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Marble stele, the so-called Seikilos column, with poetry and musical notation

The Seikilos epitaph is the oldest surviving complete musical composition, including musical notation, from anywhere in the world. The epitaph has been dated variously from around 200 BC to around AD 100, but the first century AD is the most probable guess. The song, the melody of which is recorded, alongside its lyrics, in the ancient Greek musical notation, was found engraved on a tombstone (a stele) from the Hellenistic town Tralles near Aydın, Turkey, not far from Ephesus. It is a Hellenistic Ionic song in either the Phrygian octave species or Iastian tonos. While older music with notation exists (for example the Hurrian songs), all of it is in fragments; the Seikilos epitaph is unique in that it is a complete, though short, composition.[1]


Inscription text and lyricsEdit

The inscription in detail

The following is the Greek text found on the tombstone (in the later polytonic script; the original is in majuscule),[Notes 1] along with a transliteration of the words which are sung to the melody, and a somewhat free English translation thereof; this excludes the musical notation:

Ὅσον ζῇς φαίνου Hóson zêis phaínou While you live, shine
μηδὲν ὅλως σὺ λυποῦ mēdén hólōs sy lypoû have no grief at all
πρὸς ὀλίγον ἐστὶ τὸ ζῆν pros olígon estí to zên life exists only for a short while
τὸ τέλος χρόνος ἀπαιτεῖ. to télos ho chrónos apaiteî. and time demands an end.


The last two surviving words on the tombstone itself are (with the bracketed characters denoting a partial possible reconstruction of the lacuna or of a possible name abbreviation)[2]

Σείκιλος Εὐτέρ[πῃ]
Seíkilos Eutér[pēi]

meaning "Seikilos to Euterpe"; hence, according to this reconstruction, the tombstone and the epigrams thereon were possibly dedicated by Seikilos to Euterpe, who was possibly his wife.[3] (Euterpe is also the name of the Muse of music). Another possible partial reconstruction could be

Σείκιλος Εὐτέρ[που]
Seíkilos Eutér[pou]

meaning "Seikilos of Euterpos", i.e. "Seikilos, son of Euterpos".[4]


The tombstone has an inscription on it, which reads in Greek:

Εἰκὼν λίθος εἰμί. Τίθησί με Σείκιλος ἔνθα μνήμης ἀθανάτου σῆμα πολυχρόνιον.
Eikōn hē líthos eimí. Títhēsí me Seíkilos éntha mnēmēs athanátou sēma polychrónion.

A free translation of this reads: "I am a tombstone, an image. Séikilos placed me here as a long-lasting sign of deathless remembrance."[5]


The inscription above each line of the lyrics (transcribed here in polytonic script), consists of letters and signs indicating the melody of the song:[6]

The Seikilos "score"

The following is an approximate translation of the tune into modern musical notation:

The Seikilos epitaph melody

Scholarly viewsEdit

Although the transcription of the melody is unproblematic, there is some disagreement about the nature of the melodic material itself. There are no modulations, and the notation is clearly in the diatonic genus, but while it is described on the one hand as being clearly in the diatonic Iastian tonos,[7] in other places it is said to "fit perfectly" within Ptolemy's Phrygian tonos,[8] since the arrangement of the tones (1 ½ 1 1 1 ½ 1 [ascending]) "is that of the Phrygian species" according to Cleonides.[9][10] The overall note series is alternatively described as corresponding "to a segment from the Ionian scale".[11] Another authority says "The scale employed is the diatonic octave from e to e (in two sharps). The tonic seems to be a; the cadence is a f e. This piece is … [in] Phrygic (the D mode) with its tonic in the same relative position as that of the Doric.[1] Yet another author explains that the difficulty lies in the fact that "the harmoniai had no finals, dominants, or internal relationships that would establish a hierarchy of tensions and points of rest, although the mese (“middle note”) may have had a gravitational function". Although the epitaph's melody is "clearly structured around a single octave, … the melody emphasizes the mese by position … rather than the mese by function".[12]


The find has been dated variously from around 200 BC to around AD 100, but the first century AD is the most probable guess.[13] The date of the inscription itself is also a matter of some debate. One authority states that on grounds of paleography the inscription can be "securely dated to the first century C.E.",[5] while on the same basis (the use of swallow-tail serifs, the almost triangular Φ with prolongation below, ligatures between N, H, and M, and above all the peculiar form of the letter omega) another is equally certain it dates from the second century AD, and makes comparisons to dated inscriptions of 127/8 and 149/50 AD.[14]

History of the stele's discovery and exhibitionEdit

The stele along with other exhibits at the National Museum of Denmark

The Epitaph was discovered in 1883 by Sir W. M. Ramsay in Tralleis, a small town near Aydın. According to one source the stele was then lost and rediscovered in Smyrna in 1922, at about the end of the Greco-Turkish War of 1919–1922.[13] According to another source the stele, having first been discovered during the building of the railway next to Aydin, had first remained at the possession of the building firm's director Edward Purser, where Ramsay found and published about it; in about 1893, as it "was broken at the bottom, its base was sawn off straight so that it could stand and serve as a pedestal for Mrs Purser's flowerpots"; this caused the loss of one line of text, i.e., while the stele would now stand upright, the grinding had obliterated the last line of the inscription. The stele next passed to Edward Purser's son-in-law, Mr Young, who kept it in Buca, Smyrna. It remained there until the defeat of the Greeks, having been taken by the Dutch Consul for safe keeping during the war; the Consul's son-in-law later brought it by way of Constantinople and Stockholm to The Hague; it remained therein until 1966, when it was acquired by the Department of Antiquites of the National Museum of Denmark (Nationalmuseet), a museum situated at Copenhagen. This is where the stele has since been located (inventory number: 14897).[11]

See alsoEdit





  • Burkholder, J. Peter, and Claude V. Palisca. 2006. Norton Anthology of Western Music: Ancient to Baroque, fifth edition. Volume 1: Music in Antiquity. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. ISBN 0-393-97990-3.
  • Cosgrove, Charles. 2011. An Ancient Christian Hymn with Musical Notation: Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 1786: Text and Commentary. Heidelberg: Mohr Siebeck Verlag. ISBN 3161509234
  • Davison, Archibald T., and Willi Apel (eds.). 1949–50. Historical Anthology of Music, revised edition. Two volumes. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-39300-7.
  • Landels, John G. (1999). Music in Ancient Greece and Rome. London and New York: Routledge. ISBN 9780415167765.  ISBN 9780415248433 (pbk); ISBN 9780203042847 (ebook).
  • Mathiesen, Thomas J. 1985. "Rhythm and Meter in Ancient Greek Music". Music Theory Spectrum 7:159–80. doi:10.1525/mts.1985.7.1.02a00090
  • Template:Wikicitecite
  • Palisca, Claude V. 2006. Music and Ideas in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Studies in the History of Music Theory and Literature 1. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 9780252031564.
  • Pilch, John J. 2011. Flights of the Soul: Visions, Heavenly Journeys, and Peak Experiences in the Biblical World. [S.l.]: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
  • Pöhlmann, Egert, and Martin Litchfield West. 2001. Documents of Ancient Greek Music: The Extant Melodies and Fragments. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-815223-1.
  • Randel, Don Michael (ed.). 2003. "Seikilos Epitaph". The Harvard Dictionary of Music, fourth edition. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press for Harvard University Press.
  • Roden, Timothy James, Craig M. Wright, and Bryan R. Simms. 2010. Anthology for: Music in Western Civilization, volume I. Boston: Schirmer Cengage Learning; Belmont, CA: Thomson/Schirmer. ISBN 9780495572749.
  • Rulan Chao Pian. 1980. "China". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, first edition, edited by Stanley Sadie. London: Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1980.
  • Solomon, Jon D. 1986. "The Seikilos Inscription: A Theoretical Analysis". American Journal of Philology 107 (Winter): 455–79.
  • Van Aalst, J. A. 1884. Chinese Music. China: Imperial Maritime Customs 2, Special Series no. 6. Shanghai: Published at the Statistical Dept. of the Inspectorate General of Customs; London: P.S. King.
  • Winnington-Ingram, Reginald P. 1929. "Ancient Greek Music: A Survey". Music & Letters 10, No. 4 (October):[page needed]. JSTOR 726126

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