The most elaborate musical form was found in choral singing. Not only the dramas of the time, but any festival (for any occasion from harvest to holy day) would be accompanied with a great contest to encourage the presentation of well prepared songs. Rich patrons of the Polis were encouraged to defer expenses as professional musicians were engaged to train the choruses. Almost exclusively the music was monophonic (one melody without harmony) with the few exceptions being an occasional open 5th above or below the melody. The literature speaks of music, the pottery depicts it; the festivals resonate and gods themselves play it. But without notation we are again today left with only fantasy of what their musical arts would have sounded like.
"The Romans loved music only less than power, money, women, and blood." (Durant) Like much of the other cultural arts, Rome takes its musical tradition from the Classical Greeks. In effect, all poetry of the time would have been sung to a lyre. Nero was proud of his lyric skills, and Horace was moved by hearing his Carmen Saeculare sung by young maidens. Other than the lyre, the preferred instrument seems to have been the flute which appears often in recorded accounts. Even modest dinners required music (Martial promises his guest at least a flute player), and certainly elaborate opulence required it (Caligula had an orchestra and a chorus on his "pleasure boat.").
Given such a vibrant musical culture, professionals (citharoedi) soon emerged who could teach, or go on concert tours playing the lyre, flute, or even organs. Fees for the most successful could be enormous and history records women fighting for a piece of the plectra (similar to a guitar pick) the performers had used.
While the Roman musical tradition was derived from the
Greeks, we also know that it became distinctly wilder and fuller than its
predecessor. Old Romans lamented the loss of restraint and dignity from its
classical roots. Again, without recorded notation we are left without actual
musical examples of the tradition. But we know according to contemporary accounts,
it was at least noisier and louder than would have been heard in a Greek polis.