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Aristoxenus Biography

Suda, Harm., Elementa harmonica, Principles, Archai, Elements, Stoicheia, melos, to hērmosmenon, Posterior Analytics, Elementa Rhythmica

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of Tarentum in south Italy (b. c.370 BC), best known for musical writings but also a philosopher, biographer, and historian. He was trained in music, possibly to professional standards, by his father Spintharus and Lampon of Erythrae (perhaps while living in Mantinea). Later, probably at Athens, he studied with the Pythagorean (see PYTHAGORAS) Xenophilus, pupil of Philolaus, before joining Aristotle's Lyceum. Here his success made him expect to inherit the headship; and when Aristotle bequeathed it to Theophrastus instead, his remarks about Aristotle (according to the Suda, our main biographical source) were memorably rude. The waspishness of criticisms levelled at others in his writings makes this believable; but his intellectual orientation is unmistakably Aristotelian, and his one surviving reference to Aristotle (Harm. 31. 10–16) is also the one unqualified compliment paid to anyone in that work. Nothing is known of him after 322 BC. Perhaps he devoted himself to writing: much of his enormous output (453 books, on the Suda's reckoning) may come from this period. We are equally in the dark about the date and place of his death.

WORKS Aristoxenus' known works can be divided into five groups.

  • (a) Writings on harmonics, of which three incomplete books survive under the title Elementa harmonica. Repetitions, along with shifts in style and conceptual apparatus, suggest that book 1 belonged to a different work from books 2–3 (for a contrary view see Bélis (1986), in bibliog. below): the hypothesis, based on references in Porphyry, that the former was called Principles (Archai), the latter Elements (Stoicheia) is uncertain. Aristoxenus saw himself as pioneering a wholly new and scientific approach to harmonics. Pythagoreans had conceived pitches as quantities, and studied their mathematical relations. Earlier empiricists had sought merely to tabulate various forms of attunement and scale. Aristoxenus takes his subject, melody (melos) or attunement (to hērmosmenon), to be a ‘nature’ existing solely in the audible domain; and he holds that the science must therefore represent it as it appears to the ear, not through a physicist's conception of sounds as movements of the air, since sounds are not heard in that guise, and specifically harmonic or musical properties attach only to what is heard. (This explains, among other things, his treatment of notes as points in a quasi-spatial continuum of pitch accessible to the ear, not, like the Pythagoreans, as magnitudes of some physical variable; for it is not as such magnitudes that notes become elements in melody.) The main task of harmonics is to identify the components of audible melos, to abstract the principles governing their relations, and to demonstrate that aesthetic distinctions between melodic and unmelodic sequences and structures are determined by these principles. Harmonics is to be a science of the sort analysed in Aristotle's Posterior Analytics: Aristoxenus' conceptions of melodic movement, continuity, space, and much else have an equally Aristotelian pedigree. Books 1–2 discuss basic components and structures (intervals, notes, genera, etc.), and introduce the fundamental principles governing harmonic organization: both books, especially book 2, offer challenging reflections on method. Book 3 derives from the principles a set of theorems about melodic sequences. Gaps exist in all three books, and the third breaks off in mid-flow. Aristoxenus' works on harmonics were very influential: much that is missing from Harm. can be reconstructed from later sources, especially Cleonides, Baccheius Geron, and Aristides Quintilianus.
  • (b) Writings on rhythmics. Part of book 2 of an Elementa Rhythmica survives. It argues that rhythm is a temporal structure imposed on, not inherent in, what is ‘rhythmized’ (to rhythmizomenon); and it defines rhythmic forms, by reference to a ‘primary duration’ (prōtos chronos), in terms of the ratio between arsis (anō chronos, up-beat) and thesis (katō chronos, down-beat). Another fragment on rhythm is POxy. 2687: later authors including Baccheius, Aristides Quintilianus, and the 11th-cent. Byzantine Michael Psellus preserve further Aristoxenian material. A work On the Primary Duration is quoted by Porphyry (On Ptolemy's Harmonics 78. 21–79. 28).
  • (c) Other works survive only in brief quotations. Musical treatises included On Music, On Melodic Composition (each in at least four books, Ath. 619d; Porph. On Ptol. Harm. 125. 24), On Listening to Music, On Tonoi, On Auloi and Instruments, On the Boring of Auloi, On Auletes, On Tragic Poets, On Tragic Dancing, and perhaps Praxidamanteia. Aristoxenian passages in the pseudo-Plutarchan De musica show that he worked extensively on musical history.
  • (d) Biographies, including Lives of at least four philosophers, Pythagoras, Archytas of Tarentum, Socrates, and Plato. Fragments on the latter two (frs. 25–30, 33) are scurrilous and vituperative; but his work on Pythagoras probably underlies much of the later tradition, and substantial reports about Archytas drawn from Didymus by Claudius Ptolemaeus and Porphyry may originate with him.
  • (e) Other writings. Recorded titles demonstrate the variety of Aristoxenus' interests: Educational Customs (or ‘laws’, nomoi), Political Nomoi in at least eight books (Ath. 648d), Pythagorean Maxims, Historical Notes, Brief Notes, Miscellaneous Notes in at least sixteen books (Phot. Bibl. 176), Random Jottings (Ta Sporadēn), Miscellaneous Table Talk.

Aristoxenus' assorted memoranda left only minor traces in later historical gossip. In musicology, especially harmonics, he remained authoritative throughout ancient times. Harmonic theory became polarized into two main camps, ‘Aristoxenian’ and ‘Pythagorean’, but even Pythagorean and Platonist writers drew freely on his analyses. His conservative attitude to musical history became canonical, and authors of the imperial period still echoed his nostalgia for the pure styles of the Greek 5th cent. long after their sounds had died.

Andrew D. Barker

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