THE AULOS 34 Bone is a much more durable material than wood, and a number of bone sections of auloi survive, giving us some valuable information on the instrument-maker’s art. (Ivory was also used, which is sometimes very difficult to distinguish from bone.)18 For example, we know that down to the middle of the fifth century BC the inside of each bone section was bored out to an exactly cylindrical bore, but the outside surface was usually left unworked, preserving the grooves left in the bone by the muscle attachments. Then, as lathe technique improved, the outside was shaved down to an exact cylinder, polished, and decorated with incised lines. Eventually, the bone sections were given a thin outer shell of bronze or silver. But this pattern of development is less useful than it may seem for the purpose of dating surviving fragments of auloi, because crude and simple instruments continued to be made to the old-fashioned pattern long after the refinements had been introduced. The fingerholes were bored in the wood or bone with something like a modern centre-bit, probably rotated by a bow. It could cut a very clean and exact circular hole, as can be seen from some surviving fragments. On instruments made of wood or bone the outer surface was filed or gouged out slightly around the holes which were to be stopped by the player’s fingers, so as to make a better ‘seating’ for the finger, and from the depth and position of the hollows made in this process it is sometimes possible to tell whether the pipe was designed for the left or the right hand. This shaping might have been done by the player himself, or by the maker on a custom-made instrument. The player used the flat of the finger near the last joint to stop the holes, and not the tips of the fingers; this makes the shaping of the holes even more important. Later instruments which had a casing of bronze (for example, the Reading aulos) could not be shaped in this way.19 There is also evidence for ‘under-cutting’ —removing a small sliver of bone from the interior edge of the hole, for fine correction of pitch (see note 18). Throughout the early Classical period, and down to the middle of the fifth century BC, the aulos apparently had five fingerholes, with or without a sixth hole further down the pipe, which could not be covered by the fingers. This is known as a vent-hole, and was used to sound the lowest note on the pipe.

Figure 2a.11 shows the typical arrangement, with hole I on top (stopped by the index finger), the thumbhole T underneath, and II, III and IV for the middle, third and little fingers respectively. The vent-hole V, if there is one, can be distinguished by its sharp outer edge, not shaped for the player’s fingers. This arrangement imposes a limit on the distance between I and IV; the maximum stretch, even for a player with large hands, could not have been much more than about 15 cm (6 in.).


Each pipe would normally be supported on the player’s thumb; but when the thumbhole had to be uncovered, wholly or partially, the little finger  was apparently tucked under the pipe to support it. It must have taken a lot of skill to do this (usually with both pipes at once) during a rapid piece of music. The arrangement of holes would enable each pipe of the aulos to play a scale of six ‘natural’ notes, with the option of raising the pitch of five of them by a small amount. This was done by raising the finger slightly from the edge of the next hole above; so the note from the vent-hole could be modified in this way, but the ‘natural’ from the top one (I) could not. The small interval by which the pitch was raised was called a diesis in Greek, and in this context it means a ‘leak’ or ‘escape’.

(It is interesting that this seems to be the only term for an interval which is based on the playing technique of a wind instrument; all the note-names in the scales (see p. 54), and the names of the other intervals—for example, dia pente, ‘across five’ for the fifth—were based on the layout of stringed instruments.) The amount by which the pitch was raised (i.e. the size of a diesis) could vary between a quarter-tone and a semitone, according to the scale being used. If the finger were raised a little further, the pitch would rise by one more diesis. It would therefore be possible to play a scale of six notes, with a cluster of three closely-spaced notes (called a pyknon in Greek) based on each of them except the highest one. This, however, was not part of normal musical practice, though it might have figured in exercises set to pupils by aulos teachers. The Greek scales, which will be discussed in detail in the next chapter, allowed only one pyknon in any ‘tetrachord’ —a group of four notes, which normally spanned the interval of a fourth. Apart from raising the pitch by means of ‘leaks’, the aulos-player could lower the pitch of some notes by cross-fingering. This involves closing holes below the open one which is sounding the note. Obviously, this technique is available only on holes I, T, II and III, and would in practice be very difficult to achieve on T (one should never say ‘impossible’ of any technique supposed to have been used on a woodwind instrument!).

It has the advantage that the lowering of pitch, though very slight, is quite accurate, unlike the hit-or-miss technique of ‘leaks’. According to good literary evidence, there were three ancient aulos scales, the Dorian, Lydian and Phrygian, and down to the middle of the fifth century BC there were three types, or sizes, of aulos, one bored for each of the scales. In order to change from one to another, the player had  to change instruments, just as a clarinettist today may have to change from a B flat to an A clarinet in order to play in a different key. The nature of these scales, and their relationship to later systems, are discussed in Chapter 3. For the present, it will suffice to say that they probably differed in three respects—the pitch of each scale as a whole, the number and range of notes, and the patterns of intervals within that range. A development took place some time about the middle of the fifth century BC whereby it became possible to play any of these three scales on the same instrument (i.e. pair of pipes). This ‘invention’ is ascribed to Pronomos of Thebes, a famous virtuoso player, who was active in the middle years of the century, and who in the 430s attempted (poor chap!) to teach the art of aulos-playing to the notorious aristocratic tearaway Alkibiades.20 Unfortunately, the literary sources do not give any details of his innovation, but we can assume that he modified the design of the instrument, and perhaps transposed one or two of the scales to a different ‘key’ in order to make them overlap to a greater extent. It might then have become possible to play the three scales on an aulos with (say) eight fingerholes fitted with a form of keywork by means of which the holes which were not required for the scale being used could be closed off.

The problem with this hypothesis is that the earliest surviving examples of instruments fitted with keywork date from a much later period. But the surviving instruments are not a representative selection. They have mostly been found in rubbish deposits (e.g. wells in the Athenian Agora), and while we might expect to find cheap or damaged instruments in such a context, we are not likely to find an expensive instrument casually discarded by a professional player. (The Brauron aulos is a different matter; it was thrown into an underground spring, probably as a thank-offering.) The best examples of keywork that we possess come from Pompeii, and of course date from centuries later. They probably represent the private collection of a musician, or perhaps instruments in a maker’s workshop at the time of the volcanic eruption. As for the lack of contemporary pictorial evidence, that is easily explained by the nature of the keywork itself.

The mechanism is quite simple. The body of the aulos is covered with a thin layer of bronze or silver, and the holes are bored through it and the bone or ivory beneath. On the outside of this layer are fitted sleeves of metal which are tight enough to seal off the air, but loose enough to be rotated around the body. Each has a hole which can be made to coincide with the hole in the aulos body, or turned away from it so as to close it off. Each of them looks rather like the air regulator on an old-fashioned Bunsen burner, and they work in much the same way. Figure 2a.12 shows two sleeves, with the left one in the ‘open’ position and the other closed; there would normally be a minimum of eight.


This system of keywork is, of course, much simpler and much less effective than that on a modern oboe or clarinet. To begin with, no more  than six holes could be used at any one time, and the distance between I and IV was restricted to the span from the player’s index finger to little finger, i.e. about 15 cm (6 in.), though the vent-hole could be at any distance below. Some later auloi (from the second century BC onwards) had long bronze rods which moved back and forth along the body, and caused half-sleeves or pads to slide up or down, so as to cover or open holes which were beyond the player’s reach.21 To give the sleeve extra strength and stability, it was bent around the body of the instrument (the one in Figure 2a.13 has quite a large bore) and held in place by staples, which were soldered into the bronze body (Figure 2a.13). It might have been possible to manipulate one of these rods while playing, but it must have been very difficult indeed to twist the sleeves around and change the scale except during a pause in the music. On the remains and in illustrations of much later instruments there are small knobs on the sleeves, and on others there are sockets, perhaps for the insertion of a short lever, which would have made it easier; but no such details appear in Greek vase-paintings of the Classical period. Without them, of course, the sleeves would have been quite inconspicuous, and this would account for the fact that the artists did not bother to show them.



BY John G.Landels

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