Music of Ancient Rome sounded like...?
May 13, 2006 9:31 PM   Subscribe

What did the music of ancient Rome sound like?

I'm watching "Ben Hur" (heh! "Don't tell Chuck!"), and I've been curious -- do we know what Roman songs, marches, etc. sounded like? I know what Hollywood thinks, and I've heard Respighi's "Pines of Rome" -- it's all brass and drums -- but what does the historical record say?
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord to Society & Culture (5 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Here's someone else's personal Web site that makes a pretty good stab at answering your question.

On my own: The Romans respected Greek culture greatly, and a chorus would have been an essential part of any large scale public event where music was planned.

Both Greeks and Romans are known to have used curved horns, which are the ancestors of the modern, valved French horn; these horns are curved precisely to allow the player to correct intonation by loading the horn mouth bell with their hand, as do modern French horn players.

Military instruments were important for coordinating the movements of armies, and called for instruments that could be heard across distances. Thus drums and horns were generally carried anywhere a military unit of any size went. But soldiers would also have carried and spread flutes, pan pipes and small stringed instruments as camp comforts, and personal entertainment.
posted by paulsc at 10:11 PM on May 13, 2006

I've read that the Roman army also used a bladdered instrument with some speculating that it was in fact Roman troops who introduced the bagpipe to the British isles.
posted by thecjm at 10:36 PM on May 13, 2006

Miklos Rozsa, who composed the music for Ben Hur and many other historical epics, put some remarkable effort into reconstructing what various ancient cultures would have used for music. Of course, the answer to that question is both unknowable and unlikely to sound "good" to modern ears. Rozsa's answer, which certainly served him and listeners well, was to determine some basics of instrumentation, tonalities, and where possible, melodies, and then use those basics as reference points for a romantic, modern Western score.

The result was more Rozsa than anything else, but if you track down liner notes to some of the authoritative editions of the Ben Hur score, relevant issues of Pro Musica Sana (the periodical of the Miklos Rozsa Society) and writings about Rozsa, you may find out a fair amount of what he found out about Roman music.
posted by grimmelm at 11:13 PM on May 13, 2006

According to this pretty solid-seeming Wikipedia entry:
Although the Greeks had musical notation, there is no evidence ... [in] the surviving [Roman] illustrations, say, in the mosaics of Pompeii, of musicians ... reading music. Thus, we have not discovered, as yet, anything on the order of written music that would tell us exactly what Roman musicians were singing and playing at funerals, parties, gladitorial games, etc. (Again, the modern reader is reminded that the musical scores of films about ancient Rome, such as "Ben Hur" or "Spartacus" are total anachronisms.) ... It is, thus, speculative, but perhaps reasonable speculation, that the Romans might have tuned those instruments that could be tuned — those with pipes or strings — to one or more of the many Greek modes that had come down to them. Familiar, perhaps, to the modern ear would be the military calls on the trumpet-like tuba, since all instruments of that nature only have access to the same series of overtones bound by the laws of physics.

For nostalgia buffs and those curious about what the BBC thought ancient Roman music might sound like, here's an audio file from "I, Claudius" (1976), wherein John Hurt's Caligula puts on a show, with himself as the leading lady.
posted by rob511 at 11:27 PM on May 13, 2006

Here's a recording of someone's speculation.
posted by DandyRandy at 8:55 AM on May 14, 2006

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