De Musica (excerpt from Book 1)


[Original Latin text]

Music forms a part of us through nature, and can ennoble or debase character

Perception through all the senses is so spontaneously and naturally present in certain living creatures that an animal without them cannot be conceived. But knowledge and clear perception of the senses themselves are not so immediately acquired through inquiry with the mind. For it is indisputable that we use our senses to perceive sensible objects. But what is the nature of these very senses according to which we act? And what is the property of the sensible objects? Answers to these questions do not come easily to anyone; nor can they become clear unless appropriate inquiry has guided one in reflection concerning truth.

Sight, for example, is present in all mortal beings. Whether sight occurs by images coming to the eye or by rays sent out to sensible objects is a point of disagreement among the learned, although this dispute escapes the notice of the ordinary person. Further, when someone sees a triangle or a square, he recognizes easily that which is observed with the eyes. But what is the nature of a triangle or a square? For this you must ask a mathematician.

Now the same can be said with respect to other sensible objects, especially concerning the witness of the ears: the sense of hearing is capable of apprehending sounds in such a way that it not only exercises judgment and identifies their differences, but very often actually finds pleasure if the modes are pleasing and ordered, whereas it is vexed if they are disordered and incoherent.

From this it follows that, since there happen to be four mathematical disciplines, the other three share with music the task of searching for truth; but music is associated not only with speculation but with morality as well. For nothing is more characteristic of human nature than to be soothed by pleasant modes or disturbed by their opposites. This is not peculiar to people in particular endeavors or of particular ages. Indeed, music extends to every endeavor; moreover, youths, as well as the aged are so naturally attuned to musical modes by a kind of voluntary affection that no age at all is excluded from the charm of sweet song. What Plato rightfully said can likewise be understood: the soul of the universe was joined together according to musical concord. For when we hear what is properly and harmoniously united in sound in conjunction with that which is harmoniously coupled and joined together within us and are attracted to it, then we recognize that we ourselves are put together in its likeness. For likeness attracts, whereas unlikeness disgusts and repels.

From this cause, radical transformations in character also arise. A lascivious disposition takes pleasure in more lascivious modes or is often made soft and corrupted upon hearing them. On the other hand, a rougher spirit finds pleasure in more exciting modes or becomes aroused when it hears them. This is the reason why musical modes were named after certain peoples, such as "Lydian" mode and "Phrygian," for in whatever a particular people finds pleasure, by that same name the mode itself is designated. A people finds pleasure in modes because of likeness to its own character, for it is not possible for gentle things to be joined with or find pleasure in rough things, nor rough things in gentle. Rather, as has been said, similitude brings about love and pleasure. Thus Plato holds that the greatest care should be exercised lest something be altered in music of good character. He states that there is no greater ruin of morals in a republic than the gradual perversion of chaste and temperate music, for the minds of those listening at first acquiesce. Then they gradually submit, preserving no trace of honesty or justice—whether lascivious modes bring something immodest into the dispositions of the people or rougher ones implant something warlike and savage.

Indeed no path to the mind is as open for instruction as the sense of hearing. Thus, when rhythms and modes reach an intellect through the ears, they doubtless affect and reshape that mind according to their particular character. This again can be perceived in various peoples; those who are rougher delight in the rather uncultivated modes of the Gatae, whereas those who are more gentle delight in more moderate modes—although in these times this hardly ever occurs. Since the human race has become lascivious and impressionable, it is taken up totally by representational and theatrical modes. Music was indeed chaste and modest when it was performed on simpler instruments. But since it has been squandered in various, promiscuous ways, it has lost its measure of dignity and virtue; and, having almost fallen into a state of disgrace, it preserves nothing of its ancient splendor. Hence Plato prescribes that children not be trained in all modes, but only in those which are vigorous and simple. This rule must be most carefully adhered to, for if henceforth anything should somehow be altered ever so slightly—albeit not noticed immediately—after some time it will make a considerable difference and will sink through the ears into one's character. Plato holds music of the highest moral character, modestly composed, to be a great guardian of the republic; thus it should be temperate, simple, and masculine, rather than effeminate, violent, or fickle.

The Lacedaemonians guarded this tradition with greatest care and at considerable expense when the Cretan Thaletas of Gortyne imbued children with the discipline of musical knowledge. This, in fact, was the custom among ancient peoples and persisted for a considerable time. Thus, when Timotheus of Miletus added one string to those that were already established, thereby making the music more capricious, a decree was drafted to expel him from Laconica. I have inserted this decree concerning him in the original Greek; since the inscription is in the Spartan language, the letter C (sigma) is changed to P (rho).


This decree sets forth the following: The Spartans were indignant with Timotheus of Miletus, because, by introducing a capricious music to the minds of the children, he had thwarted those whom he had accepted to teach and had steered them away from the moderation of virtue, and because he had changed the harmony, which he had found temperate, into the chromatic genus, which is overrefined. Indeed, the Spartans were so attentive to music that they thought it even took possession of minds.

It is common knowledge that song has many times calmed rages, and that it has often worked great wonders on the affections of bodies or minds. Who does not know that Pythagoras, by performing a spondee, restored a drunk adolescent of Taormina incited by the sound of the Phrygian mode to a calmer and more composed state? One night, when a whore was closeted in the house of a rival, this frenzied youth wanted to set fire to the house. Pythagoras, being a night owl, was contemplating the courses of the heavens (as was his custom) when he learned that this youth, incited by the sound of the Phrygian mode, would not desist from his action in response to the many warnings of his friends; he ordered that the mode be changed, thereby tempering the disposition of the frenzied youth to a state of absolute calm. Marcus Tullius relates the story in his book, De consiliis suis, but somewhat differently, as follows: "But I would compare something trivial with something important, since I am drawn by a likeness between them. When drunken youths, incited by the music of auloi, as happens, were about to break in the door of a chaste woman, it is said that Pythagoras admonished the aulete to perform a spondee. When this was done, the severity of the rhythms and the seriousness of the performer caused the raging fury of the youths to subside."

To cite some similar examples briefly, Terpander and Arion of Methymna saved the citizens of Lesbos and Ionia from very serious illness through the assistance of song. Moreover, by means of modes, Ismenias the Theban is said to have driven away all the distresses of many Boeotians suffering the torments of sciatica. Similarly it is said that Empedocles altered the mode of music-making when an infuriated youth attacked one of his guests with a sword because this guest had condemned the youth's father by bringing an accusation. Thereby Empedocles tempered the wrath of the youth.

This capacity of the musical discipline had become so familiar in the doctrines of ancient philosophy that the Pythagoreans, when they wanted to relieve their daily concerns in sleep, employed certain melodies so that a mild and quiet slumber would fall upon them. Likewise upon awakening, they purged the stupor and confusion of sleep with certain other modes, for they knew that the whole structure of our soul and body has been joined by means of musical coalescence. For just as one's physical state affects feeling, so also the pulses of the heart are increased by disturbed states of mind. Democritus is said to have related this to the physician Hippocrates, who came to treat Democritus when he was being held in custody by his fellow citizens because they thought he was mad.

But to what purpose is all this? So that there can be no doubt that the order of our soul and body seems to be related somehow through those same ratios by which subsequent argument will demonstrate sets of pitches, suitable for melody, are joined together and united. Hence it happens that a sweet tune delights even infants, while a harsh and rough one will interrupt the pleasure of listening. Certainly people of every age and sex experience this; although they may differ in their actions, they are nevertheless united as one in the pleasure of music.

Why is it that mourners, even though in tears, turn their very lamentations into music? This is most characteristic of women, as though the cause for weeping might be made sweeter through song. Among the ancients it was even the custom that music of the aulos led the procession of mourners, as these lines of Papinius Statius testify:

The aulos, whose practice it is to lead forth the youthful dead,
Utters its mournful note from a curved horn.

Someone who cannot sing well will nevertheless sing something to himself, not because the song that he sings affects him with particular satisfaction, but because those who express a kind of inborn sweetness from the soul—regardless of how it is expressed—find pleasure. Is it not equally evident that the passions of those fighting in battle are roused by the call of trumpets? If it is true that fury and wrath can be brought forth out of a peaceful state of mind, there is no doubt that a more temperate mode can calm the wrath or excessive desire of a troubled mind. How does it come about that when someone voluntarily listens to a song with ears and mind, he is also involuntarily turned toward it in such a way that his body responds with motions somehow similar to the song heard? How does it happen that the mind itself, solely by means of memory, picks out some melody previously heard?

From all these accounts it appears beyond doubt that music is so naturally united with us that we cannot be free from it even if we so desired. For this reason the power of the intellect ought to be summoned, so that this art, innate through nature, may also be mastered, comprehended through knowledge. For just as in seeing it does not suffice for the learned to perceive colors and forms without also searching out their properties, so it does not suffice for musicians to find pleasure in melodies without also coming to know how they are structured internally by means of ratio of pitches.

There are three kinds of music, and concerning the influence of music

Thus, at the outset, it seems proper to tell someone examining music what we shall discover about the number of kinds of music recognized by those schooled in it. There are three: the first is cosmic, whereas the second is human; the third is that which rests in certain instruments, such as the kithara or the aulos or other instruments which serve melody.

The first kind, the cosmic, is discernible especially in those things which are observed in heaven itself or in the combination of elements or the diversity of seasons. For how can it happen that so swift a heavenly machine moves on a mute and silent course? Although that sound does not penetrate our ears—which necessarily happens for many reasons—it is nevertheless impossible that such extremely fast motion of such large bodies should produce absolutely no sound, especially since the courses of the stars are joined by such harmonious union that nothing so perfectly united, nothing so perfectly fitted together, can be realized. For some orbits are borne higher, other lower; and they all revolve with such equal energy that a fixed order of their courses is reckoned through their diverse inequalities. For that reason, a fixed sequence of modulation cannot be separated from this celestial revolution.

If a certain harmony did not join the diversities and opposing forces of the four elements, how would it be possible that they could unite in one mass and contrivance? But all this diversity gives birth to variety of both seasons and fruits in such a way that it nevertheless imparts one structure to the year. Whence if you imagine one of these things which supply such diversity taken away, then all things would seem to fall apart and, so to speak, preserve none of their consonance. And just as, on the one hand, adjustment of pitch in lower strings is such that lowness does not descend into silence, while, on the other hand, adjustment of sharpness in higher strings is carefully monitored lest the excessively stretched strings break because of the tenuity of pitch, but the whole corpus of pitches is coherent and harmonious with itself, in the same way we discern in cosmic music that nothing can be so excessive that it destroys something else by its own intemperance. Everything is such that it either bears its own fruit or aids others in bearing theirs. For what winter confines, spring releases, summer heats, and autumn ripens, and the seasons in turn either bring forth their own fruit or give aid to others in bringing forth their own. But these things ought to be discussed later more studiously.

Whoever penetrates into his own self perceives human music. For what unites the incorporeal nature of reason with the body if not a certain harmony and, as it were, a careful tuning of low and high pitches as though producing one consonance? What other than this unites the parts of the soul, which according to Aristotle, is composed of the rational and irrational? What is it that intermingles the elements of the body or holds together the parts of the body in an established order? I shall also speak about these things later.

The third kind of music is that which is said to rest in various instruments. This music is governed either by tension, as in strings, or by breath, as in the aulos or those instruments activated by water, or by a certain percussion, as in those which are cast in concave brass, and various sounds are produced from these.

It seems, then, that we ought to discuss the music of instruments first in this work. This is enough of a preamble; now the basic principles of music must be discussed.