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  • Writer's pictureTolga Özdemir

A Brief History of Music Theory

CBS 10996 Music Tablet

Music has always occupied an important place in human life. It has been one of the best tools for carrying knowledge and understanding throughout generations, and is thus one of the prime values constituting a culture. It can articulate our feelings and allow us to express ourselves.

“Harmony” is a word which has existed since the invention of writing. It can be interpreted in music as meaning “the marriage between music and mathematics”.

Music in the Ancient Middle East was regarded as being a dialogue between the Gods. Each note would correspond to a deity and the lowest pitched sound would represent the supreme God(1). Music was taught as a lesson in temples so as to understand the dialogue between them and thus gain information concerning life.

When we move on to Ancient Greece, we can see that this understanding did not changed very much. Music was still used as an essential tool to understand the universe. In the fifth century BC, the characteristics of the fundamental link between mathematics and music were defined by Pythagoras.

We can see that philosophers living in the early centuries of Christianity were thinking along the same lines. For example, Boethius(2) from Rome, who lived in the fifth century AD, classifies music into three main categories:

  1. Musica Instrumentalis: Music as perceived by the ear.

  2. Musica Humana: The effect of music on the human spirit, the musical harmony between internal organs.

  3. Musica Mundana: The musical harmony of celestial bodies in space.

Capella,(3) who lived during the same era, classified the scientific disciplines of the earliest European universities under two main categories:

  1. Trivium: Rhetoric, Grammar, Logic.

  2. Quadrivium: Geometry, Astronomy, Arithmetic, Music.

If education on one of these branches were desired, it was also necessary to receive training in the others from the same group; for example, somebody who was interested in astronomy was also expected to learn music.

We can also see that important philosophers of the early periods of Islam followed a similar path for music. For example, Farabi(4) classified the applied sciences like this:

  1. Arithmetic

  2. Geometry

  3. Optics

  4. Astronomy

  5. Music

  6. The Science of Weights

  7. Mechanics

One of the important breaking points for music in history was the French Revolution (1789). Musica Instrumentalis was taken under the protection of the government as a policy, and the first conservatory was founded.(5) Over time, such models of music schools became more widespread as they were adopted by other countries with similar government policies.

Another breaking point was the Second World War. During this time, new technology emerged for use in warfare. The devastation of the war created a void in musical traditions. This was subsequently filled by musicians with a background in mathematics and engineering. These pioneers turned technological advances towards new musical understandings, and thus “Musica Humana” and “Musica Mundana” resurfaced.

  1. In most of the folk music from the Eastern Mediterranean region, the melodic line still starts at

high pitches and goes down to low ones.

  1. Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (480 – 524), De Institutione musica.

  2. Martianus Minneus Felix Capella (375 – 425), De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii.

  3. Ebu Nasr Muhammed el-Farabi (870 – 951), İhsa’ül-Ulüm.

  4. Paris Conservatoire National de Musique et d’Art Dramatique (1795).

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