Ancient Greek Musical Instruments and Their Characteristics


Would you believe me if I told you that the first ‘rock’ band in the history of the world was formed exactly 50,000 years ago, in the ‘Stone’ Age?

Yeah okay…you’re right, I was kidding on that one. But the joke was pretty good, wasn’t it? Yeah all right…I know…the joke was probably the worst you’ve ever heard. But, hey, what if I said that the first ever music concert on our beloved Mother Earth happened over 35,000 years ago, and it featured a group of prehistoric flutists. Now what would be your take on that one? Nope, I’m not kidding this time around because believe it or not, it’s true. Recent findings revealed that the oldest musical instrument on Earth happens to be a 35,000 year-old flute that was, in all probability, carved from the bone of a prehistoric vulture. I bet that gag about the Stone Age rock band doesn’t sound all that bad now, does it?

Anyway, coming back to the point, music originated in prehistoric times and gained rapid momentum thereafter. It assumed tremendous social importance, especially in the ancient era, which is when many of the following musical instruments grew in popularity among the masses.

Also known as the water organ, the credit of inventing the hydraulis goes to a certain Ctesibius of Alexandria. It was invented around 250 B.C., and is the first known keyboard musical instrument. It worked on the principle of water and air pressure and produced a crisp and clearly audible sound. Naturally, it became very popular among the people and was regularly used in theaters as well as at public gatherings. It was said to be a favorite among the Roman emperors as well.

It is one of the oldest known string instruments. There is an interesting tale in Greek mythology surrounding the lyre which says that the Greek God Hermes invented the instrument and later handed it over to Apollo. Originally, lyres were made from the shells of tortoises and had anywhere between seven to twelve strings. They required strumming by means of a plectrum and were relatively easy to play.

The kithara was an advanced version of the Greek lyre. It was made out of wood and had a larger soundbox than the lyre. There were multiple versions of the kithara, some with five strings, and others with twelve. The strumming and muting techniques that we associate with guitar playing originated from the kithara. Also, the word ‘guitar’ was actually derived from the word kithara. Nice piece of trivia, isn’t it?

The aulos was a wind instrument similar to the modern clarinet. The interesting thing about this instrument is that a person had to place two of these in his mouth at the same time, and play both of them simultaneously! This made the aulos a rather difficult instrument to play, let alone master. Interestingly, aulos players had to tie a band around their head to fasten their cheeks and properly align the two pipes with their mouths; such was the degree of complexity involved in playing this instrument.

Commonly known as the pan flute, the syrinx is another woodwind instrument that originated in Greece. It typically consisted of multiple bamboo pipes of different sizes which were bound together in ascending order of size i.e. diameter and length. A person had to blow at the pipe-ends and each pipe produced a different note. The pan flute laid the platform for the modern-day harmonica.

Contribution of Pythagoras to Music
Very few people know that Pythagoras, the Greek mathematician, is responsible for relating musical notes with mathematical equations. He closely studied the progression of musical notes in an octave, and subsequently came up with various equations and ratios that relate different musical notes with each other.

These were some of the most popular ancient musical instruments belonging to the Greek community, which later became a rage among Romans, Arabs, Egyptians and eventually, the rest of the world. Other notable ones include the phorminx, barbitos, pandouris, and the epigonion, which was an ancient Greek version of the harp. I totally understand if you have trouble pronouncing these Greek musical instrument names; after all, it is all Greek!