Sapphic Melody

May 21, 2016 2:48 PM

This is a poem fragment from Sappho set to music using Ancient Greek music theory as best as I understand it and generated by my Platonic Music Engine which generates music using every musical idea that has ever or will ever exist.

(Sheet music for the piece above)

When the Music By Women challenge was announced I jumped on it. All the music I do these days is for my Platonic Music Engine and it involves adapting musical ideas to the software so that one can generate infinitely many versions of that musical idea.

I decided that I wanted to take the earliest woman composer whom we know anything about and add one of her musical ideas to my software. So I hit up Wikipedia and it gave me Sappho. Her article doesn't mention anything about her being a composer but according to a classicist friend (fellow composer Michael Collins who is able to read and write Ancient Greek and Latin) there was no clear distinction between poetry and music for the Ancient Greeks. If you wrote poetry then it was expected that you would sing it as well.

Unfortunately we do not have any record of what Sappho's poetry would have sounded like when performed like this. But I researched Ancient Greek Music Theory and made some simplistic but educated guesses.

I won't go into all the details but if anyone has questions I'll do my best to expand. I started with Pythagorean tuning which is different than the standard tuning we use today in the West (called 12edo or sometimes 12tet). At some point modes were created with the only difference being the starting and finishing note (this opposed to our "church modes" which use different intervals for each mode). The modes were named after various regions in Ancient Greece. Sappho was from the Aeolian region (which includes the island Lesbos) so I chose the appropriate mode for that area.

Greek Music Theory is very complicated and contentious. It appears that just about every thinker proposed their own theory about tunings and scales and aesthetics. We do not have all this information any more and what we do have is difficult to understand.

So my next step was a simplification. Within each mode there are three scales (in some systems more, etc): enharmonic, diatonic, and chromatic. These names have absolutely nothing to do with how we use those terms today in Western Music Theory. The enharmonic scale requires a different tuning of the instrument and as I was able to figure out what that tuning was I skipped it. But the other two work well within the Pythagorean tuning so I used both of those scales.

The next difficulty is understanding Greek poetry and meter. In English we define meter in terms of the stress placed on syllables. But for Greek poetry meter was defined in terms of the lengths of syllables. My friend above analyzed the poem fragment I wanted to use and provided the syllable lengths. I simply made the short ones into quarter notes and the long ones into half notes.

The poem in the Greek:
Τάδε νῦν ἐταίραισ
ταῖσ ἔμαισι τέρπνα κάλωσ ἀείσω.

A fairly literal translation:
This will I now sing skilfully to please my friends.

I cannot sing and do not have access to any singers nor the means to record them so I used a flute-like sound to indicate the melody. You can sing along.

The audio and sheet music above uses the diatonic scale.

Here it is for the chromatic scale: audio (mp3) and sheet music (pdf)

The Platonic Music Engine generates music in any style that has been programmed into it. One of the neat things is that it starts with whatever information that the user enters (like a name, birth date, anything, etc) and converts that into the raw data that is used to generate the music. This means that within certain mathematical limits the music that is generated is unique to the name that is used. For the music here I used the name "#JulyByWomen".

Last time I posted music from the PME I offered (offer is still open) to generate music for my fellow MeFites based on their user names or any other information and then post the audio file and the sheet music in the comments. I'm making that same offer again. If you'd like to hear what an Ancient Greek-like melody for Sappho's poem would sound like as generated from your name then just leave a comment saying so with the name to use and whether you want the chromatic or diatonic scale (the chromatic is a bit more dissonant in my mind) and when I see it I'll plug in your information, generate the music and sheet music, and upload it for you to download in a comment. It only takes a minute for me to do this so the only delay will be when I see the request.

So is this exactly what her poems as songs would have sounded like? Probably not. But maybe, somewhere deep in the processing bowels of the Platonic Music Engine is an accurate rendition of this poem and maybe it will be the one based on your name (or your cat's).

posted by bfootdav (11 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

This is such a cool thing! I'm not sure I completely understand how it works but if you had a spare minute to use my username as the starting point I'd be really curious to hear what came out. You choose the scale (I may have mentioned I dont fully understand it...)
posted by billiebee at 12:39 PM on May 31, 2016

I keep thinking that the more words I write the clearer it will all be, ha!

The basic gist is that (without going too deep into scholarship I have no chance of understanding) this is a pretty fair representation of the kind of music theory employed by Ancient Greece. My software does not try to produce aesthetically pleasing music but only follows the underlying theory. Beautiful music can be produced with enough tweaking of parameters (which I have not done here). But what we can note is that the exact melody here is unique to your name which I think is pretty cool.

Normally I'd choose the chromatic scale because it sounds more dissonant and therefore foreign to our ears, but in this case the diatonic scale actually sounds pretty nice so I went with it.

The audio: billiebee_sappho.mp3

The sheet music: billiebee_sappho.pdf
posted by bfootdav at 2:50 PM on May 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

Thank you! It's cheery yet with an air of curiosity and shall forthwith be my very own entrance music :)
posted by billiebee at 3:08 PM on May 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

This is so cool. Please may I have a custom one too? Billiebee I like yours a lot!
posted by greenish at 3:46 AM on June 1, 2016

Hey greenish! Yours is interesting. No matter what I did -- which scale I used -- it came back pretty angular and dissonant. So I decided to go with the most dissonant version (kind of like hanging a lantern on it) by using the chromatic scale. I did speed up the tempo so it comes across differently than the others. The last three notes of yours really drives the point home that this is no ordinary piece of music!

Audio: greenish_Sappho.mp3

Sheet music: greenish_Sappho.pdf
posted by bfootdav at 9:19 AM on June 1, 2016

Ooooo do me next please!
posted by not_on_display at 11:00 PM on June 1, 2016

Hey not_on_display, yours is done and I did something a little different. First, yours uses the chromatic scale. But the big thing I did is that my software isn't just limited to using all the notes of a scale equally but one is allowed to weight the quantization process. So I told the software to emphasize the tonic and subdominant (the perfect unison and perfect fourth, actually) which should make the C# and F# appear more often. And in fact you'll see that they do which provides a more melodious melody (I think) and even gives a IV-I cadence at the end.

I didn't do that for the others because I didn't want to assume things about Greek music that I don't know for sure exists but I figured it makes sense because the the perfect unisons and fourths are fixed in every scale so you'd think those would be more important. Anyway, hopefully Sappho would forgive me for my presumptuousness.

Audio file: not_on_display_Sapphic.mp3

Sheet music: not_on_display_Sapphic.pdf
posted by bfootdav at 8:35 AM on June 2, 2016

Thanks! I love how the first half sounds to me like it's in G-minor, and the second half in G-major. I may try to incorporate this into a future song.
posted by not_on_display at 11:46 AM on June 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

It doesn't say so on the sheet music but all the results are licensed with Creative Commons share alike with attribution and it allows commercial uses. I really need to add that to the sheet music. Will start working on that now.

So yeah, if you do use it I'd love to hear the result!
posted by bfootdav at 2:23 PM on June 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Will be glad to notify and attribute -- thanks for sharing!
posted by not_on_display at 2:35 PM on June 2, 2016

I love mine! It sounds like a weird thing creeping through a forest, which may or may not turn out to be bad news. Which is my last few weekends.
posted by greenish at 3:58 AM on June 3, 2016

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