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Perspectives on Science 9.1 (2001) 106-115

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Music and Science During the Scientific Revolution 1 - [PDF]

Myles W. Jackson
Willamette University

Historically, music has been classified both as a field of natural philosophy and as a performing art. Those savants interested in music's association with natural phenomena offered elaborate schemes in order to account for its physical basis. After all, acoustics was to become a branch of physics. Many concerned themselves, for example, with physical accounts that could distinguish dissonance from consonance. They also delved into such theoretical problems as mathematically dividing up the octave in different ways, establishing various musical temperaments. 2

Debates among musical theorists (so-called because they were exclusively interested in the theoretical qualities of music) concerning the appropriate temperament for pieces raged throughout the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Meanwhile, natural philosophers such as Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, and Christiaan Huygens busied themselves [End Page 106] with similar problems. They also attempted to explain consonance and dissonance in terms of physical, physiological, and at times psychological processes.

Far removed from the world of musical theoreticians, musical performers practiced their art in the public places of London, Oxford, Paris, Florence and Nuremberg. Their virtuosity was not based on any intellectual contribution to the body of scientific knowledge, but rather in their manual and vocal skills. Musical instrument makers plied their craft in the darkened enclaves of artisanal shops, enveloped in guild secrecy. Both of these groups cared little for music's allegiance with natural philosophy. To them, music was their livelihood, their source of both income and sociability.

Similarly, science clearly possesses theoretical components, but it is also a craft, as sociologists, philosophers and historians have argued for quite some time now. 3 A scientist does not merely contemplate, s/he also tinkers. Early historical analyses of the relationship between science and music have tended to emphasize both as theoretical bodies of knowledge, embodying universal principles. 4 More recent studies, however, are beginning to consider both as cultural enterprises, comprising similar sets of skills and practices.

H.F. Cohen's Quantifying Music and Bruce Stephenson's The Music of the Heavens offer internalist approaches to the history of science and music. Rather than searching for common practices shared by music theoreticians, practitioners, natural philosophers, and skilled artisans, they generally discuss how natural philosophers analyzed music and incorporated it into their epistemologies of nature. Penelope Gouk's Music, Science and Natural Magic in Seventeenth-Century England does not assume such a disciplinary dialectic. Quite the contrary, she argues that in seventeenth- century England, science and music were intimately and inextricably linked. The fourth work under review here, Bruce R. Smith's The Acoustical World of Early Modern England proffers an account based on the methodology [End Page 107] of literary criticism in order to uncover the acoustical environs of Elizabethan England. Far from discussing the state of acoustics or musical theory and practice at the time, Smith analyzes the "soundscapes" present in Shakespeare's London. In short, not only does each work tell a different type of story, each takes a different historiographic stance relevant to the history of science.

Cohen's book traces the engagement of natural philosophers with musical theory during the Scientific Revolution. By dividing music into two approaches, the aesthetic, which he defines as "the power of music" and the scientific, which deals with its "mathematics, physics, and physiology" (p. xi), Cohen argues that "it may legitimately be asked whether ultimately a complete reduction of the musical experience to physical and physiological mechanisms might be achieved." (ibid.) Such a statement is a phenomenally bold one, as it supports a view of aesthetics that is predicated exclusively on mathematical and physical principles. A major portion of Cohen's book is dedicated to this question, as it is played out, for example, in discussions on dissonance and consonance emerging among what he identifies as three different epistemological approaches present during the early Scientific Revolution, the mathematical, experimental, and mechanical.

The theme of consonance and dissonance enjoys an impressive history. The Pythagoreans and Plato postulated...


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