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.
Many thanks to David Bloom for help with this post!
Related article: The perfect-pitch puzzle
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 , pp. 24–42; the issue is covered in our recently-published Liber amicorum: Festschriften for music scholars and nonmusicians, 1840–1966.
A fragment of Pherecrates’s comedy Chiron, as quoted in Plutarch’s Peri mousikēs, provides insights into aesthetic controversies in ancient Greece.
The scene depicts Dame Music as she recounts to Dame Justice the torments she has undergone at the hands of certain musicians of the time: Melanippides seized, debased, and weakened her with 12 tones; Cinesias ruined her with badly composed modulations; Phrynis bent, twisted, and completely destroyed her by sounding all 12 tones on the kithara; and, most egregiously of all, Timotheus, with his shrill dissonances and sinfully high-pitched and piercing notes and whistles, crammed her with modulations just as a cabbage-head is crammed with caterpillars, depriving her of all decency with his 12 tones.
This according to “Studies in musical terminology in 5th-century literature” by Ingemar Düring, an essay included in Eranos Löfstedtianus: Opuscula philologica Einaro Löfstedt A.D. XVII kal. iul. anno MCMXLV dedicata (Uppsala : Eranos Förlag, 1945); this Festschrift for the Swedish philologist Einaro Löfstedt (1880–1955) is documented in RILM’s recently published Liber Amicorum: Festschriften for music scholars and nonmusicians, 1840–1966.
Related article: Astérix and instruments
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.