The Neume Notation Project

reference § 2.3.a. Images: Ancient Greek Musical Notation

Photo of ancient Greek tablet with musical notation.
Ancient stone fragment of Greek music: first Delphic Hymn (Paean to Apollo) with letter-pitch notation of the melody above the vocal text; composition attributed to Athenaios; 2nd century b.c.e.; Archeological Museum, Delphi.
Image: New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, vol. 7, Stanley Sadie, (ed.), (London: Macmillan, 1980), s.v. 'Greece', p. 669.
Source: Delphi Inv. 517, 526, 494, 499, Paean of Athenaios; 128-7 BC.
Ancient Greek tablet, detail. Ancient Greek tablet, detail, digitally enhanced.
Detail of the stone tablet of the first Delphic Hymn with lines of letter-pitch notation indicated by arrows [left]; same image, digitally enhanced [right].
This type of notation was used for vocal music. It is consistent in artifacts dating from the mid-3rd century b.c.e. (or earlier) until the late-3rd century c.e. 1 although some artifacts show corrupted or variant forms of notation. The system comprises just over three octaves, including notation of quarter-tone intervals. The letter-pitch signs comprise Greek letters and special signs; these are notated above the vowels of the text. A different type of Greek musical notation (viz., for instrumental music) has signs for indicating rhythm. With vocal music, however, no rhythmical indications are used, because singing would follow the rhythm of spoken language.
Display at Archeological Museum, Delphi.
Display of musical fragments in stone, Delphi Archeological Museum (Greece). The tablet of the first Delphic Hymn is indicated by an arrow at upper left.
The second Delphic Hymn (also a Paean to Apollo) is in several fragments, mounted in this display as well. It is written in a different type of ancient Greek musical notation than the first Hymn, normally used for instrumental music.
Image: Delphi Archeological Museum; enhanced.
The Athenian Treasury at Delphi. Map of ancient Greece.
[Left] The Athenian Treasury at Delphi, where the stone tablet originally was.
[Right] Delphi (underlined in red) on a map showing part of ancient Greece.
Delphi was the religious center of the Greek-speaking world by the 6th century b.c.e. It was the site of the cults of Apollo and Gaia, the Delphic Oracle, and the Pythian Games. City-states (such as Athens) built 'treasuries' at Delphi, where spoils of war, gold, and other precious offerings to Apollo were stored; historians say this served as the 'central bank' of ancient Greece and its pillage was a primary cause of Greece's decline. The Roman state ascended in the vacuum of power that resulted.
Photo credit: [left] Eugene A. Ward. Map credit: [right] adapted from a map by Roisa [?].

[1] M. L. West, Ancient Greek Music, (Oxford: Oxford University, 1994), p. 254


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This revision: 24 August 2009.
Copyright © 1998-2009, Louis W. G. Barton.