As a modern society, our fascination with the ancient word goes back as long ago as that time period itself. We’re fascinated with what used to be and fawn over how people used to live, work and play. We also study their clothing, tools, writings and mannerisms. What we haven’t spent too much time delving into, at least not until now, is the music they listened to.
Of course, there have always been scholarly subsets of researchers and intellectuals for whom this knowledge is a passionate pursuit. Yet, for decades, present civilizations have cared the most about the music that’s prevalent during their own era. We love the sixties, for instance, and can appreciate the way it changed rock and roll forever, but Ariana Grande still rules the airwaves.
The reality is that the past doesn’t truly come alive until you consider not only what it looked and felt like, but what it sounded like, as well. From tunes hummed at fairs and festivals to hymns belted in sanctuaries and fields, the songs of yesteryear rang loudly around the world.
Thankfully, a few ardent historians have undertaken the immense effort of resurrecting some of the oldest pieces of music available and making them accessible to the general public. Here are three ways you can take a listen.
Flute Music from Ancient Greece
One historian of ancient music by the name of Armand D’Angour highlights an ancient Greek instrument known as an “aulos” in a recent choral performance. Akin to a present-day flute, it’s a dainty and flighty accompainint to two ancient scores.
One is a Delphic Paean, by a composer named Athenaeus from around 127 BCE. Composer Euripides created the second score to serve as the chorus in his play “Orestes.” Another historian and musician, Stefan Hagal, helped to develop a replication of the aulos, which is also referred to as a “tibia” in the Latin language.
Military Music from Ancient Rome
Historically, music has not only served as a form of entertainment and socialization, but it also held a very important role in helping military formations march in their correct order. This was the case in ancient Rome. Here, musicians were regular parts of the Roman army, playing myriad kinds of horns as their primary duty.
One was the tuba, one was called a “bucina” and the other is an oversized horn with wrap-around components known as the “cornu.” Musicians played these instruments in accordance with an established military order and from there, soldiers understood where, why and how to march.
While there isn’t much left of these instruments save for a spare mouthpiece here or there, researchers have discovered an ancient cornu in Pompeii. From there, modern musicians have been able to reconstruct what these instruments may have sounded like, though the tempo and type music they played is up for debate.
Court Music from Ancient China
In ancient China, especially during the Tang Dynasty 618 to 907 CE, music was theatrical and elaborate. Dancers performed sets to the backdrop of drums, flutes and a singular Chinese instrument known as a “qin” which is similar to a modern zither. While tech tools such as vocal effects pedals weren’t around during this time period, this would have been the time for their use, as they would have enhanced the leading vocals of the era beautifully.
For its pomp and prominence alone, this time period is often recognized as the Golden Era in ancient Chinese musical history.
Specifically, the dances held in grand banquet halls, known as “yaywe” events, were integral parts of significant feasts, highlighting the emperor’s grand power and prestige. Now, it’s not difficult to find online representations of these ceremonies online as historians recreate how these scenes may have played out.
Learning from the Past, Embracing Today
While it’s enjoyable to immerse ourselves in popular culture, we must never forget that who we are and what we listen to owes itself greatly to the sounds that came before us. While ancient Greeks didn’t have wireless earbuds and the Roman armies didn’t have reverb, their music was every bit as meaningful and significant to them as ours is to us.
To that end, give it a listen! Open up YouTube and search for some of these ancient instruments. You might just find your new favorite song, or leave with a deeper appreciation for the ones that serve as a soundtrack to history.