Fragments of ancient music have been found going back as far as the eighteenth century B.C., the most ancient ones recorded on cuneiform tablets, but there is only one complete song from antiquity known to have survived: the Seikilos epitaph. It was discovered carved on a marble column-shaped stele in Tralleis, near Ephesus, Turkey, in 1883, and is now in the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen.
Dating to the first or second century A.D., the stele announces its function clearly in the inscription. “I am a tombstone, an image. Seikilos placed me here as an everlasting sign of deathless remembrance.” The last line is damaged, reputedly by Anglo-Irish railway engineer Edward Purser who was on site building the Smyrna-Aidin Ottoman Railway when the stele was discovered and who sawed off the base so his wife could use it as a flower display, but it appears to be a dedication from Seikilos to a Euterpe, perhaps his wife?
It’s the song that ensured the stele would truly be an everlasting memorial because he didn’t just have the lyrics engraved, but rather also included the melody in ancient Greek musical notation. The lyrical message is your basic carpe diem. These are the lyrics in transliterated Greek and in an English translation:
Hoson zes, phainou
Meden holos su lupou;
Pros oligon esti to zen
To telos ho chronos apaitei
While you live, shine
Have no grief at all;
Life exists only a short while
And time demands its toll
Herodotus’ The Histories describes an Egyptian practice which puts Seikilos’ song in context:
In social meetings among the rich, when the banquet is ended, a servant carries round to the several guests a coffin, in which there is a wooden image of a corpse, carved and painted to resemble nature as nearly as possible, about a cubit or two cubits in length. As he shows it to each guest in turn, the servant sings, “Gaze here, and drink and be merry; for when you die, such will you be.”
I suppose this is how they got people back into a revelrous mood when things were winding down, by reminding them life is fleeting so party while you have the chance. I’m not sure how well that would go over today, although given the season, you could totally take a tip from the ancient Egyptians and pass around the realistic mini-corpse in a coffin when your Halloween party looks to be flagging.
Anyway, because of the clear alphabetical notation Seikilos’ song is playable today. Lyre expert and ancient music researchers Michael Levy has a wonderfully virtuoso performance on his YouTube channel for which he uses a wide range of lyre techniques to give it that zesty drinking song vibe.
Musician and Oxford University classicist Armand D’Angour is working on a research project to use the latest and greatest discoveries on Greek musical notation to bring ancient music back as accurately as possible.
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.
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.
Dr. David Creese, a Classics professor at Newcastle University, has constructed a zither-like instrument with eight strings on which he plays ancient Greek music. Instead of strumming or plucking the strings like you would with a lyre or traditional zither, he strikes them with a little mallet. You can see him playing it in class in this YouTube video. That is the Song of Seikilos he is playing in that video, incidentally, but obviously not a full rendition. Here he is playing it and singing it:
Compare Dr. Creese’s version with Mr. Levy’s. I find it fascinating how different the two performances of such a simple song can be, and it underscores the inherent challenges of resurrecting ancient music even when you have the words and melody.