Aulos

The aulos was arguably the most popular ancient Greek wind instrument. Commonly made out of ivory, bone, wood, reed, or bronze, it was played at symposia, religious sacrifices and processions, weddings, and many other events. Below is a general overview of the instrument itself. As the site expands this page will be supplemented with details concerning, art, mythology, performance contexts, and literary references.

 

The aulos

The aulos is most similar to a modern oboe. It was played by blowing through its double reeds. Theophrastus (Hist. Plant. iv.ii.1-7) describes how its reeds were made in great detail, even if the Greek is difficult to interpret. To help the musician play, a mouth-strap (phorbeia) was sometimes worn.

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Delphi Museum. Detail of a bronze statuette of an aulos-player.

The aulos was typically made of three parts. The holmos (ii); the hypholmion (iii); and the bombyx (iv). The reed would have been inserted at the end of holmos.

 

reading aulos numbered
Reading University Ure Museum, 67.7.3. ‘The Reading Aulos’.

There are many variants on this design. And these designs changed over time. Generally speaking, earlier auloi were much simpler, with only four finger holes and one thumb hole.

At the beginning of the 4th century BCE, the famous Theban musician Pronomos developed a system of collars and keys which enabled the aulos to play many more notes that its traditional design allowed. The technical skill required to make these collars (see the various aulos fragments from Meroe below) was very high. These instruments tended to have many more finger holes, which, through the system of collars and keys, could be closed or opened by the player to modulate between certain scales.

 

Auloi1
Boston MFA 24.1821. Fragments of the Meroe auloi. “An assortment of the best preserved elements, showing possible locations of key features. This arrangement does not represent any actual¬†pipe.”