34. Ancient Views On Movement and Music

Music is invisible dance, as dancing is silent music.

Jean Paul Richter, “Levana,” 1807

One might suppose that the early discussions of the movement found in the assumed Music of the Spheres carried over to the association of movement and men. Be that as it may, the earliest close relationship between movement and music begins in the fetus, where both hearing and movement develop in the inner ear. Therefore it should be no surprise to find the earliest of early men using movement as a form of communication long before the earliest speech. Lower animals, of course, also use movement as a means of communication, in particular with regard to mating ritual. Aristotle, 384-322 BC, always concerned with man’s character, found something very natural in the association of music and movement.1 “Why,” he asks, “do all men love music?”

Is it because we naturally rejoice in natural movements? This is shown by the fact that children rejoice in [rhythm and melody] as soon as they are born. Now we delight in the various types of melody for their moral character, but we delight in rhythm because it contains a familiar and ordered number and moves in a regular manner; for ordered movement is naturally more akin to us than disordered, and is therefore more in accordance with nature.

Curt Sachs, in his discussion of dance in primitive societies, also found this natural association.2

Whether we speak of individuals or of entire tribes, peoples, and races, their melodies and dances must always be closely related. For both are determined by the same impulse to motion.

The association of music and dance is so close, and so ancient, that for centuries some writers remained unable to think of music without this association. Agnolo Segni, in 1573, advanced the idea that music, language and dance are all imitations of each other.3 Johannes Cochlaeus, in 1511, defined four categories of musician: orators, poets, mimes and (what we call) musicians.4

This association between movement and music is documented in the oldest extant literature. For example, a stone relief from the Assyrian Empire (750–606 BC) pictures two male harpists who are dancing while playing. The lyric poets of ancient Greece, who flourished during the sixth and seventh centuries BC, were poets who sang their works in public performance. Athenaeus, a Greek scholar (c. 200 AD), reports that while they performed with few facial expressions, they were active with their feet, “both in marching and in dance steps.”5

The most interesting ancient medium which combined music and movement was the Greek choirs, because what we know of their movements suggests they were used specifically to express, or amplify, the emotions of the music they sang.6 We first find reference to the Greek choral movements in a poem by the lyric poet, Alkman (7th century BC), in which he complains that he is too old and weak to dance with the chorus.

The historian, Xenophon (434-355 BC), suggests that a social value was placed on coordinated motions by the choir.

There is nothing so convenient nor so good for human beings as order. Thus, a chorus is a combination of human beings; but when the members of it do as they choose, it becomes mere confusion, and there is no pleasure in watching it; but when they act and sing in an orderly fashion, then those same men at once seem worth seeing and worth hearing.7

Plato, in a lengthy discussion of music competitions,8 was concerned that the choirs not use the gestures of freemen and that the rhythms of the dance correspond with those of the melody.

After the rediscovery and republication of the ancient Greek treatises, Western European philosophers took note of the Greek’s use of movement and music. Roger Bacon (b. c. 1214), clearly aware of the ancient Greek definition that dance was the form of music you can see, wrote,

Music, moreover, consisting in what is visible, is necessary; and that it is such is evident from the book on the Origin of the Sciences. For whatever can be conformed to sound in similar movements and in corresponding formations, so that our delight may be made complete not only by hearing, but by seeing, belongs to music. Therefore dances and all bendings of bodies are reduced to gesture, which is a branch of music, since these are conformed to sound in similar movements and corresponding formations, as the author of the aforesaid book maintains. Therefore Aristotle says in the seventh book of the Metaphysics that the art of dancing is not complete without another art, that is, without another kind of music to which the art of dancing is conformed.9

Girolamo Cardano (1501-1576) wrote that, “In antiquity dancing was called a sixth part of music.”10 He also adds an interesting observation that the movements of Greek choral performances were patterned on even earlier statues.

Dancing and gesticulation express the ample movements that were left from antique statues, and the movements were then transferred from the figures to choral dances, and from choral dances to wrestling schools.11

The fundamental relationship between music and movement is the expression of feeling. Movement is also a kind of visual emotion and thus only a single character separates “motion” from “emotion” in our language. It is because of this relationship that the ancients often thought of dance as the part of music that you could see. It is for this reason that Socrates, in a discussion of the knowledge necessary to be a good musician, maintains that a musician must understand how emotions are reflected in movement and that this movement ought to be called music.12

There is one more important point to be made along these lines. First, the sole purpose of music is to communicate feeling and emotion; every listener understands that. Thus, it follows that it is because of this mirror-like relationship between music and dance, movements themselves are capable of communicating powerful emotions. It is because this understanding is also very ancient that we have one of the most frequently retold tales of ancient Greece. Herodotus, the great 5th century BC historian, tells this story of a great banquet during which a final group of suitors for the daughter of Cleisthenes were to compete with each other “in music and in talking in company.”13

In both these accomplishments, it was Hippocleides who proved by far the doughtiest champion, until at last, as more and more wine was drunk, he asked the flute player to play him a tune and began to dance to it. Now it may well be that he danced to his own satisfaction; Cleisthenes, however, who was watching the performance, began to have serious doubts about the whole business. Presently, after a brief pause, Hippocleides sent for a table; the table was brought, and Hippocleides, climbing on to it, danced first some Laconian dances, next some Attic ones, and ended by standing on his head and beating time with his legs in the air. The Laconian and Attic dances were bad enough; but Cleisthenes, though he already loathed the thought of having a son-in-law like that, nevertheless restrained himself and managed to avoid an outburst; but when he saw Hippocleides beating time with his legs, he could bear it no longer. “Son of Tisander,” he cried, “you have danced away your marriage.”

Thucydides, the 5th century BC historian, wrote of a tradition of the festival accompanying the Delian games which was already centuries old. Another ancient tradition which we wish we knew more about, dating from the 8th century BC, is recorded by Livy. He writes of these choirs in processionals “chanting their hymns to the triple beat of their ritual dance.”14

Based on the little literature which survives, it appears the use of movement by the ancient Greek choirs (khoros) was already common by the time of the lyric poets (7th century BC). Pindar’s (b. c. 518 BC) “Ode for Hieron of Aetna, Winner of the Chariot Race,” clearly implies the steps of the feet were specifically based on the music itself.

O glorious lyre, joint treasure of Apollo
And of the Muses violet-tressed,
Your notes the dancers’ step obeys.15

Among the tomb paintings of ancient Egypt we are attracted to an extraordinary painting from the more recent Graeco-Roman temple at Medamund, north of Thebes, which includes a complete hymn to the god Hathor. We see a group of female musicians, with harp, drum, and lute, beneath an hieroglyph description,

The members of the choir take up their instruments and play them. The songstresses in full number adore the Golden Goddess and make music to the Golden Goddess: they never cease their chanting.

The unique thing about this painting is that the actual lyrics of the hymn are written behind the lutanist and a singer. We take notice especially of the emotional aim of this music and movement, “nourishment for the heart.”16

Come, O Golden Goddess, the singers chant for it is nourishment for the heart to dance the iba, to shine over the feast at the hour of retiring and to enjoy dance at night.

We should also point out that there is one extraordinary hieroglyph from Amarna, dating 1,580 BC, which pictures a music school. In addition to illustrating various scenes of music instruction and store rooms for instruments, we see in one classroom a harpist and instructor teaching movement. There is another painting where we see an early conductor. He was first named a chironomist, “one who gestures with his hands,” by Marcus Fabius Quintilinus. One hieroglyph representation of him we particularly like for he is identified through two hieroglyph symbols as one who “sings with the arm.” A perfect definition, it seems to us, of a good conductor’s movements.

The association of music and dance also appears to have also been a basic component in education in ancient Greece. In one place Plato writes, “the sound of the voice which reaches and educates the soul. we have ventured to term music.”17 In Athenaeus we find an identification of the teacher of the great playwright, Sophocles, as a student of one Lamprus.18

The ancient relationship between movement and music, particularly with respect to the communication of emotions, served as the foundation for later reflection on the more specific gestures used by actors, orators and also some hints of early conducting values. Shakespeare states that gestures should not communicate emotions at a higher level than the ordinary viewers can identify with.19 He pleas for natural gestures for which he advises the actor to “hold, as it were, the mirror up to nature.”

From the early eighteenth century, Johann Mattheson (1681–1764) provides, under the title, “On the Art of Gesticulation”20 an extraordinary discussion of the emotions as expressed by gesture. He says Cassiodorus defined gesture as “silent music.” Quintillian defined it as “the science of hand gesticulation,” but used the term chironomy—a term which, as we shall see below, we specifically associate with the beginning of conducting.

But the word “Hypocritica,” for Mattheson, means more than chironomy, for “Hypo” (under) and “Crisis” (criticism) suggests the submission of one’s thoughts for judgment. This should be thought of in a positive sense, as a form of stimulation, and not in the ill-meant “hypocrisy.” The origin, and source of power, for gesture is found in its universality. First, Mattheson points out that language itself only developed as a shadow of action. Second, he touches on a very important point, the fact that modern research has shown that both facial expressions and the basic emotions are universal and the latter are formed before birth and are thus not learned, but genetic.

Words do not move a person who does not understand the language; discriminating words are good only for discriminating minds; but everyone understands the well-used facial expression, even young children with whom neither words nor beatings have as much effect as a glance.

Mattheson also, as a matter of historical perspective I suppose, gives some examples of poor physical management of the emotions, beginning with church singers.

It would be desirable that if no proper gestures take place out of bad habit, at least nothing of a quite inappropriate, indecent, or cold and indifferent mien would occur: of which unfortunately! we are so little lacking that often the most serious and sacred pieces are sung and played in such a shameless manner, chattering, smirking, trifling, so that devout listeners are very annoyed. I have attended many, many a Passion and Requiem which to my great chagrin evoked audible joking and laughter.

Secular concert music he criticized for similar reasons.

If we go from the church to the concert room, one likewise encounters quite marvelous and diverse unseemly poses at Concerts which sometimes do not have anything in common with what is going on…. [Most players] seem to me like people who care only about filling their stomach and not about elegant taste. Can the attentive listener be moved to pleasure if he is constantly disturbed by the noise of someone beating time, be it with his feet or hands? If he sees a dozen violinists who contort their bodies as if they are ill? If the clavier player writhes his jaw, wrinkles his brow, and contorts his face to such an extent that it could frighten children? If many of the wind instrumentalists contort or inflate their facial features so that they can bring them back to their proper shape and color in half an hour only with difficulty?

Mattheson also provides some interesting national differences which he observed in performance.

If we turn from playing to singing, oh! that is when the misery really begins. Look at the fervor with which the French men and women singers present their pieces, and how they almost always seem really to feel what they are singing. Hence the reason that they strongly stir the emotions of the listeners, particularly their countrymen, and replace through gesticulation and mannerisms what they lack in thorough instruction, in strength, or in vocal ability.

The Italians carry this even further than the French; indeed, sometimes they even go a little too far: As in almost all their undertakings they frequently overstep the limits and love the extremes. Meanwhile they frequently have tears in their eyes when they perform something that is melancholy; and on the other hand, their heart is overjoyed when there is something enjoyable: for they are very emotional by nature….

Only the cool Germans, although they have revealed to the Italians their great musical abilities through the three great H’s, namely Händel, Heinichen and Hasse, on the one hand place their greatest merit in the fact that they look just as stiff and unemotional with the sad as well as the cheerful affections with which their music deals…they sing very decently and rigidly, as if they had no interest in the content, and are not in the least concerned with the consideration of the proper expression or meaning of the words…as is demonstrated daily by teachers and students. On the other hand, it is quite a favor if they do not gossip with, trifle with or ridicule their neighbors during rests; even if the things of which they sing would be worthy of the highest attention.21

Finally, Mattheson mentions an unfortunately lost Greek book on gesture, called Orchesin in Greek and Saltationem in Latin.

Another interesting discussion of just the possible gestures of the hand is found in Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592):

And what about our hands? With them we request, promise, summon, dismiss, menace, pray, supplicate, refuse, question, show astonishment, count, confess, repent, fear, show shame, doubt, teach, command, incite, encourage, make oaths, bear witness, make accusations, condemn, give absolution, insult, despise, defy, provoke, flatter, applaud, bless, humiliate, mock, reconcile, advise, exalt, welcome, rejoice, lament; show sadness, grieve, despair, astonish, cry out, keep silent and what not else, with a variety and multiplicity rivaling the tongue.22

Charles Gildon, in his 1710 biography of the famous English actor, Thomas Betterton,23 provides an extensive survey of the theory of theater gestures in the late Baroque. In general he advises,

To make these motions of the face and hands easily understood, that is, useful in the moving of the passions of the auditors, or rather spectators, they must be properly adapted to the thing you speak of, your thoughts and design; and always resembling the passion you would express or excite.

It is the face in which Gildon finds the most powerful gestures are created. To turn the face toward an object conveys one’s attention, to bend the face down suggests consciousness and guilt while lifting it up “is a sign of good conscience or innocence, hope and confidence.”

The face is changed into many forms and is commonly the most certain index of the passions of the mind. When it is pale it betrays grief, sorrow, and fear, and envy, when it is very strong. A leering and dark visage is the index of misery, labor and vehement agitations of the soul.24

As the face reveals the emotions, “the soul is most visible in the eyes.”

Eyes lifted on high show arrogance and pride, but cast down express humbleness of mind…

Denial, aversion, nauseating, dissimulation, and neglect are expressed by a turning away of the eyes. A frequent winking, or tremulous motion of the eyes argues malicious manners, and perverse and noxious thought and inclinations. Eyes drowned in tears discovers the most vehement and cruel grief.

If, Gildon suggests, one is sincere in his feelings, his eyes will express the correct emotions and with a power that will move the audience.

For then Nature, if you obey its summons, will alter your looks and gestures. Thus when a man speaks in anger his imagination is inflamed, and kindles a sort of fire in his eyes, which sparkles from them in such a manner, that a stranger who understood not a word of the language, or a deaf man that could not hear the loudest tone of his voice, would not fail to perceive his fury and indignation. And this fire of his eyes will easily strike those of the audience … and by a strange sympathetic infection, it will set them on fire too with the very same passion.

This reminds us of a charming passage in Wagner’s Mementos of Spontini, where he relates that that conductor attributed his success to his eyes.

How important it was to him to suffer not the smallest alteration in his habits I clearly saw when he explained to me his method of conducting, for he directed the orchestra — so he said — by a mere glance of his eye: “my left eye is for the first violins, my right for the second violins; wherefore, to work by a glance, one must not wear spectacles as bad conductors do, even if one is short-sighted. I, he admitted confidentially, “can’t see a step before me, and yet I use my eyes in such a way that everything goes as I wish.”

During the 16th century a fundamentalist religious concept began to appear in many parts of Europe, best known in England for the resultant Quakers and Puritans. For many of these people, dance became a new symbol of sin and music was not left untouched due to its association. The German philosopher Henry Agrippa (1486–1536) is a typical example.

To Music, moreover, belongs the Art of Dancing, very acceptable to maidens and lovers, which they learn with great care, and without tediousness do prolong it until midnight, and with great diligence do devise to dance with framed gestures, and with measurable passes to the sound of the cymbal, harp, or flute, and do, as they think very wisely, and subtly, the fondest thing of all and, little differing from madness, which except that it is tempered with the sound of instruments…. There is no sight more ridiculous, taken out of context, than dancing: this is a liberty to wantonness, a friend to wickedness, a provocation to fleshly lust, enemy to chastity, and a pastime unworthy of all honest persons.25

In England the literature of the religious right is almost unbelievable. We will quote one as representative of the entire school, Philip Stubbs’s Anatomy of the Abuses in England (1583),26

Wherefore, if you would have your son become womanish, unclean, smooth mouthed, affected to bawdy, scurrility, filthy rhymes, and unseemly talking; briefly, if you would have him, as it were, transformed into a woman, or worse, and inclined to all kinds of whordom and abomination, send him to dancing school, and to learn music, and then shall you not fail of your purpose. And if you would have your daughter whorish, bawdy, and unclean and a filthy speaker, and such like, bring her up in music and dancing.

In Zurich, under the influence of the strict Protestant, Zwingli, public dancing was actually forbidden. A civic ordinance of 1519 reads,

Let it be announced in the pulpits of the city and written notice sent into the country that since dancing has been forbidden, it is also forbidden to musicians or anyone else to provide dances in courts or other places, whether it be at public weddings or church festivals.27

At the beginning of the 20th century, a remarkable educator named Emile Jaques-Dalcroze, attempted to create a Renaissance in music education with a new system of education called “Eurhythmics.” While main-stream American music educators pay only token recognition to his ideas, he has had to the present day many fervent individual supporters. It will strike the reader, in the following excerpts of his writings, that Dalcroze attempted to take education full circle back to the beliefs of the ancient Greeks in the unity of music, movement and the emotions.

The aim of eurhythmics is to enable pupils, at the end of their course, to say, not “I know,” but “I have experienced,” and so to create in them the desire to express themselves; for the deep impression of an emotion inspires a longing to communicate it, to the extent of one’s powers, to others.

Rhythm is the live essence of feeling, the fundamental impulse of a movement in the form impressed on it by the first emotional reaction.

Gesture must define musical emotion and call up its image.

Gesture itself is nothing – its whole value depends on the emotion that inspires it.28

This essay first appeared in a longer version in my book, Ancient Views on the Natural World (2013).


  1. Problemata, 920b.28 ↩︎
  2. World History of the Dance, Norton, 183 ↩︎
  3. Quoted in Palisca, Humanism in Italian Renaissance Musical Thought, 401 ↩︎
  4. Tetrachordum Musices ↩︎
  5. Deipnosophistae, I, 22 ↩︎
  6. Sachs, op. cit., 237ff ↩︎
  7. Oeconomicus, VIII ↩︎
  8. Laws, 659d ↩︎
  9. Mathematics, XVI ↩︎
  10. Quoted in Miller, Cardanus, Writings on Music, 117 ↩︎
  11. Ibid., 119 ↩︎
  12. in Plato, Philebus, 17c ↩︎
  13. The Histories, VI, 128 ↩︎
  14. The History of Rome, I, 20 ↩︎
  15. Conway, The Odes of Pindar, Dent, 81. ↩︎
  16. Quoted in Mannichse, Music and Musicians in Ancient Egypt, 61 ↩︎
  17. Laws, 672e ↩︎
  18. Athesnaeus, op. cit., I, 20 ↩︎
  19. Hamlet, III, ii ↩︎
  20. Der vollkommene Capellmeister, 1739, I, iv ↩︎
  21. Ibid., I, vi, 18ff ↩︎
  22. Ibid., II, xi, 507 ↩︎
  23. reprint Cass, 1970, 53 ↩︎
  24. Ibid., 43 ↩︎
  25. Of the Vanitie and Uncertaintie of Arts and Sciences, in Dunn, 69 ↩︎
  26. Ed. Furnivall, 169ff ↩︎
  27. Quoted in Jackson, Huldreich Zwingli, 24 ↩︎
  28. Rhythm, Time, and Temperament (1919), 63, 107, 119, 139 ↩︎