Music and musical competitions at the games

Music was a feature at all Greek games. The festivals attracted large crowds of spectators and were, therefore, an ideal occasion for musicians, writers and other artists to present their talents to the world. The cooperation of some musicians was necessary for a smooth conduct of the games: trumpeters and heralds addressed the spectators. Moreover, music accompanied the pentathlon, in particular the long jump, because the Greeks thought that music improved the coordination of the movements.

At some games, contests in music and similar arts formed a separate part of the program, on a par with athletic contests. These were called 'musical contests' after the muses, goddesses of arts such as music, literature and drama.

Best known for musical contests were the Pythian games, honouring Apollo, the god of the arts. In the classical period, there were three musical contests at Delphi: playing the kithara, the combination of kithara and singing, and playing the aulos. The singing accompanied by an aulos was abolished soon after its institution.

The kithara was a kind of lyre, with vertical strings of equal length. The aulos was a wind instrument with a mouthpiece in reed, like a clarinet or an oboe. Usually, the musician played two auloi at the same time. The kithara and the auloi could both accompany singers, solo-artists as well as choirs.

In the Hellenistic period, other events were added: writing poetry and prose and competitions for tragic and comic actors. At the Capitolia in Rome, there were contests in declamation, prose and poetry for both Greek and Latin. At the Olympic games, one could find none of these events. The contests for heralds and trumpeters (men needed at any games, musical or not) were the only Olympic musical events.

© KU Leuven, 2012