Music Memes: Organizing Sound

26 Jul

The word music comes from the ancient Greek ‘art of the muses’. Music was a fundamental part of how the Greeks understood their creation myths, their place in the physical world and their sense of destiny. Music was prevalent throughout Ancient Greek society, incorporated into “singing processions, choral dances, [and] sacrifices accompanied by ritual hymns”.  Songs were sung in the most important of ceremonial functions and also in everyday activities.

Some of the most important and lasting texts on Greek music theory were written by Plato, Aristotle, Ptolemy and Pythagoras, all major philosophers of their time. The fact that they wrote about music demonstrates how essential it was to society. Greek myths state that music was invented by the Gods, including Apollo and Orpheus. The Philosophers included it as part of the Quadrivium.1

The ancient Greeks believed that Ethos, the essence of one’s moral character, could be influenced by music. In his text, Politics, Aristotle described how different types of music could affect different people in different ways. Plato and Aristotle both agreed that music was essential to education, and Plato argued that listening to certain styles of music could be detrimental to the character or Ethos. He advocated listening to only the styles of music that fostered “temperance and courage”. Plato disliked complex music, and hoped that musical conventions would not change because he believed that “lawlessness” could lead to anarchy and poor morals. Aristotle, however, did not believe in Plato’s arguments of constraining musical styles for reasons of morality. This form of philosophical conflict only served to enhance the focus on the importance of music. 

Pythagoras was a philosopher and mathematician who believed that numbers were an inseparable part of music and music was an inseparable part of the universe. Pythagoras is remembered to this day for his mathematical formulae, and his famous quote, “There is geometry in the humming of the strings. There is music in the spacing of the spheres”. Additionally, Claudius Ptolemy, a mathematician and astronomer, wrote the text, Harmonics, where he builds on the Pythagorean concepts and is one of the first to describe musical intervals, which he understood to follow the same mathematical laws that governed the movement of the planets. 

The mathematics behind these intervals remain constant and are part of the foundation of organized musical theory. “Pythagoras was credited with discovering that the octave, fifth and fourth long recognized as consonances are also related to numbers”. The word melody comes from the Greek “melos” which means tune or song. Poetry and music were deeply connected by a syllabic rhythmic system. 

Harmonia (harmony) was a concept of “unification of parts…  sounds and rhythms ordered by numbers”. The concept included, but was not limited to music. Mathematics, philosophy and politics were also considered within the framework of harmonia. The Greeks even had a Goddess for the concept of harmony with sound. Harmonia personified the essence of unanimity or oneness.

Greek music theory became the foundation of Western musical theory. Much of our musical terminology comes from Greek and Latin roots and the Story of Western music is a continual building upon the Greek musical legacy.

art of the muses


  1. The Quadrivium was part of the Ancient Greek theory of education which was described by Plato. It was grouped with the Trivium. Trivium was the the foundation of education; Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric. The Quadrivium, which focused on Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy, built upon the Trivium and constituted the “university education” of organized western society until the Renaissance began to reorganize the concepts of higher learning.