Aristoxenus Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Greek philosopher and music theorist{$I[g]Greece;Aristoxenus} The theoretical writings on music by Aristoxenus established a foundation on which modern music theory is based.

Early Life

Aristoxenus (ar-ihs-TAWK-see-nuhs), born in Tarentum, was a Greek philosopher and music theorist who flourished during the fourth century b.c.e. He received his earliest musical training at the hands of his father, Spintharus, who enjoyed some reputation as a musician. He later studied with Lamprus of Erythrae, of whom little is known. In time Aristoxenus moved to Athens, where he studied with the Pythagorean Xenophilus—important in view of the position he was to take in his theoretical treatises. He also studied at the Lyceum with Aristotle. Because Aristoxenus later competed, although unsuccessfully, with Theophrastus, a colleague, for headship of the Lyceum around 322, it may be assumed that Aristoxenus was a superior student and respected in scholarly circles.

Life’s Work

Aristoxenus was apparently a prolific writer, with one source attributing more than 450 works to him, although only a few Aristoxenus fragments have survived. The writings, which cover a variety of topics, including works on music, biography, history, and philosophy, reflect the diversity of his studies. All the fragments are of interest, but the most important of the extant fragments pertain to music: Aristoxenus made his truly original contribution as he challenged the way that theorists, past and contemporary with him, had studied and written about music. So great was his influence that theorists and philosophers on music who followed him were compelled to address his arguments.

Numbering among the music fragments that survive are parts of three books titled Harmonika stoicheia (The Harmonics, 1902), the contents of which are believed to have been derived from Aristoxenus’s earlier writings on the subject. Much of what is known about ancient Greek theory comes from his writings and those of later writers, such as Plutarch, Cleonides, and Aristides, who expounded on Aristoxenus’s principles.

In addition to The Harmonics, there is a fragment on rhythm, consisting of approximately 250 lines, which was treated by Aristides several centuries later. While Aristoxenus’s work reveals a man who could be rather pompous and contentious, his writings are clearly the product of a first-rate mind.

Aristoxenian theory was about melody and articulated a system that addressed the issues of pitch, intervals, genera, systems, modes, and modulation as they applied to melody. The smallest consonant interval recognized in his system was a perfect fourth, which also formed the fixed outer boundary of a four-note unit called a tetrachord. The tetrachord was a kind of building block, which, in combination with other tetrachords, formed larger structures. The tetrachord could belong to one of three types, or genera: diatonic, enharmonic, or chromatic. This system was determined according to the placement of the two inner notes that fell within the boundary of the fixed interval of the fourth, which was formed by the two outer notes of the tetrachord. The varied placements of the two inner notes of the tetrachord were known as shadings, or colors. Aristoxenus recognized two alternative positions of the inner notes in the diatonic genus and three in the chromatic, although he accepted that the variety of shadings was theoretically infinite.

The tetrachords could be combined, either sharing a common note and called conjunct, or, if a whole step separated the two tetrachords, called disjunct. The combining of the tetrachords produced three important larger theoretical structures known as the Greater Perfect System, the Lesser Perfect System, and the Immutable System.

The Greater Perfect System consisted of two pairs of conjunct tetrachords with an added note, or, in modern terminology, it can be seen in its diatonic...

(The entire section is 1648 words.)