What Music Did They Play in Ancient Greece?

In ancient Greece, music played a significant role in both religious and secular contexts. It was considered an essential part of education and was deeply integrated into daily life. Let’s explore the different types of music that were prominent during this fascinating era.

Ancient Greek Musical Instruments

Ancient Greeks had a wide range of musical instruments at their disposal. These instruments were categorized into four main groups:

  • String Instruments: These included the lyre, kithara, and phorminx. The lyre was a small harp-like instrument with strings made of animal gut or metal. The kithara was a larger version of the lyre with more strings, while the phorminx was similar to the kithara but had a curved shape.
  • Wind Instruments: The most well-known wind instrument of ancient Greece was the aulos, which was similar to a modern-day double-reed instrument.

    It was often played in pairs and provided melodic accompaniment to various performances.

  • Percussion Instruments: Percussion instruments included drums like the tympanum and tambourines known as tympana. They added rhythm and excitement to musical compositions.
  • Plucked Instruments: The best-known plucked instrument was the syrinx or panpipes consisting of reeds of varying lengths tied together. It produced ethereal and haunting melodies.

Musical Genres

Ancient Greek music encompassed various genres that served different purposes:

Sacred Music

The Greeks believed that music had divine origins and used it extensively in religious rituals. Sacred music was performed during religious ceremonies, sacrifices, and hymns dedicated to the gods. It aimed to evoke a sense of awe and reverence.


Dithyramb was a choral hymn sung in honor of Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility. It was performed at festivals called Dionysia and often involved dancing and dramatic recitation. Dithyramb paved the way for the development of Greek tragedy.


Epics were long narrative poems accompanied by music. The most famous example is Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey.” These epics recounted heroic tales and were often performed by professional singers known as rhapsodes.

The Greek Musical Notation System

The ancient Greeks developed a unique system of musical notation to record melodies. They used letters from the Greek alphabet to represent different notes, with various symbols indicating pitch and duration. However, this notation system has been lost over time, leaving us with only fragments of musical compositions.

Influence on Western Music

Ancient Greek music had a profound impact on Western music. The principles of harmony, melody, and rhythm developed by the Greeks laid the foundation for later musical traditions in Europe. Many ancient Greek instruments also served as precursors to modern instruments.


Ancient Greek music was a rich and diverse art form that played an integral role in their society. From religious ceremonies to epic poems, it provided a means of expression and entertainment. Though much of its notation system has been lost, its influence can still be felt in the music we enjoy today.