The Hellenic Origins of Church Music

Many Greek contributions to Western music have been unknown to modern scholars until recently.

Today, the name of Greece may evoke new images of debt, bailouts, and tourism, or old images of Olympians, Corinthian columns, Socrates, and Spartan warriors. But most of us don’t associate Greece with Western Church music. Nevertheless, Gregorian chant, Western musical notation, and the Lutheran hymnal all have common origins in the Hellenic (Greek) Eastern Christian traditions of sacred music. Medieval music theorists of Europe built their work upon a foundation established by the Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle. And if the Greco-Syrians had not developed the metric hymn for ecclesial worship, there would be no German hymnals and the Gregorian chant tradition may have been based on any number of tones instead of the standard eight we know today.

A growing body of information about the history and nature of the Byzantine musical tradition is available through the work of scholars such as Diane Touliatos. Dr. Touliatos has been a professor of Eastern Medieval Chant and Ancient Greek Music at the University of Missouri-St. Louis since 1979. She notes that many Greek contributions to Western music have been unknown to modern scholars until recently. “Most of our preserved examples and/or fragments of Ancient Greek music were not uncovered until the 20th century and most of these by accident by archaeologists who did not know what they were looking at,” she says. As a result of these discoveries, Western music scholars are becoming more familiar with Hellenic contributions to the West. The organ, polyphony, and melismatic vocalizing are a few Greek inventions that were once believed to be of Western origin. Western music history is in the process of being updated to include the latest findings in ancient and Byzantine (Greek) music history and theory, but it is a slow process.

The Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian contributions to Western culture have long been generally recognized, but the valid story of this cultural confluence is not always static. Occasionally, one has the opportunity to retell the beautiful history of our past with new stimulating details.

A short, eclectic history of sacred music

Distinct musical and cultural traditions began to develop within the Christian community in the first century. Yet despite the obvious divergence in style and approach, a unified Roman empire and the one apostolic Church did assist cross-cultural contributions made between the various Greek, Syriac, and Latin Christian communities. Certain secular and pagan music theories and traditions also reemerged and deeply influenced the musical heritage of medieval Europe and the Byzantine Empire. The greatest of these is most certainly the classical Hellenic theories of the philosophers Plato and Aristotle.

Plato taught that a harmony exists between the human person and the movements of the celestial order; music which conforms to this order is rightly ordered music. The theories of Plato were taken up by all the medieval music theorists in both East and West. For example, Boethius, born in late-fifth century Rome, wrote in his De institutione musica of three musical genera: musical harmony of the universe, music as a harmony between body and soul in man, and instrumental music as an art. Boethius was one of many who introduced Western Europe to Greek theories of music. The Carolingian theorists applied the principles of Boethius and began to develop Gregorian chant and even liturgical polyphony, which broadened the understanding and application of harmony and rhythm in the West and reached a climax in Viennese musical classicism.

Aristotle also understood that music has a profound positive or negative impact on the moral character of a man because certain musical “affections” imitate parallel human passions. In the Baroque period, for example, Western composers employed Aristotle’s theories in order to evoke the emotions of their listeners in particular ways.

One contributing factor to the organization and isolation of musical traditions in the East and West was the system of musical notation. Unfortunately, several systems of musical notation were lost over the course of history. The Greeks lost their highly developed system of notation sometime between the third and seventh century AD. Because of this, Christianity had to start fresh with notation for liturgical music in the seventh century. The Byzantines began with a system of ekphonetic neumes, which represented entire phrases of verse based on Syriac and Hebrew punctuation of lectionaries. With time, and the demand for precision, these neumes developed. An Italian musician, Guido of Arezzo, took these neumes in the 11th century and fixed them into a standard musical pitch on a horizontal staff. This was one of many ideas that found its way from Byzantium into Western Europe. Medieval Europe was a confluence of Christian ideas, many of which came from the Greek Christian East and were cultivated by and shaped Western Christendom. This transfer of ideas from East to West came under the guise of Hellenistic scholarship, which had been highly valued in Western Europe since the second century BC.

Like Byzantine chant, Gregorian chant has its origin in the synagogue worship of the Jews, which heavily influenced the development of Christian church music during the first centuries AD. But unlike the Greek Christians of the fourth century who were apprehensive of Jewish tradition, the Roman Church was very interested in preserving the Jewish liturgical traditions of psalmody. Examples of Jewish influence, East and West, include the four-part musical structure of psalmody: an initial clausula, the tenor, a mediant, and a finalis; the tradition of hymn writing, and the melismatic Alleluias which still exist today in every Christian musical tradition, including the Latin and the Ambrosian rites of the Western Church.

Of the three types of music, hymn writing was the greatest contribution of Byzantine chant to the rest of the world. Hymns developed according to a syllabic meter in Hellenized Syria and from there swept across the Mediterranean, influencing Eastern and Western Christian music.

From Greco-Syria to Rome: The eight modes

A good example of near-Eastern and Byzantine chant influences on Gregorian chant can be seen by a closer look at the history of the eight modes. The eight tones of Western music have direct origins in fifth century Syria. Severus of Antioch wrote a book of liturgical modes used for Byzantine liturgy during the eight Sundays following Pentecost. Severus’ book became the model for the propagation of the eight modes into almost every ecclesial music tradition.

The significance of the number “eight” has ancient roots among Mesopotamian civilizations and classical, Hellenic, mathematical, pagan ideas. From Saint Irenaeus’ polemic against Neo-Pythagorean Gnostics we discover that the number eight was called Ogdoas, which signified the Creator. The second- and third-century Gnostics were notorious for their syncretistic interpretation of Scripture. Their esoteric quest for perfection through special knowledge justified a bizarre mix of ideas—everything from magic Hebrew vowels (eight) to the Pythagorean tetraktys of the elements and the qualities. This is significant to our study because in places such as Alexandria, Egypt, where there were confluences of ideas—Hellenic, Egyptian, Persian, Jewish, and Christian—an intellectual vocabulary emerged for the discussion of musical theory and science. The terms enharmonic, chromatic, monophony, polyphony, heterophony, symphony and several others are all words of Greek origin from this era that are still used by musicians today. Pythagoras had a micro-cosmic theory of human music that assumed the bases of two tetrachords (the interval of two perfect fourths) which mirrored the heavenly Ogdoas. Some Pythagorean ideas eventually became Christianized and helped to develop Christian music theory. These measurements of musical intervals are the foundation of the Western tuning system.

The system of oktoёchos (eight modes), introduced into Christianity by Severus (fifth century), brought a welcomed organization to a complex liturgical tradition of calendar, hymns, and psalms. From Syria the eight modes spread to Byzantium and to Western Europe. There is not one root oktoёchos from which all the others are derived. As early as the ninth century BC at least two sets of eight modes were in existence, which employed two distinct musical scales—near Asiatic (Persian) and classical Greek. Since then it has been possible to distinguish between scores of oktoёchos in almost every ethnic culture. Therefore, each eight mode tradition must be studied separately in order to see any congruent, systematic musical variation between modes, but the three major Christian chant traditions are the Syrian, Byzantine (Greek), and Roman Catholic.

The first and second modes in Syrian, Armenian, Byzantine, and Gregorian chant have a common root. The root of the first mode is called “classical Greek Dorian” by Western Church musicians, but this may or may not correspond to an actual classical Greek mode. There is evidence of the first (Dorian), third (Phrygian), and fifth (Lydian) Gregorian modes in Syrian music (and all modal systems), but these three modes in Syrian chant go way beyond the spectrum of music found in the Gregorian modes.

Byzantine chant also has hymn modes that fall outside of the eight modes of its tradition, but these are an exception as the majority of hymns do conform to its musical system of eight modes. Byzantine modes are not categorized by a common finalis but by melodic formulas which differ in pattern from Western music but are somewhat consistent and discernible to the trained scholar. Byzantium, in particular, had a great deal of influence on the Western adaptation of eight Church tones.

The eight Gregorian tones are the most highly developed and most clear. The four “authentic” modes (1, 3, 5, 7) are the most developed. It seems clear that from looking at these three traditions, Syrian, Byzantine, and Gregorian, the number eight is more a theoretical than a technical construction. Each tradition has its own distinct musical modes with very little interrelationship, and not all music within these traditions is actually limited to these eight modes. Nevertheless, the significance lies in that the idea of eight modes was passed on from Greco-Syria to Western Europe via Byzantium.


Through a renewed study made possible by 20th century archeological findings, scholars have learned a great deal about the musical structures of Byzantine, Greco-Syrian, and other chant traditions. The cross-fertilization of musical ideas, East and West, has and will continue to contribute to an authentic study and preservation of both musical traditions, as well as encourage each particular discipline to both authenticate its own tradition and organically cultivate it so as to bring about a spring time in Church music—or so we can hope. 

About Christopher B. Warner 0 Articles
Christopher B. Warner, a former Marine Corps officer and veteran, is a graduate student of Orthodox theology at the Antiochian House of Studies. Christopher has a BA in Catholic theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. He has worshipped with the Eastern Christian community since 2001, and currently serves as a cantor for his parish of St. George in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Christopher and his wife, Katy, are both teachers at Trinity Academy.