Melbourne Uni Medieval Round Table Lecture Series – Dr Carol Williams

Sounding Numbers in the Passions of the Soul

According to the legend it was Pythagoras who first made the connection between numbers and the acoustic relations between musical pitches. He was wandering past a blacksmith’s forge when he was attracted to the ringing tones of the different anvils as they were struck by the hammer. By experimentation he worked out that anvils of particular proportionate weights produced specific intervals, thus anvils in the proportion 2:1 produced the octave, 3:2 the fifth, and 4:3, the fourth. These first numbers, 1, 2, 3 and 4 formed the three fundamental intervals, the structural base on which Western European music and music theory stands. Plato in the Timaeus confirmed that “all nature consists of harmony arising out of numbers” and that the mathematical laws as expressed through music were fundamental not only to our understanding of the world but to human well-being. Boethius translated and transmitted these ideas to the early Middle Ages providing the basis for the thinking around the Harmony of Spheres which was to remain influential in music philosophy beyond the Baroque. In the late 13th and early 14th centuries as a result of the renovation of the Aristotelian oeuvre the connections between numbers, music and the self were further nuanced in the debates around the Passions of the Soul. Guy of St Denis was to develop the thinking of Aquinas, with perhaps the help of Peter of Auvergne, to apply specifically to music so that specific numerical proportions, through the resounding musical interval, could be shown to instigate a specific emotional state.

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