Music and Science

Exploring the relationship between music and science is a vast area of research which has evolved significantly over the past centuries.

Pythagoras. Detail from Kircher's Musurgia Universalis. Frontispiece

Detail from Musurgia Universalis. Frontispiece

The obvious place to start is in Ancient Greece in the 6th century BC with Pythagoras, who has been credited with establishing the numerical basic of acoustics and the theory of numerical ratios. These concepts have led to a line of thought focussed on music as a mathematical science, concerned with ratios of musical intervals, the development of the monochord, and the concept of music of the spheres, where (perfect) harmonic intervals are explained as and considered to be reflections of the perfect harmonies and the order of the cosmos.

Antiquae musicae auctores septem: Graece et Latine. Marcus Meibom. Alypius. MR.479.c.65.1

Antiquae musicae auctores septem: Graece et Latine. Marcus Meibom. Alypius. MR.479.c.65.1

Fast forward to the 15th century when many ancient Greek resources had been rediscovered and to the 17th century where most of these had been translated into Latin and were therefore readily available for scholarly research. A perfect illustration is Meibom’s 1652 edition of ancient Greek music texts: Antiquae musicae auctores septem Graece et Latine which includes texts by Aristoxenus, Cleonides (under an attribution to Euclid), Nicomachus, Alypius, Gaudentius, Bacchius, Aristides Quintilianus and Martianus Capella in the original Greek, with Latin translations and Meibom’s commentary.

A significant proportion of musical treatises belong within this tradition of “music and science”. Examples from the University Library collections range from Boethius’ De Musica to Newton’s Opticks and beyond.  In the context of our Music and Science 600th anniversary music corridor exhibition, running from mid-June to mid-July we will briefly focus on two key works.

Le istitutioni harmoniche. Gioseffo Zarlino. Monochord. MR574.b.55.1

Le istitutioni harmoniche. Giuseppe Zarlino. Monochord

In Le istitutioni harmoniche (1558) Zarlino explains the Greek system of interval proportions and major and
minor consonances in great detail and he provides us with some helpful illustrations of the monochord and other theoretical concepts. He adds a new dimension to Ancient Greek theories in order to explain the expressions of affects in music and he does this in relation to the contrapuntal music of Adrian Willaert, in particular to his Musica Nova madrigals. Many later music theorists would refer back to Zarlino and his influence has been considerable.

Athanasius Kircher includes some of Zarlino’s principles but goes much further in exploring the relationship between music and science in his Musurgia Universalis (1650). It is an astounding and beautifully illustrated work consisting of 10 books, each covering a specific topic. The frontispiece reflects the underlying principles: music, science and cosmic harmony. In the first book for example, dedicated to the ‘nature of sounds and voices”, Kircher examines the musical ear, vocal apparatus and the nature of bird song.

Musurgia Universalis. Machinamentum IX. Iconographia XXII. MR.574.a.65.3

Musurgia Universalis. Athanasias Kircher. Machinamentum IX. Iconographia XXII.

In the penultimate book, musical instruments and their construction are explained in great detail and we can, amongst other things, learn how to build a carillon, or a water organ. Acoustics play an important part in the treatise. Towards the end of the work Kircher also includes a chapter on the medical benefits of music. Throughout Musurgia Universalis, 16th- and 17th-century music is studied and explained with references to the monochord and ancient music, modes and musical forms and new musical practice and theory.

In some cases there can seem to be something of a disjoint between underlying music theory in treatises and practical musical composition and performance.  Newton for example discussed music in a number of different contexts with a strong focus on music’s underlying principles and the notion of cosmic harmony rather than on practical music.

An interesting attempt to unite practice and theory can be found in the musical practices of the early Academy of Ancient Music. Formed in 1726, one of its primary aims was” the performance of ‘ancient’ music, exemplifying the true, ancient, art, depending on nature and mathematical principles”. Music would have included renaissance as well as 17th- and and 18th-century composers, with strong emphasis on names such as Palestrina, Corelli, Steffani, Geminiani, Pergolesi, Handel, Boyce, Greene, Travers, and of course the Academy founder Pepusch and his successor Benjamin Cooke. Our exhibition is showing some examples of scores and concert programmes.

Going forward, the link between music and mathematics/science continues to fascinate and inspire composers.  Use of the Fibonacci sequence for example occurs (either consicously or unconsiously) in works by Debussy, Bartok, Stockhausen, Nono and Gubaidulina, to name just a few, and continues to be widely discussed. It is also worth mentioning Iannis Xenakis who is perhaps one of the best know composers to have made use of various mathematical and scientific principles as a compositional tool.

It goes without saying that science has evolved massively since Ancient Greece and very rapidly indeed from the 18th century onwards and that this is reflected in current research into music and science. Some individual strands have kept their relevance alongside completely new areas and a new focus of research. The Faculty of Music has its very own Centre for Music and Science and within musicology there is currently a very active research interest in music cognition, computing and performance, for which a wide range of print and electronic resources are available. As far as music and mathematics is concerned, the discipline is very much alive with publications such as the Journal of Mathematics and Music covering topics from Ancient Greece and musica speculativa to computational approaches.



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One Response to Music and Science

  1. I don’t know if you have come across this: it has stayed in print one way and other since its publication in 1937.


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