Byzantine Music

Like most other aspects of Byzantine culture music itself was a harmonious mixture of the Roman legacy of the Empire.

The influence of classic Greek culture and influences from Syriac and Hebrew cultures as well.

The use of Greek musical instruments was a dominant part of the Byzantine music tradition. The unique Byzantine style of music began to develop as early as the 4th century and it was in the 7th century that some of the most significant developments took place.

Byzantine Music Manuscript

Most of the music until the late days of the Empire was ecclesiastical in nature, including hymns and chants. Unlike church music in many others parts of Europe at the time, church music in the Byzantine Empire was frequently accompanied by music.

Byzantine Religious Music

A vast variety of ecclesiastical music was produced and played in the Byzantine Empire. Consequently, a sizable body of religious music gathered up during the course of the Empire’s existence.

Byzantine Music

Byzantine Music

The most notable type of Byzantine religious music was the hymn which, in turn, was of three types. A kontakion was a hymn that comprised of 18 or 24 strophes with a different strophe at the head of the hymn.

Byzantine Art Ravenna

This type of hymn was popular in the Empire from the 6th to 9th centuries. Another type of hymn was the Troparion which was frequently sung in conjunction with the text of the Psalms.

Norman Arab Byzantine Culture1

The third and most popular type of hymn was the kanon which comprised of a series of eight odes set to biblical themes. Most of the hymns sung to musical effects were written in the Greek language.

Byzantine Chant

Byzantine chant was one of the most elaborate pieces of ecclesiastical music in the Empire.

The Byzantine chant drew on the influences of Hebrew music as well as music from early Christian hymn-singing traditions. Most of the hymns composed in the Empire were vocal and monodic.

Byzantine Empire

While the Byzantine chant was simpler in musical terms during the early centuries, it evolved significantly and became more elaborate as monastic orders in Palestine and Constantinople flourished in the later centuries of the Empire.

Byzantine Mosaic Basilica of San Vitale Ravenna

In the hands of these monastic orders, the Byzantine chant came to include trained choirs, more than one singing leader, and soloists.

The chant at the grand cathedral, Hagia Sophia, for instance, used a system of 16 church tones.

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Instruments Used in Byzantine Music

Nearly no secular Byzantine music is extant today while a few samples of the religious Byzantine music survive.  Based on this body of extant music, it is hard to surmise the exact range of musical instruments that were used in the Byzantine Empire.

Byzantine Mosaic Art

However, what is known for certain is that two distinct types of Greek musical instruments namely the kithara and aulos were widely used in Byzantine music.

The kithara was essentially a multi-stringed lyre while the aulos was a wind instrument used since the days of ancient Greece.

The Organ was also one of the most popularly used musical instruments in Byzantine music alongside the Byzantine Lyra and the bagpipe. Byzantine Lyra subsequently contributed to the development of the violin in the late medieval period.

Byzantine Music Fast Facts

  • Byzantine Music was produced in the Byzantine Empire from the 4th century until the 15th century.
  • Byzantine music was influenced by Roman music traditions, classic Greek music as well as religious music traditions of Syriac and Hebrew cultures.
  • Three types of hymns were a part of Byzantine music – the Troparion, kontakion, and kanon.
  • Major instruments used in Byzantine music included the Byzantine Lyra, bagpipes, organ, and the Greek instruments kithara and aulos.
  • The golden age of Byzantine music came in the 7th century when the most notable composers of Byzantine music lived.