The musical revolution of fifth-century Greece

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Sirski, Steven
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Greece experienced a musical revolution in the fifth century BC which modern scholars call the “New Music” movement. The movement was encouraged by Greek culture which embraced change and innovation. Under the “New Musicians,” those individuals involved in the movement, many traditional elements of music were changed or discarded. The most prominent place in which to understand the change in musical styles is the nomic and dithyrambic genres: both genres allowed musicians a great range in creativity to the extent that innovations in the nomoi made their way into the dithyramb. The change to traditional music was not always warmly accepted. Instead, while the demos enjoyed the new style of music the aristocracy derided its existence. The split between the demotic and aristocratic views of music may be seen especially in the attitude towards and purpose of the aulos and kithara in fifth-century Athens. Moreover, since the attitude of the aristocrats differed from that of the working-class musicians, we are able to see that the traditionally-minded aristocracy saw music as a gift from the gods while the working musicians saw the instruments and their musical sound as “tools.” The New Music movement was encouraged by Greek society which rewarded novelty and innovation. As Athens grew to become a cultural hot spot in the fifth century, more people saw the incentive to becoming professional musicians; original music would be rewarded either by fame and glory of the festivals or by financial remuneration. As a result, a primitive “entertainment industry” arose at Athens and propelled the new-style musicians to pursue their original compositions in their professional careers. The New Music movement also encouraged the study of music, particularly the study of musical ethics. In addition to having a status as a cultural hot spot, Athens also attracted numerous philosophers and other intellectuals. Those intellectuals contributed to the debate about the function and value of music. As the New Musicians’ popularity increased and the new style of music exerted an influence on the education system, emphasis was placed on the importance of the text and the development of the capacity to judge music. As a result, many philosophers and music theorists debated the moral aspect of music, now called the concept of musical ethos. The concept of musical ethos demonstrates that both philosophers and musicians studied music with a view to determining the most effective music for eliciting a response from the audience. Through a study of the ancient literature, most of which deals with music only incidentally, we will be able to understand how the New Music movement was encouraged by Greek culture, given an incentive by fifth-century society, and studied by some of the most brilliant philosophers and musicians Greek history has known.
New Music, New Musicians, ancient Greek music, ethos, aulos, kithara, nomoi, dithyramb, lyre, music, musicians