William A. Johnson, Department of Classics, University of Cincinnati

Ancient Greek Music on Papyrus:

Two New Fragments


The Yale Musical Papyrus                   The Michigan Instrumental Papyrus

 (Click on either of these images to hear the music represented on these ancient papyri)

Among the many extraordinary treasures that have been dug from the sands of Egypt are the musical papyri: scraps of papyrus (the ancient equivalent of paper) containing musical notation. While it is certainly true that we do not know specifically what the melodies of Sappho sounded like, or the choruses of Sophocles, the frequent complaint that ancient Greek music is "lost" is overstated.

In fact, we know quite a lot: we know a great deal about the rhythms of the music, since these are reflected in the metrical patterns of Greek verse. We know much about the musical system, that is, how the scales were conceived and the like, since by a near miracle the works of several Greek musical theorists survive. We can infer much about the instruments, using as evidence surviving fragments of ancient instruments, depictions on vases and wall paintings, literary descriptions, and cross-cultural comparison.

Most spectacularly, though, we also know something of the melodies, since over 30 melodies or collections of melodies come down to us. A couple are passed down through the medieval tradition. Five are preserved on stone inscriptions. The rest, however, survive on the waste paper of antiquity -- papyrus -- and many of these papyri have been published only recently. Most are very fragmentary, preserving only a few notes here, a couple of phrases there; but the sum of the parts does, in fact, give us a vivid idea of how ancient music sounded.

Indeed, these are heady times for students of ancient music. The gradual accumulation of evidence permits us to begin to sketch with some specificity what ancient music was like, particularly for early Roman empire (the first and second centuries AD). The music of those times was, in a word, extravagant-- sinuous, florid, even histrionic. For those interested in the details, I particularly recommend (aside from my own work, below) a landmark book that is both scholarly and reasonably accessible: M. L. West’s Ancient Greek Music (1992).

I have had the good fortune to publish two new papyrus fragments with ancient Greek musical notation (both currently in press; follow the links to hear the music):

P. Yale CtYBR inv. 4510. A fragment of (probably) two Greek songs. Above each line of Greek is notation that looks mostly like Greek letters, but is in fact vocal musical notation. (Interestingly, ancient musicians had two completely separate systems of musical notation, the one meant for voice, and the other for instruments.)



P. Mich. inv. 1205r. A fragment containing partial lines of instrumental musical notation, perhaps meant for an ancient aulos (which was a woodwind akin to the modern oboe).

1. Further reading (introductions to ancient Greek music)

West, M. L. 1992. Ancient Greek Music. Oxford. By far the best introduction to the subject. Very learned, often brilliant; but also accessible.

Comotti, Giovanni. 1991. Music in Greek and Roman Culture. Baltimore and London. A recent introduction that speaks more to the cultural aspects of ancient music.

Anderson, Warren D. 1994. Music and Musicians in Ancient Greece. Ithaca. Focuses on what can be deduced of instruments and music in the classical period.

Barker, A. 1989. Greek Musical Writings, 2 vols. Cambridge. A compilation and translation of the ancient sources on Greek music.

2. Further listening (attempts, with varying success, at recreating ancient Greek music)

Musique de la Grèce antique. Gregorio Paniagua and Atrium Musicae de Madrid. Harmonia Mundia. 1979. (CD)

Music of Ancient Greece. Christodoulos Halaris and instrumental ensemble, vocal soloists. Orata Arangm. 1992. (CD)

Musiques de l’Antiquité Grecque. Annie Bélis and the Kérylos ensemble. K617. 1996. (CD) The most operatic rendition (too slow, but interestingly suggestive).

Music of the Ancient Greeks by De Organographia (Gayle Neuman, Philip Neuman, William Gavin.) Pandourion Records. (CD) 1997.

3. Roman Era Musical Papyri (these papyri comprise theprincipal Roman-era group studied in my publications)

"The Yale musical papyrus" = P.CtYBR inv. 4510, publication given above.

"The Michigan instrumental papyrus" = P. Mich. inv. 1205r, publication given above.

"The Oslo musical papyrus" = Eitrem, S., Leiv Amundsen, and R. P. Winnington-Ingram. 1955. "Fragments of Unknown Greek Tragic Texts with Musical Notation (P. Osl. inv. no. 1413)."Symbolae Osloenses 31: 1-87. [On P. Oslo inv. 1413]

"The Berlin musical papyrus" = E. Pöhlmann, 1970. Denkmäler altgriechischer Musik. Nuremberg. No. 30. [On P. Berol. inv. 6870]

"The Michigan musical papyrus" = Pearl, O. M. and R. P. Winnington-Ingram. 1965. "A Michigan Papyrus with Musical Notation." JEA 51: 179-195. [On P. Mich. 2958.]

"The Oxyrhynchus monody" = Turner, E. G. and R. P. Winnington-Ingram. 1959. In The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, vol. 25: 113-122. Oxford and London. [On P.Oxy. 2436.]

Haslam, M. W. 1976. In The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, vol. 44: 58-72. Oxford and London. [On P.Oxy. 3161 & 3162.]

Haslam, M. W. 1986. In The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, vol. 53: 41-48. Oxford and London. [On P.Oxy. 3704.]

Cf. also the recent publication of several additional small pieces in The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, vol. 65.

Editions and other essential bibliography for the musical papyri are conveniently found in the catalogue at West 1992, 277–83. To the catalogue there, however, add the Oxyrhynchus pieces (#4461-7) recently published in P.Oxy. LXV, a collection of Ptolemaic scraps published by M. L. West in ZPE 126 (1999) 43-65, and the Yale and Michigan papyri. A full compilation and re-edition of all the musical papyri (which will include the Yale and Michigan papyri) is expected from M. L. West and E. Pöhlmann within the next couple of years.

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