Dr Armand D’Angour, Fellow and Tutor in Classics at Jesus College, has embarked on a two-year research project, part-funded by the British Academy, to reconstruct the songs and music of the classical world.
Piecing together the lyrics, rhythms, instrumentation and notation through the painstaking study of ancient documents, he aims to show that the music is not lost beyond recovery.
Dr D’Angour said: ‘Suppose that 2,500 years from now all that survived of the Beatles’ songs were a few of the lyrics, and all that remained of Mozart and Verdi’s operas were the words and not the music.
‘Imagine if we could then reconstruct the music, rediscover the instruments that played them, and hear the words once again in their proper setting, how exciting that would be.
‘This is about to happen with the classic texts of ancient Greece.’
He added: ‘It is often forgotten that the writings at the root of Western literature – the epics of Homer, the love-poems of Sappho, the tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides – were all, originally, music.
‘Dating from around 750 to 400 BC, they were composed to be sung in whole or part to the accompaniment of the lyre, reed-pipes, and percussion instruments.’
The rhythms – perhaps the most important aspect of the music – are preserved in the words themselves, in the patterns of long and short syllables.
The instruments are known from descriptions, paintings and archaeological remains, which allow scholars to establish the timbres and range of pitches they produced.
And now, new revelations about ancient Greek music have emerged from a few dozen ancient documents inscribed with a vocal notation devised around 450 BC, consisting of alphabetic letters and signs placed above the vowels of the Greek words.
Dr D’Angour said: ‘The Greeks had worked out the mathematical ratios of musical intervals: an octave is 2:1, a fifth 3:2, a fourth 4:3, and so on.
‘The notation gives an accurate indication of relative pitch: letter A at the top of the scale, for instance, represents a musical note a fifth higher than N halfway down the alphabet. Absolute pitch can be worked out from the vocal ranges required to sing the surviving tunes.
‘While the documents, found on stone in Greece and papyrus in Egypt, have long been known to classicists – some were published as early as 1581 – in recent decades they have been augmented by new finds. Dating from around 300 BC to 300 AD, these fragments offer us a clearer view than ever before of the music of ancient Greece.’
But it is important to remember, according to Dr D’Angour, that ancient rhythmical and melodic norms were different from our own.
He said: ‘We must set aside our Western preconceptions. A better parallel is non-Western folk traditions, such as those of India and the Middle East.
‘Instrumental practices that derive from ancient Greek traditions still survive in areas of Sardinia and Turkey, and give us an insight into the sounds and techniques that created the experience of music in ancient times.’
He added: ‘Some of the surviving melodies are immediately attractive to a modern ear. One complete piece, inscribed on a marble column and dating from around 200 AD, is a haunting short song of four lines composed by Seikilos. The words of the song may be translated as: “While you’re alive, shine: never let your mood decline. We’ve a brief span of life to spend: Time necessitates an end.”
‘The notation is unequivocal. It marks a regular rhythmic beat, and indicates a very important principle of ancient composition.
‘In ancient Greek the voice went up in pitch on certain syllables and fell on others – the accents of ancient Greek indicate pitch, not stress. The contours of the melody follow those pitches here, and fairly consistently in all the documents.’