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Ethos in Ancient Greek Musical Thought and Musical Practices

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Music played an integral role in Ancient Greek culture, its presence was highly regarded and expected in private and public festivities. Music’s popularity in society caused Ancient Greek philosophers to concern over the nature of music and its effect on people, and they agreed that music could affect a person’s ethos (character). Ethos is an ancient Greek term used to describe music’s moral force in educating the soul, the mind, and the behaviours of an individual. In both the science and philosophy of music, principles were established on how music could convey, strengthen, and create ethical states, and influenced Ancient Greek musical practices.

Pythagoreans developed mathematical laws that governed music. They discovered that those same laws operated both in the cosmos and in the human soul which was kept in harmony by numerical relationships. Music could enter the soul and either re-establish or shatter its inner balance, affecting one’s character and/or behaviour. The notion that music was tied to the cosmos, to rational order, and to ethics dominated in Ancient Greece because it suggested that music could transform people.

Music was believed to both cause and heal agitation. Aristotle’s theory of imitation described how music had the ability to intensify and imitate human emotion (mimesis), and he argued that music could also “cure” certain emotions through its ability to induce emotional release (catharsis). In Politics, Aristotle stated that music could represent and stir emotions in an individual, and therefore influence their ethos. He believed that music imitating “bad” emotions like violence could warp a person’s character. Both Aristotle and Plato thought that music should be part of education because of the influence it has on an individual; however, they did not approve of virtuosity nor listening to music for enjoyment if it was not for educational purposes. Music was meant to be for the intellect and soul, not for the production of sound.

Plato was fond of religious and social music because of the ethical force that was derived from it. He stated that music formed ethos more profoundly when people participated by dancing because of the direct impact the rhythm, meter, and melody had on individual. For example, choral dance-songs required performers to take part in the ceremonial experience, and Plato believed that through the movements, the meter, melody, and the tempo, the ethos of the music strenghten. Each element in isolation would have had the same ethos, but it would not have as precise and powerful impact on the listener. Plato stated that choral songs educated the people involved, and more specifically it allowed them to achieve moral excellence.

The ethos of meter became important when poetic genres allowed different or new metrical types. Plato criticized this phenomenon because it did not follow the expected pattern that would imitate the approved virtue. There were various meters meant for a variety of effects like the dochmiac meter to show anxiety or despair, the anapaestic meter to convey dignity, the paeonic meter to instill excitement, and the epitrite meter to convey death. Evidently, meter was chosen carefully for the music in funerals, festivals, dramas, etc. Tempo also played a very important role and had to be chosen carefully since its variations could generate different kinds of ethos to the same rhythm.

Damon, an Athenian philosopher and music theorist, concerned over moral effects of music on an individual, created typologies of rhythms, modes, and characters. With the authority he held, he also established a strong connection between music and society, thus, musical changes included legal changes. Damon’s belief was that if music could have an effect on the human soul, it could “similarly affect the soul of the state — its laws and political constitution.” A new practice of carefully choosing rhythms also began in lyric poetry and Greek tragedies in order to match the emotional content.

The most significant instruments in Ancient Greece were the lyre and the aulos. The aulos’ association with Dionysus and it penetrating tone meant it was commonly played at drinking parties to imitate raucousness. The lyre, producing a clear sound, were associated with Apollo, the God of music, and therefore used to represent enlightenment. Plato used the lyre for educational purposes, and believed that instruments must move in unison with the melody because it imitated good virtue. He argued that the human soul is simple and good, and music should be simple to be in accordance with the human soul.

Modes were limited and carefully chosen depending on the music needed. Plato approved of only two modes: Dorian and Phrygian, fostering courage and temperance, respectively, and perceived the other modes as being debilitating. If imitations of virtue strengthen an individual’s virtue, then imitations of vice can be destructive to an individual, thus only the use of Dorian and Phrygian were condoned.

The religious calendar specified musical selections for each holy day. Songs suitable for men and women, respectively, were chosen based on modes and rhythms. The division of the songs was made in relation to the characteristics of the sexes: men would receive songs that imitated bravery and grandness, whereas women would receive songs that were orderly and discreet. Modes were used accordingly; it is clear that the Dorian mode embodies characteristics of a man, and that Phrygian embodies those of a woman. Such divisions of music also served as a way of educating and training both sexes, following the ethical goals of Platonic education.

Aristides Quintilianus, a Greek author of the musical treatise, De musica, also had a firm belief in the mimetic power music held. In his treatise, he noted that rhythm and melos (song) subdivided into masculine, feminine, and medial characteristics, and when applied to music, a dominant ethos could be determined. This system proved useful for matching the characters and the function of the chorus in Greek tragedies.

The ethical force of music is an important feature of the Ancient Greek outlook. Ancient Greek intellectuals explored and developed theories and beliefs on the influence music had on the individual, and such beliefs impacted musical practices in Ancient Greece. Music integrated itself into many aspects of Ancient Greek society and was used to strengthen devotional and virtuous thinking, keep the human soul balanced, educate individuals, and provide entertainment.

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