Music historians often talk about different periods of music history.
But what were they? When were they?
And how did they shape music as we know it today?
In this series, we’re diving into the music of the past, from Ancient to Modern times.
The Ancient Period
Scholars define the Ancient period as being from our earliest historical records to 476 AD.
If 476 AD seems like an oddly specific ending point, that’s because it is: that year marks the official collapse of the Roman Empire (which had been on its last legs for several centuries up until then).
The end of the Empire ushered in what we now know as the Medieval era.
Interestingly, we don’t know the identities of most composers from the Ancient period.
Music was not notated during this time period. There was no such thing as sheet music. Instead, it was passed on aurally from one singer or instrumentalist to another.
While that was a pretty efficient system, it makes the authorship of any one piece difficult to determine.
We do know that the Psalms were written by David and a few other named authors, although the music that originally accompanied the lyrics has been lost.
There have been innovations in music from the very beginning, although not everyone was happy about them.
A man named Jubal is identified in Scripture as the founder of the stringed instrument tradition.
Music was an important part of Greek society. Plato and Aristotle had much to say about it, especially regarding its connection to one’s character and ethics.
The Greeks were famously fond of staged drama, and those dramas were often accompanied by music.
Despite this rich history, only a few dozen Ancient Greek compositions survive today.
The nation of Israel had a book of Psalms used in the praise and worship of God, and the Bible often associates music and dancing with times of celebration and joy.
In Roman times, being skilled in music was a mark of education and good breeding. Music was a key part of their ceremonies and festivals.
Many Roman Emperors were patrons of the arts. The infamous Emperor Nero went down in history for his musicianship (as well as for many other less noble things).
The early Christian Church grew and flourished even as the Roman Empire declined, and the music they used for worship was eventually developed into a liturgy that was used all over the world.
Many early church fathers wrote on the importance of music in worship and the shaping of a person’s character.
Much of our Western music theory has its roots in the theories of Ancient Greek and Roman traditions.
Many instruments are mentioned in the Bible, such as the tambourine, lyre, stringed instruments, and trumpet.
The most well-known biblical musician is King David, who was a skilled harpist.
Ancient Greek musicians played the flute-like aulos and the stringed kithara.
The earliest type of pipe organ also came from Greece. Alexandrian inventor Ctesibius created it hundreds of years before organ playing would become popular.
Rome produced the kitara, a large stringed lyre-like instrument. They also continued to play many of the instruments created by the Greeks.
Although instruments were used and valued in the Ancient period, the large majority of music was vocal. Singing was considered superior to instrumental music.
This was especially true in the early Church after the fall of Rome. For centuries, music in the church was only vocal, not instrumental.
This was done in part to avoid any association with pagan Greek and Roman worship, which often used instruments for ceremonial purposes.
Ancient Musical Styles
Music was as much a part of ancient cultures as it is a part of ours today. Music was used for worship, education, and enjoyment. It surrounded the biggest moments in a person’s life: weddings, warfare, funerals, celebrations.
In Ancient Greece, music was simple, melodic, and quite often improvised.
Ancient Rome in many ways adopted the culture of Ancient Greece, and their music was no exception. They embraced many Greek musical styles and theories and continued them.
The early church sang many psalms and some hymns in their services, a practice that would eventually involve into the plainchant associated with the Middle Ages.
Below is a rendition of Seikilos Epitaph, which is the oldest surviving piece of music in the world. It dates from the first or second century AD in Ancient Greece.
What are your thoughts on the Ancient period of music? Leave a comment below!
Other Periods of Music History Featured in This Series:
The Medieval Period, The Renaissance Period, The Baroque Period, The Classical Period, The Romantic Period, The Modern Period