THE "URBAN MYTH" OF THE MONOTONY OF MONOPHONY IN THE ANCIENT WORLD?


"The deep-rooted prejudice that harmony and polyphony have been a prerogative of the medieval and modern West does not hold water. Not one of the continents, not one of the archipelagos between them lacks rudimentary forms of polyphony"

Curt Sachs - page 48, "The Rise of Music in the Ancient World: East and West"


As I will argue with ample supporting evidence, it is indeed nothing more than an "Urban Myth" spun by the Western world, that only monophony existed in the ancient world! I will explore some of the reasons why this frankly ridiculous, unchallenged, dismal dogma developed in the first place, reasons which seem so deep-rooted that the dogma is still being taught in most musical studies to the present day....

I have often read in various musicological articles, that all ancient music was monophonic, with no harmony as we know it today. They claim that the left hand of the lyre player, was simply used to dampen the strings (just as harp players do today to remove any unwanted sustain), and played no part in adding harmony to the melody being played with the plectrum in the right hand.

However, these blanket statements are always cited by people who have never actually played a lyre & therefore know nothing of the incredibly diverse palate of lyre playing techniques! In my extensive experience of gradually mastering the lyre, I have discovered by actual experience, that unlike the harp, due to the smaller size of the lyre, there is virtually no unwanted sustain. Indeed, on the lower tension gut or natural fibre strings used in antiquity, there would be even less sustain than on my nylon-strung lyres.

Therefore, the left hand of the lyre player, in my opinion, was much more likely used to provide basic harmonic accompaniment, or else it was used in the "Block and Strum" lyre-playing technique - whereby basic chords/intervals can be strummed on the lyre (just like on an acoustic guitar), by blocking with the left hand, notes not required, and leaving open the strings which are to be strummed.

This ancient string-blocking technique of lyre playing, can still be heard today, in the "Krar" lyre-playing musicians of Eritrea & Ethiopia in East Africa:

 

 


Below is an illustration of an ancient Greek Kithara player, who like the modern Krar players of Eritrea, can clearly be seen to be dampening specific strings with the left hand whilst strumming the open strings with the plectrum in the right hand:

 

kithara player_resized

 

The lyres and harps of antiquity, were so obviously designed to be played with two hands - the timeless fusion of melody and basic harmonic accompaniment. Any ancient musician with any musical imagination, would realize than specific notes on either the harp or lyre sound pleasant when played together!



THE EXISTENCE OF POLYPHONY IN ANCIENT ABORIGINAL AFRICAN CULTURES - ISOLATED FROM THE REST OF THE "SUPERIOR" WESTERN WORLD!


The views of certain musicologists, that the ancients had no understanding or use of harmony, to me, seems nothing but an "urban myth" spun by the Western World in their relentless efforts to discredit the more "primitive" music of other cultures - a claim which is totally unfounded, and is clearly false, as the incredible video below demonstrates, of complex polyphonic singing by the Aka Pygmies of Central Africa...a culture untainted or otherwise influenced in any way, by the "superior" music of the Western World:

 

 

 

The use of harmony in music was not simply some clever Western "invention" of the Renaissance! Harmony has and always will, occur perfectly naturally - simply due to the eternal, A priori laws of physics, specific musical intervals will always blend together, due to the symmetry of how their respective sound wave forms always interact with each other. For example, due to the symmetry of how the sound waves of two notes forming the musical interval of a 5th interact, a musical 5th will always and has always sounded pure, just as the 3 sides of triangle always and will always add up to 180 degrees. 




ANCIENT WRITINGS CLEARLY MENTION THE USE OF HARMONY AND SUGGEST THE USE OF POLYPHONY



I. EVIDENCE FOR THE USE OF HARMONY IN ANCIENT GREECE

The use of consonant intervals such as the 5th and the 4th to 'sweeten' a melodic line is mentioned several times in ancient texts:

To quote Curt Sachs, in about the 1st century CE, "The author Pseudo-Longinus [in a Roman-era Greek work of literary criticism dated to the 1st century AD called "On the Sublime"] asserts...that melody - the kyrios phtongos or 'regal voice' - is usually 'sweetened' by the two 'paraphonic' intervals, the fifth and the fourth. This is an unmistakable testimony to the frequent use, not of functional chords in the modern sense, to be sure, but of consonant notes, just as in the East Asiatic, Babylonian, Egyptian, and medieval music.

Pseudo-Longinus, who probably wrote in the first century AD, is a comparatively late witness. But as we know from Plutarch, that even those whom he called 'the ancients' played c in consonance with f'; the higher e', both in dissonance with c' and b and in consonance with a and g.

Such rudimentary harmony must have been the rule; for Plutarch relates that those musicians who opposed the enharmonic genus put it to 'the incompatibility of quarter tones with consonance"

The use of consonant fourths and fifths, for me, was an intuitive technique whose effectiveness I very soon realized, whilst I was teaching myself to play my first lyre - using the left hand of the to provide these basic consonant harmonic intervals as an accompaniment to 'sweeten' the melodic line which is played with a plectrum in the right hand.

This same technique is also beautifully demonstrated in this arrangement of "Hymn To The Muse" by Mesomedes of Crete, performed on replica Kithara, by Michael Atherton:

 

In the writings of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, it is also clearly stated that strings on the kithara were almost always sounded together:

 

"Why is it that lower of two strings always has the tune? If one omits the paramese when one should sound it with the mese, the tune is there none the less; but if one omits the mese when one should strike both the tune is missing...." (Aristotle, Problems, Book XIX.12.)

 Describing this text by Aristotle, Robert Fink explains:

 

"The quote seems more than clear that two notes, and not just one at a time, were usually struck on the Kithara's strings."

 

Robert Fink - "Images from Ancient Times and Tablet Show: Evidence of Harmony in Ancient Music"


During the 3rd - 4th century CE, we come across the writer on music, Gaudentius, who describes the use of harmony in strikingly modern terms:

"If symphonic notes sound together on stringed or wind instruments...the lower one, in relation to the higher, and the higher, in relation to the lower one, form a unit. We call them symphonic, as the two notes melt into oneness"


II. EVIDENCE FOR THE USE OF POLYPHONY IN ANCIENT GREECE

Not only basic harmony, but there is also evidence in ancient texts that also polyphony certainly existed in Ancient Greece, and by inference, presumably most of the ancient world! About the clearest example of an ancient text which describes polyphony as we know it today, is mentioned in the pseudo-Aristotelian book, Peri Kosmou, which probably dates to the first century CE:

"Music mixes high and low, short and long notes in different voice parts [phonais] to achieve one harmony"


As Curt Sachs says, in describing this passage:

"It would scarcely be possible to find a clearer description of what we call a mixed two-part counterpoint"

The existence of some sort of polyphony is certainly hinted at in Plato's "Laws ( Book VII, Section 812d)", when in describing how a music teacher should best teach young boys from the ages of 9-12 years old to play the lyre, Plato advises that he should merely double the melodic line on his own lyre - in order to avoid the florid use of harmony and counterpoint what must have presumably been the most common actual performance practice at the time:

"... the teacher and the learner ought to use the sounds of the lyre, because its notes are pure, the player who teaches and his pupil rendering note for note in unison; but complexity, and variation of notes, when the strings give one sound and the poet or composer of the melody gives another -also when they make concords and harmonies in which lesser and greater intervals, slow and quick, or high and low notes, are combined - or, again, when they make complex variations of rhythms, which they adapt to the notes of the lyre - all that sort of thing is not suited to those who have to acquire a speedy and useful knowledge of music in three years; for opposite principles are confusing, and create a difficulty in learning, and our young men should learn quickly, and their mere necessary acquirements are not few or trifling, as will be shown in due course. Let the director of education attend to the principles concerning music which we are laying down."


Plato's writings on harmony as well as several other ancient Greek literary sources are clearly mentioned in Chapter 10 of Curt Sachs book, "The Rise of Music in the Ancient World: East and West" - please see pages 256 - 258 in the PDF download link below: 

Evidence of Harmony and Polyphony in Ancient Greece


How might ancient Greek polyphony have actually sounded? In answer to this perplexing question, Fred Haight kindly informed me of his really interesting musical experiment, which clearly demonstrate the possibility that the 2000 year old "Skolion of Seikilos" (the only complete piece of written music to have survived from ancient Greece), could actually be sang in polyphony, as a round - another nail in the coffin for the ridiculous prevailing notion that all of the music of the ancient world was mysteriously and quite unnaturally, monotonously monophonic! Interestingly, the resulting dissonances in the arrangement of this 2000 year old ancient Greek song as a round, are more interesting than the actual resulting harmonies - a WAV audio file of this unique musical experiment can be either heard or downloaded here


 


THE LYRE PLAYERS OF ANTIQUITY MUST HAVE HAD AN UNDERSTANDING OF THE CORRECT SOUND OF SPECIFIC MUSICAL INTERVALS WHEN PLAYED TOGETHER IN HARMONY, IN ORDER TO TUNE THEIR LYRES


The facts remain, that the ancients were far more advanced in musical theory & harmony than this curious "urban myth" would ever have made us believe. For example, as mentioned in my detailed blog on ancient tuning methods, the intricate mathematical pitch ratios of pure just intonation had been worked out at least 5000 years ago by the ancient Mesopotamians, during the development of the first fretted lutes - in order to put frets on a lute, it is necessary to first calculate exactly how the musical scale ought to be divided into exactly the correct pitch ratios. This was the system known as "divisive tuning".

In order to tune a lyre into just intonation, it is essential that the musician doing the tuning knows what the correct sound of specific musical intervals sound like when played together in harmony. Without such an understanding of the correct sound of specific musical intervals played together in harmony, it would have been quite impossible for an ancient lyre player to ever even tune his lyre! 



OTHER INSTRUMENTS BESIDES THE LYRES AND HARPS OF ANTIQUITY WHICH WERE EITHER DESIGNED FOR THE USE OF HARMONY OR WHICH IMPLY THE USE OF HARMONY


To put the final "nail in the coffin" to the urban myth of the monotony of monophony in the ancient world, besides the overwhelming evidence of the use of harmony by the lyre players of antiquity, propagators of the myth of monophony in the ancient world tend to forget the existence of instruments such as the double aulos or double flutes - which by definition, played 2 different pitches, simultaneously - in harmony!

AULOS

DOUBLE FLUTE 

 

The use of double pipes is extremely archaic - double pipes of silver were discovered along with the famous Golden Lyre of Ur, dating to circa 2600 BCE. The use of harmony was well established, several hundreds of years before the Pyramids of Egypt were built!



AMPLE ARCHAEOLOGICAL EVIDENCE OF COMPLETE MUSICAL ENSEMBLES THROUGHOUT THE ANCIENT WORLD IMPLY THE USE OF HARMONY

There are ample archaeological artifacts which illustrate complete musical ensembles being formed throughout the ancient world - in trying to evaluate the evidence of my theory, according to Occam's Razor, is it more reasonable to assume, that all these different musicians and their unique combination of instruments of so many different, colourful timbres, were put together to merely to play in mind-numbing, monotonous unison?

Given all the facts, I think it is a far simpler theory to suggest, that given the timeless imagination & inspiration which is unique to the human artistic spirit, no matter what the era, that the composers of antiquity formed these intricate musical ensembles formed of so many different instruments of so many different timbres, to combine their unique tones together, through the basic use of harmony, polyphony, antiphony, heterophony & maybe even counterpoint...

 

MUSIC ENSEMBLES OF DOUBLE FLUTES & FRETTED LUTES FROM ANCIENT EGYPT, NEW KINGDOM, c.1200 BCE

 

EGYPTIAN ENSEMBLE

 

MUSICAL ENSEMBLE OF HARPS & DOUBLE FLUTES FROM NINEVEH, ANCIENT MESOPOTAMIA c.700 BCE

NINEVEH_resized 


In the illustration above, of harpists depicted in the Bas Reliefs found in the ruins of the Palace of Nineveh (c.700 BCE), note the position of the hands of the harpists - if they were all supposed to be playing in unison (according to the urban myth of the monotony of monophony in the ancient world!), then all the harpist would be depicted with their hands in exactly the same position - this is clearly not the case!

 

 ANCIENT PHILISTINE MUSICAL ENSEMBLE c.1000 BCE

PHILISITNE 

 

THE LIMITATIONS OF ANCIENT TUNING TEMPERAMENTS DID NOT LIMIT THE USE OF BASIC HARMONY IN ANTIQUITY


The only limitation to the use of harmony in antiquity, was the inability to transpose from one key to another. Due to the use of  the wonderfully pure-sounding musical scales generated by the tuning system of just intonation used in antiquity, all the semitones have slightly different mathematical ratios, therefore it was not possible to transpose from one key & still maintain the mathematical pitch ratios between the notes heard in the new key. As explained in the section on ancient tuning methods, the introduction of modern equal temperament got around this problem by artificially making equal, the ratio of all the semitones in any key - with the horrible consequence, that everything in equal temperament is always slightly out of tune! 

However, from the fact that there was this limitation to the use of harmony in antiquity (transposition was not possible), it certainly does not follow that the obviously artistically creative, anonymous composers of antiquity therefore excluded the use of all basic harmony in their musical compositions! 

In short, the music of the ancient world, was almost certainly far more complex and evolved than we can imagine...


 


POSSIBLE REASONS FOR THE ORIGIN OF THE URBAN MYTH OF THE MONOTONY OF MONOPHONY IN THE ANCIENT WORLD?


John Wheeler
suggested to me that the origin of this myth of the Western World, may have been something to do with the "Pythagorean" cyclical tuning system adapted early on in Western Europe which produced dissonant 3rds & 6ths - which maybe why, during the early centuries of the Dark Ages, instead of polyphony, monophonic plain chant predominated, until the tenative re-emergence of polyphony once again in the 9th - 12th centuries, with the development of Organum.


THE DISSONANT "PYTHAGOREAN" TUNING SYSTEM ADOPTED DURING THE DARK AGES & MIDDLE AGES IN THE WESTERN WORLD

 

As very well explained in this article from the website http://www.princeton.edu:

"Pythagorean tuning is based on a stack of intervals, each tuned in the ratio 3:2, the next simplest ratio after 2:1, which is considered to yield the same note. Starting from D for example (D-based tuning), six other notes are produced by moving six times a ratio 3:2 up, and the remaining ones by moving the same ratio down:

This succession of eleven factors 3:2 spans across a wide range of pitch. Since notes differing by a factor of 2 are given the same name, it is customary to divide or multiply the notes repeatedly to bring them all within one span of a factor 2"

Although Pythagoras may well have experimented with this cyclical system of tuning in order to create just intonation within a basic tetrachord, it is highly unlikely that he went on to further extend this system of tuning (which sadly, scholars from the Dark Ages & medieval period went on to do), as the more 5ths are stacked upon one another, this creates progressively more dissonant intervals, as the Princeton article goes on to explain:

"When extending this tuning however, a problem arises: no stack of 3:2 intervals will fit exactly into any stack of factors 2. Thus, a longer stack, such as this (obtained by adding one more note to the stack shown above) will be similar but not identical in size to a stack of 7 factors 2. More exactly, it will be about a quarter of a semitone larger (see Pythagorean comma). Thus, A♭ and G♯, when brought in the basic octave, will not coincide as expected."

Besides these resulting dissonant "wolf tones", extending Pythagorean tuning beyond the tetrachord (for which Pythagoras presumably only originally intended it for), also results in dissonant 3rds, as the section on Pythagorean tuning in Wikipedia explains:

"Because most fifths in Pythagorean tuning are in the simple ratio of 3:2, they sound very "smooth" and consonant. The thirds, by contrast, most of which are in the relatively complex ratios of 81:64 (for major thirds) and 32:27 (for minor thirds), sound less smooth.[8] For this reason, Pythagorean tuning is particularly well suited to music which treats fifths as consonances, and thirds as dissonances. In western classical music, this usually means music written prior to the 15th century."

It never ceases to annoy me, that almost in all musical theory taught in schools and colleges , generations upon generations of students are taught the same dogma, that the 3rds with which we are so familiar with today, sounded "dissonant" to musicians and composers of the early medieval period - omitting the crucial facts, that the 3rds we hear today are not the same as the dissonant 3rds tuned in Medieval "Pythagorean" tuning! 

As John Wheeler very neatly summarizes, on the consequences on polyphony, of the preference for the dissonant "Pythagorean" tuning system in the West during the Dark Ages & medieval period, contrasted with the pure divisively tuned just intonation system preferred in the ancient Near East:

 "The predominance of one tuning system over another had a great deal to do with it. Cyclical tuning (so points out the author of HARMONOGRAPH) is suitable for plainchant and accompaniment by a drone. Divisive tuning (he adds) began to supplant it in the West as polyphony and choral harmony developed, as it suits such devices in a way cyclical tuning doesn't (remember that the 3rds and 6ths especially are "sweet" in divisive tuning whereas they are relatively dissonant in cyclical tuning, hence drones on 4ths and 5ths were the only harmony used to my knowledge with this tuning).


A corollary is that because ancient Babylonia knew of both tunings, it had one kind of music suitable for some kind of harmonic treatment (heterophony at least) and another suitable for predominantly melodic treatment (with accompaniment, if any, at the unison, octave, perfect intervals or drones). Greece seems to have known of both also. It was the cyclical, the so-called "Pythagorean" tuning, that predominated in the early centuries in the West. It took time for the West to recover the notions of divisive tuning and heterophony, let alone of functional tonality such as Suzanne Haik-Vantoura's reconstruction of biblical Hebrew cantillation proposes was extant no later than the Second Temple period (she believed, I hold for good reason, that such knowledge was far older in Israel).


Interestingly Monteverdi and others laid the foundation of modern Western tonality and harmony (which was then further developed in the Baroque period and onward) while they were seeking to recover something that they believed was lacking in medieval music: the "ethos" or moral power described by the Greek authors concerning ancient music, particularly their own. This is not to say that they hit the bulls'-eye or anything like it - music reflects the spirit of a people and their times - but that circumstance has been investigated before now and I'd like to learn more about it (especially after hearing very early efforts at imitating Greek opera)"



THE EARLY CATHOLIC CHURCH'S BAN ON THE USE OF POLYPHONY


Another important factor is reinforcing the Western "urban myth" of the monotony of monophony in the ancient world, was the ban on all forms of polyphony for centuries by the early Catholic Church:

"The Catholic Church banned music that contained polyphony (more than one musical part playing at a time), fearing that it would cause people to doubt the unity of God. The church also banned the musical interval of an augmented fourth, the distance between C and F-sharp and also known as a tritone (the interval in Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story when Tony sings the name “Maria”). This interval was considered so dissonant that it must have been the work of Lucifer, and so the church named it Diabolus in musica"


(Daniel J. Levitin in "This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession")


Also worth noting here, the use of plain chant for so many centuries in Western Christian sacred music, implies a reaction to the much earlier forms of "impure" pagan polyphony which must have predated the former?

 


 

CONCLUSIONS ON THE ORIGIN OF THE "URBAN MYTH" OF THE MONOTONY OF MONOPHONY IN THE ANCIENT WORLD?


The origin of the "urban myth" of the monotony of monophony in the ancient world, then, may have originated in the Western World, because due to the cyclical tuning system first generally adopted in the West & its resulting dissonant 3rds & 6ths, for centuries, composers in the West naturally favoured monophony in their compositions.

Also, the early Catholic Church's actual banning of the use of Polyphony for so many centuries during the Dark Ages & medieval period, sadly served to reinforce this banal, blanket assumption & viewpoint, that any "respectable" music from antiquity must also have been monophonic!

This resulting predominance of the miserable monophony of the Dark Ages & medieval period in the West, which lasted for so many centuries, may have led to a general misguided viewpoint in the West, that monophony must also have predominated throughout the rest of the ancient world as well - and thus, the "urban myth" of the monotony of monophony; a frankly ridiculous, virtually unchallenged, unquestioned dismal dogma, was born...and has remained in Western thought, right through to the present day! 

 


 

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