“I begin to sing of rich-haired Demeter, awful goddess…” – Homer, Hymn to Demeter
This hymn, written for the yearly initiation ceremonies of the Eleusinian Mysteries would have literally been sung and accompanied by a lyre. The Eleusinian Mysteries probably developed in Mycenae around 1600 BC and existed in unbroken tradition until 170 AD, when the temple of Demeter was sacked and the rise of Christianity laid the former sanctity of the Eleusinian Mysteries to waste as a pagan cult. For thousands of years, Greek culture thrived, blossoming new ways for humanity to express itself. Homer, our great link to the poetry of antiquity, is also our link to the music of antiquity. Around his time, one of the most significant advances in Western music took place – the birth of music as a theoretical practice. Prior, music was determined largely by the nature and chance construction of primitive instruments; with the Greeks’ advancement, there was an understanding of a note existing beyond the appreciation of a note that a musician might play or sing. This distinction allowed music to stretch into exciting new territories as well as explain why certain territories felt natural.
In this distinction, we’ll also find some of the earliest historical manifestations of the theories we looked at in .
The Greek advancement is seen in what is the oldest known theoretical ‘scale’ – the tetrachord. The word ‘tetrachord’ literally translates as, ‘four chords,’ or ‘four strings,’ or as it came to be used, ‘four notes.’ The tetrachord was the melodic tool used in the ceremonial arts of poetry and dance, to which music was a humble servant. Homer’s Hymn to Demeter would have been sung in tetrachords; that is, the entire hymn (of considerable length) would have been sung using only four notes. This was common practice throughout the at-the-time disparate tribes which, from a historically distanced gaze, we collectively call ‘Greek.’
The tetrachord is the first scale creation reflecting a distinction of consonance and dissonance – two ideas with depth to study, but which can be summed up pretty well as ‘sounds good’ and ‘sounds tense.’ Earlier instruments had ‘scales,’ so to speak – cut five holes into a hollow wooden cylinder to make a flute, and you’ve got a scale of some sort. The tetrachord reflects an important development in that it demonstrates a conscious choice to standardize the melodic motion between the consonant fundamental and dominant vibrations.
Fundamental and dominant? Let’s recap from again: every note is in fact a rich array of vibrations of different speeds, all existing in simple ratios in relation to the loudest and most prominent vibration. That loudest and most prominent vibration we call the ‘fundamental.’ We also call this the first partial (since that vibration is partially what constitutes the full note). The second partial is the second loudest vibration, and has a frequency twice the fundamental. Recall, first and second partials tend to sound different and yet the same – a product of wave dynamics. The third partial vibrates three times as fast as the fundamental, and sounds to the human ear like a clearly distinct sound, yet still consonant. This third partial is what we call the ‘dominant.’
Back to the tetrachord. Greek music was written using letters. Across the different Greek tribes, the highest and lowest notes within a tetrachord were always the same letters: ‘E’ and ‘B.’ The notes E and B have a special relationship to one another. The vibration of ‘B’ just happens to be the dominant vibration, or third partial, of ‘E.’ Was this simply a coincidence? A display of natural patterns manifesting themselves? Or a true mathematical understanding? So historically distanced, any answer would be speculation – and yet, perhaps also a dive of introspection, since the physicality of our musical sensations is identical to our ancestors, however much our tastes may have matured in complexity.
So what of the inner two notes in a tetrachord? These middle notes would be variable from tribe to tribe, though largely consistent within one tribe. These ancient tetrachords use relations among notes that we wouldn’t even recognize today!
Around 500 BC, there were increasing revolts amongst Greek tribes against their common Persian rulers. The tensions between these disparate tribes and Persia created heroes of an increasingly unified Greece – which fostered the growth of an increasingly unified Greek musical tradition and theory. The interactions among different tribal tetrachords birthed an abundance of musical understanding and advancement.
Though this tetrachord system was largely obsolete by 300 BC, it spawned some of the most fundamental concepts of our musical cannon: the ideas of consonance and dissonance, and the possibility of standardizing different paths of musical tension and resolution.
Continue the exploration of ancient Greece in the next Music Monday – “Plucky Pythagoras, Part 1″ …