University of Cincinnati professor shines new spotlight on ancient music

May 07, 2001

The music of yesteryear takes on a whole new meaning - and millennium - through the research of a UC classics scholar and his web site.

William Johnson, assistant professor of classics, is providing modern ears with a rare opportunity to listen to melodies first heard in early imperial Rome. His web site on "Ancient Greek Music on Papyrus: Two New Fragments" ( lets you hear audio renditions of two samples of ancient music.

Johnson's web site and two new journal articles are the result of five years of research into the two fragments of music from the second century A.D.

One article on the pair of fragments was just published in the Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists last week. Another was published earlier this year in the annual Journal of Hellenic Studies. According to Johnson, scholars know of only 30 melodies from ancient Greece and Rome. Five surviving pieces are preserved on stone inscriptions, and a few others have been passed down through the medieval and Christian tradition. But the rest of the surviving examples of music from antiquity take the form of scraps of paper -- papyri, or ancient waste paper.

Johnson's web site focuses on two scraps of papyri that represent what Johnson believes to be professional performance pieces. Although they're from the Roman era, they're written in ancient Greek, because Romans regarded their musical tradition as Greek, just like many other aspects of their culture. "The musical guilds were Greek and thought of themselves as Greek," the classical scholar explains.

With just a click of the computer mouse and the latest version of QuickTime 4 installed, Web surfers can hear an ancient vocal piece for baritone performed by Christopher Brunelle, assistant professor of classics at Vanderbilt University, and an instrumental fragment performed by former College-Conservatory of Music oboe student Kimberly Potter. Johnson decided the oboe was the closest modern equivalent to the ancient aulos, a double-reeded woodwind for which the piece may have been intended.

Both pieces came to Johnson's attention through curators of papyri collections at other universities. The first piece comes from a tattered piece of paper purchased by the Beinecke Manuscript and Rare Books Library at Yale University. Before its arrival at Yale, it had been purchased early in the 20th century by a collector from a dealer in Cairo, Egypt. The second scrap had been mistakenly catalogued for decades in the papyri collection at the University of Michigan until a curator recognized it as a possible musical piece and asked Johnson to look at it.

Johnson obliged, spending hours at both libraries examining the papyri under his microscope and studying photographs of each. He now jokes that he has spent more time looking through a microscope than his brother, a molecular biologist, has.

Johnson's classics expertise proved essential in understanding the musical fragments with their Greek text and notations. Without his knowledge of piano playing and reading music, however, he would not have been able to learn as much as he did about the historic tunes. "Compared to music today, both pieces sound a little odd," Johnson points out. "It's because they're based on a different musical structure than we use now. Rather than the octave, their underpinning is the tetrachord, or half-octave."

While scholars still can't say precisely what the melodies of ancient Greek poet Sappho or the choruses of Greek dramatist Sophocles may have sounded like, they do know more than you might think about ancient Western music, Johnson says. "We know quite a lot," he says. "We know a great deal about the rhythms of the music, since these are reflected in the metrical patterns of Greek verse. We know much about the musical system, that is, how the scales were conceived and the like. We can infer much about the instruments, using as evidence surviving fragments of ancient instruments, depictions on vases and wall paintings, literary descriptions and cross-cultural comparison." Yale University's Beinecke Library supported Johnson's work with the John D. and Rose H. Jackson Visiting Fellowship in 1997 to support his initial work on the Yale musical papyrus.

University of Cincinnati

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