Greek music

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The musical legacy of Greece is as diverse as its history.

Cypriot music has many similarities to traditional Greek music, and their modern music scenes remain well-integrated. Ethnic Greeks have long been the largest ethnic group on the island.

Greek Music through the Ages

Greek written history extends far back into Ancient Greece, and was a major part of ancient Greek theater. Later, influences from the Roman Empire, Eastern Europe and the Byzantine Empire changed Greek music.

In the 19th century, opera composers like Nikolaos Mantzaros (1795 - 1872), Spyridon Xyndas (1812 - 1896) and Spyros Samaras (1861 - 1917) helped revitalize Greek classical music.

Ancient Greece

In ancient Greece, mixed-gender choruses performed for entertainment, celebration and spiritual reasons. Instruments included the double-reed aulos and the plucked string instrument, the lyre, especially the special kind called a kithara.

Music was an important part of education in ancient Greece, and boys were taught music starting at age six. Greek musical literacy created a flowering of development; Greek music theory included the Greek musical modes, which eventually became the basis for Western religious music and classical music.

Greece in the Roman Empire

Due to Rome's reverence for Greek culture, Roman music continued to use the Greek notational system.


Greece during the Ottoman occupation

By the beginning of the 20th century, music-cafes were popular in Constantinople and Smyrna, primarily owned by Greeks, alongside Jews and Armenians. The bands were led by a female vocalist, typically, and included a violin and a santouri. The improvised songs typically exclaimed aman aman, which led to the name amanedes or cafe-aman. Musicians of this period included Marika Papagika, Agapios Tomboulis, Rosa Eskenazi and Rita Abatzi.

Modern Greece

Types of Music

Folk music

Greek folk traditions are said to derive from the music played by ancient Greeks. There are said to be two musical movements in Greek folk music: akritic and klephtic. Akritic music comes from the 9th century akrites, or border guards of the Byzantine Empire. Following the end of the Byzantine period, klephtic music arose before the Greek Revolution, developed among the kleftes, warriors who fought against the Ottoman Empire. Klephtic music is monophonic and uses no harmonic accompaniment.

Traditional dimotika are accompanied by clarinets, guitars, tambourines and violins, and include dance music forms like syrto, kalamatiano, tsamiko and hasaposerviko, as well as vocal music like kleftiko. Many of the earliest recordings were done by ethnic Albanians like Georgia Mittaki and Giorgios Papasideris. Instrumentalists include clarinet virtuosos like Giorgos Yevyelis, Vassilis Saleas and Yiannis Vassilopoulos, as well as oud and fiddle players like Nikos Saragoudas and Giorgos Koros.

Greek folk music is found all throughout Greece, as well as among communities in countries like the United States, Canada and Australia.

The island of Cyprus and several regions of Turkey are home to long-standing communities of ethnic Greeks with their own unique styles of music.

Apart from the common music found all-around Greece, there are distinct types of folk music, sometimes related to the history or simply the taste of the specific places:

Ionian Islands

The Ionian Islands were never under Turkish control, and their kantades (traditional songs) are based on the popular Italian-style of the early 19th centrury. Kantadhes are performed by three male singers accompanied by mandolin or guitar. These romantic songs developed mainly in Kefallonia in the early 19th century but spread throughout Greece after the liberation of Greece. An Athenian form of kantadhes arose, accompanied by violin, clarinet and laouto. However the style is accepted as uniquely Ionian.

The island of Zakynthos has a diverse musical history with influences from Venice, Crete and elsewhere. The island's music heritage is celebrated by the Zakynthos School of Music, established in 1815 [1].

Folk dances include the tsirigotikos, ballos, ai yiogis, kerkyraikos and kato sto yialo.

Aegean Islands

The Aegean islands of Greece are known for nisiotika songs; characteristics vary widely. Although the basis of the sound is characteristically secular-Byzantine, the relative isolation of the islands allowed the separate development of island-specific musics. Most of the Nisiótika songs are accompanied by lyra, clarinet, guitar and violin. Modern stars include Effi Sarri and the Konitopoulos clan; Mariza Koch is credited with reviving the field in the 1970s. Folk dances include the chiotikos, stavrotos, ballos syrtos, trata and ikariotikos.


In the Aegean Cyclades, the violi is more popular than the lyra, and has produced several respected musicians, including Nikos Ikonomides, Nikos Hatzopoulos and Stathis Koukoularis.

  • Dodecanese Islands

Main article: Music of the Dodecanese Islands

There are prominent elements of Cretan music on the Dodecanese Islands, developing from Cretans that fled there from the Turks. Dodecanese folk dances include the trata, ballos, syrtos, issos and syrtos rodou.


The Greek islands of Karpathos, Khalki, Kassos and Crete form an arc where the lyra is the dominant instrument. It is a three-stringed fiddle similar to the Turkish kemençe. Kostas Moundakis is probably the most widely-respected master of the lyra, which is often accompanied by the laouto which resembles a mandolin. Bagpipes are often played on Karpathos.

Crete has a well known folk dance tradition, which includes swift dances like syrtos, maleviziotikos, haniotikos, pentozali and laziotikos.


Folk dances from Peloponnesos include the kariatidon and tsakonikos.


In Epirus, Albanian and Macedonian influences are common, and folk songs are polyphonic and sung by both male and female singers. Distinctive songs include miroloyia (mournful tunes) vocals with skaros accompaniment and tis tavlas (drinking songs). The clarinet is the most prominent folk instrument in Epirus, used to accompany dances, mostly slow and heavy, like the menousis, fisouni, podhia, sta dio, sta tria, zagorisios, kentimeni, koftos, yiatros and tsamikos.


Main article: Music of Macedonia

Folk dances in Macedonia include samarinas, akritikos, baidouska, gaida, macedonikos antikristos, leventikos, mikri eleni, partalos, kastorianos and sirtos macedonias. Note: The term "macedonia(n)" is also claimed by the Slavic population of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The Ottoman province of Macedonia, ecompassing regions of the ancient Macedonia, Paeonia, and Thrace was divided between Greece, Serbia(Yugoslavia), and Bulgaria respectively in 1918.


Main article: Music of Thessaly

There is a long-standing tradition of a cappella music in Thessaly, including in dance music. Folk dance from Thessaly is slow and stately, and includes dances like the klistos, tai-tai, pilioritikos, svarniara, sta tria and karagouna.


Main article: Music of Thrace

Instruments used in ancient Thracian music such as Bagpipes (gaida) and lyra are still the ordinary instruments of folk music in Thrace. Folk dances include the tripati, sfarlis, souflioutouda, zonaradikos, kastrinos, syngathistos, baintouska and apadiasteite sto xoro.

In Thrace there is also a Muslim, mainly Turkish and Gypsy, minority. The dominant music of Turkey, Arabesk, had been banned in Turkey because of its Arabic origins in the past. Thus the traditional music of the minority in Greece is usually seen as more genuine Turkish (Arabesk) than the folk music found in Turkey itself.


Main article: Music of Cyprus

Cyprus is an independent country which is currently divided due to the Turkish invasion of the island in 1974. Cyprus' folk traditions include dances like the sousta, syrtos, zeimbekikos, dachas, and the kartsilamdhes.


Main article: Music of Smyrna

Izmir, formerly known by the Greek name Smyrna, is a city in western Asia Minor. The city was ethnically Greek until the 1920s, when the Greek population was expelled. The city's musical heritage include the songs of these people, similar in style to rebetiko; they are sad tales of burning and loss, and are called Smyrnaiika.


Main article: Music of Pontos

Pontos is a region in northeastern Asia Minor on the eastern shore of the Black Sea. It was inhabited by ethnic Greeks until 1924, and elements of Greek music remain. The region's dance style uses unique techniques like odd shoulder tremors and knee bends. Folk dances include the gerasari, trgona, kots, omal, serra, kotsari and tik.

Popular music

Having missed the Renaissance and all the following achievements of the Western world due to the almost four centuries of Ottoman occupation, the first liberated Greeks were anxious to catch up with the rest of Europe. The flourishing Greek culture of the Ionian islands, which were under the Italian rule and influence, was in sharp contrast to the Ottoman cultural poverty. It was through these islands that all the major advances of the European music were introduced to mainland Greeks. The songs of the islands known as Eptanissian, became the forerunners of the Greek modern song, influencing its development to a considerable degree. For almost a century all later musical attempts had to borrow elements from the Eptanissian music.

The Athenian songs

The most successful songs during the period 1870-1930 were the so-called Athenian songs, the serenades and the songs performed on the Athenian stage in revues and operettas that dominated the Athenian theatres. The serenades were operating by definition in an autonomous way, whereas the "Athenian" songs, despite their original connection to a total dramatic work, also achieved to become hits as independent songs. Italian opera had a great influence on the musical aesthetics of the Modern Greeks.

After 1930, wavering among American and European musical influences as well as the Greek musical tradition, the Greek composers begin to write music to the tunes of the tango, the samba, and the waltz as well as the melodies that refer to Athenian serenades and the theatrical revue songs.


Rebetiko, the underground Greek music, evolved from traditions of the urban poor. Refugees and drug-users, criminals and the itinerant, the earliest rembetika musicians were scorned by mainstream society. They sang heartrending tales of drug abuse, prison and violence, usually accompanied by the bouzouki, a sort of lute derived from the Byzantine tambouras and related to the Turkish saz.

In 1923, many ethnic Greeks from Asia Minor fled to Greece as a result of the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922). They settled in poor neighborhoods in Piraeus, Thessaloniki and Athens. Many of these immigrants were highly educated, and included songwriter Vangelis Papazoglou and Panayiotis Toundas, composer and leader of Odeon Records' Greek subsidiary. However, one Turkish tradition that came with the Greek migrants was the tekkes, or hashish dens. Groups of men would sit in a circle and smoke hashish from a hookah, and improvised music of various kinds was common. With the coming of the Ioannis Metaxas dictatorship, rembetika was repressed due to the uncompromising lyrics. Hashish dens and bouzoukis were banned. Many songs from this period were composed in prison, where musicians made instruments out of scavenged equipment.

After World War 2, rembetika had become a calmer form of music, Out of this music scene came two of the earliest legends of Greek Oriental music, like the quartet of Markos Vamvakaris, Artemis, Stratos Payioumtzis and Giorgos Batis. Vamvakaris became perhaps the first star of rembetika after beginning a solo career. The scene was soon popularized further by stars like Vassilis Tsitsanis. His "Synefiazmeni Kyriaki" became an anthem for the oppressed Greeks after it was composed in 1943, though it wasn't recorded until 1948. He was followed by female singers like Marika Ninou, Ioanna Yiorgakopoulou and Sotiria Bellou. In 1953, Manolis Chiotis added a fourth pair of strings to the bouzouki, which allowed it to be tuned tonally and set the stage for the electrification of rembetika.

Rembetika were revived during the 1967-1974 coup, which banned the music. Ironically, the banning meant that the dispossessed of Greece were attracted to the music and its messages of subversion. Revival groups included Opisthodromiki Kompania, Rembetiki Kompania, Agathonas Iakovidis and Ta Pedia apo tin Patra.


Drawing on rembétika's Westernization with Tsitsanis, éntekhno arose in the late 1950s. Éntekhno is orchestral music with elements of Greek folk rhythm and melody. Mikis Theodorakis and Manos Hadjidakis were the most popular early performers. By the 1960s, innovative albums made éntekhno mainstream, and also led to its appropriation by the film industry for use in soundtracks, often watering-down the music in the process.


Main article: Laiko

Laiko was the pop music of the 50s and 60s. It developed from the rebetiko style of music, more refined and more westernised. It was criticized from some quarters for its apoliticism and decadence, and its unpure Turkish roots. Manolis Angelopoulos was the most popular indoyíftika performer, while pure laiko was dominated by superstars Stelios Kazantzidis, Grigoris Bithikotsis and Stratos Dionisiou.


Tsifteteli is a type of music that was bought over by refugees from Asia Minor in the 1920's. Basically, it is Greek belly dance music. The Arabic and Turkish influence on this type of music is very clear, and adds to the cultural similarities Greeks have with the Middle East. This is an extremely popular form of Modern Greek music, and played almost everywhere in Greece. Some popular modern popular artists who include tsifteteli in their music are Despina Vandi, Eleni Karousaki, Giorgos Mazonakis, and many others.

Elafro music

Main article Elafro

Elafro was easy-listening, western-style music which became popular during the late 1940s through the 1960s. This style of music was expressed by singers such as Jimmy Makoulis, Nana Mouschouri, Mary Lo, Yiannis Voyiatzis and Jenny Vanou.

Other popular trends

Folk singer-songwriters first appeared in the 1960s, with Dionysis Savvopoulos' 1966 breakthrough. Many of these musicians started out playing neo kyma, a mixture of éntekhno and chansons from France. Savvopoulos mixed American musicians like Bob Dylan and Frank Zappa with Macedonian folk music and politically incisive lyrics. In his wake came more folk-influenced performers like Arletta, Mariza Koch and Kostas Hatzis.

Another of Savvopoulos' pupils was Nikos Xydakis, who revolutionized laïkó by using orientalized instrumentation. His most successful album was 1987's Konda sti Dhoxa Stigmi, recorded with Eleftheria Arvanitaki.

Also, due to the common musical heritage much Greek music has with Turkey and the Middle East, their have been exchanges of music and duets with singers from these areas. Greek singers like Sarbel have traslated songs from Arabic to Greek and these have become extremely popular. Also, with Greek-Turkish relations warming, and given the extremely similarity between Greek and Turkish music, you have songs that are the same and sung as a duet in both languages. A good example of a song crossing these three cultures is the song "Anaveis Foties" by Despina Vandi. This song has been made into Arabic by Fadel Shaker and called, "DeHket Al-Donya". Also, the same song was done by Mustafa Sandal, called "Aşka Yürek Gerek", a song which is a duet containing both Greek and Turkish.


  • Download recording - "Amaxas" Greek song from the Library of Congress' Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections; performed by Charles M. Brown, Louis Peronis (fiddle), Charylaos Perris (santouri) and George Kafezio (mandola) on August 26, 1939 in Tarpon Springs, Florida

External link


  • National Conservatory (Ethikon Odeio)
  • Dubin, Marc and George Pissalidhes. "Songs of the Near East". 2000. In Broughton, Simon and Ellingham, Mark with McConnachie, James and Duane, Orla (Ed.), World Music, Vol. 1: Africa, Europe and the Middle East, pp 126-142. Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin Books. ISBN 1-85828-636-0
  • Folk dances of the Greek regions
  • the sabras band