The Greek Octave System

Music of Yesterday

So far, everything is clear enough; but the next step is not quite so sure. The Greeks spoke of the Dorian Octave, the Phrygian Octave, and so on; and the work Octave, used in this way, has been thought to be synonymous with Scale, which is doubtful, for the following reasons:

The standard instrument of the Greeks was the octave lyre. The lowest and highest strings were tuned respectively A, fifth line bass staff, and A, second space, treble.

These were fixed sounds, but the tuning of the remaining six strings might be changed at will; therefore, a series of sound belonging to any one of these scales could be made; and it well be seen, on examining the following table, that all the seven scales may be represented without changing the extreme notes, A to A. Suppose we make the B flat. Now B-flat is the characteristic note of the Dorian Scale, in our term, its signature. Therefore this octave would be called the Dorian Octave, not Dorian Scale. We speak of a scale as beginning and ending on its keynote; if it does not, we call it a scale passage in such and such a key.

The notes marked + are the keynotes (Mese). It will be seen at once that the positions of the halftones differ in each of these octaves. Once cannot help feeling a slight suspicion that some confusion between scale and octave had a great deal to do with the growth of the Ecclesiastical Scales.

One of the latest of the ancient writers on music, Claudius Ptolemy (about 130 A.D.), proposed that all these octave should be transposed a fourth lower; this made the Dorian Octave E to E (all naturals). One result of this change is that many authorities at the present time call this the Dorian Octave, as given above, transposed a fourth lower. Other scales were added from time to time, called Hyper-Dorian, Hyper-Phrygian, etc., a fourth above the standard scales; but it is very uncertain whether they were in practical use; they were probably purely matters of theory.

Characteristics Attributed to the Different Greek Scales

The Greeks attributed many fanciful characteristics to the various modes or scales, much as some modern musicians, Berlioz, for example, do to the different keys. But all seem to have agreed as to the Dorian. This was considered the true Greek mode, and was called severe, firm and manly, suitable for martial songs. The Lydian mode was esteemed to be effeminate, suited to love songs, possible because the Lydian Octave corresponds with the scale of A major, and a major scale was not relished by the Greeks, any more than it was by the early ecclesiastical musicians. A more probably explanation of this attribution of different characters to the different scales is, that it was customary to use certain modes for songs on certain subjects, and the character of the poetry was transferred to the music.

The Greek Chromatic Scale

The Greek Chromatic Scale differed altogether from what we call a chromatic scale. It was made by lowering the pitch of the fourth and seventh strings above the keynote a halftone. Supposing the octave lyre to be tuned to the Hypo-Dorian Mode or Scale, it would begin and end on the Keynote (Mese) thus:

Now, by lowering D and G we get the following scale:

This is the scale that was called Chromatic. It is said to have been at one time the most popular of all the scales, a statement we can easily credit, since it contains in itself the two world wide five note or Pentatonic Scales, commonly known as the Scotch or Irish Scales, the most widely distributed of all scales in Europe, Asia and America.

The Greek Enharmonic Scale

The scale called Enharmonic was made thus: The fourth and seventh strings were lowered a whole tone; that is, to the pitch of the second and sixth, the second and sixth were lowered a quartertone, thus:

C flat is supposed to be halfway between B and C; F flat halfway between E and F. Our modern system does not provide for the notation of quartertones.

Greek Instruments

The standard instrument of the Greeks was the Lyre. It bore many names, as Lyre, Tetrachordon, Chelys, Phorminx, Cithara, etc. There may have been slight differences in the size and the number of the strings, but great uncertainty prevails on this point.

Under the name of Flute (Aulos) they seem to have included both Flutes proper and instruments of the hautboy or clarinet family. These instruments bore a bewildering number of names, the exact meaning of which is lost. Judging from the pictorial representations that remain, the Greek instruments were inferior both in variety and extent ot those of the Egyptians. They seem to have made little use of the Harp, of which instrument the Egyptians had a great variety. The Greeks seem to have used instruments chiefly, if not solely, to accompany the voice; and they appear never to have combined large numbers of instruments for any purpose. Even in their tragedies, which were performed in immense theatres open to the sky, the Chorus was limited to fifteen men, accompanied by two flutes.

When accompanying the voice with the lyre they may have occasionally struck the fourth, fifth or octave of the vocal melody; but, in general, they played the voice part. Their most highly developed instrument was a variety of lyre, the strings of which passed over a bridge placed one third of the strings’ length from the lower end of the lyre, thus causing the lower part of the string to sound the octave of the upper part. The shorter part of the string was played with a plectrum in the right hand, the longer part by the fingers of the left hand. This instrument was called Magadis–from Magas, a bridge. The term Magadize was eventually used to signify playing or singing in octaves, and was synonymous with Antiphony.

Greek Musical Notation

Our knowledge of Greek musical notation is very defective, being derived from only four or five specimens of ancient music, and a few small fragments. The appear to have used a separate notation for each mode, and these four hymns are apparently all in the same mode, but authorities differ as to the mode. They used the letters of their alphabet, both capital and small, written in various positions, sometimes upright, sometimes lying on one side. The notation for the lyre differed from that used for the voice. The letters representing the vocal part were written above the words, those representing the instrumental part, below the words. These letters represented the pitch of the sounds, but not their duration. The duration was regulated by the meter of the poetry. Instead of a portion of one of these hymns, the first three lines of our National Hymn are given as a sample of this notation:

My country ’tis of thee, Sweet land of liberty, Of thee I sing.

These letters have been interpreted as indicating the following sounds, the transposed Hypo-Lydian Scale in its old form; that is, the Lesser Perfect System with G sharp as its keynote.

Greek View of Harmony

The question has been much debated as to whether or not the Greeks practiced harmony. It seems hardly possible with such a defective notation; but the best argument against it is, that there is not a word in any of the extant treatises as to combinations and successions of these combinations, and it is impossible that any art of harmony should have existed unless some rules for its employment should have been evolved.

Greek Terms in Music

The modern terminology of music is largely indebted to the Greek system, although many of the words have entirely changed their significance. The work Music itself, to the Greek, meant the whole circle of the sciences, especially Astronomy and Mathematics. Melody meant the rising and falling of the voice in either speaking or singing. Harmonia meant rather what we call Melody than our Harmony. This latter, namely, the sounding together of different sounds, was called Symphony. Antiphony originally meant singing in octaves, that is, men with women or boys. Chromatic and Enharmonic have already been explained. Diapason, now applied chiefly to organ stops, originally meant the octave; this is, “through all.” Diatonic has nearly retained its original meaning. Tone, Semitone and Tetrachord have retained their meaning, with the exception that in the modern tetrachord the half tone is at the other end.

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