Tag Archives: music

Ancient Greek music: now we finally know what it sounded like

File 20180730 106502 1yjy0gz.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1

Wikimedia Commons

Armand D’Angour, University of Oxford

In 1932, the musicologist Wilfrid Perrett reported to an audience at the Royal Musical Association in London the words of an unnamed professor of Greek with musical leanings: “Nobody has ever made head or tail of ancient Greek music, and nobody ever will. That way madness lies.”

Roman mosaic with aulos player.
Wikimedia Commons

Indeed, ancient Greek music has long posed a maddening enigma. Yet music was ubiquitous in classical Greece, with most of the poetry from around 750BC to 350BC – the songs of Homer, Sappho, and others – composed and performed as sung music, sometimes accompanied by dance. Literary texts provide abundant and highly specific details about the notes, scales, effects, and instruments used. The lyre was a common feature, along with the popular aulos, two double-reed pipes played simultaneously by a single performer so as to sound like two powerful oboes played in concert.

Despite this wealth of information, the sense and sound of ancient Greek music has proved incredibly elusive. This is because the terms and notions found in ancient sources – mode, enharmonic, diesis, and so on – are complicated and unfamiliar. And while notated music exists and can be reliably interpreted, it is scarce and fragmentary. What could be reconstructed in practice has often sounded quite strange and unappealing – so ancient Greek music had by many been deemed a lost art.

An older reconstruction of ancient Greek music.

But recent developments have excitingly overturned this gloomy assessment. A project to investigate ancient Greek music that I have been working on since 2013 has generated stunning insights into how ancient Greeks made music. My research has even led to its performance – and hopefully, in the future, we’ll see many more such reconstructions.

New approaches

The situation has changed largely because over the past few years some very well preserved auloi have been reconstructed by expert technicians such as Robin Howell and researchers associated with the European Music Archaeology Project. Played by highly skilled pipers such as Barnaby Brown and Callum Armstrong, they provide a faithful guide to the pitch range of ancient music, as well as to the instruments’ own pitches, timbres, and tunings.

Central to ancient song was its rhythms, and the rhythms of ancient Greek music can be derived from the metres of the poetry. These were based strictly on the durations of syllables of words, which create patterns of long and short elements. While there are no tempo indications for ancient songs, it is often clear whether a metre should be sung fast or slow (until the invention of mechanical chronometers, tempo was in any case not fixed, and was bound to vary between performances). Setting an appropriate tempo is essential if music is to sound right.

Apollo plays the lyre.
Wikimedia Commons

What about the tunes – the melody and harmony? This is what most people mean when they claim that ancient Greek “music” is lost. Thousands of words about the theory of melody and harmony survive in the writings of ancient authors such as Plato, Aristotle, Aristoxenus, Ptolemy, and Aristides Quintilianus; and a few fragmentary scores with ancient musical notation first came to light in Florence in the late 16th century. But this evidence for actual music gave no real sense of the melodic and harmonic riches that we learn of from literary sources.

More documents with ancient notation on papyrus or stone have intermittently come to light since 1581, and now around 60 fragments exist. Carefully compiled, transcribed, and interpreted by scholars such as Martin West and Egert Pöhlmann, they give us a better chance of understanding how the music sounded.

Ancient Greek music performed

The earliest substantial musical document, found in 1892, preserves part of a chorus from the Athenian tragedian Euripides’ Orestes of 408BC. It has long posed problems for interpretation, mainly owing to its use of quarter-tone intervals, which have seemed to suggest an alien melodic sensibility. Western music operates with whole tones and semitones; any smaller interval sounds to our ears as if a note is being played or sung out of tune.

Musical fragment from Orestes by Euripides.
Wikimedia Commons

But my analyses of the Orestes fragment, published earlier this year, led to striking insights. First, I demonstrated that elements of the score clearly indicate word-painting – the imitation of the meaning of words by the shape of the melodic line. We find a falling cadence set to the word “lament”, and a large upward interval leap accompanying the word “leaps up”.

Second, I showed that if the quarter-tones functioned as “passing-notes”, the composition was in fact tonal (focused on a pitch to which the tune regularly reverts). This should not be very surprising, as such tonality exists in all the documents of ancient music from later centuries, including the large-scale Delphic Paeans preserved on stone.

With these premises in view, in 2016 I reconstructed the music of the Orestes papyrus for choral realisation with aulos accompaniment, setting a brisk tempo as indicated by the metre and the content of the chorus’s words. This Orestes chorus was performed by choir and aulos-player at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, in July 2017, together with other reconstructed ancient scores.

It remains for me to realise, in the next few years, the other few dozen ancient scores that exist, many extremely fragmentary, and to stage a complete ancient drama with historically informed music in an ancient theatre such as that of Epidaurus.

<!– Below is The Conversation's page counter tag. Please DO NOT REMOVE. –>
The Conversation

Meanwhile, an exciting conclusion may be drawn. The Western tradition of classical music is often said to begin with the Gregorian plainsong of the 9th century AD. But the reconstruction and performance of Greek music has demonstrated that ancient Greek music should be recognised as the root of the European musical tradition.

Armand D’Angour, Associate Professor in Classics, University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


How Australia played the world’s first music on a computer

Paul Doornbusch, University of Melbourne

We don’t think twice about playing music via a computer – we have them in our pockets, and in our homes and offices, with music on tap. But playing music on a computer was once an almost unthinkable leap of the imagination and the most devilishly difficult programming challenge.

The world’s fourth digital computer was designed and built in Australia by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR, the precursor of the CSIRO). It started life as a dream in 1947, ran its first test program in 1949 and played music in 1950 or 1951.

Initially known as the CSIR Mark 1 – later renamed CSIRAC (the CSIR Automatic Computer) – it was built at the CSIR’s radiophysics division in Sydney.

CSIRAC was a very primitive computer by today’s standards. It was very slow (1,000 cycles per second); it did not have very much memory (about 2KB of RAM and 3KB of disk memory); it filled a room and; it had no display like a modern computer.

Out of the hooter

Most output from CSIRAC was via punched paper tape that was later converted to text on another machine. The only familiar output device was a speaker (called the hooter), and it was used to track the progress of a program.

Programmers would place a sound at the end of their program so they knew it had ended (this was known as a blurt), or they would program progress-indicator blurts into a program.

Despite being primitive, CSIRAC performed groundbreaking work, including running the calculations to find the centre of our galaxy in 1953, and for the engineering of our first skyscraper building.

CSIRAC before it was put on display at Museum Victoria.
Paul Doornbusch

CSIRAC was a serial computer, it passed digital bits around one at a time unlike the 32 or 64 bits passed around in parallel in modern computers.

The memory on the CSIRAC was mercury acoustic delay lines. That means a pulse would be put into the memory tube, it would travel to the other end of the tube and be recycled back to the front. In this way, many bits and digital words could be stored in one tube of mercury. There were about 20 memory tubes functional at any time.

A consequence of using mercury acoustic delay time memory was that each memory access took a different time. This would prove problematic for any time-critical application, such as playing music in real time.

The music maker

The first software engineer or programmer was the mathematician Geoff Hill, who is something of an unsung hero of Australian computing.

Hill came from a very musical family; his mother was a music teacher, his sister a performer and he had perfect pitch. This is crucial, as the way CSIRAC created sounds was by sending raw pulses from the computer data bus to the speaker.

If casually programmed, these pulses would arrive at the speaker at somewhat random times, resulting in the blurting type of sound used by programmers to indicate points in the program’s execution.

Hill would have quickly realised that if he could get the pulses to arrive at a regular time, then he would get a steady pitch. Then, perhaps he could program the notes of a musical scale.

This was an exceedingly difficult task because each memory access took a different time, and the overall clock frequency was only 1,000 cycles a second.

But Hill managed this, and his musical knowledge was invaluable, although on at least one occasion he telephoned his mother late at night and asked her if some notes were in tune while holding the telephone receiver to the computer speaker.

Her response on the first occasion was to scold Hill for playing silly buggers with a comb and a piece of paper and annoying her late and night when his dinner was in the oven! She didn’t understand what was going on.

A simple tune

Hill programmed CSIRAC to play various popular tunes of the day, such as Colonel Bogey, Girl with Flaxen Hair and so on. This was natural as the programmers were not musical specialists and were not interested in what using a computer meant for the potential composition and performance of music.

The music was one of CSIRAC’s parlour tricks. Dick McGee remembers it playing music when he started at the CSIRO in April 1951. At Australia’s first computing conference, on August 7-9, 1951, everyone was talking about it afterwards and it caused quite a stir.

The late Trevor Pearcey led the team that created CSIRAC and he remembers its musical performances well, as recalls in the video interview from 1996, a couple of years before he died.

CSIRAC was thus the first computer in the world to play music. Sadly, none of the music it played was ever recorded.

Change of plan at CSIRO

There was some internal refocusing within the CSIRO and it was decided to concentrate on weather science and primary production rather than computation, leaving that to others and the commercial sector.

So it is not surprising that the CSIRO resisted the music being recorded at the time. However, it has now been faithfully reconstructed and can be heard again.

A reconstructed valve amplifier built to the original CSIRAC design to generate the correct pulse shapes.
Paul Doornbusch, Author provided

A team at The University of Melbourne, led by myself, built (valve) hardware to faithfully reconstruct CSIRAC’s pulse shapes, and software to be able to run the old programs.

After hand reading and entering the data from the old punched-paper program tapes, the programs were run with the reconstructed pulses and the music regenerated accurately.

The team even went to the trouble of sourcing a new speaker made within a few weeks of the original to play the music through. Museum Victoria very kindly let us put the speaker in the old cabinets to record the music being played so that it is as authentic as possible.

CSIRAC plays a music scale.
Paul Doornbusch, Author provided116 KB (download)

CSIRAC plays Colonel Bogey.
Paul Doornbusch, Author provided270 KB (download)

CSIRAC plays The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond.
Paul Doornbusch, Author provided289 KB (download)

CSIRAC plays Auld Lang Syne.
Paul Doornbusch, Author provided287 KB (download)

Shortly after CSIRAC first played music, in 1951 the BBC recorded a Ferranti Mark 1 computer playing music in Manchester, England. That is the oldest recording of a computer playing music.

When CSIRAC moved to the University of Melbourne in 1956, it continued to play music. The university’s mathematics professor Tom Cherry wrote a program so that anyone could punch a “score” or “pianola” tape for the computer to play without the intricacies of knowing how to program the hooter.

Professor Cherry’s instructions on how to use the music program still exist.

CSIRAC music instructions.
Paul Doornbusch

A lost opportunity

The most significant early developments in computer music and digital audio happened in the United States from the late 1950s at Bell Labs.

In 1957, the acoustic researcher Max Mathews had the foresight to see the potential of this technology. He wrote a program that allowed an IBM 704 mainframe computer to play a 17-second composition.

Despite the earlier musical work with CSIRAC in Sydney, it is Matthews who is often referred to as the father of computer music.

But the developments started in the 1950s have led to the most exciting musical adventure we have ever embarked on – the application of digital technology to the creation, making, listening and distribution of music.

When discussing the CSIRAC music reconstruction project with the original engineers who had worked on CSIRAC in Melbourne, I lamented that the then Melbourne-based composer Percy Grainger had not been introduced to CSIRAC.

Peter Thorne, a former CSIRAC computer technician, told me:

We used to see him walk past the computation laboratory, we’d say, ‘There goes Percy Grainger’.

I sighed. Grainger was Australia’s most adventurous composer of the day was a few metres away from a machine that could have realised some of his musical dreams. If he had met CSIRAC, some of the remarkable developments of combining computers and music could have been another Australian first.

The Conversation

Paul Doornbusch, Adjunct professor of computer science at The University of Melbourne and Associate Dean, Australian College of the Arts., University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Phonograph

The link below is to an article that takes a look at the phonograph and how it changed music.

For more visit:

Explainer: the history of jazz

Alexander Hunter, Australian National University

After more than 100 years of history, it’s clear the word “jazz” means many different things to many different people. Depending on who’s doing the talking, it can either mean a highly specific musical style, or almost nothing.

The early timeline of jazz is spotty, vague and disputed, as one might expect of a musical movement that grew from a group that was both marginalised and exploited. Jazz evolved from the fringes of American society into one of the most influential, and enduring, musical movements of the 20th century.

Scott Joplin.
Texas State Historical Association

New Orleans in the late 1800s was a remarkably cosmopolitan city, with a more racially egalitarian society than the rest of the American south. In that city, distinct musical trends began to develop, fusing elements of West African musical traditions with European harmonic structures. Musicians used readily available military band instruments left in pawn shops after the end of the American Civil War.

Scott Joplin, “the King of Ragtime”, popularised a music based on jagged (or “ragged”) rhythms, including the habañera, imported from nearby Cuba.

WC Handy, the “Father of the Blues”, travelled through Mississippi collecting and publishing folk songs utilising versions of the now standard “blues” form.

Jelly Roll Morton claimed to have invented what we call “jazz” in 1902, and did much to popularise the New Orleans sound through newly available recording technologies. By the time he recorded his Black Bottom Stomp in 1926, this new music had travelled as far as Chicago.

Jelly Roll Morton.
Wikimedia Commons

In 1917 the cultural hub known as Storyville was closed, which coincided with The Great Migration, in which more than a million African Americans travelled from rural communities in the South to major cities between 1910 and 1930.

That migration, combined with recording technology and Prohibition, brought jazz to an unprecedented number of black and non-black audiences.

During this time Louis Armstrong was at the forefront of jazz. He altered the performance practice of jazz from the traditional texture in which multiple musicians play melody lines simultaneously, to what we now recognise as the individualist, soloist-plus-ensemble format.

The period between 1935 and 1946, generally referred to as the “Swing Era”, saw small, soloist-plus-ensemble bands of Armstrong and others (now called “combos”), largely give way to big bands, consisting of about 18 musicians.

Big names from this period, in which “Swing was King”, include Duke Ellington (thought of by some as the greatest composer in all of jazz history), Count Basie, Woody Herman, Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman, who was the first to perform with a racially integrated band in 1938.

Louis Armstrong.
Wikimedia Commons

Bebop and the recording ban

In the early 1940s a schism occurred in jazz that forever changed the face of pop music. Many black musicians resented the success of white bands and, led by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, returned to the virtuosic combo setting.

“Bebop” was faster and more complicated than anything that had come before it. This was the first time jazz audiences sat down and listened, moving out of the dance halls and into smoky bars. Jazz was becoming art music.

Just as bebop musicians were getting the hang of their new ideas, the Musicians Union in the USA enforced a ban on new commercial recordings as part of a dispute over royalties.

Ella Fitzgerald, November 1946. Photography by William P. Gottlieb.
Wikimedia Commons

For more than a year, starting in August 1942, almost no instrumental musicians were permitted to make new recordings (vocalists were, rather humorously, not considered musicians, and were exempt from the ban).

Interestingly, record labels came up with the idea of recording completely vocal (“a capella”) versions of popular songs – think of a baby-faced Frank Sinatra in a sort of period prequel to Pitch Perfect.

Frank Sinatra, Close to you, 1943.

Before the ban, vocalists were special soloists with big bands, and usually sang a verse or two in the middle of the song. But Tommy Dorsey’s trombone, not Sinatra’s voice, was the important feature. During the ban audiences became accustomed to vocal pop music, and haven’t looked back.

From this split in the early 40s between jazz as art music, and popular music with a vocal focus, the history of jazz follows the art branch (the other turning into the history of Rock and Roll in the subsequent 10 years or so).

From Cool Jazz to Hard Bop

Jazz musicians tend not to stay in one genre too long. Out of the rejection of the fast-paced, complex bebop emerged the late 40s new West Coast scene. Cool Jazz had a more relaxed tempo, with less focus on soloing and a return to ensemble playing.

Some big names here are Chet Baker, Dave Brubeck, Bill Evans, Gil Evans (no relation), Gerry Mulligan Stan Getz, and even Miles Davis, who would be at the forefront of every innovation in jazz from the 40s, through to his death in 1991.

Stan Getz.
Wikimedia Commons

This caused yet another reaction, resulting in what is known as “hard bop”, which fuses bebop practices with R&B, Gospel and Blues influences, and is generally recognised as the default style practised and taught around the world today.

In 1958, when bebop had taken chord progressions and virtuosity to its extreme, Miles Davis began experimenting with the other logical extreme. Jazz musicians had been playing the same standard repertoire since the days of early bebop, and had become very adept at what is called “running the changes”.

Most songs have similar chord progressions – think of those YouTube videos mashing up dozens of pop hits using the same four chords (I V VI IV progression) – and the same improvised melodies (“licks”) can be used over many different songs. Some musicians became frustrated with this apparently mechanical way of improvising, and devised a solution.

Space, melody and free jazz

If bebop had the maximum number of chord changes, what might happen when there were no, or very few, chord changes? Miles Davis’ Milestones (1958) has only two chords.

Davis sought to encourage melodic improvising by removing the “crutches” of complex changes. This “Modal Jazz” represented a huge shift in the techniques utilised by soloists, encouraging space in solos.

Compare the beginnings of Davis’ solo on So What with the recordings made by Davis with Charlie Parker a decade earlier.

Archie Shepp.
Wikimedia Commons

This focus in attention to space and melody, combined with new techniques and ideas coming out of the classical avant-garde gave rise to avant-garde, and eventually “free”, jazz. Starting with The Shape of Jazz to Come in 1959, Ornette Coleman did away with chords altogether, encouraging musicians to play without being constrained by ideas of Western harmonic and melodic conventions.

This was quickly picked up by a number of musicians all over the world (including, perhaps most notably and importantly, John Coltrane, who had recently left Davis’ band), and gave rise to a wide range of free jazz styles.

These had little to do with each other apart from their shared lineage and their interest in sound, and the unrestricted (or at least, less-restricted) interaction between musicians.

Alice Coltrane in 2006.
Wikimedia Commons

As electronic instruments and funk gained in popularity, jazz musicians quickly jumped on new trends and innovations, starting in 1968 with Miles Davis’ Filles de Kilamanjaro.

As jazz moved through the 70s and 80s various elements of pop music seeped in, with just as many jazz elements seeping out – see David Bowie’s Young Americans (1975), for example.

When speaking of jazz in academia today (jazz theory, jazz aural skills, jazz piano class, etc.), we are using the vocabulary set out by the pioneers of bebop. As with all musics, in order to be studied and integrated into education, jazz had to be codified, and classicised.

To a jazz musicologist, the word “jazz” might connote a living, breathing tradition encompassing hundreds of musics from dozens of countries, fused with local folk and popular traditions.

But to my grandmother, jazz will always be The Andrews Sisters and that damned Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.

The Conversation

Alexander Hunter, Lecturer and Convenor of the Open School of Music, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Article: iTunes is 10 Years Old Today

The link below is to an article that looks at 10 years of iTunes.

For more visit:

Article: History of, “Yes! We Have No Bananas”

The link below is to an article (including a video of the song) that looks into the history of the song, ‘Yes! We have no Bananas.’ A pleasurable trip down memory lane.

For more visit:

Video: 100 Historical Guitar Riffs – Brief History of Rock & Roll

%d bloggers like this: