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Recreating Ancient Music with Modern Technology

In the recently installed exhibition, Dionysos Unmasked: Ancient Sculpture and Early Prints, visitors will find themselves serenaded by the faint but ethereal sounds of antiquity. This background music is that of a panpipe, which is a series of pipes of different lengths that have been bound together (see image above, which illustrates a ceramic variant from the museum's Pre-Columbian collection). Panpipes were a principle attribute of Pan, a woodland deity of shepherds and rustic music, and feature prominently in sculptural works and prints in the exhibition. Pan himself also frequently appears in the exhibition, at times alongside Dionysos, the god of wine and theater. You can recognize Pan by his panpipes, but he also often appears as a man with the horns, legs, and tail of a goat, pointed ears, a thick beard, and a snub nose, as in the image above. Because of Pan’s prominence in the exhibition and due to the importance of music in ancient Greek life, we decided to include panpipe music in the exhibition. Which raises a very important question. How do we know what music from 2,000 years ago sounded like?

Some fragments of notated music do survive from antiquity, but the markings are quite different than the sheet music of today. One of the rare examples of a musical piece found in its entirety is the Seikilos Epitaph(200 B.C./A.D. 100), a short but complete example of ancient Greek musical composition that was discovered engraved on a tombstone near Aydin, Turkey. It is the oldest known piece of complete western music in existence. The actual engraved object is preserved today in the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen. The musical notations appear as a series of small markings just above the letters. They begin with the sixth line of the inscription:

We started our process by gathering together a number of ancient Greek and Roman fragments of surviving music (like the Seikilos Epitaph, which have been published together in a useful book edited by Egert Pohlmann and Martin West, Documents of Ancient Greek Music: Extant Melodies and Fragments. Clarendon Press, 2001). Three melodies from the surviving music comprise the track heard in the exhibit. Musician Brett Benge then brought these pieces to life using a music-editing and creation program called Logic Pro, which he connected to a digital piano. But without a performer schooled in the practices of ancient Greece, Brett had to find other means to create an authentic sound. He began by using a raw sample of eight notes recorded from a live panpipe. It was important to use a sample of high quality to capture the beauty and idiosyncrasies of a live acoustic instrument. Computers like precision, so such idiosyncrasies are difficult to produce artificially.

To add to the authenticity, Brett wanted to incorporate a tuning schematic that might well have been used in ancient Greece. Tuning practices have varied over the centuries and continue to vary culture to culture even today. These tuning schematics slightly alter each pitch, making them somewhat sharper or flatter than what we’re used to in 21st-century America. They can be loaded electronically to produce tuning consistent with practices of another culture, preference, or epoch. For this project, he located a (fitting, we think) Pythagorean schematic. To a modern ear, these pitches might sound slightly out of tune, but they are consistent with, in this case, the ratios of Pythagorean tuning. The pan pipes of ancient Greece were probably not tuned with this level of precision, but at worst, the tuning schematic helps the instrument sound more authentic by giving it a less-than-perfect, rougher sound. At best, the instrument sounds tuned in a fashion that may well have been what was used in ancient Greece. Finally, great care was taken to produce musical phrasing that would be consistent with a performer of professional caliber. A skilled performer alters the speed and amount of breath blown to create changing dynamics. These subtle changes were created meticulously with electronic tools. One aspect of authentic panpipe sound, however, evaded all electronic manipulation—the sound of player’s breath either during notes or inhaling between phrases. Ultimately, Brett recorded the sound of his own breath to layer with the sound of the panpipe sample. In process, a screen shot of the program in process looks like this:

Thus, this is merely one interpretation of several fragments of ancient music. If you research the Seikilos Epitaph, you will discover many different versions and interpretations of how it may have sounded. This shows us that the study of music from Greek and Roman times is complex and we may never really know what music sounded like, but we hope our interpretation helps transport you back in time while exploring the exhibition! —Elizabeth Benge, Collection & Exhibition Manager, Ancient and Byzantine Art Special thanks to my very talented husband Brett Benge for music production and writing assistance. Image Credits: Statue of Pan, 1st century A.D., with 18th century (or earlier) restorations. Anonymous loan. Pan Pipe (detail), 180 B.C./A.D. 500, Nazca, south coast, Peru. Kate S. Buckingham Endowment. Seikilos Epitaph, National Museum of Denmark.