Orthios as a Quality of Sound
An attempt to interpret the famous ancient musical composition known as ὄρθιος νόμος requires an analysis of all available evidence connecting ὄρθιος with sounds. The most extensive description of this nome (Dio 1. 1) ascribes it a military (or generally stimulating) character. This conforms with a number of passages, where an ὄρθιος sound ‘makes one stand up’ to help, or to fight, i.e. it stimulates dynamic activity. Perhaps, then, this was the initial meaning of the adjective, from which it eventually morphed to mean ‘sonorous’ or ‘piercing’. It seems that a sound could be made piercing and pervasive both by its volume and by its pitch, therefore ὄρθιος as a quality of sound frequently correlates with ‘loud’ and ‘high’. Nevertheless, a common interpretation that equates ὄρθιος with ὀξύς is unwary: the conventional metaphor in ancient Greek concerning a sound’s pitch is ὀξύς — βαρύς (‘sharp’ — ‘heavy’), whereas the spatial metaphor of vertical (‘high’ — ‘low’) is not reliably attested. Another characteristic of sound that our sources correlate with ὄρθιος is ‘strained’ (ἔντονος, νάτασιν ἔχων, νατεταμένος), which in its turn likely indicates loudness (but does not literally translate as either ‘high’ or ‘swift’) and physical effort on behalf of the performers, or else the ethos of a musical piece, which transmitted tension to the audience.
Ancient Greek music, nomes, orthios
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