Pythagoras at the smithy : science and rhetoric from antiquity to the early modern period

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2012-05

Authors

Tang, Andy chi-chung

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Abstract

It has been said that Pythagoras discovered the perfect musical intervals by chance when he heard sounds of hammers striking an anvil at a nearby smithy. The sounds corresponded to the same intervals Pythagoras had been studying. He experimented with various instruments and apparatus to confirm what he heard. Math, and in particular, numbers are connected to music, he concluded. The discovery of musical intervals and the icon of the musical blacksmith have been familiar tropes in history, referenced in literary, musical, and visual arts. Countless authors since Antiquity have written about the story of the discovery, most often found in theoretical texts about music. However, modern scholarship has judged the narrative as a myth and a fabrication. Its refutation of the story is peculiar because modern scholarship has failed to disprove the nature of Pythagoras’s discovery with valid physical explanations. This report examines the structural elements of the story and traces its evolution since Antiquity to the early modern period to explain how an author interprets the narrative and why modern scholarship has deemed it a legend. The case studies of Nicomachus of Gerasa, Claudius Ptolemy, Boethius, and Marin Mersenne reveal not only how the story about Pythagoras’s discovery functions for each author, but also how the alterations in each version uncover an author’s views on music.

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