The Science of Music

The Science of Music

The Science of Music

The Science of Music


What do Pythagoras, Plato, Newton, and Wittgenstein have in common with Jack and the Beanstalk, David and Goliath, the Hare and the Tortoise, and Formula 1 auto racing? Hearing is the clue, and musical science the answer. In his revolutionary sequel to The Concept of Music (OUP, 1990), Robin Maconie uncovers the hidden role of musical acoustics in the formulation of key concepts of science and philosophy from ancient Greece to modern times.


In Greek Science Benjamin Harrington said:

There is no human knowledge which cannot lose its scientific character when men forget the conditions under which it originated, the questions which it answered, and the function it was created to serve. a great part of the mysticism and superstition of educated men consists of knowledge which has broken loose from its historical moorings. (Harrington 1961: 311)

Explaining music in words is a paradoxical task. Language has the function of widening the field. It allows a meaning in music to be expressed that would otherwise remain hidden, but to imagine that it confers meaning on music would be a mistake. Only by attempting to reconcile language and music are we likely to discover where language ends and music begins. the distinctions of music are a part of spoken language, and the limits of music notation have a great deal to tell us about the limitations of print as a medium.

The idea that language is necessary for thought has focused attention on the nature and structure of language in relation to our knowledge of the world. That in turn has led from time to time to strange conclusions, for example, that without language, thought is impossible; or, if the words don't make sense, the thought is meaningless; or, that perception follows grammatical rules; or again, if there are no words to describe an experience, the experience doesn't exist. 'Philosophy is not concerned with what enables us to speak as we do, but what it is for our utterances to have the meanings they have,' remarks Michael Dummett in Origins of Analytical Philosophy. 'It is essential to describe language as a conscious activity of rational creatures. If you were giving a description of human language to some Martians who knew nothing about human beings you would have to explain that to them, or they would not know . . .

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