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One of the few extant pieces of Ancient Greek music. By "one of the few" here I mean one of the 12-50 sources that exist, depending on which source you consult. Most likely the more inflated estimates include sources which contain only a couple of notes. In terms of what is useful for modern scholarship, there are only about a dozen known sources, most of them coming from post-classical Greece but before Roman dominance.

The Epitaph itself dates from the second century B.C. It is attributed to Seikilos, thus giving it its name. It is a skolion, or a drinking song, and was found inscribed on a tomb stele, or tomb stone.

The text, in a transcribed Greek:

Hoson zeis, phainou
medon holos su lupou
Pros oligon esti to zen
to helos ho chronos apaitei

For the non-Greek speaking noders (of which I am one):

As long as you live, be lighthearted
Let nothing trouble you.
Life is only too short,
and time takes its toll.

A musical transcription:

4/3    //-/ / // |/-///// //-///-/|
2#(E)  AE  EC#DED|C# DEDC#BA  BG  |
4/3    // /// // /-///-/|// //// //-/// /||
2#     AC#EDC#DC#A  BG  |AC#BDEC#AA  AF#E||

For an explanation/discussion of this notation, see E2 Music Transcription: A proposal.

Theoretically speaking, the song is in the Ionian mode as described by Alypius. Describing the mode technically is a little more than seems appropriate for E2 (besides which, I can barely grasp the fundamentals of Ancient Greek Music Theory myself), but suffice it to say that, in the tradition of the ancient Greeks, the Ionian mode is one of balance between emotional extremes.

Describing the Ionian mode as such is more than a metaphorical word-play. The Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato both believed that music had a profound influence upon human behavior. Music, they believed, could imitate human emotions, and as such, exposing one's self to music that reflected certain emotions could elicit those very emotions from the listener. Thus, it could be said that an individual had a moral obligation to expose themselves to the proper music in a proper, disciplined way.

The song strikes modern ears in a unique, not entirely decipherable way. To our ears, the song tends to sound Mixolydian, around the tonic note "A." Which means that the song both contains the major third degree note of that mode -- C# -- and also the lowered seventh degree -- G. Since our ears have been conditioned by nearly three hundred years of established tonal thinking, we tend to expect the G to be "sharp", or G#. In the major mode, that note has a good deal of momentum to it, wanting to resolve upward to the tonic note A. So when we modern listeners hear the Mixolydian mode, with its lowered G, it strikes us as novel, but more particularly, as somehow lacking the same "uptightness" that might define the G#'s relationship to the tonic. Whereas a G#, to our ears, sound incomplete and restless, the G sounds relaxed, in no big hurry to resolve. One could even say, balanced.

So, to different ears, separated by millenia and conditioned to different musical traditions, the same song seems to have the same affect. I see, in this, the timelessness of Ancient Greek thought. The timelessness of the song, too, may explain why it is so well-liked among those that know of it.

As a disclaimer, though: The musical transcription above is, at best, an educated guess as to what this might have sounded like when an authentic Greek performer performed it in the second century B.C. There is, honestly, no way to know the exact sounds of the intervals. But we do what we can, no?

The piece (or more accurately, the original source itself) is important to music historians because it exemplifies explicit rhythmic and musical notation, which is hard to find in the less-than-complete Ancient Greek musical repertoire. This is an important complement to the more prodigious written material that exists on music from a wide range of Greek philosophers, which might go at length about music theory, but illustrate little.

The original stele itself is kept at the Copenhagen National Museum.


Source: Grout, Donald & Palisca, Claude, Norton Anthology of Western Music, 1996.

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