BMCR 1998.11.22

Music in the Aegean Bronze Age


Unheard melodies may not, necessarily, be always sweet, yet even when the voices and lyres are singing and strumming somewhere far from the study-room, music makes a charming subject to read about and contemplate. No matter how intellectual a writer on instruments or music-history may get, if he hints at, or promises, a tune behind the words he buoys up our imagination and directs it towards thoughts of a sensible pleasure.

The music itself is never very far from Younger’s mind, and for that very reason I found Music in the Aegean Bronze Age, from the first reading, a delightful monograph. True enough, as he says, “No actual composition of Aegean music has survived” (at least not from before the end of the 5th. century B.C., if Athens of that time is still “Aegean”). However, Younger never lets us forget that 3,000 years ago real people did sing and play, and no doubt — judging from his enthusiasm — with gusto.

The past fifteen years have seen a remarkable surge of interest in the music of ancient times, Greek, Mediterranean, and elsewhere. The study of ancient music can be considered not as a renaissance, but as the opening of an entirely new field. Up to the near present scholarship concentrated on the study of the theoretical treatises that survive from classical antiquity, with limited, and often dreary, results. Over this century western audiences have become accustomed to and fond of a huge variety of musics from both the European past and from every culture of the world. We no longer think it absurd that scholars should sympathetically sift the evidence for ancient music and try to determine how it sounded and felt, on the assumption that, like other “exotic” musics, it must have been good.

Younger styles himself an archaeologist — and musician — specializing in the Aegean Bronze Age. Appropriately enough it is this area’s bronze age he investigates. Younger’s archaeological approach is not only natural but necessary. There are, again, no texts of Bronze Age music, and nothing in the Linear B records — nothing until Homer — of any esthetic concern. What we needed was a painstaking, thorough, and informed look at depictions of musical scenes and the physical remains of instruments. This is exactly what Younger has given us, in his chapter one, a survey of surviving evidence. In chapter two he draws broader conclusions about the role of music in Aegean society.

Song is such a human universal that one need only gently insist on seeing depictions of people singing. One representation of singing, the Harvester Vase from Ayia Triada in Crete, is not only beautiful in itself, Younger manages to make, on its evidence, a number of very interesting speculations about music, singing, and dance.

Although the number of Bronze Age instruments played was small, all the categories of instrument, string, wind (both reed and “brass”), and percussion, found a place there. Not surprisingly, both the Minoans and the Myceneans, through most of their history, favored the various forms of lyre, phorminx, chelys (tortoise shell lyre), kithara, and the aulos.

The stringed instrument to show up earliest though is the harp. Harps are depicted in some, apparently genuine, Cycladic figurines, in sealstones, and schematically in the Cretan hieroglyphic script. Representations cease after the end of the Middle Bronze Age, at the same time that depictions of the phorminx begin to appear. The conclusion is that the harp became obsolescent, or specialized and reserved for women’s use. This would explain the rarity of the harp in musical scenes of the classical period.

Lyres begin to appear when harps fade away. The phorminx, a lyre with elaborate arms and a crescent-shaped sound-box, is the first type represented, in a sealstone from Knossos. From this point on the lyre’s history continues up to the classical age, gathering new varieties (the chelys lyre, the kithara) along the way. “Cavorting blue monkeys” play triangular lyres without soundbox in fresco from Thera, and may be toys. The Cretan Ayia Triada Sarcophagus shows a phorminx, whose arms are gracefully curved, that clearly possesses seven strings. In other depictions where the strings can be counted, the number is seven. This evidence handsomely disposes of the myth, so cherished in antiquity, that the primitive lyre started out with four strings and gained three more by the innovation of Terpander in the seventh century.

The aulos — or rather auloi, as the pipes were always played in pairs — has the honor of being the instrument whose history stretches unbroken from the beginnings through to the classical era. A Cycladic figurine represents a person playing auloi, and auloi continue to be seen, despite a short gap in the evidence, up through the Iron Age and beyond.

Whether the syrinx, or panpipe, existed during the Bronze Age is doubtful. In the period Younger treats the only things which depict syrinxes are certain Cycladic statuettes of unclear provenance, which may well be forgeries. “Even more troubling,” says Younger, “the statuettes misunderstand the technique of playing, for they represent the player holding the syrinx up to the mouth like a sandwich as if the musician were to blow down into the tubes, not across their tops.” [p. 34] Younger’s doubts are a wholesome caveat for text-centered scholars like myself, who may understand the rudiments of ancient art, but know nothing about the chicaneries of the modern art-trade, which an archaeologist ignores at his peril.

Triton shells, or imitations, are found among the cult paraphernalia. Some have their apex sawn open, and could have functioned as a trumpet, as large shells are used in many parts of the world, including Crete. Whether the Bronze Age Aegeans actually tooted their shells is unclear. Certainly the classical Greeks blasted on their sea-spirals, but only one Bronze Age sealstone shows both a person and a shell together, in a relationship hard to interpret. Yet when all is considered, Younger’s conjecture that triton shells were indeed used as trumpets is a lot more plausible than not.

Among percussion instruments, both sistra and cymbals are found in the Aegean Bronze Age, as they are throughout antiquity up to very late.

How much information about music can one get from depictions of instruments and musical scenes, or from pieces of the instruments themselves? Frescoes, seals, figurines, and lyre-fragments themselves are quite pathetically mute. In fact, we can learn quite a lot from these remnants, if looked at with such skill and imagination as Younger brings to bear.

Certain conclusions are inevitable. In the first place, from the mere catalogue of instruments, I was impressed at the obvious continuity between Aegean Bronze Age Music and that of the classical period — if we may call the style of the 5th. century “classical.” While everybody at every time likes “the song that comes newest” (just look at popular music in this century), features and principles of music persist in a culture. Younger’s survey shows that this was true for ancient Aegean music. Much continued and carried over from the Bronze through to the classical era. The timbre, in particular, of classical music must have been much the same as what the people of Knossos enjoyed, cicada-like sounds: “white” voice, buzzy auloi, and clear, ringing lyres.

The absence of any remains or depiction of a drum intrigued me. No doubt rhythm was highly important in at least Mycenean music (since we know they spoke Greek, and given the elaboration of rhythm in both Indo-European and later Greek song). Perhaps this shows how important the words of a song and their rhythm was held to be. Sistra and cymbals can punctuate, but drums thud and boom, marring the precision and drowning the voice. Rustling sistra and tinkling cymbals seem more likely to have harmonized with the reedy and brilliant sound preferred in lyres, auloi, and voice.

Nor is it impossible to assert that the notes of the scale may have been the same, or at least quite similar, in both Bronze Age and classical music. Whatever 5th century scales may have been, we know they were based on the interval of the fourth, the so-called tetrachord. Two double harps in Minoan sealstones or impressions clearly show a total of eight strings, four in each of two lobes. If these strings were tuned in two sequential tetrachords, E to A, and B to E, the harp’s entire compass becomes an octave.

Younger also mentions in passing how Aegean Bronze Age music shared features in common with other cultures of the Eastern Mediterranean, the Near East and Egypt. This opened my eyes wide. Here are fascinating hints at direct and lively cultural connections between proto-Hellas and cultures often thought completely separate. I wish Younger had developed this theme further, but I will look into L. Manniche’s Music and Musicians in Ancient Egypt, which he cites, as soon as I can get at it.

Younger performs a tour de force in his interpretation of the scene on the Harvester Vase, a rhyton of black steatite from Ayia Triada. It depicts a procession of 26 men led by a man in a mantle or robe. Most of these are harvesters, as appears from their dress and the tools they carry on their shoulders. In the middle, a sistrum player holds up his instrument and three singers sing from wide-opened mouths. The foremost group of harvesters walk in step; the group behind the musicians is much less organized. The musicians themselves are shown as a different physical type from that of the harvesters.

Younger conjectures that the scene depicts a harvest song, like the Linos song portrayed on the shield of Achilles. A feature of such songs was to be performed by “‘… a solo performer with poorly co-ordinated antiphonal responses from a chorus'” and Younger comments that “the cluttered group of workers on the Harvester Vase then might reflect such imprecision.”

Younger also notices that the different positions of the singers’ heads may be the artist’s way of suggesting the different timbres of their voices. The positions of the legs imply that the rhythm is march-like. To cap it all Younger composes a “whimsical” antiphonal chant to illustrate what sort of movement might be happening here:

SINGERS “We’ll be tired from pick—-ing o——lives,” SISTRUM SHAKER (shaking the sistrum) “BUT” WORKERS “they’ll be good to eat!”

Admittedly this is all suppositional, as Younger himself says. However, Younger is very careful what suppositions he makes and how far to go with them. Any work to do with ancient music, where actual scores notating melody and rhythm are as rare as chicken’s milk, must employ lively imagination and make friends with conjecture, which in proper hands has never been a disreputable tool in philology or archaeology.

In his chapter two, Younger speculates on the relationship of Aegean music and society. At first, when I read of struggles over musical property being political struggles, and then just beneath read that Younger was about to formulate “assumptions”, I grew suspicious. I do not automatically approve of post-modern attitudes and procedures, and in scholarship my motto is, with Newton, hypotheses non fingo. But whatever made me wary turned out in the end to be a simple matter of presentation. Younger calls his proposals about music and society “assumptions”; in fact, these are conclusions which he has drawn from a good hard look at the evidence, only he has put them up front rather than at the end.

The conclusions Younger draws have to do with music and upper-class societal norms, power if you will, and with music and sexuality. As for the first category, it is definitely true that all the depictions of music from the Aegean Bronze Age come down to us preserved on things that have a ceremonial or ritual purpose, seals, sarcophagi, palace frescoes, etc. Scenes of music and day to day life are rare in Minoan art, and do not exist in Mycenean art. Beyond doubt we are seeing what the patrons of art wanted us to see. Plato and Aristotle were primarily interested in music in terms of its ethical and social effects, what music was good or bad for character, and how music could be used as a means of social management. Younger notes this, and given the narrow range of occasions in which music is depicted in Mycenean art, says it is “tempting” to apply such observations.

For all that, Younger does not make the making of arguing from silence that officially-approved occasions were the only occasion on which music was played. I cannot see how ordinary people’s music could have been anything other than ubiquitous and plentiful. But, indeed, official art deals with official attitudes, and this is what we’re looking at.

As for music and sexuality, Younger says that while music figures in erotic situations in both Egyptian art, and later Greek art, Aegean art offers almost no erotic art at all. Music and sex are commonly associated everywhere, in every time, another human universal. In short, the lack of connection between music and sex in Aegean art supports Younger’s first point about Aegean peoples’ opinion that music had strong emotional and ethical effects that seemed dangerous or subversive, to Plato, certainly, and perhaps also for the Greeks of 800 years before him. It must be significant that instruments that can be played standing up, and so allow the player to move vigorously, like the phorminx, are not shown played by women.

But on these questions I hope the interested reader will pick up Music of the Aegean Bronze Age and make up her or his own mind. The book includes a critical catalogue of all archaeological finds from the Aegean that relate in some way to Bronze Age Music. Plates illustrate the most important artifacts. The study of ancient music is going to have to be rebuilt stone by toppled stone, and in my opinion this book puts in place a block of sound structural quality.

Note: This book, as well as others in the series, may be difficult to obtain from your local bookshop. They are available directly from the publisher:

Paul Äströms Förlag, William Gibsons Väg 11, SE-433 76 Jonsered, Sweden.

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Though strangely never referred to as αὐλώ. On the piano, the interval from, say E to A above. London: British Museum Press, 1991. p. 7; Younger quotes from M.L. West’s Ancient Greek Music, p. 45 Although the interest goes far back beyond them, to Pythagoras, Democritus, and others, even to Homer. The κλέα ἀνδρῶν which Achilles sings [ Iliad 9.189] must have been exemplary stories for a warrior-prince. Third thoughts came to me in support of Younger’s thesis. Propriety of musical taste has been near and far, early and late, in “primitive” and civilized societies, been considered to wield great influence in life. Confucius discusses this in the Analects; he also edited the Book of Odes to render examples to posterity. Many of the indigenous men of South America forbade women to view their initiatory flutes or bullroarers, on penalty of rape. Examples could be multiplied extensively. Yes, music is of concern to those who want to preserve social norms.