Hearing the Lost Sounds of Antiquity

Published: March 16, 2016

The project began because Sharon Gerstel, an art history and archaeology professor at UCLA, realized something was missing from her already-deep understanding of Byzantine art. “What struck me was, we always look at paintings without thinking about the sonic accompaniments,” she told me. “So many paintings of a certain period contain representations of hymns and hymnographers, but people were looking at these paintings as if they were mute.”

The more Gerstel thought about it, the more this bothered her. The music of the Byzantine era, she decided, was a key to understanding her area of expertise—and not just the music itself, but understanding the experience of hearing it, and what it would have been like 700 years ago. “As an art historian, I could look at the pictures and say, ‘this is a nice painting of the hymn,’ but I couldn’t say anything about how the audience perceived that painting within a ritual setting.”

Which means she also couldn’t fully appreciate why churches began to change shape and size in the 13th century. Perhaps, she realized, it was to optimize the sound of chanting. “It seemed to me that the only way to think about these paintings and their meaning was to think about the music,” Gerstel said.

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