary adjunct to the festivities, and may be said to form a school of their own. They were chanted by a chorus under the direction of the composer; and although at first they may have been spontaneous, yet afterwards they became entirely a matter of purchase.

When a young man had carried off the victor’s wreath, he would frequently send word at once to some famous poet-musician, to write a chorus in his honor. Sometimes the city itself would order the poem, and in Athens about 540 B. C., statues began to be erected to the victors who were natives of that city.12 Simonides, born about 556 B. C., may be regarded as the founder of this style of composition, and he certainly was the founder of the custom of receiving pay for laudatory verses.

His contemporaries sneered greatly at him for this, and Pindar proves him to have been very avaricious, but it really seems to have been no more than just that the poet should have been compensated for his exertions, as he not only had to write the poetry and music for the occasion, but also to drill the chorus and lead the singing.

The ceremony of praise to the victor was either celebrated at the conclusion of the games, upon the spot, or upon his return home; sometimes also in after years, to keep alive the remembrance of past triumphs.

The festivities were both religious and social. They began with a procession to the temple, after which sacrifices were offered, either in the temple, or in the victor’s house; this was followed by a banquet, to which came the poet with his chorus, 64and intoned the triumphal ode, the latter being considered the greatest event of the occasion.13

Simonides seems to have been in the market for all kinds of Epinikia, or triumphal odes. Leophron of Rhegion, having won a race with mules at one of these games, ordered a chorus on the subject from the poet; Simonides felt a little indignant at the proposal and replied, curtly “I don’t sing about mules,” but Leophron being very anxious in the matter, offered a large price, upon which Simonides reconsidered his determination, and wrote the ode. It began by saluting the mules in an ingenious manner, only noticing one side of their ancestry,—“Hail! oh ye daughters of the stormy footed horse.”

Simonides was not wholly, however, in this lower line of poetry; he often competed in public musical, or poetical contests, and won fifty-six oxen and tripods by such means. Even at eighty years of age he added another to his lengthy list of victories. He was also considered as very learned, and was sometimes reckoned among the philosophers.

One of his chief competitors at Athens, was Lasus of Hermione, who was a practical and theoretical musician of some eminence.

Among the works of Lasus, there are some which are curiously constructed. In his hymn to Diana, and in the Centaurs, the letter S (sigma) is entirely avoided. The flute-players who accompanied the choruses greatly disliked the hissing sound of S. as it did not blend easily with their playing, and it was this fact which probably led Lasus to so curious a style of poetry.

Among the scholars of Lasus was Pindar, (born in the spring of 522 B. C.,) who came from a noble Theban family. Pindar’s parents were musical, and there were several flute-players in his family, but he soon became far more than a mere flute-player. He came to Athens, to study music, at a very early age, for after his return to Thebes he began a further course of studies under Corinna and Myrtis, two famous poetesses, then in Bœotia, all of which was done before his twentieth year.

He strove in public contests with the two latter, but always unsuccessfully; Corinna defeated him five times, which result, Pausanius thinks, may have been partly due to her personal charms.

Corinna once offered to beautify Pindar’s early efforts with mythological allusions, but on his bringing her a poem, the first six verses of which touched on every part of Theban Mythology, she smiled and said: “One must sow seed by handsfull, not by bagsfull.”

Pindar’s poetic career began very early, for at twenty years old he wrote his first Epinikion (triumphal ode), in honor of a youth of the tribe of Aleuads.14 His services were soon sought for throughout all Hellas; for although he imitated Simonides in writing for hire, yet his muse was unquestionably a nobler one, and his Epinikia bear an air of heartiness which seems to be unfeigned. His songs were bolder and truer, and not altogether composed of flattery, and he seems to have been an eye-witness of many of the triumphs which he describes.

He also was engaged as poet to Hiero, of Syracuse, Alexander, (son of Amyntas of Macedonia,) Theron of Agrigentum, Arcesilaus, King of Cyrene, and for several free states; with the two former he was an especial favorite, and yet his position never seemed that of a parasite, or a courtier, for he told them the truth bluntly when occasion demanded. His life was chiefly spent in the courts of his various royal friends. He once resided at the court of Hiero, at Syracuse, for the space of four years.

He died at the advanced age of eighty years.

The names of Simonides and Pindar may be considered as the greatest in this branch of Greek music and poetry; and although the subjects were of local interest only, yet Pindar has invested them with such beautiful imagery that he has shown us (to alter the phrase of an ancient,) that it is better to be a great man in a small art, than a small man in a great one.

This is a part of a book Curiosities of Music: A Collection of Facts not generally known, regarding the Music of Ancient and Savage Nations (1880) by Louis Charles Elson, in public domain.
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The section covers pages 39-113, originally footnotes were not numbered.
Originally, chapter numbers also include "VII." twice.

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