Greek Esoteric Music Theory

The Elemental Tetrachord

Vowels Epsilon (ay) Alpha (ah) Eta (eh) Omega (aw)
Primary pitches A B C D
Secondary pitches a E F G
Elements Earth Water Air Fire
Qualities Dry Cool Moist Warm
Seasons Autumn Winter Spring Summer
Directions West North East South
Deities Hera

  1. See The Ancient Greek Esoteric Doctrine of the Elements for the Deities and additional Elemental correspondences.

  2. The primary diatonic tetrachord is semitone-tone-tone (ascending), that is, Water-Air-Fire-Earth, BCDE or EFGa. In the table the Elements are listed in their usual order, Earth-Water-Air-Fire, for the Greater and Lesser Perfect Systems are based on Earth.

  3. Each Note of the tetrachord is called a Stoikheion (Element). (Wellesz 155)

  4. The Elements and Qualities together constitute the Double Tetraktys, an Ogdoad (group of eight) comprising a complete octave (ABCDEFGa).(Werner 240-5) The Planetary Octachord is based on a Double Tetraktys.

  5. In the Greek Tradition, the Directions (East, South, West, North) are correlated with the Qualities (Moist, Warm, Dry, Cool), the Seasons (Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter), the Phases of the Moon (see The Four-String Lyre of Hermes) and all the Cycles of Nature. The Vowels may be intoned on their Pitches to the corresponding Directions.

  6. The Vowel correspondences are given in Aristides Quintilianus (II.13), but date back at least as far as the sixth century BCE (Barker II.479n120). The correspondences between these and the Elements are given by Aristides (III.25).

  7. The Vowels may be intoned on their pitches either with or without a preceding T- corresponding to Aithêr, the Fifth Element (see The Five Tetrachords). Aristides Quintilianus observes that the Fifth Element brings life to the four Mundane Elements. The T should be pronounced without any aspiration (puff of air), like an Italian T. The tones will sound like plucked strings, for the T is shaped like the Plektrum (Pick) and represents the Plektrum of Apollo's Lyre, the Holy Ray of the Sun, which brings life to Earth. (Ar. Quint. III.25, Barker II.531n220)

  8. In ancient Greek practice, the Plektrum was stroked toward the body, which is toward the lower-pitched, but higher-positioned strings (in the ancient manner of holding the lyre). In this way the Power of Apollo is drawn down into greater manifestation (Fire, Air, Water, Earth), which is the Sunwise motion from East to West. (Anderson 176) However, in earliest times no Plektrum was used (Anderson 36)

  9. Some ancient sources suggest chanting the Vowels in your mind, rather than out loud (Wellesz 149).

  10. Aristides (II.13) says this of the long Vowels: Eta, which extends the mouth horizontally, is primarily female, fluent, emotional and passive; Omega, which extends it vertically, is predominantly male, dry, rigid and active. The short vowels Alpha and Epsilon are of mixed character, but Alpha is more male and Epsilon more female. The short vowel Omicron is also characterized as somewhat male; Iota and Upsilon are not mentioned. The primary Opposed Elements, Water and Fire, correspond to Alpha and Omega. (See also A Brief Guide to Ancient Greek Pronunciation for additional suggestions.)

  11. Aristides Quintilianus' (III.25) assigment of Genders does not agree with the usual Ancient Greek Esoteric Doctrine of the Elements (female Earth & Water, male Air & Fire), as reflected in the Deities. He explains that Water is male because it fertilizes the (female) Earth, and that Air is female because it is malleable and passive. Thus his gender assignments to the Vowels and Elements are mutually consistent.

  12. To establish a correspondence between any Diatonic Tetrachord (comprising a semitone and two tones) and the Elements and Vowels, place the semitone between Water and Air, and assign the rest in order, as in the chart. Thus in D-major we can establish E-F#-G-A = Earth-Water-Air-Fire = Epsilon-Alpha-Eta-Omega.

  13. Godwin (MSW 31) observes that the Vowels Upsilon and Omega were added to the alphabet after 403 BCE, so the earlier vowels were Alpha, Epsilon, Eta, Iota and Omicron. As noted above, the character of Omicron is similar to that of Omega. This suggests that the original Elemental Vowels might have been Epsilon (Earth), Alpha (Water), Eta (Air) and Omicron (Fire), with Iota left for Aithêr, the Fifth Element.

  14. Harmoniai, Modes, intervals and melodies derive their character from the characters of the Notes in them (A.Q. II.14). The character of a melodic interval is a combination of the characters of its two bounding Notes.

  15. When music is used for therapeutic purposes, one may pick music contrary to the undesirable condition in order to counteract it and restore balance; this is the Principle of Antipathy recommended by the Pythagoreans. Alternately, one may begin with music of similar character and then transform it in the desired direction; this is the Principle of Sympathy. If the nature of the condition is unknown, then experimentation may be necessary in order to find a Resonance between the music and the patient's condition. See Aristides Quintilianus (II.14).

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Last updated: Fri Aug 20 13:02:34 EDT 1999