the Art of the Muses and the Origins of Greek Science
The multifaceted ‘art of the Muses’ (mousikē) was one the first, if not the very first, areas of Greek culture to be conceptualised as a unitary craft governed by well-defined principles, premises, and practices. This extraordinary theoretical achievement paved the way for the subsequent development of scientific thought and was fuelled by the distinctively intense amalgam of emotional, aesthetic and intellectual stimuli characteristic of ancient mousikē.
Ptolemy's Harmonica — Bodleian Library MS Barocci 124 fol. 23v–24r
Photo: © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, CC-BY-NC 4.0.
Echoes of early attempts to define key elements of this craft are attested in the 6th-5th century BC, when Lasus is thought to have written the first Greek technical treatise on music (perì mousikēs). We know very little about the content of this work but Aristoxenus reports that Lasus regarded notes as ‘having breadth’ (Harm. 7.20–23), a comment that shows how his treatise addressed theoretical as well as technical issues.
A different approach is ascribed to the quasi-mythical character of Pythagoras, who is often credited with key musical discoveries such as the ratios that define different consonances as well as educational, spiritual and therapeutic uses of particular types of music.
These anecdotes are almost entirely fictional and at times factually misguided, as in the famous case of the 'harmonious blacksmith' reported by Nicomachus (Ench. 246–247) and Iamblichus (Vit. Pyth. 115–19). As pointed out by Andrew Barker, ‘It is not true that the ratios between the pitches will correspond to those between the weights of the hammer-heads' (1989, 257 n. 47).
They nevertheless testify to the tight combination of scientific, practical and aesthetic issues that characterised the study and practice of ancient Greek music.
Forthcoming pages of this website will look at different aspects of ancient mousikē individually . For now, it is worth mentioning that the earliest manuscript which preserves ancient Greek music theory is Heidelbergensis Palatinus gr. 281 (1040 AD). This remarkable codex features several diagrams that illustrate important aspects of ancient Greek harmonics, including the only detailed diagram of the so-called ‘Division of the Canon’. The diagram reproduced below is followed by an extract from a treatise by Theon of Symrna which describes precisely 'the division of Canon’ (ἡ δὲ τοῦ κανόνος κατατομή) handed down by Thrasyllus.
As Ptolemy points out, ‘the string stretched over what is called the ‘ruler’ (kanōn) will show us the ratios of the concords more accurately and readily’ (Ptol. Harm. 17.20–22) than auloi or other musical instruments.
The kanōn consisted in a single string stretched over a graduated ruler equipped with a movable bridge that could divide the string into precise fractions of its total length, illustrating the ratios that corresponded to different intervals. As mentioned above, its invention is often associated with Pythagoras and a lesser-known theorist called Simos, but there is no evidence that this instrument was in use before the time of the Euclidean Sectio Canonis.
The figure below reproduces the Canon diagram and also illustrates the Hypolydian Unchanging Perfect System defined by the notation signs included in the diagram and their modern equivalents.
‘The Canon’ (Heidelbergensis Palatinus 281, fol. 173 v, public domain image) and the structure of the Hypolydian Unchanging Perfect System.
Ptolemy’s Harmonics includes a detailed discussion of the monochord and its limitation, and recommends the use of an eight- or fifteen-stringed kanōn instead of a single string.
Ptolemy’s eight-string kanōn—reconstruction by Dr David Creese.
Ptolemy also proposed to enhance the eight-stringed kanōn by adding a diagonal bridge that was featured in another instrument called Helikōn, an innovation that made it possible to produce all the notes of the octave and effortlessly transpose them to a different pitch.