The Aulos and Drama: A Performer's Viewpoint

by Philip Neuman
University of Portland
Portland, Oregon
E-mail: neuman@uofport.edu

Although the ancient Greek writers seemed to disagree about the relative merits of the aulos, it was the instrument of choice to accompany choral singing, both in the theatre and for religious ceremonies. With its intense, penetrating tone, usually only one aulos player (or aulete) was needed to accompany a chorus whatever the number of singers. It was most certainly a reed instrument, although occasionally the word is still mistranslated as 'flute'. It usually consisted of two separate pipes played by a single player. An aulos pipe had a slender body of wood, cane, bone, ivory, or metal with a narrow cylindrical bore usually around 9 mm in diameter and was pierced with five finger holes and one or more additional holes or vents. Above the body were mounted two cylindrically bored bulbous sections, the holmos being the upper one and the hypholmion the lower. At the top of the holmos was a cup-shaped opening into which the reed was inserted, similar to the pirouette of a shawm.

The aulos reed of the classical period was a type of double reed fashioned from cane, related to the modern oboe reed. Although a type of single reed was known elsewhere in antiquity, it is clear from the writings of Theophrastus and period iconography that the Greek aulos did not use a reed of this type. Theophrastus, a pupil of both Plato and Aristotle, described the cane plant that grew at Lake Copais in Boeotia and the aulos reeds made from it in his book on the plants of Greece, Historia Plantarum. When referring to the vibrating part of the reed he uses the term zeugos which implies a pair of matched objects, i.e. the two blades. In his description he writes that the cane was dried in the sun and then cut into sections between nodes. After further drying, each section was divided and made into several reeds with (if the interpretation is correct) each reed oriented so that the vibrating ends of the two blades were cut from parts of the tube that were formerlyjoined tip to tip, much as reeds are made today.

The combination of double reed and cylindrical bore of the aulos is also found in its descendants the doucaine (appearing in the 13th century), the crumhorn (15th century), and the sordun and rackett (16th century), but did not survive in any of the modern orchestral woodwinds. The oboe and bassoon have retained the double reed but have a conical bore that expands toward the bell, as do their ancestors, the shawm and curtal. This difference in bore configuration has a major effect on pitch, timbre, and volume: a cylindrical bore makes an instrument play an octave lower and the tone quality somewhat more buzzing (1) and subdued than a conical bore of the same length.

This is because a cylinder acts as a stopped pipe and produces only odd-numbered partials (counting the fundamental as '1'). Although bore diameter, the size of the reed opening, the thickness of the blades, and the relative hardness of the reed cane can all have an effect on volume and timbre, period descriptions pertaining to the loudness of the aulos must be viewed in terms of a people who were not familiar with the shawm, Highland bagpipes or saxophone. Stiffer, more open reeds might have been used when more volume was desired. Sometimes auletes wore a leather strap or phorbeia over the mouth and around the head to combat the tiring effect that the back pressure from the reed had on the embouchure. The phorbeia was pierced with two holes over the mouth for the insertion of the reeds.

Aristoxenus described five sizes of aulos: parthenios (maiden type), paidikos (boy type), kitharisterios (kithara playing type), teleios (complete), and hyperteleios (extra complete), ranging presumably from soprano to bass in modern terms. This choice of sizes would have enabled an aulete to play in the same range as any voice he or she might accompany. I have made pairs of auloi in three different ranges that can be heard on our CD 'Music of the Ancient Greeks': the aulos parthenios (soprano) on the 'Orestes fragment', the aulos paidikos (alto) on the 'Song' of Seikilos, and the aulos teleios (baritone) on the 'Dramatic fragment 4' from Oxyrhynchus papyrus 3161.

Fortunately for instrument builders wishing to recreate the aulos, there are 15 or so extant pipes or sets of pipes. I have based the auloi I have made on one of the best preserved pairs: Musee Louvre Inv. E 10 962 a and b. The two equal length pipes are virtually intact, but without reeds (although there are remains of reeds surviving with some similar Egyptian instruments), making the pitch of the instruments and their exact intervals difficult to determine. Since there may have been a difference between that intended for the left pipe from that of the right in the original reeds (which Theophrastus describes), any comparison of pitch between one pipe and the other concerning holes of similar size and location must be tentative. While many aulos pairs depicted in art appear to have the same number and placement of finger holes, the left (2) pipe of the Louvre pair has nine holes while the right pipe has only 7 holes starting farther away from the reed. When played simultaneously only the five uppermost holes on each pipe could be fingered, leaving the lower holes to serve as vents. It is possible also that both pipes could have been played alone as well (as a monaulos), fingering all the holes with both hands.

When two aulos pipes were played simultaneously, one question naturally comes to mind: what musical role did each pipe take? Certainly two notes of varying intervals were produced including unisons, although a few modern authors have suggested that only one note was produced at any given time. I find this doubtful because either the player would have had to stop one reed while allowing air into the other with the tongue (which is impractical and makes articulation impossible) or alternately remove one or the other reed from the mouth (which is inconvenient and if it were a common practice, one would expect to see it depicted in period art). If the purpose of having two pipes was simply to increase the selection of available pitches and not to play two notes at once, it would have been much easier to drill more holes into a single pipe.

Moreover, there is evidence for the simultaneous playing of melody and a drone or another moving part. The 'Orestes fragment' of Euripides gives instrumental notes in between words of the text that must have indicated (as M.L. West concluded (3)) notes for the aulete to play that differed from the melody of the singers. At times there are two instrumental notes in addition to the melody note which, incidentally, create a striking sonority. When working out the aulos parts to accompany the voice on our recorded version, I first set out to play all of the instrumental notes then to add the notes of the melody where possible. Using the aulos parthenios version I made of the Louvre instrument, I played the upper instrumental drones on the left pipe while playing the lower melody notes on the right and conversely, the lower drones on the right pipe with the higher melody notes on the left, and dispensed with the melody altogether where the two note chords are notated. Played in this manner, the notes of the vocal melody naturally pass from one pipe to the other as necessary.

A number of challenges presented themselves while developing a playing technique on the aulos. First, the difficult task of keeping the pipes sounding in tune with each other I found could be accomplished by pushing one of the reeds slightly further into the mouth when necessary to make it a little sharper in relationship to the other and vice versa. Holding one pipe a little higher than the other has a small effect on intonation as well, and small 'one-sided' adjustments to lip pressure can also be useful. Second, the task of producing the enharmonic intervals necessary for performing the Orestes and Iphigeneia in Aulis fragments was accomplished mainly by covering part of the desired finger hole in order to flatten its natural pitch by a quarter step. Others were accomplished through cross-fingering, i.e. by covering a hole or holes below the highest open finger hole. This is not always possible, however, as cross-fingering with holes approaching the size of the bore diameter has little effect on pitch.

I chose to make our auloi out of maple and hollowed out the bores with a simple hand-held shell auger while turning the wood, then turned the outside shapes on a lathe. In the period a wooden aulos would probably have been made in a similar way: bored with a shell or spoon bit and turned on a pole lathe. Gayle Stuwe Neuman made the reeds from reed cane by folding a thin piece in two, cutting the edges to form a narrow fan shape, and cutting off the tip to form an opening between two blades. The other end is held together with a wrapping of thread and made to fit into the receiving end of the holmos.

Many variations to this basic aulos design were produced in antiquity including some with small turned bells, some with a horn attached as a resonator, some fitted with a kind of tube or speaker hole to facilitate overblowing (to produce upper harmonics), and some with turnable collars to cover unneeded finger or vent holes.

An ancient playgoer would have enjoyed the 'pure-toned', 'wailing', and 'enticing' (4) sound of the aulos all through the musical portions of the play. Unfortunately for the purposes of modern productions, very little dramatic music survives. But since a few models do survive, the fact that the aulos can be reconstructed, and the rhythm of the odes can be recovered from the poetic meter of the text, it is not impossible, with a little imagination, to reconstruct musical performance versions of the plays that, with luck, give a flavor of their original musical components, both vocal and instrumental.


1. Aristophanes compared the sound of the aulos to the buzzing of wasps.

2. According to Theophrastus, 'reeds made from the part of the cane nearest the growing end have softer blades and the ones from nearest the root have harder blades....the one nearer to the root is used on the left (pipe), and the one nearer the growing end is used on the right (pipe)'. Since a stiffer reed has more stability in the upper range and a softer reed speaks more securely in the lower range, it is possible that the nine-holed Louvre pipe is the left pipe because it has higher finger holes than the other. On the other hand, paintings of unequal length pipes usually depict the longer (and therefore perhaps lower) one on the left.

3. M.L. West, Ancient Greek Music, Oxford University Press, 1992, p. 206

4. Ibid., p. 105

Philip Neuman
University of Portland
E-mail: neuman@uofport.edu

(Philip Neuman is a member of the musical group De Organographia, which devotes itself to period instruments. His CD 'Music of the Ancient Greeks' is available from Pandourion Records.)