back to article Grid computer recreates ancient Greek lute

Researchers have harnessed the awesome power of grid computing to answer one of the great mysteries facing mankind: what exactly does an epigonion sound like? At the risk of stating the obvious, an epigonion is a stringed instrument plucked by the ancient Greeks, and there aren't many around these days. To recreate the sound, …


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  1. Eddie Edwards


    Can someone explain to me why they can't just make one and play it?

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Greeks - not that clever

    I bet their amps didn't go up to eleven.

  3. Solomon Grundy

    Real Work

    Why the hell didn't they just build a real one?

  4. John Savard

    Beyond Copyright?

    If we had the sound of an actual epignomon, that would be. But since we don't, the reconstruction by today's researchers is a work by those researchers, subject to protection.

    But this reminds me of an opinion piece I read in a magazine for synthesizer players. It was criticizing the new sampler machines as stealing from other musicians, and it used the Mellotron, which was banned by the musician's union, as an illustration.

    My reaction was: Stealing? Oh, yeah. Hey, wait. Haven't the Stradivarius and Amati patents expired?

  5. david



    That's all really.

  6. Ben

    Beyond copyright?

    Hope it wasn't published with Chrome then

  7. Michael

    Am I missing something here,

    or is there a reason they couldn't just build one?

  8. Sam


    Why is it playing something that sounds very 16th century?

  9. This post has been deleted by its author

  10. David Simpson

    Cock o the walk baby

    Sounds alright but I gotta have more cow bell.

  11. David S
    IT Angle

    The IT angle

    I guess if they'd just built one there wouldn't have been any reason for it to be reported here.

    No, I'm not really convinced by that reason either. Why DIDN'T they just build one?

  12. DiskJunky


    sounds like a lot of work to go to to produce what frankly, sounds like a midi file

  13. Charles


    Probably because the materials needed to build the actual instrument (in this case, ancient Greek wood) are no longer available. And substituting other woods would have an adverse effect on the tonal quality of the instrument.

  14. John Donovan


    The epigonion is more of a harp than a lute. Luts have a fretboard like a guitar, but the epigonion is only capable of just one tone per string (barring harmonics).

    Mine's the one with the zither in the pocket.

  15. IDontLikeSpam

    It's already been done...

    I had a Casio keyboard that sounded just like this!

  16. fluffy
    Thumb Down

    Their simulation technology needs work

    It sounds like it's being plucked by a mechanical plucker, and every note ends up sounding identical. The end result doesn't sound any better or more realistic than what you get from the Sculpture modeling synth that's in Logic.

    So like everyone else has said, it might have worked out better if they just built one.

  17. Tag


    does this remind anyone else of some .mid lift music?

  18. Gareth

    Why look to the past?

    Ignoring the obvious point pointed out by others (why not just build one and play it?), why is all this power being used to recreate a crappy wooden box from millennia ago?

    Why not focus on creating new sounds? The 303, 8-bit chips and various other tools have created some distinctive and interesting music with a millionth of the computing power - imagine what awesome new sounds could be created using that much computing power...

  19. Peyton
    Thumb Down

    wow, the Greeks really were smart

    To have a *digital* epigonion all those ages ago :p

    From the clip, this thing sounds terrible. I Have to agree with other posts - either get some software that doesn't produce what sounds like a midi file or build a real one!!

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    It sounded a lot like ...

    ... my Commodore 64, at least in places.

    I guess a digital computer, grid or no, can't recreate the "organic" part that makes instrumental sound so unique.

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Medievalist Pluck This Way

    I agree there. Accompanying vocals would be something like "Hey, nonny no. Hey, nonny non epigonion. No!"

    The attached mp3 was labeled dufay, as in Guillaume Dufay the 15th Century Franco-Flemish composer? If so, might explain the medievalist tones this tuneless piece conjured.

    They ought to cover the riff from the Aerosmith's/Run DMC 'Walk This Way' instead. I bet that wouldn't sound so bad...

  22. This post has been deleted by its author

  23. RW

    @ Charles

    "the materials needed to build the actual instrument (in this case, ancient Greek wood) are no longer available"

    Oh, come now. I'm willing to bet a jelly-filled donut that every material used in ancient Greek epigonions is still with us. I doubt any of the tree species used have gone extinct, though thanks to goats and bad agricultural practices, they may be much less numerous now than then.

    The devil is in the details: what wood was used for what part? A well-made violin of today will be made from a number of different woods, each one chosen for its suitability for certain purposes. There is no reason to think ancient Greek luthiers were one iota stupider than modern ones, but I'd be surprised if there is a surviving description that goes into such detail *and* can be understood fully.

    And what about the strings? What were they made of? Their manufacture was probably a specialty of a few people, or perhaps a few villages or certain quarters of a few cities, and there may have been trade secrets now long lost when verbal transmission was interrupted (or the market for the strings dried up).

    And so it goes. Though we have a few images of epigonions, none will reveal how thick the walls were or any internal detail. Thus, in spite of the availability of materials, the design itself is lost. Any purported reconstruction is really just a stab in the dark.

    These researchers would have done better to have commissioned a luthier or harp builder to build an instrument that looked like the extant images, and to fiddle with it until it gave reasonably good sound, and let that be called "the sound of the epigonion", not some stupid computer synthesis.

    Tux, because for all we know, epigonions used strings of twisted penguin gut. Or perhaps they were stuffed with penguin feathers.

  24. Kanhef


    I'd like to hear their simulation of a modern harp, compared with the real thing, to verify that their algorithm produces the correct output. Until their model is proven to be accurate, the results have no meaning.

  25. Anonymous Coward

    RE: Real Work

    From the sound of it, it appears that they do have a real one (how the hell would they get photos of the object?). Why not just play the damn thing?

  26. P. Lee
    Paris Hilton

    re: Accuracy?

    "I'd like to hear their simulation of a modern harp, compared with the real thing, to verify that their algorithm produces the correct output. Until their model is proven to be accurate, the results have no meaning."

    Actually you can't prove things that way, you would only prove it can synthesise a harp accurately. You might have a good guess that it works for an epigonion as well as a harp, but even if you had an original epigonion to compare it with, you'd could only prove that its sounds like an ancient epigonion sounds today. There is no guarantee you are duplicating what it used to sound like when it wasn't ancient.

    Be careful not to into the trap of rubbish science where extrapolations are made from what we know to be true and then the extrapolations are then presented as "fact".

    That said, it isn't a criticism of the work. They probably had to pick an instrument and one of the research team had a fascination with ancient music.

    Where's the Paris Hilton angle?

  27. Anonymous Coward

    @Why look to the past?

    >The 303, 8-bit chips and various other tools have created some distinctive and interesting music

    *Some* distinctive music, yes, but the vast majority of it is IMNSHO rendered completely unlistenable by the ubiquitous addition of the sound of someone roughly nailing a garden shed together.

    All of which still doesn't explain why an ancient Greek instrument would (a) play a medieval tune and (b) sound like a midi file played on a cheap soundcard ...

    Mine's the one with the 'Keep Music Live' sticker and the rauschpfeife in the back pocket ...

  28. Andrew Connor


    What so we've got 'the folding@home' grid researching cancer proteins at a molecular level and GILDA and EUMEDGRID (let me read that again E.U. Med Grid) are used to simulate a epigonion ?

    What the hell is going on ?

    Who cares what it sounded like ?

    Is this REALLY a suitable use of the most powerful computing resources on ythe planet ?

    You're all absolutely right, they should've just made one from a bit of old olive tree or pine, it wuldn't make a gnat's bit of difference.

    and i bet the strings were made from the dried, stretched epididymises of epigonion players.

  29. Skeptical Sally

    Typical e-Science

    There's a good reason it sounds rubbish: it's a produce of e-Science, the paranormal belief that if governments give a stupidly large portion of their research budget to computer scientists the world's problems will be overcome because the rest of science is trivial, all that's left to do is crunch the numbers quickly.

    Accurately modeling sound generation and radiation in musical instruments is really, really hard. The things that make real instruments sound different from casio presets are subtle effects such as all sorts of small but significant nonlinearities, polarity mode coupling, dispersion etc. We don't completely understand how these work together even in relatively simple plucked instruments. We could sidestep the problem of having to understand by doing Direct Numerical Simulation of the underlying equations (Navier for the vibrating parts, Navier-Stokes for the air). Two problems there: 1) the resulting problem would be so huge that the e-scientists precious grid wouldn't stand a ghost of a chance and, more importantly 2) we don't yet know well enough how to model complicated things like wood (let alone varnish) and we're only just starting to understand plucking, so we wouldn't know what parameters to give to the program.

    Checking the astraproject website I see that In true e-science fashion all of these issues have been handily ignored and instead the team behind this 'research' used Julius O Smith III's vastly overhyped digital waveguide synthesis approach, which is popular precisely because it throws out everything that makes instrument modeling hard so as to run quickly. Unfortunately the things that make the modeling hard are what make the sound interesting and the results are there for you to hear. Digital waveguides are a necessary evil if you've got to model the instrument in real time so that the performer can play with parameters while a note is sounding and hear the effects as she does. But if you had to model any wavebearing structure (like a car or a bridge, say) and cared at all about accuracy this method would be at the very back of the queue after pretty well every other numerical technique.

    Tony Hey (Microsoft VP who used to be in charge of diverting UK taxpayer's money to this sort of stuff) should be forced to listen to no other music than this for a year to remind of what he's done.

  30. Anonymous Coward

    Thanks Sally

    Now that's an interesting post ! rare on El Reg comments which, while often funny, are as uninformed as a neurotic agoraphobic with communication difficulties.

  31. Anonymous Coward
    Paris Hilton

    nice one sally

    time for an insipid midi-esque rendering of the sound of a pompous-zeppelin being shot down in flames - even if I'm blindly cheering you because you used words that sound better and longer and slightly believable and the schadenfreude following the pricking of media story's conceit may be a poor meal but better than starving

    PH can make old greek wood with the blink of an eye and has played many types of instrument - her instructional oboe video was a particular favourite

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