Music Memes: Interpreting Sound as Music

29 Jul

Boethius (480-523) was a Roman philosopher, musician and author during the time of Gregorian Chant and manuscript writing. A student of the Greek language, he translated many Greek works including those by Plato and Aristotle and others, including works on music. He wrote an influential treatise on music De Institutione Musica, where he explores the Fundamentals of Music. In this text he describes music as an essential element of human life, a science of numerical ratios, intervals, consonance and dissonance. Boethius was greatly influenced by ancient Greek Music, including Harmonics by Ptolemy and the works of Pythagoras. Medieval readers “understood that his statements rested on Greek Mathematics and Music Theory”.

De institutione musica distinguishes three distinct types of music: the music of the universe, which dictates the movement of the planets and the universe, the music of humans, which merges the body and soul, and the music of instruments and voices, which is the music that we listen to. Boethius describes how the ratios that determine all three types of music are the same. The first chapter of the text is titled: “That music is related to us by nature, and that it can ennoble or debase our character.” 

He describes a brief history of music and culture:

“And someone who cannot sing particularly well will nevertheless sing to himself, not because it is pleasant for him to hear what he sings but because it is a delight to express certain inward pleasures which originate in the soul, regardless of the manner in which they are expressed… How does it happen that when someone hears a pleasant song with his ears and mind, also his body involuntarily responds with some motion similar to that of the song? And how does it happen that this same person can enjoy some melody he has already heard merely by recalling it in his memory? Thus from all these examples it appears to be beyond doubt that music is so naturally a part of us that we cannot be without it, even if we so wished”.

Boethius