The Music of Sophocles’ Ode to Man

Armand D’Angour

The fifteen chorus members, robed and masked to represent the elders of Thebes, march in unison to the centre of the orchēstra, the dancing space in the centre of the theatre that has been erected in the precinct of Dionysus at Athens. It is 438 BC, a year since the dramatist Sophocles (c. 496–406 BC) has returned from active service as a general on the island of Samos under the command of the celebrated statesman Pericles (c. 495–429 BC), and his tragedy Antigone is being performed for the first time.

The successful but violent conquest of Samos has led to murmurs of unease among some Athenians, who fear divine retribution for Pericles’ decision to leave unburied the enemy commanders executed on his orders. Through the initiative of Pericles’ astute wife Aspasia, such retribution has been averted, at least for the time being, by propitiatory sacrifices. But one of Sophocles’ main themes will be to stress that human beings should observe divine commands or expect to face certain tragedy.

The site where Antigone was first performed, almost 2,500 years ago.

Antigone is being performed before a crowd of around 10,000 spectators, in a theatre space south of the Acropolis that is not yet the circular building it was to become, but (like the 3  x 5 shape of the chorus itself) trapezoidal in form, and filled with wooden benches up the sides of the slopes on three sides. By this point in the play, Antigone and her sister Ismene have met, and Antigone has explained, to Ismene’s horror, why she feels bound to bury her brother Polyneices’ body in defiance of the ruler Creon’s edict. Creon has entered and given a speech urging the Theban elders to support his aim of ensuring a law-abiding city. Now a sentry has arrived to report that the body has in fact been given a symbolic burial by an unknown hand. Creon is furious.

Antigone and Ismene, by Svetlin Vassilev (reproduced with the artist’s permission; © Vicens Vices, Barcelona, Spain)

Arrayed before the attentive audience, the chorus of elders now give their opinion on events. Unlike the exchanges of the masked actors who have preceded them, the chorus will sing rather than speak their lines. They are conscious of the need for piety, but also feel bound to support their angry leader’s call to uphold the law of the land.  While the ingenuity and bravery of the unknown person who has defied that law may be acknowledged, so must the requirement for all to observe the bounds of human justice. The chorus hedge their bets by making comments of a general nature, and sing what has become the most famous ode in Greek tragedy, the so-called ‘Ode to Man’:

Wonders on earth are many, but none is more formidable than man.

He traverses the waves, driven by the winds of the storm,

    and leaves his wake in a surge that could overwhelm him.

He drags his plough across the ground, the ancient immortal Earth,

     and year upon year he turns the unwearied soil with beasts of burden.

Birds fly carefree on high, wild animals stalk the forests,

    fish teem in the deep seas. Of all these the master is man,

    man who surpasses all in the acuity of his mind.

By their arts human beings have subdued the beasts

    whose home is in the wilds, who roam over the hills.

By their ingenuity they have tamed the rough-maned horse,

     and put a halter on its neck.

By their skill they have mastered the unwearied mountain bull.

Men have devised the arts of language, and their thought is

    swift as the wind.

They have built nations and established laws.

Man can withstand the arrows of the frost and the rushing rain

    that hurtles down from the open sky.

Truly human beings have resourcefulness in all things, and are

     never at a loss in the face of all they encounter.

For one thing alone, for death, there is no cure nor remedy at hand,

       though for sicknesses, even those that cannot be cured,

       human beings have contrived relief. 

Wondrous beyond measure is the mind that brings man

       both to sadness and to joy.

When a person applies the laws of the earth and the justice

       that the gods have sworn to uphold, his status in the city is high.

Outcast from the city is he with whom the law-breaker consorts

       in his bold villainy. May such a one never sit at my hearth or be

       party to my goodwill.[1]

My translation here of this magnificent song aims to convey something of its solemnity and verbal beauty.  It is often compared in tone to a passage in Hamlet’s monologue in Shakespeare’s tragedy:

“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!”

But we know that Sophocles’ words were not just spoken or declaimed by the chorus: they were sung to the music of the aulos (double-pipe), and the chorus danced in accompaniment of their song. How would that have affected the way the spectators received the Ode?

A pipe-player in the late fifth century BC (red-figured bell-krater, Kleophon Painter; now in the National Museum, Copenhagen, Denmark)

The indications of dance are scant, but suggest that the motions of the chorus itself will have been slow and solemn, with upper-body movements and hand gestures playing a more important role than those of feet or legs, which in any case would have been swathed in the sombre long robes of city elders.

Of the music we can, however, say more. The most direct indication is of rhythm. This is given by the words themselves, which are composed in rhythmical systems consisting of combinations of long and short syllables (‘quantities’), in this case opening in what is called the ‘Aeolic’ metre. A characteristic feature of this metre is a pattern of syllables in the line that are long-short-short-long (–ᴗᴗ–), as in the words “Banbury Fair” (the technical term for this four-element shape is a ‘choriamb’).

The opening words of the Ode to Man in Greek fall into a two-part sentence, each part (here divided by /) presenting a similar metrical grouping:

πολλὰ τὰ δεινὰ κοὐδὲν ἀν/θρώπου δεινότερον πέλει.

(polla ta deina k’ouden an/thrôpou deinoteron pelei.)

which may be represented as a series of long and shorts as follows (read this to yourself by sounding the long syllables as ‘dum’ and the short as ‘di’):

–  ᴗ  ᴗ   –  ᴗ  –   ᴗ  – /–   –  –   ᴗ   ᴗ  –   ᴗ  –

(“Banbury Fair’s a joy for all, / let’s make Banbury Fair a ball”).

If one were to translate the opening words of the Ode into an isosyllabic English version (i.e. to translate it using the same number of syllables), one might force this rhythm into this line:

Wonders are many – none, though, more / awe-inducing than humankind.

However, the way English works is by using stress rather than quantity. The words “awe-inducing than” are not truly represented by the quantities ‘long-long-long-short-short’. Only if one places a dynamic stress (here shown as bold syllables) on all the indicated long quantities can one more or less mimic how the rhythm of the Greek line might have been felt:

polla ta deina k’ouden anth/rôpou deinoteron pelei.

Wonders are many – none, though, more/ awe-inducing than humankind.

Conversely, the artificiality of stressing the English line in this way would not be noticed if it were set to music. Think how one says, for instance, in casual conversation, ‘Happy birthday to you!’; it is very different from the time-quantities applied to the syllables when the words are sung to the traditional melody:

  ᴗ  ᴗ      –      –    –    –

Happy Birthday to you…

What this reminds us is that ‘quantity’ for an English speaker is a musical rather than a purely verbal feature. But for the Greeks it was an integral part of their language – and melody no less. Greek words were enunciated with a rise and fall of the voice, something that in the third century BC came to be indicated (thanks to the invention of a scholar called Aristophanes of Byzantium) by the marks placed (now as then) over ancient Greek words, the acute (´), grave (`), and circumflex (^) accents.[1]

Writing in the time of the Roman emperor Augustus (ruled 27 BC – AD 14), the Greek author Dionysius of Halicarnassus reported that the Greek acute accent indicated that the voice rose on that syllable, by an interval that could be as wide as a fifth (i.e. the rise in pitch on the first words of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star). The grave accent indicated a lesser rise, while the circumflex was placed over a long vowel where the voice made a quick rise and then fall. These natural pitch inflections in Greek speech were bound to be mimicked when words were set to music.

The Greeks developed a musical notation around the fifth century BC, which is known to us from its survival in a continuous manuscript tradition. Amazingly, a few dozen pieces of notated music, some quite substantial in length, have survived on stone and papyrus. What these ‘musical documents’ show is that the predominant technique of setting words to melody did indeed involve observing the natural rise and fall of words as preserved in their accentuation.

A papyrus fragment written c. 200 BC which contains a choral song from Euripides’ Orestes (lines 338–44) with musical notation above the Greek letters (now in the Austrian National Library, Vienna)

Some major writings also survive that indicate the theoretical basis of Greek melodic and harmonic practices. At the heart of the melodic system were the so-called ‘modes’, originally representing sequences of around seven or eight pitches to which lyres (often seven-stringed) could be tuned. The notes of the modes of Sophocles’ day, which had geographical names such as Dorian, Phrygian, and Lydian, have been recorded for us with remarkable accuracy, so it is in principle possible to hear the kind of tunes that might have been generated by ancient lyres playing in different modes. One can go yet further and speculate how, when certain modes are chosen for the setting of Greek texts, particular pitches might be used to represent the accentual inflections of words.

Some of the earliest notated music that survives of Greek tragedy is from a chorus of Euripides’ Orestes, a tragedy first performed in 408 BC.  The papyrus is from a later century, but many scholars argue that the music represents Euripides’ own, and may even have been recorded by him thanks to this newly-devised notation. There is no indication, however, that the two other Athenian tragedians who (broadly speaking) precede Euripides (c. 484–406 BC) – Aeschylus (c. 525–456 BC) and Sophocles (c. 495–406 BC) – used such notation when composing music for their tragedies. Perhaps they would not have needed to, as not only were they personally involved in training the choruses how to sing and dance their words, but those choruses would have been well-versed in the ways that the pitches of certain modes could be attached to the natural profiles of everyday speech. Although Euripides also trained his choruses, he was notorious for violating in his dramatic lyrics both the natural rhythms and melodic contours of normal spoken Greek. It may be argued that this need for clarity was what induced him to notate his melodies, where his predecessors had felt no need.

The instrument associated with Dionysus, the god of the theatre (as well as of wine and ecstasy), was not the lyre but the aulos – the strident and versatile double-pipes that could accompany and guide the powerful singing of a fifteen-strong chorus. A number of auloi survive from antiquity in a well-preserved state, which can be (and have been) replicated with great accuracy. The past decade has seen remarkable advances by scholars and practitioners in learning the notes and techniques associated with the aulos. It is now possible to understand better than has been possible for perhaps two millennia how a fifteen-man chorus accompanied by an aulos and singing in a particular mode might have sounded.

A modern reconstruction of the Ancient Greek aulos, played by Callum Armstrong in 2017 (video below).

Returning, then, to Sophocles’ Ode to Man, we can imagine that this wonderful piece of writing came across even more impressively to spectators when it was sung and danced, accompanied by the evocative sound of the aulos and the rhythmical swaying of the dancer’s bodies. It would have been something that listeners could learn (with the subsequent help of a text) to repeat to others, – perhaps in symposia (evening parties) where the aulos generally featured as the musical instrument of choice – not just by quoting the words but by singing them. The day may indeed come when scholarship has made sufficient inroads into our understanding of ancient music and dance for the Ode to Man, sung in the correct metre and appropriate mode by a male-voiced chorus of fifteen accompanied by a skilled aulete, to be performed in a way that gives modern audiences a true taste of the awe-inducing magic of ancient theatre.

Armand D’Angour is Professor of Classics at the University of Oxford.

Further Reading

More introductory information about Ancient Greek Music can be found here. For a fuller account, see Spencer Klavan’s Music in Ancient Greece (London/New York, 2021), and for yet more technical details see M.L. West’s Ancient Greek Music (Oxford UP, 1992). If you would like to experience a modern reconstruction of a chorus from Euripides’ Orestes, try this.


1 For an introduction to the wonderful world of Greek accents, see our ten rules.