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What did popular music sound like in the Roman Empire?(r/AskHistorians)
Good question. Nobody knows for sure. With music (like many other subjects), things get less and less clear the further you go back in time. It’s a completely alien world.
The Romans took pretty much everything musical from the Greeks, and didn’t get to be too different from them. They were apparently LESS musical than the Greeks.
What we have from that time is mostly theoretical writings, that describe all kinds of things (from maths to philosophy; from measuring strings to the order of the cosmos; some observations of what works when building theatres) , but are not very specific when it comes to day to day musical practice.
We know what instruments they played because of paintings and (I think) some actual surviving pieces. We know about their theoretical framework (completely different from ours). We know there was some kind of notation (but even to this day there’s a big gap between notation and actual musical practice; going back in time only makes it wider). Reconstructions have been created based on all that information (and a healthy amount of speculation, artistic license and personal taste). Don’t be too surprised if that music sounds “medieval” or something else to you.
However, going from “we think this is kind of close to how it could have probably sounded” to “this is Roman music” is very problematic. I think we should consider all reconstructions as mostly speculation and experimentation.
I’d recommend you to read Music in Ancient Greece and Rome, by J. G. Landels. It covers in much more detail what I just mentioned, and includes some examples of the notation and instruments.
There’s also another problem. If you ask about the whole Empire… It was big, and included some very different cultures. I don’t know anything about the music of those other cultures from that period.