Monday, May 26, 2008

Tones of Ancient Greece

I found this brief commentary from "Random Samples" in the May 16 issue of Science so interesting that I wanted to pass it on in its entirety:
The strings of a helikon, a gadget invented by Ptolemy to probe musical scales, sounded last week for the first time in almost 2 millennia at the University of Cambridge in the U.K....Andrew Barker, a musicologist at the University of Birmingham, U.K., built the instrument from a description in Harmonics, Ptolemy's 2nd century treatise on the mathematics of music. Ancient scholars considered the study of harmonics vital in understanding the mathematical rules that they believed governed the universe. He unveiled it as part of Cambridge's Science of Musical Sound Project.

Barker says the 1-meter-long wooden instrument with eight metal strings allows scientists to test "complete scales constructed on the basis of mathematical principles." The helikon creates different pitches with a calibrated sliding bridge, which can be inserted diagonally to shorten strings to different lengths. Strings can also be moved crosswise to raise or lower the range of pitches. Barker, who showed how the adjustments produce different intervals when the gadget is plucked, admits that it's not designed for musicmaking. Still, he says he was delighted that it worked at all.

Cambridge historian Torben Rees, a professional jazz singer, called Barker's presentation "a fascinating account of ancient thinking concerning harmonics." Music, he says, was regarded as "the sensible expression of the order of the cosmos. This conception of the universe … was essentially the birth of mathematical physics."

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