Placement Exam Study

Music of the Spheres

From Gioseffo Zarlino, Istitutioni harmoniche (1558)

...The Pythagoreans in particular believed that the world was composed musically, and that the heavens caused harmony in their revolutions, and that our soul is formed according to the same laws, and that it is awakened and its powers vivified by songs and instrumental music.

The ancient Greeks (and the Renaissance writers like Zarlino who brought the ancients to the... early modernists) believed that the movement of heavenly bodies was just like the movement of musical tones and harmonies.  This was called musica universalis or music of the universe (as opposed to music of the body--singing--and instrumental music).  I've always been moved by this idea and wondered what these sounds would be--not just harmonically, but timbally as well (Just to clarify, you can't really HEAR musica universalis.  In addition to it having always been more metaphorical, sound doesn't exist in the vacuum of space.  Don't tell George Lucas.).  I don't know if I've been unduly influenced by Star Trek IV, but when I close my eyes and see Jupiter whoosh past Saturn, I hear whale song.

Many cultures and religions place special meaning on certain numbers, but I don't know of any that do the same with ratios.  I think if we're talking about harmony of the spheres, then we need to get to the ratios of the movements of the planets.  I can't really get into it here, but I would really like to explore these harmonies sometime.

Over the past week I've enjoyed reading about the mythical beginnings of music.  The Greeks said Pythagoras first heard music in hammers striking anvils.  The Jews and Christians said it was Jubal in a similar story.  I prefer J.R.R. Tolkien's version from The Silmarillion, and I'll leave it in parting since it reminds me of the Pythagoreans.

In the beginning Eru, the One, who in the Elvish tongue is named Ilúvatar, made the Ainur of his thought; and they made a great Music before him. In this Music the World was begun; for Ilúvatar made visible the song of the Ainur, and they beheld it as a light in the darkness. And many among them became enamoured of its beauty, and of its history which they saw beginning and unfolding as in a vision. Therefore Ilúvatar gave to their vision Being, and set it amid the Void, and the Secret Fire was sent to burn at the heart of the World; and it was called Eä.

How about another good, old-fashioned debate on church music?

Here is Niceta of Remesiana (On the Benefit of Psalmody, 4th century C.E.) after discussing church music at length (joyful noise, yada yada yada).  He ends this way:

Those, however, who are not able to blend and adapt themselves to the others, ought better to sing in a subdued voice than to create a great clamor; and thus they fulfill their liturgical obligation and avoid disrupting the singing community.  For it is not given to all to possess a supple and pleasant voice.

So, who should and should not sing (or perform musically) in church?  What about congregational singing?  And remember, in your comments please try not to offend the singing community.

On the Basis of Western Music--or How Music Theory Ruined Western Music

Yeah, I know that sounds pretty inflammatory, especially coming from someone who kind of enjoys theory.  I'm just going to quote a couple of passages from James McKinnon, musicologist and editor of The Early Christian Period and the Latin Middle Ages, and briefly comment.

Musica in Late Antiquity was not so much the everyday product of singing and playing that we call music today as it was the academic enterprise that we call music theory.  Moreover, the music theory of the time was considerably more abstract than the effort that goes by that name in recent times; certainly nineteenth-century harmonic practice.  In Late Antiquity the subject was permeated with Neoplatonic thinking, where ideas were considered to be real and where external manifestations of any sort--what we call reality--were mere shadows of those ideas.  In this context the theoretical constructs themselves were the musical reality:  good theory was the product of sophisticated mathematical calculation and the ingenioius manipulation of tonal symmetries.

And a couple pages later

...[Medieval music theorists] and their successors developed a body of music theory that not only described their musical practice in a consistent and systematic way, but set Western music on its peculiarly rational course....  [This rational course] permitted the eventual composition of great architectonic musical structures like those of the later eighteenth and earlier nineteenth centuries, but it may have forced Western music to sacrifice much of the rhythmic and tonal nuance that characterizes the musics of certain other high cultures.

It's fascinating to me that not much has changed in over a thousand years.  First, the field of music theory is quite abstract today--so according to McKinnon, I guess I can only imagine how abstract it was in the first millenium C.E.  Intellectual compartmentalization (McKinnon's term) is not only a hallmark of music theory, but of theoretical studies in any field within the Western intellectual context.

And that brings me to my second comment.  Can we link the whole of Western thought from the Greeks to World War I and beyond to Modernism?  Modernism is so inextricably linked with Western thought that the terms are nearly synonymous.  Despite the past century's reactions against Modernism (eg. Postmodernism) and globalization, I suspect that Modernsism is so entrenched in Western minds that it will remain the default intellectual paradigm for decades (centuries?).  (Here's a link to a chart contrasting Modernism with Postmodernism.  Some problems, especially oversimplifications, but a goot place to start)

The good news is that Postmodernism with its outward-looking, inclusive nature is already influencing the abstraction of music theory.  Nowadays one can easily find theoretical articles on music from around the world, including tuning systems, rhythms, and other musical elements not supported by Western theory and notation, as well as clear, practical applications of theorectical concepts that aid performers.

Aristides Quintilianus on music

Music is a science of melos and of those things contingent to melos.  Some define it as follows:  "the theoretical and practical art of perfect and instrumental melos"; and others thus:  "an art of the seemly in sounds and motions."  But we define it more fully and in accordance with our thesis:  "knowledge of the seemly in bodies and motions."-Aristides Quintilianus, On Music (1.4), ca. 300 C.E.


These days I am studying every day for my upcoming placement exams at UNT this August.  I'm going through all the online chapter outlines from the Norton history books and also reading Strunk's Source Readings.  I had considered using this blog to summarize my studies every day, but decided that would get really dull.  However, from time to time I will discuss things that I am studying based on a very important criterion:  what I think is interesting.  Look for the catergory "Placement Exam Study." Here's something I thought was funny from Aristotle's Politics:

And let us add that [flute]-music happens to possess the additional property telling against its use in education that playing it prevents the employment of speech.

George Crumb might disagree!  In his Vox Balaenae (1971) he instructs the flutist to "sing-flute," or sing while playing.  (Although in fairness to Aristotle, he was referring to the Greek wind instrument the aulos, many of which were double-reeded (like the oboe) and would have made aulos-singing very difficult.)

And the quote of the day, from the same source:

...[B]oys must have some occupation, and one must think Archytas's rattle a good invention, which people give to children in order that while occupied with this they may not break any of the furniture, for young things cannot keep still.

©2017 Joshua Harris