Category Archives: Antiquity

Astérix and instruments

Astérix le Gaulois, a series of comics written by René Goscinny and illustrated by Albert Uderzo between 1960 and 1999, received much acclaim for the attention to detail in Uderzo’s drawings of ancient civilizations.

Particularly interesting to an organologist are the illustrations of instruments—including carnyx, buccina, lur, bagpipe, harp, lyre, pipes, and drums—used by ancient Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, and Gauls.

In the free online resource Musical instruments of antiquity as illustrated in “The adventures of Asterix the Gaul” Daniel A Russell compares Uderzo’s illustrations to photographs of period instruments and comments on their acoustic qualities, performance techniques, and the roles they played in their respective societies, both in real history and as experienced by Astérix and his friends.

Above, Uderzo’s depiction of a banquet accompanied by a kithara, a double tibia, and a frame drum.

Related articles:

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Filed under Antiquity, Humor, Iconography, Instruments, Resources, Visual art

Pitch perception B.C.E.

Although the notion of pitches being relatively high or low was well-established by the first century C.E., when Pliny used the terms summus, medius, and imus, there is no evidence that earlier Greek theorists espoused this metaphor. The terms νήτη (nētē, “down-located”) and ὑπάτη (hypatē, “up-located”) were used, but they referred to the physical placement of kithara strings, not to a spatial concept of pitch; in fact, the higher the pitch in our terms, the further down-located it was on the instrument.

The commonest adjectives for pitch in ancient Greek writings are ὀξύς (oxys, “sharp, piercing”) and βαρύς (barys, “heavy”). Ptolemy wrote that the former quality was a result of λεπτότης (leptotēs, “fineness”) and πυκνότης  (pyknotēs, “close spacing [of notes]”, and that the latter was caused by μανότης (manotēs, “thickness”) and  παχύτης ( pachytēs, “loose spacing”) . The idea of higher and lower sounds, and their eventual depiction as such in notation, was a later development.

This according to “The development of vertical direction in the spatial representation of sound” by Eleonora Rocconi, an essay included in Archäologie früher Klangerzeugung und Tonordnung: Musikarchäologie in der Ägäis und Anatolien (Rahden: Leidorf, 2002), pp. 389–392.

Related article: The perfect-pitch puzzle

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Filed under Antiquity, Theory

The magrepha mystery

The magrepha of ancient Hebrew ritual has been variously described as a percussion machine, signal gong, bell, tympanum, kettle drum, or hand drum—but also as a pneumatic organ, water organ, steam organ, composite woodwind instrument, pipework, or controllable siren. For centuries, scholars were unable to reach a solution that squared with ancient texts.

In “The magrepha of the Herodian temple: A five-fold hypothesis”, Joseph Yasser settled the matter by showing that the earliest sources mention the magrepha as a shovel for removing ashes and describe the thunderous sound caused when it was thrown to the floor at a particular point in the service; this sound apparently symbolized the vengeful actions of an angry God, aligning the ritual act with passages in Ezekiel. Later sources unmistakably characterize the magrepha as a type of wind instrument with multiple openings, each producing multiple sounds; Yasser’s proposed reconstruction is shown above.

The article appeared in A musicological offering to Otto Kinkeldey upon the occasion of his 80th anniversary, a special issue of the Journal of the American Musicological Society (vol. 13, no. 1–3 [1960], pp. 24–42; the issue is covered in our recently-published Liber amicorum: Festschriften for music scholars and nonmusicians, 1840–1966.

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Filed under Antiquity, Curiosities, Instruments, Source studies

Music theory from Boethius to Zarlino

The winner of the Music Library Association’s 2009 Vincent H. Duckles Award, Music theory from Boethius to Zarlino: A bibliography and guide by David Russell Williams and C. Matthew Balensuela (Hillsdale: Pendragon Press, 2007) is a companion volume to Pendragon’s  Music theory from Zarlino to Schenker: A bibliography and guide by Williams and David Damschroder (1990). Like the earlier volume, the book aims to create a logically organized introduction to major Medieval and Renaissance theorists and a thorough review of scholarly work on them.

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Filed under Antiquity, Middle Ages, Renaissance, Resources, Theory