Music in Crete

Music in Crete

Also available in English German French Italian Dutch Polish

Music and dance are directly woven into the Cretan psyche and their social life from the earliest days to the very present. Traditional music and local dances play a major role not only at festivals and social occasions but also in the day-to-day life of the ordinary person.

A characteristic feature of the island’s music-making is the improvisation and creation of mantinades – these are rhyming couplets that comply with a strict metrical pattern and are a particular part of the Cretan culture. The ease with which these little verses can be adapted to any event is legendary. In the case of the various celebrations and festivals, the musicians are not limited to a formal repetition of the basic musical melody or line but can enrich their performances with improvisations that echo those the dancers are themselves making.

Traditional Songs of Crete

The Cretan musical tradition is considered to be the most ‘alive’ of those in Greece. Not only does it continue to evolve by absorbing creative contemporary musical elements, but at the same time manages to express and comment upon contemporary realities in a life-like manner.


The traditional music of Crete incorporates dance tunes and various poems or limericks. The “mantinades” are the commonest form of song; each line has fifteen syllables and each pair has to rhyme. Their principal theme revolves around love. They are also the most frequent means of expressing feelings and emotional situations – such as passion, separation, pain, or desire. Frequently made up on the spot, they draw on their own particular vocabulary with exceptional virtuosity.


The second contemporary category of songs in Crete is the rizitika. These are sung mainly around the foothills (rizes) of the White Mountains in the Chania region. Depending on the subject of the verse, they can be divided into subcategories – some to do with Akritas (frontier guards), others heroic, historical, revolutionary, allegorical, speaking of exile and of love. Though their homeland is in West Crete, they are popular in other regions of Crete as well. They have a fifteen-syllable beat but do not need to rhyme. They do not accompany dance but are usually sung by either a group (with a lead singer) or by a single person who utters a half-line as a sort of chorus. Two of the most famous rizitika are ‘Pote tha kanei xasteria?’ and “Agrimia and Agrimakia mou“. The last an allegorical reference to the freedom fighters living in the mountains – alongside the ‘agrimia‘ or wild goats. The first has been adapted from a Byzantine song and has to do with wishing carnage on one’s enemies.


An important element of Cretan urban music is the so-called ‘tampachaniotika’ songs or amanedes. These came to the fore in the 19th and 20th centuries, in the urban centres of Western Crete. Essentially they are a fusion of native urban music with that of Asia Minor – a sort of Cretan rembetika. This music is not to dance to. They take their name from the word for a tannery, or possibly hashish. Their most important representative was Stelios Foustalieris – a virtuoso bulgari player (a stringed instrument) and some of the best known “songs” are ‘Staphidianos skopos’, ‘As these irons weigh’ and ‘As if you had another in your heart’.

Funeral lamentations

Cretan funeral lamentations deserve mention as another category of island song. They speak of death and loss – sometimes addressed to the deceased, sometimes to Death himself. Their roots lie in the very distant past – perhaps even in Homeric times. There exist the well-known standard responses and verses, but also more spontaneous and improvised dirges composed at the moment by a sorrowing relative.

Generally, they take the form of rhyming, 15-syllable lines, though 11 and 12-syllable versions are known too.

Past & Present of Cretan Music

As observed, Cretan music is an amalgam of many elements that have fused or created their own themes over the years. The position of the island at the crossroads between East and West has ensured that its music embraces a variety of idioms in an active manner and so it remains a unique and special land. In it, one can detect the ancient meters and rhythms, Oriental and even Renaissance influences. Music remains an important and integral part of the lives of the islanders; they practice it, listen to it, dance to it, and sing it – even today!

Music in the Minoan & Ancient Years

The importance of music on the island started in the prehistoric years, and it has continued to evolve until today – always maintaining elements of its original character. As such it is one of the most authentic in Greece and in Europe as a whole. Many ancient scholars and artists have spoken about music on the island, proving its value and importance since ancient times. Plato in the “Laws” and “Minos”, Euripides in the “Cretans”, Sophocles in the “Daedalus”, Herodotus in his “History”. In addition, Aristotle, Isocrates, Thucydides, Plutarch, Diodorus Sicelius admire the pre-Greek Minoan civilization. It is characteristic that Strabo, the well-known geographical scholar of the ancient world, in his geographical narratives, refers to great music and “orchestral” prosperity in ancient Crete, which is reflected in the famous Cretan laws of music, poetry and orchestra. Almost all historians agree that Pyrrhic, Taurus, Orsitis, Epikridios, Geranos and all the ancient sacred and secular dances are of Cretan or Cretan origin. The Mycenaean civilization that inherited and followed the culture of Minoan Crete and then formed the basis for the main spiritual miracle of classical antiquity, used, among other things, the musical elements of the Minoan music tradition.

Evidence can be found in the music and dance elements that survived directly or indirectly between the centuries and the events of the island in contemporary music and dance reality. The musical history of Crete begins with the birth of the father of the gods, Zeus, in the high and proud mountains of the island. The Kourites, these mythical Cretan warriors, covered the sound of the baby crying to protect him from Saturn’s father, dancing and hitting their arms loudly and rhythmically. Theseus, when he left Crete to arrive in Delos, danced with his companions a special beat, which copied the twisting turns of the labyrinth of Knossos. This dance was the famous “Crane Dance” and is still found today in many Greek islands.

References about music in Crete are numerous. Characteristically, Sophocles in his work “Aiantas” makes a report about “Knossia Orchise”.

The story of Thalitas, who saved Sparta from a great plague thanks to his music, is also historically documented. Many of the elements of Cretan music and dance tradition had already been created since the Minoan era and essentially grafted the musical tradition of all of Greece. An example of this era is the seven-stringed lyre with the double flute that accompanies an executive procession depicted in a sarcophagus found in the Holy Trinity. The famous shield of Achilles was also decorated according to Homer, with a feast from the palace of Knossos. According to legend, Minos’ son, Glafkos, was buried with his flutes, which he played with great skill. Knossos and Crete during the Minoan years were not only known for their festivities, but also for their armed, war dances, such as the famous pyrrhic. The first composer of an erotic ode was the Cretan mythical guitarist Amitor, and since then the guitarists were called “Amitorides”. One of the ancient Greek rhythms, the “paion” which is also called “Cretan” is found even today, was transferred to Sparta from Thalitas and was a creation of the Eteocretans as obligatory in the pyrrhic of Paian Apollo. Also known in antiquity as a Cretan musician, was Mesomidis (2nd century AD), lyric poet and musician of the emperor Hadrian. He was, according to many, the creator of the hymn of Nemesis as well as those of Musa and the Sun. These melodies are among the few that have survived from antiquity to the present day.


Music in the Middle Ages & Ottoman rule

Music during the Middle Ages

The richest musical presence on the island continues after the classical years and the Roman era, to the religious-central Byzantine era. The sounds of music on the island are naturally influenced by the Byzantine religious hymns and the Byzantine musical measures that are slowly beginning to be created. Thus, Crete unites even more with the music world of the East. But from the 13th century, the influences of the West are also manifested on the island. Franks, Genoese, and especially Venetians bring with them melodies, music, measures – such as rhyme dances like the ball and musical instruments such as the violin – which will play an important role in Cretan music.


The rhyme in the form of rhyming couplets, which first appeared at the end of the 14th century, will play a special role in the musical tradition of the island and in the art poetry of the island. The Cretan musical mind, always creative, open, and restless, incorporates the western rhyme and combines it with the iambic fifteen-syllable verse of ancient Greece. This combination is the well-known Cretan mantinada today, a poetic form that greatly favors musical and poetic improvisation. As if the already rich and diverse musical identity of Crete was not enough, after the conquest of the city by the Ottomans, many music teachers of church music found refuge on the island. They established schools and Byzantine music was taught systematically on the island while at the same time the island was often visited by Venetian musicians to entertain both the Venetian and the Greek inhabitants.


In 1457 the French physician Pierre Bellon, characteristically describes the armed dances of the Cretans, while a century and a half later the Englishman Sherley mentions the lively night entertainment with dances and music in the streets of Chandakas. The great Cretan composer Frangiskos Leontaritis, the first representative of modern Greek music, appeared on the island at this time. During this period the oldest surviving musical texts of folk songs of modern Greece are also written on the island. These texts were found in manuscripts on Mount Athos in the Monasteries of Iveron and Xiropotamos, which from what emerged eventually are radical songs of the time. They are sung even today on the island. They were recorded by Cretan monks who, as genuine Cretans, had not renounced worldly pleasures.

Music during the Ottoman rule

This fertile period for Crete and its inhabitants ends with the conquest of the island by the Turks. However, the music of the island continues to evolve, as the Cretans continue to sing about their joys and their many sufferings. A great creator of the time is the music teacher George the Cretan (19th century) who displays the Byzantine musical tradition of the island. The Cretan lyre, which today is the main musical instrument in Cretan music, appears around the 17th century and its presence becomes more and more intense until the 18th century when it is fully established.


Initially, the lyre was pear-shaped and was distinguished into two types: the lyre with the sharp sound and the “vrondólyra” with the louder bass sound. The presence of the hawks on the bow of the lyre and the small bells that hung on the hunting hawks in Byzantium dates from this era. With the help of the bells, the lyre player was able to keep the rhythm, since until then no accompanying instrument for the lyre had appeared. Over the years another type of lyre appeared the violin lyre, which was used more in Western and Eastern Crete until the 1940s. The prevailing lyre today is an in-between type between “vrondólyra” and small lyre. It was first used by the lyricist and instrument maker Manolis Stagakis and gradually prevailed from 1950 onwards.


The lute has existed in Crete since the time of Venetian rule but in its Renaissance form. Over time and with the constant modifications it underwent, it began to be used as an accompanying instrument. Nowadays one can hear very nice melodies from the solo lute, while the bulgari (another once-popular string instrument) is now almost extinct.

Cretan music in recent years

After the departure of the Turks from the island, the Cretan people are free again and full of desire and longing to return to their traditions, including music. At the same time, the centuries that have passed have left a huge musical heritage that is now part of the music. Starting from the musical roots of Minoan Crete and classical antiquity in combination with the Byzantine and later the Venetian influences, and finally, the oriental Ottoman influences, an enviable musical tradition on the island is created. Of course, the high mountains of Crete and in general its intense geological relief make communication difficult from place to place. This made it so each region was able to develop its own musical character. The differences and distinctiveness we witness from region to region are typical on the island, although of course, there is a common foundation.


At the beginning of the 20th century, Crete was one of the first regions in Greece to receive waves of refugees from the coasts of Asia Minor and Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). The refugees will contribute to this musical tradition as well. In the areas where they are established, their influences are strong and in combination with the local music, they will give new sounds and music, which will later be characterized as rebetokritika. From the beginning of the century, the young musicians who are leading the Cretan music scene are many and noteworthy. There are not a lot of professional musicians, but their love and creativity overshadow their non-professional involvement with music. The sounds and melodies that are born during this period are both old and new. Thus appears a new generation of musicians which will change the flow and dynamics of music in Crete. Feasts and celebrations are organized all over Crete and many of these musicians achieve recognition, playing in various areas of the island, transmitting their own sounds while capturing and filtering the sounds of each place they pass.


This musical “alisverisi” is intensified with the advent of radio. Psiloritis and Anogia, Kissamos in Chania, and some other areas on the island become centers of Cretan music. Until the first half of the last century, the so-called “master craftsmen” of Cretan music were in full swing. Among them are some who sealed with their presence the next generations such as Andreas Rodinos, Baxevanis, Kareklas, Charilaos, Fustalieris, Koutsourelis and other lesser-known but important players and singers. The main instrument of Cretan music, the lyre, takes its final pear-shaped shape after the Second World War, a time when the fundamental sounds of Cretan music as we know it today are formed. The baton is taken by another generation of great artists such as Naftis, Skordalos, Mountakis, Leonidas Klados and others who become the teachers and inspirers of the next generation that was sealed by the presence of Nikos Xylouris or “Archangelos” of Cretan music, who died at the height of his creativity.

Nikos Xylouris’ brother, Antonis Xylouris or “Psarantonis”, continues to carry, with his brother Giannis Xylouris and his children George, Lampis and Niki, the great musical tradition of the Xylouris family. Today there are many great musicians, many of whom are well known outside Crete as well. It is important that nowadays there is a continuation of traditional Cretan music in artistic pursuits in combination with the creative dialogue with the musical traditions of the eastern Mediterranean. Several musical groups with the most representative being “Chainides” express this modern side of Cretan music. The catalyst for the contemporary music scene of Crete was the presence of the Irish musician Ross Daly who has now become a naturalized Cretan. In the village of Houdetsi in Heraklion, he has created a very important research centre of the Cretan music tradition in combination with the study and presentation of traditional music from around the world. and especially the east and Asia.