We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more

Contents

Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century

WHY WE WILL NEVER KNOW HOW IT ALL BEGAN

Chapter:
CHAPTER 1 The Curtain Goes Up
Source:
MUSIC FROM THE EARLIEST NOTATIONS TO THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY
Author(s):
Richard Taruskin

Yet even if the ancient Greek catalogue of lyre tunings was conceptually foreign, hence irrelevant, to the modal structure of Gregorian chant, the attempt to codify medieval modal theory according to Greek ideas of order was not wholly misplaced. The Greek system and the Gregorian corpus did have one thing self-evidently in common. They both employed what some scholars now call the “diatonic pitch set,” the field of pitches and pitch relationships reducible to a specific arrangement of tones and semitones (“whole steps” and “half steps”), of which the familiar major and minor scales are among the possible representations.

When staff notation was introduced in the eleventh century, it made tacit yet explicit provision for that arrangement. There is no way of telling the diatonic half steps (between B and C and between E and F) from the whole steps on the basis of their appearance on the staff; from its very beginning, in other words, the staff was “prejudiced” to accommodate the two different sizes of step-interval as musicians had from time immemorial habitually “heard” and deployed them.

Thus there is no point in inquiring about the historical origins of the diatonic pitch set, our most fundamental musical possession. We will never know them. We can do no better than the legends by which the Greeks sought to explain the origins of their musical practice. In one of these, related by Nicomachus in the second century ce, Pythagoras, the reputed inventor of music, heard beautiful sounds coming unexpectedly out of a blacksmith’s shop. Weighing the anvils the smiths were striking, he discovered the harmonic ratios governing the perfect (“Pythagorean”) consonances, as well as the whole step. Laying these intervals out on a staff, and adding the two extra tones that are obtained when the Pythagorean complex is transposed to begin on each of its own constituent pitches, we may arrive at a primitive five-note (“pentatonic”) scale. Plugging the “gaps,” we find that we have “discovered” the half steps (see Ex. 1-9a).

Another way of deducing the diatonic pitch set from properties of acoustic resonance is to generate it by fifths radiating outward from a central tone. (If D is chosen for this demonstration the whole complex may be represented on the staff without the use of accidentals.) A trace of this deduction survives in the names of our scale degrees, “dominant” being the name of the tone produced by the first fifth “up,” and subdominant (“under-dominant”) being the name of the tone produced by the first fifth “down” (see Ex. 1-9b).

But these deductions are all long after the fact and have nothing to do with history. They are rationalizations, designed to show that our familiar musical system is “natural.” (Efforts to deduce the diatonic pitch set from the so-called natural harmonics, or “overtones,” are especially ahistorical, because the overtone series was not discovered and described until the eighteenth century.) Yet if the immemorial diatonic pitch set is to be understood as “natural,” it must be understood in terms not only of physical but of human nature. The historical evidence suggests that our diatonically apportioned musical “space,” while grounded in acoustic resonance, may also be the product (or one of the possible products) of a physiological predisposition governing “musical hearing,” that is, our discrimination of meaningful pitch differences and pitch relationships.

Why we will Never know How it all Began

fig. 1-8 Illustration from a thirteenth-century manuscript of a famous music treatise by John of Cotton, now housed at the Bavarian State Library in Munich, which shows Pythagoras in the blacksmith shop, measuring the harmonic consonances. The inscriptions read , Per fabricam ferri mirum deus imprimit (“By means of a smithy God has imparted a wonder”) and Is Pythagoras ut diversorum/per pondera malleorum/perpendebat secum quae sit concordia vocum (“It was this Pythagoras who, by the weights of the various hammers, worked out the consonances for himself “). The lower panel shows a mono-chord, a more “modern” device for tone measurement, and a harp, laterally strung like a lyre, which represents music’s power of ethos or moral influence.

Where actual musical practice is concerned, the relevant historical fact is that people have evidently internalized the diatonic pitch set—carried it around in their heads as a means of organizing, receiving, and reproducing meaningful sound patterns—as far back as what is as of now the very beginning of recorded musical history, some three and a half millennia ago.

Why we will Never know How it all Began

ex. 1-9a Deduction of the diatonic pitch set from the Pythagorean consonances

Why we will Never know How it all Began

ex. 1-9b Deduction of the diatonic pitch set by fifths

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 The Curtain Goes Up." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 26 Mar. 2019. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-001015.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 1 The Curtain Goes Up. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 26 Mar. 2019, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-001015.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 The Curtain Goes Up." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 26 Mar. 2019, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-001015.xml