How was music invented? A medieval answer

Have you ever wondered how music was invented? Apparently, people in the Middle Ages thought about this question too, and they came up with several interesting answers.

Detail of a miniature of a man playing a portable organ, with a harp lying beside him. British Library MS Harley 334 f.25v

The Middle Ages saw a renewed interest in music, with new styles being formed, and the creation of musical notation that we still use today. In monasteries and universities music was being studied and many works survive from the period that examine the mechanics of singing and how to perfect various sounds.

These works often also dealt with the history of music, and one question they tried to answer is how music came to be, and who should be credited with inventing it. Looking for answers, the medieval writers turned to Biblical sources as well as Greek and Roman mythology and legends. They usually put forward several answers, including crediting a character from the Book of Genesis named Jubal, who was said to have played the flute, or Amphion, a son of Zeus, who was given the lyre.

One popular story from the Middle Ages credits the Greek philosopher Pythagoras as the inventor of music. The Introductorium musicae, written in first half of the 15th century by Johannes Keck, explains:

He, they say, by chance passing a forge, heard the blow of four hammers making the diapente (fifth), diatessaron (fourth), and octave in the proportions of their sounds. But suspicious whether by change this proposition of sounds depended on the strength of the arms of the smiths working thus, he himself instructed the smiths that they strike again with hammers exchanged. Then, notwithstanding the changing of the hammers, the former proportion of sounds remained for each of them. Whence he learned in clever fashion from the trial, that in the weight of the hammers consisted of the sounds.

Medieval woodcut showing Pythagoras with bells and other instruments in Pythagorean tuning.

A much different explanation is given in the 13th century manual Summa musice, where the author tries to use the etymology of words to track the origins of music:

Some say that ‘musica’ is equivalent to ‘moysica’ from ‘moys’, which means water, because when rain water (or any other kind) falls upon different kinds of substance – now upon roofs, now upon stones, now upon land, now upon water, now upon empty vessels, now upon the leaves of trees – it produces different sounds, and the Ancients are said to have devised music by bringing these sounds together.

Meanwhile, Florentius de Faxolis, an Italian musician and priest, offered this ancient legend to help explain how stringed instruments were invented:

It is reported by some that on a certain occasion the Nile flooded far more than usual, so that the lands about its banks were covered; after its retreat countless fish perished, left without water all over the fields. And it happened at that time that Mercury made his way through this sand and found a shell in which a fish had already rotted; Mercury is said to have taken the shell and found nothing but four tendons of the fish that had been in it; he is reported to have touched them one by one and thus become the first to discover this tetrachord.

It might be fair to say medieval authors understood that all these competing legends and stories meant that they would never really know the origins of music. Perhaps many of them shared the view expressed in the Summa musice:

With regard to all of this, let us fittingly say, with Aristotle, that the beginnings of all arts, and implements at the time of their invention, were crude and meagre, each successive innovator adding something new. In this manner the trickle of an ultimate source, enlarged by a confluence of waters, can be turned into a river carrying ships, and it could have been, as Moses says, that Jubal was the first, from whose name we derive both ‘iubllus’ and ‘iubalare’, and that the others mentioned, coming afterwards, added something new and so on up to the present time.

Further Reading:

Florentius de Faxolis, Book on Music, edited and translated by Bonnie J. Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens (I Tatti Renaissance Library, 2010)

Johannes Keck, Introductorium Musicae, translated by Peter Slemon (Institute of Mediaeval Music, 2001)

Suzanne Lord, Music in the Middle Ages: A Reference Guide (Greenwood Press, 2008)

The Summa Musice: A Thirteenth-Century Manual for Singers, edited and translated by Christopher Page (Cambridge University Press, 1991)

See also:

Should I get married or become a writer? A medieval answer

What is a Volcano? A Medieval Answer

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