Music and the Scientific Revolution

The many allusions to universal harmony in books bequeathed to Queens’ by the Cambridge Platonist, John Smith (1618–52), confirm the renewed appeal exerted by music in early seventeenth-century philosophy. Yet with the development of complicated music in parts (polyphony) by composers such as Palestrina, musicians had been compelled to reject the Pythagorean scale that had previously served so well. This was, in part, because the major third intervals that were so essential to polyphonic music were, in the Pythagorean system, harmonically impure and mathematically imperfect. Convinced that polyphony, as performed by musicians of his day, reflected the makeup of the universe, the astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) purged Pythagorean thirds from his astronomical calculations. Instead, he adopted a scale formulated by another ancient Greek astronomer, Claudius Ptolemy, whose pure thirds did indeed reflect both mathematical perfection and musical practice of the day. It was from this basis that Kepler wrote his most famous treatise, Harmony of the World (1619), which in crucial respects assisted Isaac Newton in formulating his theory of universal gravitation. It might seem surprising that harmonic theorising continued to preoccupy scientists at this time. Yet, in an age when Galileo, Mersenne and others sought new ways to advance knowledge through the mathematisation of nature, this ancient harmonic tradition founded on numbers provided a natural starting point. Whereas to previous generations the sonorous numbers had held mystical meaning in themselves, now they represented measurements of vibrations in the new science of acoustics. The fact that, according to the new science, the musical ratios were found to correlate with those established by the ancient Greeks simply added to the allure of musical harmony as a means to decode nature and the universe.

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