History and development of the Music in Greece

Greece has a long tradition in music, dating back to ancient times. Many gods and deities of antiquity were connected to music and dance and the word music itself comes from the Nine Muses of ancient Greece who were a source of inspiration for all artists, even today many artists refer to the “muse of inspiration” .

Many words from the Greek language related to music are international, such as: harmony, melody, choir, orchestra, chromatics, stage, lyre, hymn, psalm, rhythm. Greek music has many categories and types of songs, starting from Ancient Greek music, Byzantine music and church hymns, kleftika that were popular during the Turkish occupation, folk songs, rebetika , dimotika and finally, in recent decades, guerrilla songs, new wave, artistic poetry songs, light music and finally rock and pop.

During its long journey through the centuries, Greek music adopted elements from the Romans, Byzantium and later from the Renaissance.

Historical Context and Evolution

The origins of Greek music can be traced back to ancient times, where it played a crucial role in ceremonies, rituals, and daily life. Ancient Greek music, though not fully understood, is known to have been integral to theatrical performances, religious ceremonies, and public festivals. Instruments such as the lyre, aulos, and kithara were prominent. The theoretical frameworks developed by ancient Greek philosophers and music theorists, such as Pythagoras and Aristoxenus, laid the foundations for Western music theory.

The Byzantine era introduced a rich tradition of liturgical music, with the Byzantine chant becoming a profound expression of religious devotion. This period saw the development of a unique system of notation and a vast repertoire of hymns and chants, which have influenced Eastern Orthodox Christian music to this day.

The Ottoman occupation brought new musical influences to Greece, including the introduction of the modal system of Makam, which greatly influenced the development of Greek traditional and folk music. This period saw the emergence of Rebetiko, often referred to as the “Greek blues,” a genre that originated in the urban subcultures of Greek ports and cities in the early 20th century. Rebetiko’s themes of love, loss, poverty, and the struggles of the working class, combined with its distinctive musical style, made it a powerful and enduring symbol of Greek cultural identity.

Regional Diversity and Traditional Music

Greek traditional music varies significantly across the country, reflecting the diverse landscapes, histories, and cultures of its regions. Each area has its own distinctive styles, instruments, and dances. In the islands, one can find the lively sounds of the Nisiotika, characterized by the strong presence of the violin and lute. The mainland offers the deeply emotional Epirotika, with the clarinet leading melodies that express the soul of Epirus’s rugged terrain.

Modern Movements and Influences

The 20th century witnessed the globalization of Greek music, with composers such as Mikis Theodorakis and Manos Hatzidakis integrating Greek musical elements with classical and popular music forms. Their work, particularly in film music, brought Greek music to international audiences and underscored the versatility and adaptability of Greek musical traditions.

Contemporary Greek music encompasses a wide range of genres, from pop and rock to electronic and hip-hop. Artists often incorporate elements of traditional Greek music, creating a vibrant fusion that speaks to both the past and the present. The Greek music scene is dynamic, with festivals, concerts, and clubs across the country showcasing the creativity and diversity of Greek musicians.

Cultural Significance and Continuity

Music is deeply woven into the fabric of Greek life, serving as a vehicle for expressing identity, emotions, and social connections. Traditional music and dances are not merely historical artifacts; they are living traditions that continue to play a vital role in community life, celebrations, and rituals. Greek music also serves as a bridge between generations, with younger musicians and audiences embracing and reinterpreting traditional styles and forms.

In the global diaspora, Greek music acts as a link to heritage and homeland, fostering a sense of belonging and cultural continuity among Greek communities abroad. Through both traditional and modern expressions, Greek music embodies the resilience, diversity, and creativity of the Greek spirit.

Mainland and island music

Greek folk music is divided into two groups, the Greek mainland folk music (Dimotika) and the island music (Nisiotika)
The differences between the two groups consist mainly of the following points: In the rhythm, island dances are usually two-pointed, while in mainland Greece, five-pointed and seven-pointed dances are very common.
Scales: On the mainland the scales that been used, do not have sine in the succession of their notes, in contrast to the islands. Rhyming and improvisations are common on the islands, while on land they are very rare.

Instrument combinations: On land, the characteristic combination of instruments was initially the “scale” of dauli and zournas (later clarinet), while on the islands tubi and lyre (later lute and violin). In recent years these established combinations have been softened.

A third category that could be distinguished is the oriental music of the interior of Asia Minor, which is related to the music of the middle east, but does not seem to have much in common with the music of the main part of Greece.

19th Century development

In the 19th century, Greek music developed with composers such as Nikolaos Mantzaros (composer of the National Anthem of Greece) and Spyridon Samaras (composer of the Olympic anthem), both composers were from the Ionian Islands.

Until 1930, the serenates that florished in the Ionian islands, together with operettas such as “O Vaftistikos” by the composer Theophrastos Sakelaridis and the songs of Cleon Triantaphyllos, who became known as Attik, were the most popular for the urban population of Athens. Attik was also the creator of the famous troupe “Mantra of Attik” one of the first repertoire troupes in Greece.

Music in Greece during the 50’s

In the early 50’s Greek music, or certainly what you could hear from the mass media of radio and movies, was the Laika songs (bouzouki based music) with sounds that the Greeks brought with them from Asia Minor in the 1920s and Greek and foreign light music, with mainly European sounds and influence.

During the early 50s the Greek music, or certainly what you could hear in the mass media of radio and films, was the Laika (music based on the bouzouki) with sounds that the Greeks from Asia Minor brought with them back in the 1920s. The Greek soft music (elafra mousiki) with flavours of western European sounds, the most representative of which came from the songs of Manos Hadjidakis and Mimis Plessas that was sung by famous performers like Nana Moushouri, Tzeni Vanou, Giannis Vogiatzis and others, was also very popular.

Also, during this time, the music of famous duos and trios like the Katsamba Brothers and Trio Athena became fashionable. Their particular sound was an imitation of Spanish and Mexican music which they transformed into Greek. , As well as this, there was the other kind of music, the Dimotica or Greek folk music which unfortunately negative memories for many older Greeks as Dimotica was promoted as Greek nationalist music during the seven years under the dictatorship. Hopefully, as the years have gone by, these bad connotations are beginning to fade.

Laika songs

Laika (the people’s music or pop music ) developed from the Rebetika which was popular among the working classes during the 1940s and 1950s. Especially the Rebetica was not well known to the wider public, until around the 1970s when George Dalaras and many others reproduced many old Rebetica songs. This coincided with the making of the famous Greek film, Rebetico (that tells the story of Marika Ninou one of the first rebetiko woman singers) which popularised this kind of music even more. The Laika was, for many years, neglected by the Greek middle class.

manolis-hiotis It is said that it was the musician Manolis Chiotis who brought the bouzouki music into the middle-class drawing room. Manolis Hiotis was probably the best virtuoso of the bouzouki though he was a former guitarist, he also invented the eight string bouzouki and created unforgettable songs using for the first time in modern Greek pop music the styles of Jazz, Samba and many Latin music elements integrated with his bouzouki.

From the end of the 1950s onwards, the Greek Laika became more and more popular. This is partly to do with the economic development of Greece that was slowly recovering from the two wars, the Second World War and the Greek Civil War. More and more Greeks could afford to buy radios and record players. The Greek record companies, seeing the potential of Laika, signed contracts with singers, musicians and composers and the mass production of popular Greek music really began to take off.

Throughout the 1960s saw the growth of the well-known tavernas that offered live music shows, the Bouzoukia. This occurred particularly in areas of Athens. One of the most fashionable area at the time was Tzitzifies. The 1960s saw the absolute domination of Laika. Great performers became known to all Greek households. Names such as Grigoris Bithikotsis, Stelios Kazantzidis, Stamatis Kokotas, Manolis Angelopoulos, Marinela, Giota Lidia, Doukisa, Poly Panou, Panos Cavalas with Ria Kourti, Viky Mosholiou were all singing the songs of famous composers like Vasilis Tsitsanis, Giannis Papaioannou, Markos Vamvakaris, Giorgos Zambetas, Giorgos Mitsakis, Apostolos Kardaras and many others.

There is a big dispute about what is considered as Greek popular music during those days because, as is well known in the modern Greek music world, many composers of those years were tuning their radios every night to the short wave frequencies and listening to the music from several Arabian countries as well as India. The music they then went on to compose was highly influenced (and in some cases even copied) from songs of these countries. 

Many they say that authentic Greek folk music was developed firstly by Marcos Vamvakaris, with his famous song Fragosyriani . With this song Vamvakaris introduces new musical roots with more Western sounds that blend perfectly with the old sounds of Rebetiko. The same happens also with Vasillis Tsitsanis and his song Omorfi Thessaloniki. Both these songs are the typical Hasapiko dance songs.

Finally, there is Giorgos Zambetas with the song “Syko Horepse Syrtaki” which seals a whole era that follows with the name ‘Greek tourist music’. At this point it is interesting to mention that during the 1960s The Beatles , as a roumor says, that when they visited Greece in the 60’s met with Zambetas and asked him to teach them some of the techniques of Greek music and bouzouki. 

Soft Greek music

The most representative soft greek music (Elafra in Greek ) in the decades 1950-1960 came from the songs of Manos Hadjidakis, Mimi Plessas and others and performed by artists such as Tonis Maroudas, Nana Mouschouri, Jeni Vanou, Yiannis Vogiatzis and others.

Also, during this era, the music of duets and trios was popular, such as the Katsamba brothers, Mouzas Lignos, Trio Atene and others. Especially for the Katsamba brothers, their sound was an imitation of Spanish and Mexican music that had been translated into Greek and had become fashionable in the late 50’s and early 60’s.

Example of Greek soft music

Jeny Vanou sings the song “Our Love”


Greek folk songs as the Rebetika was popular mainly among the working class during the 1940s and 1950s, and as many say it took the great bouzouki maestro Manolis Chiotis to bring the bouzouki into the living rooms of the Greek bourgeoisie.

Each of these Rebetiko songs was not known to the masses until the 1970s and especially after the post-colonial era when Giorgos Dalaras, Babis Goles and many others began to reproduce old Rebetiko songs that, together with the guerrillas, had become fashionable.

This also coincided with the screening of the famous work of Greek cinema, Rebetiko, which tells the story of Marika Ninou, one of the first women to sing rebetika.

Rebetiko has its roots in Asia Minor and appeared in the 20s mainly in Piraeus where many refugees arrived. Rebetiko was originally the song of the marginalized. However, the great composers of rebetiko such as Markos Vamvakaris, Yiannis Papaioannou, Tsitsanis and others developed it and made it the main popular music of Greece.

Examble of Rebetiko song

Rebetiko music

The greek music scene in the 60’s and 70’s


The 60’s and 70’s were characterized by the transition of the tavern that offered live music to the famous and lavish Bouzouki clubs. This happened especially in the areas of Athens and Thessaloniki. One of the most famous haunts at that time was Tzitzifies.

A variant of the Bouzouki clubs was the “Skyladika” greek for dog house… no one knows exactly why they were named that way, maybe because of the cacophony, the strumming and the noise. The breaking of the plates became a Greek custom internationally followed nowadays by the sprinkling of flowers and champagnes, which replaced the plates.

The New Wave and the “boîte”

In the mid-1960s, a new kind of music began to be heard in Greece. This was the Greek New Wave inspired by the Western ballad and the style of the folk clubs called “Bouît” in Paris.
The new wave became the favorite musical style for young Greek intellectuals and students. The boîte Esperides by Yiannis Argyris (a personal friend of mine) and next door the Apanemia by Giorgos Zografou, in Tholou street in Plaka in Athens, became the main haunts of the new wave.

It was the time when Dionysis Savvopoulos created a new school of Greek music married with ballads, Blues and Rock. During this era, performers of the Greek new wave such as Yiannis Poulopoulos, Kostas Hatzis, Arleta and others make an important presence.

New wave Songs in Greece

The art-folk songs

The contemporary songs appear in the late 1950s – early 1960s mainly by Manos Hadjidakis and Mikis Theodorakis. A common characteristic of the pioneers of “art-folk” song was their training in classical music and the search for Greekness. By inventing art song, they also transferred some of the ideals of the National School to popular song, but also other values ​​of European origin.

The term “non art-folk” contains two contradictory concepts, declaring in the modern Greek division between folk tradition and western orientation Mikis Theodorakis defines the artistic folk song as a contemporary composite music work which will be able to be creatively assimilated by the masses. The starting point of this effort is the collection of songs under the name Epitafios published in 1958, about which Theodorakis says that is nothing more than the marriage between modern Greek music and modern Greek poetry.

Who made Greek music famous worldwide

Τhe composers who made Greek music internationally known were Mikis Theodorakis, Manos Hatzidakis, and Stavros Xarchakos. Those three composers are recognized as the greatest composers of modern Greece, of course, we must not forget another great Greek composer, Vangelis Papathanasiou.

From the 1970s and 1980s onwards, Greek music became increasingly distant from the sounds of the 1950s and 60s.

From the 70’s onwords

From the 1960s onwards, following the rock fashion in Western Europe, the first Greek rock bands began to appear. Forminx stand out among them with the famous members Demis Russos and Vangelis Papathansiou.

In the 1970s, they took their success to France, where they created the well-known group Aphrodite’s Child. Demis Roussos and Vangelis Papathanasiou became world famous with the latter receiving the music Oscar for the soundtrack of the film Chariots of Fire

The Greek music today

What exactly the Greek song represents today is somewhat difficult to say. However, this is also an element of an international recession in general in everything and especially in culture where mass production and the ephemeral star system has degraded the quality at all levels, putting weight only on spectacle and commercialism.

Music producers, radio stations and reality shows create ephemeral hits with ephemeral singers.
The compositions become more and more monotonous in a recording studio with only a synthesizer and a singer whose voice changes electronically.

Radio stations and TV channels play their sponsors’ comercial songs, in fact promoting a musical subculture.

As a result of the above many good musicians especially of the modern greek music (rock, blues etc) , find as the only way out to make known their songs and work in youtube, spotify or apple music.