Greek Folk Music: A Torrent of Tradition

Greek folk music is a genre that is steeped in tradition. For centuries, Greeks have been playing music that is based on their culture and heritage. Greek folk music is characterized by its use of traditional instruments, such as the bouzouki and the baglama, and its focus on vocal harmonies.

Origins of Greek Folk Music

The music of Greece is as diverse as its people. A melting pot of cultures for centuries, Greece has been influenced by everyone from the Romans to the Ottomans. This can be seen in the wide variety of musical styles that can be found in the country. One of the most prevalent and well-known is Greek folk music.

Ancient Greece

Greek folk music has its roots in the music of ancient Greece. This can be heard in the use of the pentatonic scale, which is characteristic of Greek folk music. The pentatonic scale is also found in traditional Asian and African music, giving Greek folk music a distinctly global sound.

In addition to the pentatonic scale, Greek folk music makes use of a variety of other melodic and harmonic devices such as drones, variations on Modes (such as the Dorian Mode), and unique rhythmic patterns. These elements give Greek folk music its distinctive sound.

Byzantine Empire

Byzantine music is the music of the Byzantine Empire. Originally it consisted of songs and hymns composed to Greek texts used for courtly ceremonial, religious festivals, or as entertainment in the hot air baths. Byzantine music did not disappear after the fall of Constantinople. During the decline of the Byzantine Empire in the late Middle Ages, many tunes were collected and transcribed by traveling musicians, particularly those in Greece.

Ottoman Empire

Though Ottoman rule of Greece ended in the early 19th century, its influence is still felt in the music of the country. During the years of Ottoman rule, music was used as a tool of cultural repression, with local musicians often forced to perform for their occupiers. This resulted in a musical melting pot, with Persian, Arabic, and Turkish influences all finding their way into traditional Greek folk music.

Characteristics of Greek Folk Music

Greek folk music has a long history and is characteristic of the various cultures within Greece. The music is often accompanied by instruments such as the bouzouki and is often danceable. Greek folk music often has a wide range of influences, including Byzantine, Ottoman, and Western.


A great variety of instruments are used in Greek folk music, many of them indigenous to the country. Traditional stringed instruments include the three-stringed lute-like bouzouki, the lymphata (a plucked instrument with a shallow, bowl-like body), the mandolin, and the lyra (a pear-shaped, three-stringed fiddle). The lavouto is a large bass version of the bouzouki. Wind instruments include flutes (often made of reeds), clarinets, oboes, and bagpipes. Percussion instruments include drums (usually played with sticks), tambourines, triangle (played with a stick), castanets, and cymbals.


Greek folk music is characterized by a wide variety of different rhythms. The most common rhythm is 3/4, which is also known as waltz time. This rhythm is used in many different folk dances, such as the syrtos, kalamatianos, and tsakonikos. Other popular rhythms include 2/4 (which is known as march time), 6/8, and 9/8. Greek folk music often features complexsyncopated rhythms, which can be quite challenging to dance to!

Another important characteristic of Greek folk music is its use of improvisation. Many of the most popular folk tunes are based on pre-existing melodies, but performers often add their own embellishments and variations. This gives Greek folk music a very lively and vibrant sound.

If you’re interested in learning more about Greek folk music, there are a few great resources available online. You can start by checking out some of the folk songs on YouTube, or searching for “Greek Folk Music” on Spotify or iTunes. There are also a number of excellent books about the subject, such as “The World of Greek Folklore” by Nikolaos Politis and “Folk Songs of Greece” by Sacha Roulstone.


Greek folk music is characterized by melodies of great beauty. They are often pentatonic, consisting of only five notes (compared to the seven notes of the Western scale). This gives them a simpler, “purer” sound which is thought to be closer to the way music sounded in ancient times. Many of the melodies are quite old, having been passed down from generation to generation for centuries.

The Greek folk music tradition is also distinguished by its use of special tones and ornamentation. These include the “embellishing” notes known as graces (klasma), which are often used to decorate the basic melody. Another characteristic element is the use of quarter-tones (tetrachords), which give Greek folk music its distinctive “exotic” sound.

Regional Variations of Greek Folk Music

Greek folk music is the music of the Greek people. It is also the music of the people of Greece’s neighbors: the Albanians, the Aromanians, the Armenians, the Bulgarians, the Meglenites, the Macedonians, the Pontic Greeks, the Southern Italians, the Turks, and the Vlachs.


Macedonia is a region in northern Greece, and its folk music reflects the influence of the Greek, Slavic, Ottoman, and Albanian cultures that have been present there throughout its history. Macedonian folk music often features complex rhythms and sharp changes in meter, as well as extended vocal phrases and complicated melodic lines. The region’s music is particularly well-known for its use of the clarinet, and many of Macedonia’s most popular folk songs are dance tunes that feature this instrument prominently. Some of the best-known Macedonian folk songs include “I Exaria,” “To Prousalaki,” and “Masedonia Mou.”


Thessaly is known for its violin music, which often features fast tempos and complex melodies. The region is also home to the cithara, a type of bowed string instrument that is particularly popular in the town of Larissa. Thessaly is one of the few places in Greece where singing in minor keys is still common, and many of the region’s folk songs have a melancholy feel.


Epirus is a region of northwestern Greece that is home to a particularly rich tradition of Greek folk music. The music of Epirus is characterized by a strong emotional quality, as well as a unique and often haunting sound. The region’s folk music includes both vocal and instrumental pieces, and is often performed on the lute-like stringed instrument known as the lyra.

Traditional folk songs from Epirus typically deal with themes of love, loss, and yearning, and are often sung in a melancholic or plaintive style. The region’sstrumental folk music is similarly characterized by a sense of longing and nostalgia, and frequently features fast-paced dance tunes.

Epirus’folk music has been enormously influential on the development of other regional styles of Greek folk music, as well as on the wider genre of Balkan folk music. In recent years, the music of Epirus has also begun to gain international popularity, thanks in part to the success of several contemporary Greek musicians who have drawn from the region’s rich musical traditions.

Notable Greek Folk Musicians

Greek folk music is a torrent of tradition that has changed little since ancient times. The music is not only an important part of Greek culture, but has also influenced the music of other cultures. Greek folk music is characterized by its use of the major and minor scales, as well as the Phrygian and Dorian modes.

Maria Callas

Maria Callas, original name Maria Anna Sofia Cecilia Kalogeropoulou (born December 2, 1923, New York City, New York, U.S.—died September 16, 1977, Paris, France), American-born Greek soprano noted for her theatrical performances and her exceptional vocal range and powers of expression.

Callas’s father was an opera singer turned voice teacher who immigrated to the United States in the 1920s; he later returned to Greece with his family. As a child she studied piano and made her stage debut singing a song from Tosca in 1930. She later studied at the Athens Conservatory (1935–37) and sang minor roles with various Greek companies until 1947, when she was engaged by the Royal Opera House in Florence, Italy. There she made her institutional debut as Violetta in Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata on November 8, 1947. The performance was a sensation not only for its rare dramatic insight but also for its vocal beauty and power; from that day forward Callas became an internationally celebrated opera star.

Mikis Theodorakis

Mikis Theodorakis is a Greek composer who has been active in the music scene since the 1940s. He is considered one of the most important Greek composers and his work often includes elements of traditional Greek music. He has composed over 1000 songs, many of which have become widely known, such as “Zorba the Greek” and “The Ballad of Mauthausen”.


Vangelis Paximadas is a Greek singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist who has been active in the Greek music scene since the early 1970s. He is best known for his work in the folk rock and pop rock genres, as well as his collaborations with other notable Greek musicians such as Mikis Theodorakis and Manos Hadjidakis. Paximadas has also released several solo albums, most notably his 1976 album To A Pegasus, which won him the Best Male Singer award at the Greek Music Awards.

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