Saturday, May 21, 2005

History of Music Theory, Part Two

I studied the first four chapters of "History of Music Theory" yesterday. I love the old names one encounters in early music history: Flaccus Alcuin, Boethius, Odo of Cluny, and of course Hucbald were among those I encountered. Parents have definately lost the art of naming their clildren, and you combine that with modern scholarship's abandonment of latin and people just don't end up with impressive monikers like that anymore. Somehow "Tyler of Denver" just doesn't have the same gravity.


Anyway, a few observations:

1) Western music theory started out as a scientific investigation into
the nature of sound around the middle of the first millenium AD.

2) The results of that investigation were pre-existing and were borrowed
from the Classical Greek culture of the middle of the first millenium BC.

3) The medium used for experimentation and observation was the vibrating string.

4) The phenomenon that was discovered was the natural harmonic overtone series.

5) The intervals first used harmonically were the perfect consonances: Octave, fifth, and fourth (And, of course, unison).

6) These intervals correspond to the first three overtones above the fundamental in nature's harmonic overtone series.


One thing I finally understand now is my modern reaction to the interval of the perfect fourth, which was the original organal voice beneath the cantus in early organum. We tend to want to hear that interval resolve downward to a third, as in a 4-3 suspension resolution, because of our ingraned exposure to modern temperaments and their allowances for thirds as consonances. Though early common practice folk singing likely evidenced to at least some of these ancient theorists that thirds were usable consonances in practice, the Pythagorean tuning of their monochords told them that thirds were dissonances (In Pythagorean tuning major thirds at 81/64= 408 cents and minor thirds at 32/27=294 cents and are quite unstable) , and so thirds were theoretically and practically disallowed, at least as consonances, in what was the beginning of Western Art Music proper.

In fact, since the Pythagorean tuning system was codified as the only one allowed to be used, a prima facia case could be made that early music theory acted as a brake that slowed musical progress. As late as the fourteenth century the French Academy at Notre Dame decreed that only a series of perfect fifths could make up a scale. But, I'm jumping ahead.

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