The Song of the Sirens


  • Karl-Heinz Frommolt
  • Martin Martin Carlé



Acoustic archaeology, Greek mythology, Odyssey, Sirens, ancient, Greek music, sound propagations, enharmonic music, diaphony.


In Homer’s account of the adventurous journey of Odysseus, the song of the sirens was so appealing and tempting that it lured sailors to their deaths. Warned by the goddess Kirke, Odysseus overcame the trap by plugging his crew’s ears with wax. An archaeo-acoustical research expedition undertaken by members of Humboldt University Berlin made sound propagation experiments at the supposedly historical scene at the Galli Islands where it’s said that the sirens originally sung. At the site we broadcasted both synthetic signals and natural voices via loudspeakers in the direction Odysseus most probably should have approached the Siren’s island. Subjective listening as well as objective acoustic analysis of the recorded signals revealed evidence for a combination of site-specific acoustic effects, which may explain the nature and origin of the song of the sirens in Homer. The local arrangement of the three islands deforms the acoustic signals by amplification and by changes in timbre. Two female singers from the Berlin State Opera were asked to sing differently pitched musical intervals to be tested in the Li Galli environment. The experiment evinced that the first overtones (octave, fifth, and fourths) would be merged by the echo of the rocks; yet when singing pure thirds and less consonant intervals, which yield higher orders in the overtone series, the voices appear recognisable as being two. As a result, and particularly because Homer stresses the number of exactly two sirens several times, the evidence of our research supports the musicological theory for a rather early existence of enharmonic tunings and most prominently a two-part polyphonic singing of Greek songs. Given that the rocky formation of the Galli Islands most likely didn’t change during the geological tick of just 2,700 years, we conclude that there has been a real acoustic basis for the myth reported by Homer and that a “song of the Sirens”, most probably based on natural voices, was transformed by the particular acoustic conditions of the landscape in such a way that signals were amplified and sent out in one concrete direction. Based on these results, we continue to discuss further leading acoustic theories that offer new insights into the mythology and which were essential to motivate our expedition in the first place. After all, the question remains open what kind of beings the first emitters of the song might have been.




How to Cite

Frommolt, K.-H., & Martin Carlé, M. (2016). The Song of the Sirens. The Nordic Journal of Aesthetics, 24(48).