The Beauty of Greek Traditional Folk Music

This article is a collaborative effort, crafted and edited by a team of dedicated professionals.

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


The Beauty of Greek Traditional Folk Music is a blog that explores the rich history and culture of Greece through its music. From traditional ballads to contemporary pop, this blog covers it all.

The Origins of Greek Folk Music

Traditional Greek folk music (also known as laïká or rebetika) is a product of the music of the Greek people that has been influenced by music of the East and music of the West. It is characterized by its own distinctive melodic and rhythmic qualities, as well as its own musical instruments.

The 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 entertainments, for special occasions such as weddings, and during religious rituals. Byzantine music did not disappear after the fall of Constantinople. During the Renaissance, many Byzantine musicians fled to Western Europe, where their music was greatly appreciated. This was especially true in Venice, which became a major center of Byzantine music.

Ottoman Rule

During Ottoman rule (1453-1821), music was an important part of everyday life in the Greek-speaking world, both for entertainment and for religious purposes. Many of the musical traditions that are now considered distinctly “Greek” can be traced back to this period.

One of the most important and influential genres to emerge from this era was rebetiko, a type of urban folk music that began in the ports of Asia Minor and was later popularized in Greece by immigrants from Turkey and the Balkans. Rebetiko often has a melancholy or bittersweet tone, and its lyrics often deal with themes of poverty, love, and loss.

Other important genres that emerged during Ottoman rule include laika (urban folk music), maniatiko (a type of folk music from the Mani region of the Peloponnese), and sfyria (a type of rural folk music from Epirus).

The Instruments of Greek Folk Music

Greek folk music is often accompanied by traditional instruments such as the bouzouki, lyra, mandolin, and clarinet. These instruments add to the lively and passionate sound of Greek folk music. The bouzouki, in particular, is a very popular instrument in Greece and is often used in traditional Greek music.

The Lyra

The Lyra is a Greek traditional instrument, with a pear-shaped body and fewer strings than the modern violin, which is its descendant. It is held upright on the player’s lap, and the strings are plucked with a plectrum. The Lyra is mainly associated with the island of Crete, but it is also widely used in other regions of Greece.

The sound of the Lyra is particularly suited to Cretan music, which often has a melancholy or reflective character. The instrument is also used in other types of Greek folk music, including music from the islands of the Aegean Sea and the Ionian Sea.

The Lavta

The lavta is a plucked string instrument of the lute family, found in Greece and Cyprus. It has a long fretboard and usually has 10 to 18 strings, which are plucked with the fingers.

The lavta has a long history, being mentioned by Homer in the Iliad as one of the instruments used by the bard Demodocus. In medieval times, it was known as the pandoura, and in the Renaissance as the chitarrone or citola. It began to fall out of use in Europe in the 18th century, but was revived in Greece in the 20th century.

The lavta is an important instrument in Greek traditional music. It is often used as a solo instrument, but can also be part of an ensemble. The sound of the lavta is very distinctive, and adds a lot to the overall atmosphere of Greek folk music.

The Baglama

The baglama (syrta in Cypriot music, tambura in Macedonian music, saz in Persian and Turkish music) is a string instrument of the lute family with a long neck and a pear-shaped body. It is found in various forms throughout the Eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans.

The baglama has between 7 and 14 strings, arranged in courses of 2, 3 or 4 strings. It is typically played with a plectrum, although it can also be played with the fingers. The baglama is most commonly used to accompany singing and dance in folk music.

The instrument is believed to have emerged in the Ottoman Empire some time in the 18th century, although its exact origins are unclear. It quickly became popular among the Greeks of Asia Minor and Pontus, as well as the Roma (Gypsies) of Anatolia and the Balkans. The baglama was later adopted by Balkan folk musicians and has become an integral part of Greek musical tradition.

The instrument comes in a variety of sizes, from the large basmade (bass) to the small tsimbali (treble). The most common type is the kanonaki, which has seven strings tuned to a major scale.

The Styles of Greek Folk Music

There are many different styles of Greek folk music, each with their own unique history and sound. The music of the Aegean Islands is characterized by its use of the Greek laouto, a traditional instrument similar to a lute. Cretan music, on the other hand, is known for its fast tempo and intricate rhythms.


Rebetiko is a style of Greek folk music that originated in the early 1900s in the port city of Smyrna (now İzmir). It is characterized by its bluesy, emotional lyrics and its mournful, sometimes cranky melodies. The typical instruments used in rebetiko are the bouzouki (a type of mandolin), the baglama (a type of lute), and the defi (a type of fiddle). The music is often accompanied by dance, and it has a particular popularity among Greeks who have emigrated to other countries.


Smyrneika or Tsifteteli is a style of Greek folk music from Smyrna (now Izmir), Turkey. It is closely related to manolia, and features quick, complex rhythms and nasal singing.


Pontic music is a style of Greek folk music from the Pontus region in northeastern Turkey. Pontic music is characterized by its fast tempo and use of the pentatonic scale. Pontic music is often accompanied by dances such as the Tsakonikos, Karagouna, and Zonaradiko.

The Legacy of Greek Folk Music

Traditional Greek folk music is a unique genre of music that is characterised by its use of certain instruments, modes, and Dance. This type of music has its origins in the ancient Greek culture and has evolved over the years to become an important part of the modern Greek identity. Greek folk music is a vital part of the country’s cultural heritage and is enjoyed by people of all ages.

The Modern Greek Folk Music Revival

Between the late 1960s and early 1980s, Greek music underwent a radical transformation, spearheaded by a new generation of Greek musicians who were influenced by Western rock and pop music. These musicians blended traditional Greek music with modern sounds and instruments, giving birth to a new genre of folk music known as laika (modern Greek folk music).

During the 1980s and 1990s, laika became increasingly popular in Greece and abroad, paving the way for a revival of traditional Greek folk music. In the 2000s, a new wave of Greek musicians began to experiment with traditional folk sounds, incorporating elements of electronic and world music.

Today, there is a rich tapestry of folk styles being performed in Greece, from the bluesy sounds of Pontian lyra to the haunting melodies of Cretan mandolin. This wealth of musical traditions is testament to the enduring legacy of Greek folk music.

The Influence of Greek Folk Music on World Music

Greek folk music has had a profound influence on the development of Western music, eager to codify, systematize and document the music of their own culture. Ancient Greek musical notation is believed to be the earliest recorded form of musical notation in existence and represents one of the most important sources for our understanding of Greek musical traditions. The notation provides detailed information about Greek music instruments, modes, melodic contours and rhythms.

The impact of Greek folk music can be heard in the music of many countries today. For example, the Latin saying “Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth” is based on a line from a Greek poem about Orpheus (a Thracian musician who was associated with the earlier era of Dionysus), which was set to music and popularized by Roman singer-songwriter Catullus. In addition, several fundamental aspects of Western musical theory can be traced back to Greek concepts, such as the octave (the interval between one pitch and another with double its frequency) and major/minor tonalities (a system where certain notes are considered more important than others).

So next time you enjoy a piece of music, remember that it may owe a debt of gratitude to the sounds of ancient Greece!

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