Music was essential to Greek life. Most Greek citizens were trained to play an instrument competently and to sing and perform choral dances. Instrumental music or the singing of a hymn regularly accompanied everyday activities. Athletic events and religious festivals would include contests for boys in singing and playing musical instruments. If they placed first, second, or third, they could win cash prizes.
In Athens during the second half of the fifth century B.C., a grand concert hall known as the Odeion of Perikles was built on the Athenian akropolis—physical testimony to the importance of music in Athenian culture. Music was so essential in antiquity that it was incorporated into warfare. The rhythm of music helped solders to march in time and maintain an impenetrable wall of defense.
Training in music was considered important for a well-educated gentleman. According to Plato, the kitharistés (a musician who played an instrument called a kithara) taught boys to study lyric poets and sing while playing the lyre in order to become more cultured, more controlled, and better behaved. Music was considered by philosophers to be an example of harmonious order, reflecting the cosmos and the human soul. In fact, the center of the universe was said to be located in the innermost sanctuary of the Temple of Apollo, the god of music. Greek citizens would visit this sanctuary to seek advice from the Oracle of Apollo, who provided guidance in matters of politics and personal affairs.
At the age of seven, boys attended school. Their curriculum included choral songs that were intended to teach patriotism and morals. However, Athenian guardians, or legal protectors, decided which of their children were sent to the schools, where, and for how long. Some students gathered at the town center called an agora. Elite families would send their sons to schools established by eminent philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Peasant families often needed their sons to work and apprentice (or train) with their fathers, so they were not able to attend school. The sons of aristocrats learned athletics, music, reading, writing, and rhetoric (the art of speaking and writing effectively). Girls at all levels of society were rarely if ever educated outside the home and were usually taught only to spin and weave, cook, and perform other domestic tasks.
Schools were private enterprises that were run for profit by individuals. Most boys probably got some schooling, but those who were better off could attend for a longer period. Only the elite could afford the most advanced instruction in rhetoric and philosophy. As a result of the appointment of Solon as chief magistrate in 594 B.C., all male citizens had—by the end of that century—become enfranchised as members of the decision-making ekklesia, or citizen assembly, and all were eligible to serve on the boule, or executive state council. As a result, more and more citizens saw the need for education, and more and more citizens were trained to play music.