Music Music in Greece
Panayotis League
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 July 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 July 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0263


Located at the geographical and cultural meeting point of Europe, Asia, the Balkans, and North Africa, the Greek peninsula and its islands have always been a crucible of intensive mixture. Egyptian, Phoenician, Persian, Roman, Jewish, Arab, Byzantine, Turkish, Slavic, Albanian, Vlach, Italian, and a myriad other influences are readily apparent in all facets of the millennia-old Hellenic culture, and the music of the Greek world is no exception. It is rooted simultaneously in the modal and rhythmic systems of the ancient Mediterranean and Near East—origins it shares with closely related musical systems in Turkey and the Arab world—and quick to absorb and modify the tonal and harmonic features of European music as well as repertoire from neighboring Balkan nations and beyond. This inherent syncretism is perhaps the most characteristic feature of music in the modern-day Hellenic Republic, the island nation of Cyprus, and their worldwide diaspora of nearly 5 million people. Greek music is also notable for its astonishing diversity; there are at least a dozen regional folk music genres that have more in common with analogous traditions on the other side of the nearest national border than they do with each other, and many of them share neither repertoire nor instruments with other styles played elsewhere in Greece. Like the analogous Sanskrit sangita in the Indian context, the ancient Greek formulation of mousikē—a unified complex of performing arts, presided over by the Muses, that combines instrumental and vocal music, poetry, dance, and theater—remains relevant, as in many genres music, poetry, and dance are deeply intertwined on a structural and semantic level. The most sustained long-term musicological engagement with music in the Greek world has come from scholars of Byzantine chant—the liturgical music of the Eastern Orthodox Church—because of the genre’s close connections with medieval Western chant and the wealth of available manuscripts. Several generations of philologists and folklorists have produced important studies on the oral poetry so central to traditional Greek song, both in comparison to ancient epics such as the Homeric poems and in relation to contemporary regional streams of oral literature. Compared to the substantial body of literature on related traditions in the Balkans, Turkey, and the wider Mediterranean, relatively little work has been done by ethnomusicologists on the folk and popular music of Greece; but a talented generation of young Greek scholars trained in Europe and North America, as well as the exponential growth of ethnomusicology programs at Greek universities, is beginning to reverse this trend. This article seeks to give researchers a broad sense of extant scholarship across the many genres of Greek music, from foundational works in philological folk song studies and chant to ethnographic studies of music and dance across the Greek world and recent contributions to the realms of ethnomusicological theory and minority studies.

General Overviews

The majority of general introductory works on music in the Greek world pertain to ancient Greece, reflecting Western scholars’ prolonged interest in the historical, philosophical, and tonal aspects of music in Antiquity. The two included here take complementary approaches to the subject; Mathiesen 1999 is a more general encyclopedia-style overview that also engages with medieval iterations of ancient music, while Anderson 1994 goes into more technical detail and focuses on the classical and Hellenistic periods. The one general overview of Byzantine or Greek Orthodox liturgical music presented here, Stathis and Terzopoulos 2014, concentrates on more recent developments in chant. Finally, the four general works concerning folk music pertain to organology (Anoyanakis 1979 and Maliaras 2008), sung folk poetry (Politis 2011), folk and liturgical traditions from a musicological and philological perspective (Baud-Bovy 1983), and folk song since independence from the Ottoman Empire (Liavas 2009).

  • Anderson, Warren D. Music and Musicians in Ancient Greece. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994.

    A meticulously researched overview of musical theory and practice in ancient Greece, with individual chapters focusing on music in daily life; vocal music; instruments; rhythm, tempo, and an excellent survey of meters; modes; melody and form; theory; notation and pitch; extant fragments of notation; and historical synthesis.

  • Anoyanakis, Fivos. Greek Popular Musical Instruments. Athens, Greece: National Bank of Greece, 1979.

    An overview of instruments and instrumental techniques used in traditional Greek music, richly illustrated with color photographs from Anoyanakis’s personal collection, now housed in the Museum of Greek Folk Instruments in Athens. Especially notable for its broad inclusion of instruments from all regions and time periods of post-Byzantine Greece, from masterpieces made for urban Ottoman Greek art musicians to children’s musical toys.

  • Baud-Bovy, Samuel. Essai sur la chanson populaire grecque. Nafplio, Greece: Peloponnesian Folklore Foundation, 1983.

    Written at the end of an illustrious life and career by the founding father of musicological approaches to Greek folk genres, this volume provides a relatively brief but rigorous introduction to the music and poetry of traditional Greek music from a historical perspective that takes into equal account both documented connections to ancient and Hellenistic phenomena and the legacies of Venetian and Ottoman rule. (Title translation: Essay on Greek folk song.)

  • Liavas, Lampros. Το Ελληνικό τραγούδι: Από το 1821 έως τη δεκαετία του 1950. Athens, Greece: Εμπορική Τράπεζα της Ελλάδος, 2009.

    An introductory survey of the historical development of Greek folk, popular, and art song from the founding of the modern Greek state to the post–World War II period, focusing on the inherent connections in Greek culture between poetry, music, and movement. Examines diverse genres of rural and urban song, tensions between Eastern and Western identity, and music across the Greek diaspora, profiling important artists and placing musical developments in dialogue with historical events. (Title translation: Greek song from 1821 to the 1950s.)

  • Maliaras, Nikolaos. Βυζαντινά μουσικά όργανα. Athens, Greece: Παπαγρηγορίου-Νάκας, 2008.

    A thorough summary and organological analysis of the extant iconographic and literary sources of knowledge about musical instruments in the Byzantine period, filling a major lacuna in Byzantine musicology and applying a rigorous evidence-based approach that avoids the generalizations and speculations that characterize much Greek writing on the subject. (Title translation: Byzantine musical instruments.)

  • Mathiesen, Thomas J. Apollo’s Lyre: Greek Music and Music Theory in Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.

    A well-organized survey focusing on theoretical and practical aspects of music in ancient Greece, presented in concise encyclopedia-style entries. Includes sections on musical activity in the context of ritual, theater, and secular life; a catalogue of musical instruments organized according to the Sachs-Hornbostel system; music theory in Early Antiquity, the Hellenistic revival, and Late Antiquity; and ancient music in the Middle Ages.

  • Politis, Alexis. Το δημοτικό τραγούδι. Rethymno, Greece: University of Crete Press, 2011.

    A comprehensive overview of traditional Greek song from a philological perspective, engaging with the subject as oral literature. Includes sections on the social function of Greek folk song, content, morphology, aesthetics, absorption into the written tradition and the impact of this process on orality, detailed analysis of selected songs, and commentary on important edited collections of song texts from the 19th to the 21st century. (Title translation: Greek folk song.)

  • Stathis, Gregorios, and Konstantinos Terzopoulos. Introduction to Kalophony, The Byzantine Ars Nova: The Anagrammatismoi and Mathēmata of Byzantine Chant. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2014.

    DOI: 10.3726/978-3-0353-0357-5

    A new English translation of a classic overview of one of the most dynamic and influential chapters of Byzantine music history, the 14th-century innovations of virtuosi composers and singers active in the period between the Latin occupation and Ottoman conquest of Constantinople.

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