Marcelo Guzman


This paper will analyze the depiction of musical instruments in Ancient Greek art and its impact on culture. First, an analysis was done on several literature sources describing the implications of art and culture in Ancient Greece, the history behind these instruments, mythological origin stories of several instruments, and discussions on several art pieces depicting these instruments. The correlation between music and art from Ancient Greece is established by analyzing three popular instruments during the period, and how the research from the literature sources explicate the overall perception and influence of these instruments. When finding the correlation between music and art, there will be a lot of historical analysis on the mythological creation stories of the instruments. The analysis will conclude with the overall impact that musical depiction in art has had on Ancient Greek culture and the culture in the modern era. The research indicates that these art pieces truly affected the perception of musical instruments in Ancient Greece, which created a cultural impact on the understanding of musical influence from art pieces. The influence of musical art depictions transcends to the modern era. Additionally, some instrumental interpretations have not changed from ancient times. Finally, the research does indicate that no instrument has been depicted in a negative aspect, as illustrated by the origin stories and histories behind several instruments. Further research is needed to explain the lack of correlation between the mythology and depiction in art of the instruments that were analyzed.

Representation of Musical Instruments in Ancient Greek Art


Musical instruments in Ancient Greece have been depicted in a multitude of ways in art forms. The impact and significance of these depictions have influenced the perception of instruments from a cultural perspective that would influence future perceptions of these instruments in proceeding civilizations all the way to the modern era. The analysis of the paper will first begin with the correlation between music and art from Ancient Greece, and how this correlation began. When analyzing the correlation between music and art there is an emphasis on the mythological creation stories of the instruments being analyzed. The analysis will then be followed by individual analysis of some representation of the most popular instruments in Ancient Greek art and how it relates back to the culture. This encompasses three of the most popular instruments during this time, which include the lyre, aulos, and the harp. Through their creation stories, these instruments will be studied in their depiction through various art forms, which leads to their overall impact on Ancient Greek culture. Furthermore, this paper will analyze the long-lasting impact that art depiction has had on these instruments and the overall portrayal of musical culture in future civilizations. After analyzing the depiction of the lyre, aulos, and the harp in Ancient Greek art, this paper will address the cultural impact that these art pieces had on Ancient Greek musical culture, but the long-lasting impact of these depictions throughout musical cultures that proceed Ancient Greece.

Literature Review

Theodor E. Ulieriu-Rostás’ article, “Music and Socio-Cultural Identity in Attic Vase Painting: Prolegomena to Future Research (Pt 1),” depicts a traditional understanding of the formation of some art pieces, which depict musical instruments. In one aspect of the article, he theorizes that these art pieces were utilized to establish “musical identities”[1]. Ulieriu-Rostás believes that the establishment of these musical identities may have originated from “verbal enunciations” which helps “integrate and generate new social meaning” for the artistic elements created in Ancient Greece[2]. The idea behind his theory is that artistic value came from the mythological stories passed through generations. The mythological origins of musical instruments are depicted in art, but without the context behind the formation of these instruments, the art pieces would not have the same significance. The connection between music and art through this theory is the concept of mythology and the role that it played on Ancient Greek culture and its influence on artistic creativity. Another theory from Ulieriu-Rostás that connects art and music together would be his idea of marketing and distribution. Ulieriu-Rostás conceptualizes that specific “pottery output might have been produced with a specific external market in mind”[3]. His theory on an outside market is that there could have been an outside influence, the buyers, to want a specific art piece that may contain the depiction of a particular instrument or they could not have been a significant amount of outside influence on the artistic depiction of instruments overall and the artist had the liberty to create what they pleased. Nevertheless, Ulieriu-Rostás believes that the influence of an outside market could have a major correlation as well in the development of musical instrument depictions in art.  

In connection to Ulieriu-Rostás’ article about the sources in connection of art and music, there is also Francesca Cannella’s article depicting the influence of mythology on the depiction of musical iconography. In the article, Cannella explicates how the story of the Argonauts is “one of the best-known subjects in Greek mythology”[4]. Additionally, Cannella’s article continues to explain how the characters in the myth utilize their unique skills to contribute to the mission that the protagonist was sent out to do. Cannella describes the contribution of music into the uniqueness of the characters by illustrating that “music belongs to these characters” which contribute to the overall success of the mission[5]. The mythology of the Argonauts, According to Cannella, continues to influence the musical iconography of these characters from the “classical times” all the way through “the modern period”[6]

Furthermore, Ellen Van Keer’s article regarding the interpretation of mythology and its influence on Ancient Greek civilization further elucidates the connection between music and art and its contribution to the interpretation of musical instruments. Van Keer depicts multiple myths regarding several instruments to illustrate the varying mythologies associated with musical instruments and how these myths continue to affect societal perceptions, which also influences the depiction of these instruments in art forms. Van Keer explicates that “all myths are polysemic” and that its understanding can allude to multiple meanings about what the story implicates about these instruments[7]. She also speaks on the idea that mythology can be interpreted as “historical reality” based on a number of circumstances that are applicable to the myth[8]. On the other hand, she believes that there could be an additional comprehension of the myth under “symbolic”[9] meaning, which is based on varying circumstances as well. The point that Van Keer emphasizes is the idea that these two different perceptions of mythology do not have to be “mutually exclusive but complementary.”[10]



History of the Lyre  

The lyre is one of the most recognized pieces in Ancient Greek iconography, due to its association with the ancient mythology. It has a “U” shaped body, which sets it apart from a lot of instruments. It is constantly being compared to the harp, as it has a similar function and has some resemblance. One mythological story that arises for the significance of the lyre was found in Francesca Cannella’s article. In Cannella’s article, she explains how the lyre was strongly associated with king Theseus. According to Cannella, Theseus “was an expert in all arts and he was said to have learnt the lyre among other things”[11]. According to Cannella the understanding of how the lyre came to be associated with Theseus is not completely understood, due to some conflicting origin stories that depict an alternate association between other mythological characters and the instrument itself. However, it is understood that the origin of the lyre did come from the constellation of Lyra. According to Greek mythology, the lyre was created by “Hermes, who gave it to his half-brother Apollo, and again passed it over to Orpheus”[12]. The depiction of the lyre and Theseus is extremely special due to the depiction of Theseus and the lyre in many pieces of iconography. In another mythological story, Heracles, who is depicted as a “hero […] for his athletic spirit,” is depicted as a “musician- a performer on the kithara […], lyre or pipes” in many pieces[13]. The idea is that musicianship truly does play a pivotal role in Grecian culture. Specifically, stringed instruments are usually the muse for the artist to create their pieces. The analysis behind this association might be because of the mythologies regarding stringed instruments and the biased that these stories formulate to support stringed instruments over other instrument families.  

Depiction of Lyre in Art  

There are some depictions of the Lyre in several art pieces. One, in particular, is the Francois Vase (Figure 1). In the vase, the upper register is the depiction of Theseus saving the seven male youths and seven female youths from the minotaur in the labyrinth. The fourteen youths can be seen following Theseus as he plays the lyre and guides them to safety. This is an important aspect of understanding the role that not only do the characters play in Greek mythology but also their association to a musical instrument and the role that it plays in the mythology as well. In this piece, there is an association of joy and life due to Theseus playing music after saving the 14 youths from death. This can be understood as the association between celebration and happiness to not only Theseus but with the instrument as well. In the piece, the youths are holding hands with one another as they celebrate their escape. This is important to understand due to Theseus leading the line as he plays the lyre, the role that lyre plays in this scenario is that it is a beacon of joy. This is because the youths are not just following Theseus, but they are following the sound of music as they enjoy their newfound freedom. Another depiction of the lyre would be in kylix called Apollo with Lyre (Figure 2). In this depiction, there is a clear association between the god Apollo and the musical instrument highlighted to represent him. This association supports the analysis of Francesca Cannella, where the mythological story of the instrument’s creation is strongly associated with divine power. Due to the strong ties between music and a set of higher beings, it is evident that mythological stories truly due have an impact on the perception of the world for civilians at the time. This alignment between a higher power and its ability to create tools for mankind shows how humans worship by creating pieces of art like the vase and the kylix to revere the gods. 

Cultural Impact of the Lyre

The cultural impact that is observed from the depiction of the lyre is that it is one of the most admired instruments of Ancient Greece. As stated by Maas and Snyder in their article, there’s a clear understanding that a variety of instruments, some very similar to others, have been found in other cultures and regions around the world. An example that the authors explained in the article would be the “prevalent buzzing quality of East African lyres”[14]. This has significant value because of the similarities of the instruments in different regions and cultures, most of the instruments discussed have the same purpose, although the qualities of these instruments may vary. Each culture has its uniqueness when it comes to the formation of these instruments. This includes the creation stories associated with them, and this is seen through the depiction of these instruments in art. It is important to recognize how the impact of instruments not only influences the art within these respected civilizations but also how they influence societal culture and the utilization of said instruments. Furthermore, the influence of the lyre has transcended through time, many popular stringed instruments have an association, whether through the shape or design of the instrument, to the original stringed instrument in Ancient Greece.


History of the Aulos

The aulos is one of the most controversial instruments in Ancient Greece due to its history and association with particular mythological characters, and the process of utilizing the instrument itself had its own controversy. The history of the Aulos expands through multiple mythological stories. It is still unclear which origin story regarding the Aulos is the most widely accepted. However, according to Isler-Kerényi and Watson, their article explains some of the mythology and association between different instruments. According to the authors, Apollo is considered to be a “strong young god” that “expresses perfect beauty”[15]. On the other hand, Dionysos is a “castrated youth of oriental inspiration,” which makes him “lower in Greek beauty”[16]. Therefore, the association of the lyre/kithara and aulos between these individuals occurs due to their social status and their depiction by society. The association of these instruments to their respected Greek counterparts brings a new set of expectations on these instruments as well. In response to this, Ancient Greek societies were willing to praise these string instruments over the wind instrument due to its association with the creation story.

Depiction of Aulos in Art

In one piece, the depiction of the aulos is seen as a beautiful instrument rather than this horrendous device that the creation stories have emphasized about it. One of the pieces that depict the instrument in such a light would be the Tomb of the Diver at Paestum (Figure 3). By looking at the image there are several instruments being played at the gathering. The bottom half of the image, towards the right, displays the aulos being played, while another individual is awe by the music. This can be depicted by the hand gesture placed on the second individual next to the aulos player. This is very contradictory to what was expressed during the mythological analysis of the aulos creation story. The stigma placed on this instrument has evolved so much that it was included in this piece as a beautiful sounding instrument that is worthy of representation like the sibling instruments of the lyre and kithara. The Statuette of a female aulos-player (Figure 4) pays homage to the creation story associated with the goddess Athena. Female aulos players were recognized in art pieces to worship Athena’s role in musical mythology. Athena’s role in the creation of musical iconography also represents gender diversity in art. The understanding that a plethora of myths and stories revolve around leading men, this mythology includes Athena as a leading role in the creation story of an instrument. This opens an understanding that women can also have incredible importance in music and art. This piece, in particular, embodies the female beauty as the sound coming from the instrument is being played by the female player. The piece embodies the aspect of Athena’s beauty and her contribution to musical iconography. An aspect that seems contradictory is the understanding that in the mythology Athena ends up despising the instrument because, ironically, it ruins her beauty. However, in many pieces of art, the female aulos player is still depicted as a beautiful individual that plays entrancing music. This is strange because the mythology did not influence artistic perception when creating these art pieces. This piece indicates that art and mythology can be separated and valued for the authentic role that the instrument has.  

Cultural Impact of the Aulos

            There has been a tremendous cultural impact on Ancient Greek culture, and on future civilizations from the creation of these instrumental pieces. This is evident in Giulia Corrente’s article on the depiction of instruments in Ancient Greek culture. Corrente explicates that “many auloi and other musical instruments as well as clay statuettes of female performers, have been discovered in sacred areas of the colonies”[17]. The article highlights how some artistic artifacts have been discovered and how some have depictions of the aulos. This is extremely surprising due to the number of origin stories that center around the idea that string instruments were the superior instruments than wind instruments. A common association is the lyre and aulos, the mythology surrounding these instruments emphasize the idea that the lyre is the superior instrument than the aulos. Another cultural impact that is associated with the aulos is the idea centered around the Marsyas myth. The concept that’s associated with the myth is the topic of music theory and why this myth expanded in the way that it did. Based on the analysis of the myth, the sound coming from the aulos was not a pleasant sound because of the ideology of playing music in varying modes. One mode in particular that could help understand why the sound was not pleasant might have been due to the player playing the aulos in the Phrygian mode. The Phrygian mode has been known for its uniqueness, however, it’s sound could have not been entirely pleasant due to the different intervals in the scale for that key signature. Since Phrygian mode strays away from the wholesome and better-known Ionian mode, it could have been perceived as out of tune or dissonant to the human ear. However, the actual mode itself resembles a lot of the major and minor sounding scales/modes. This indicates that the Phrygian mode shares commonalities between major and minor, giving it the unique sound that makes this mode famous. This implication and association between the mythology and the instrument could have led to the understanding as to the formation of some of the most recognizable modes in music theory, it could have extended from the mythology as well. This truly indicates how the perception of mythology can affect the perception of ideas and music to be represented in art in a specific way, but it also could influence the way future civilizations perceive similar ideas, so much so that they may follow the same path and come to conclusions based on these preconceived notions. This is evident with the naming of the varying modes in music theory, probably expanding from the mythological origins of musical instruments or due to another aspect of Ancient Greek culture.


History of the Harp

The history of the harp is more complicated than the other instruments due to the lack of mythological origin stories that are associated with many of the other instruments. However, according to Martin Van Schaik, the harp is “one of the oldest instruments in Europe” based on “archaeological findings, a prototype of this stringed instruments was already known about 4500 years ago” in the Cyclades islands[18]. Nothing much is known about the origins of the instrument, other than that these small statuettes have been carved representing harps from early civilizations. It is not a unique instrument to Ancient Greece, but it does have significant cultural value due to its role in cultural aspects. The harp had a specific purpose in Ancient Greece, particularly during ceremonies, funerals, celebrations, and other forms of gatherings. The music was used as entertainment or for establishing the tone of the event. Many questions still arise as to the particular purpose behind the harp in the Cyclades islands, and why this instrument was so popular during this time period. More research is needed to help understand the purpose and popularity of the harp to definitively establish a theory.

Depiction of Harp in Art

The Harp has been depicted in numerous ways, one particular that stands out would have to be Seated harp player from Keros (Figure 5). This depiction of the instrument entails a more serene nature to them. According to Van Schaik, these statuettes were placed in tombs as cemetery pieces that had specific roles in their culture[19]. A lot of these statuettes had significant roles in the religious aspect of the death of an individual. However, specifically, it is not known if they had a more serious role regarding the afterlife of the deceased or if they were merely used for decorations, more research is needed to formulate a theory about these statuettes. An additional aspect of the statuette that depicts the serene nature of the piece would the posture of the instrument player while holding the harp. The player has a relaxed posture while holding the harp, the legs are open, the elbows are more relaxed, and the instrument is between the legs. This posture entails a more relaxed form of playing, rather than a professional setting where the posture of the player is more formal and serious. This depiction of the harp helps understand one of the possible roles that the harp could have had in the Cycladic islands, there is the understanding that the harp was used for celebratory occasions. Based on the posture of the player and the harp itself, it is clear that the creation of the statuette might have been centered around an informal, celebratory occasion. The next piece that illustrates the harp would be the Seated harp player from unknown province (Figure 6). In this statuette, the harp and the player are depicted in a more serious manner. This is concluded from the posture of the harp player and the position of the harp as it is being played. The posture of the player is more formal, and this is in part due to the erect posture of the player as they are sitting down on the chair. Additionally, the harp is placed on the side of the player rather than in between the legs, making it more formal and serious. For this occasion, the artist may have wanted to perceive the player in a more musically serious environment rather than a relaxed setting as the previous piece. These contrasts between the instrumental setting truly enlighten the idea that the harp is a multipurpose instrument that serves on many occasions.

Cultural Impact of the Harp

The cultural impact that the harp has had would be that some of the similar reasons that the harp has been used in ancient civilizations are still in practice today. Today more than anything, harps are seen as musical instruments primarily for entertainment. There is no additional understanding/role that could have been associated. Much of the same interpretations regarding the instrument remain, which is impressive due to the gap between the modern age and Ancient Greece. The little deviation between the purpose of the instrument and the role that it plays in civilization indicates the value and significance of the harp. The understanding of the role that the harp has had in ancient times comes from the depiction of the instrument in artistic pieces. Additionally, the interpretation of the music played by the instrument is extremely similar to the interpretation in ancient times. The music from the harp has been described as “dreamlike” and the music played by the harp is associated as beautiful. Much of the musical understanding has not changed between Ancient Greece and the modern era. Much of the same understanding of the harp managed to prevail through the times and continues to shape the current understanding of the instrument. This is the only instrument that managed to carry the same perception and role from ancient times to the modern era. Many instruments managed to carry similar perceptions, but with alterations to the understanding of the roles and significance attached to them.


After analyzing the various aspects behind the three most popular instruments in Ancient Greece, the research indicates that the representation of instruments in art does have a significant cultural impact on the perception and ideology of the instrument, to a certain extent. This exception comes from the mythology surrounding the aulos, and different perspectives that were used to depict the instrument in art pieces. The mythology illustrated the aulos as a horrendous instrument capable of destroying beauty, while the antithesis of this ideology was perceived through various art pieces that utilized the aulos as the main focus. In another understanding, the mythology surrounding the aulos has managed to influence the origins of the Phrygian mode in music theory, which is currently used in today’s musical culture. Additionally, the research further implicates that art can have a significant influence on modern culture through past perceptions and their direct influence on modern perceptions.  This can be observed with the current understanding of the harp and the function that the instrument serves on several occasions. This same perception may have existed during ancient times and has managed to be consistent through time. Finally, ancient art pieces have depicted all of the instruments from a positive perspective, contrary to some negative perspectives in the mythologies for some instruments. This analysis indicates that during ancient times, mythologies played a significant role in the ideology formation of civilians, but artists were able to diverge different perspectives and experiences to create art that illustrates the uniqueness and beauty found in every instrument. Further research is needed to continue to formulate further analysis of the history behind several instruments and have a strong foundation to formulate a theory as to the specific roles that each instrument serves during Ancient Greece and how it influences artistic depictions.


Figure 1: Francois Vase, Archaic, ca. 570-560 BCE the-minotaur/p-267/
Figure 2: Apollo with Lyre, Archaic, ca. 480-470 BCE
Figure 3: Tomb of the Diver at Paestum, High Classical, ca. 470 BCE
Figure 4: Statuette of a female aulos-player, High Classical, ca. 450 BCE.
Figure 5: Seated harp player from Keros, Athens, National Archaeological Museum, 3908 (Early Cycladic II, ca. 2600-2500 BCE).
Figure 6: Seated harp player from unknown province, Early Cycladic I, ca. 2800 BCE

Works Cited

Cannella, Francesca. “The Heroes of the Fabulous History and the Inventions Ennobled by Them”: The Myth of the Argonauts between Visual Sources and Literary Invention. “Music in Art” 40, no. 1-2 (2015): 191-202.

Corrente, Giulia. “Mousikē and Mimēsis: Some Aspects of Western Greek Musical Culture.” In The Many Faces of Mimesis: Selected Essays from the 2017 Symposium on the Hellenic Heritage of Western Greece, edited by Reid Heather L. and DeLong Jeremy C., 247-60. Sioux City, Iowa: Parnassos Press – Fonte Aretusa, 2018. doi:10.2307/j.ctvbj7g5b.22.

Isler-Kerényi, Cornelia, and Wilfred G.E. Watson. “MODERN MYTHOLOGIES: “DIONYSOS” VERSUS “APOLLO”.” In Dionysos in Archaic Greece: An Understanding through Images, 235-54. LEIDEN; BOSTON: Brill, 2007.

Maas, Martha, and Jane MacIntosh. Snyder. Stringed Instruments of Ancient Greece. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.

Theodor E. Ulieriu-Rostás. “Music and Socio-Cultural Identity in Attic Vase Painting: Prolegomena to Future Research (Pt 1).”Music in Art 38, no. 1-2 (2013): 9-26.

Van Keer, Ellen. “The Myth of Marsyas in Ancient Greek Art: Musical and Mythological Iconography.” Music in Art 29, no. 1/2 (2004): 20-37.

Van Schaik, Martin. “Ancient Marble Harp Figurines: The Search for a Stratified Context.” Music in Art 23, no. 1/2 (1998): 11-18. Voutira, Alexandra Goulaki. “Heracles and Music.” RIdIM/RCMI Newsletter 17, no. 1 (1992): 2-14.

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