Music was considered to be of divine origin by the Ancient Greeks and was part of their daily lives. Although, they used various instruments, the most prominently used musical instruments for performing and composing were the aulos, kithara and the lyra.
Music was an integral part of ancient Greek life. It was used in the home by women, in the concert hall by musicians, in the pastureland by shepherds and on the boat and battlefield by oarsmen and soldiers. Music was also used in religious worship, theatrical dramas and in musical competitions, one of the oldest of which took place in Sparta. Like today, music was played to inspire and to comfort. Ancient Greeks thought that music was of divine origin because of its ability to calm its listeners as well as heal the body as well as the soul. They also considered it related to philosophy and math. Therefore, it was taught in schools. Although there are rarely any full scores of ancient Greek music that have survived, there are bits of scores, as well as descriptions and pictures of the musical instruments of the time, to provide an idea of the type of music that people in ancient Greece played and listened to. The musical recreations of ancient Greek music suggest that this music tended to be performed in a minor key, giving it a sad or mysterious tone. The music resembles religious music of the Greek Orthodox Church and traditional Middle Eastern music. Although there were a variety of instruments ancient Greeks were familiar with during that period, three main instruments seemed to be preferred. These were the kithara, the lyra and the aulos.
The kithara, or cithara, was an instrument with anywhere from 7-12 strings, and a wooden body, which usually had a flat base. The strings were of equal length, made of gut or sinew and were stretched over a bridge to a crossbar. This crossbar connected the sidepieces of the instrument. A member of the lyra family, the instrument was often played while the musician, or kitharode, stood. The instrument was supported by a sling tied around his left wrist and the kithara’s neck rested on his shoulder. The kitharode used a plekron to pluck the strings that were not “dampened” by his left-hand fingers. The pitch would be controlled by tension or, perhaps, the string thickness. Professional musicians played the instruments during concerts. Players used it to accompany singing. Due to its large sound box, the kithara was more suited to virtuoso playing than the lyra, according to Colette Hemingway of the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York.
The lyra (pronounced: lie-ra) was another stringed instrument often played in ancient Greece. In contrast to the kithara, it was usually used by amateur musicians and for children’s musical education. Because a tortoise shell was used for its sound box, the instrument was initially called a chelys. Although it is unknown how many strings this instrument initially had, by the 7th to 8th century B.C., the lyra had 7 strings. A few centuries later, the lyra would have anywhere from 9 to 12 strings. Nicomachus of Gerasa in the 1st century A.D. stated that the messenger god Hermes created the lyra, who gave it to Orpheus, who later taught others how to play it. One of these other people, Linos, taught Hercules how to play the instrument.
The aulos is a two-reed instrument used in ancient Greece. Because the reeds were inserted into a cylinder-shaped pipe, the instrument was more like the clarinet or oboe, than a flute. Each pipe could play 6 notes but the musical range could be extended by playing each pipe separately. During the later Roman times, the instrument continued to be played. By this time, however, it was reduced to one aulos rather than two. Called a monaulos, it had 13 to 14 fingerholes and metal strips that were used to tune the instrument to difference scales. Ivory monaulos have been found at Pompeii in Italy, near Naples.