Music | Themes, Problems, and Methods in Ancient and Medieval Music Theory
M602 | 8261 | Mathiesen

Seminar in Musicology, M602 (sec. 8261)
"Themes, Problems, and Methods in Ancient and Medieval Music Theory"
Professor Thomas J. Mathiesen

As Thomas Christensen observes in his Introduction to the
Cambridge History of Western Music Theory, "... in its most
fundamental sense, music theory is a science of final causes. Strictly
speaking, music theory is not concerned with 'formal' or 'efficient'
causes (how a piece of music is composed or performed). Instead,
theory is to concern itself with basic ontological
questions: what is the essential nature of music? What are the
fundamental principles that govern its appearances?" If this is true,
how (and why) should we read ancient and medieval music theory, since
it does indeed seem to be so little occupied with the "formal" and
"efficient" causes of interest to today's musical readers?
In order to consider these questions, the seminar will read (in
translation) and discuss a number of ancient and medieval treatises in
an attempt to discern certain themes, problems, and methods that
emerge and are developed and transformed over the centuries. Themes
and problems will include--but will certainly not be limited
to--pitch, interval, consonance and dissonance, species, tonos, modus,
harmonia, modulation, notation, composition, and ethos. The treatises
explore these themes by employing the methods of various schools:
Pythagorean and Platonist, Harmonicist and canonist, Aristotelian,
Alexandrian, Skeptic, and their descendents in the Middle Ages.
Whatever the school, all recognized the significance of music and were
interested in understanding it in scientific and philosophical terms.
The themes, problems, and methods of the treatises will then
be applied to a number of pieces of ancient and medieval music (e.g.,
the Delphic paean of Limenios, the hymns of Mesomedes, the Epitaph of
Seikilos, the chants of Laon 239, and later polyphony) in order to
address the modernist
question: To
what extent do the theoretical descriptions accord with the surviving
musical examples, and in what ways can they illuminate our
understanding of these pieces?
Since part of reading any early literature involves an
understanding of its transmission, the seminar will begin with a
consideration of the ways in which ancient and medieval music theory
was preserved, became the object of scholarship, and eventually took
on the forms in which we know it today. We will touch on issues of
paleography and codicology, textual criticism and editorial technique,
and the establishment of authorship, as well as the types of tools
available to the scholar for the study of this material.
The seminar will require a formal paper. The last part of the
semester will be devoted to reports adapted from the papers and
presented by each member of the seminar.

Time: TBA (an announcement of the time and place of the first meeting
will be posted and sent by e-mail to all registered students)

N.B. no special knowledge of music, ancient mathematics, or Greek and
Latin is required or expected (though it will certainly be welcome if
present!). For further information, please call the professor at
855-5471 or send e-mail to .