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When Sounds Become Song: Thauma as a Response to Musical Transformations

Amy Lather

In archaic and classical usage, thauma, "wonder", and its cognates are used to designate the overwhelming affective power of certain phenomena. And while thauma is most often cited as a response to visual experiences, there are several passages that link it specifically to music. In this paper I consider three passages in which such an encounter is described in detail in order to elucidate the ways in which music could evoke thauma. In its focus on the sensory experience of musical thaumata, this paper will supplement the growing body of scholarship devoted to ancient aesthetic responses and sensory perception (cf. Destrée and Murray 2015, Peponi 2012, Porter 2010). I argue that the experience of thauma is predicated on the recognition of a difference between the musical quality of a song and the sonic elements that comprise it, sounds which do not constitute music in and of themselves. But I will show that these passages depict thauma as the amazement felt when a listener apprehends the moment in which these bare sounds (including that of the human voice) are transformed into song and become musical.

I begin with the description of Hermes' music in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes because Apollo's response to this performance is repeatedly characterized in terms of thauma (θαυματὰ ἔργα, 440; θαυμασίην ὄσσαν, 443; θαυμάζω, 455). In particular, it is the unfamiliar sound of the instrument (νεήφατον ὄσσαν, 443), more than the song itself (ἀοιδή), that accounts for this response. But Apollo also experiences feelings of glee (e.g. γέλασσε, 420) and desire (e.g. γλυκὺς ἵμερος, 422), reactions that highlight how Hermes has transformed the raw sound of the lyre into an instrument of song and therefore, of pleasure (cf. Peponi 2012). The transformative aspect of Hermes' performance is confirmed by his assertion that the instrument will produce only random noises (μετήορά θρυλλίζοι, 488) without the requisite musical knowledge. This episode thus alludes to the potential for any sound to become musical with the aid of the right skills, suggesting that Apollo's thauma is a response not just to this particular performance, but to the nascence of music itself. 

My next example, the chorus of the Delian maidens in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, depicts thauma as a response to the metamorphosis of voice into song. This group is described as a mega thauma (HHA 156) in part because with their song they fuse together (συνάρηεν, 164) a diversity of voices: "they know how to imitate the voices and chatter of all people" (πάντων δ’ ἀνθρώπων φωνὰς καὶ βαμβαλιαστὺν/μιμεῖσθ’ ἴσασιν, 162-3). The meaning of this phrase is hotly debated, but the reference to "the voices of all" highlights the capacity of choral song to embrace the phonic multiplicity that comprises the body of a chorus. The contrast between voice and song is underscored by the phrase, "each [listener] would say that he himself was uttering sounds (φθέγγεσθ')", 163-4), emphasizing that the Delian chorus is wondrous precisely because they embody the way in which a multitude of human voices can be blended into a single strain of song.

Plato's sarcastic attribution of "wondrous" (θαυμαστόν, 398a5) to the poet who can "become everything and imitate all things" (παντοδαπὸν γίγνεσθαι καὶ μιμεῖσθαι πάντα χρήματα, Rep. 398a1-2) is nonetheless consonant with the previous two examples. The preceding discussion indicated that this poet imitates human as well as non-human sounds like that of thunder, instruments, and animals (Rep. 397a3-b4). Like the Delian maidens, this poet is wondrous because he embodies a variety of distinct sounds in a single voice. And, like Hermes, his capacity to incite wonder derives from his ability to articulate in music sounds that would otherwise be unintelligible. Plato's poet thus creates a musical experience comparable to those described in the Homeric Hymns. The wonder and delight that such an experience evokes is why Plato, in the same passage, rejects such a poet from his ideal state (Rep. 398a5-6).

Session/Panel Title:

Ancient Music and the Emotions

Session/Paper Number

10.3

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