Frozen Music: Music and Architecture in Vitruvius’ De Architectura

in Greek and Roman Musical Studies
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This paper explores the convergence of musical and architectural theory in Vitruvius’ De Architectura. Section 1 describes Vitruvius’ architectural lexicon, borrowed from Aristoxenus (I.2), and explores his description of the laws of harmony, modeled on Elementa Harmonica (V.4). Section 2 explores how Vitruvius proposes using music theory in practical architectural design, including construction of columns using architectural orders analogous to Aristoxenian genera (I.2.6; IV.1); acoustical designs for theatres (V.5); and the development of machines, including siege engines ‘tuned’ like musical instruments (X.12) and water-organs [hydrauli] constructed to execute all the different varieties of tuning (X.8). Section 3 reflects on Vitruvius’ use of analogies with a musical instrument, the sambuca, to explain his understanding of cosmic harmony and architectural form, and his possible sources (VI.1). Finally, Section 4 discusses Vitruvius’ ideas about the importance of a liberal arts education that includes study of music theory. The best architects, Vitruvius explains, can discover in music the secrets to forms they both encounter in nature and create themselves.



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Schelling 1907, 241. The idea was echoed in Goethe’s remark of March 23, 1829, invoking the same analogy to observe that “the mood that arises from architecture comes close to the effects of music.” Cf. Eckermann 1986, 340.


Schelling 1907, 241.


Saliou 2009, 180. Creese 2010 points out that the monochord did not actually date back to Pythagoras, although many imagined it did; the monochord does not appear in any references before the late fourth century bc.


See Saliou 2009, 181.


See Brown 1963.


Jones 2000, 41: “For Vitruvius, the task of the architect was to imitate Nature, not literally, but rather by analogy”. To illustrate this point, Vitruvius famously describes in III.1.1-3 how the ratios of various measurements taken from the human body fit together, explaining that ‘similarly . . . the elements of holy temples should have dimensions for each individual part that agree with the full magnitude of the work’.


Jones 2000, 41.


Jones 2000, 43. He explains that “symmetria . . . brings abstract beauty, but not necessarily visual beauty. This is the realm of eurythmia. . . .”


Cf. Barbaro 1556, 24, “[B]eautiful manner in music as well as in architecture is called eurythmia”; Barbaro 1567, 282, the architect should be “aware of numero . . . for those proportions which give delight to the ears in sound, applied to architectural forms, give delight to the eyes”; Barbaro 1567, 124-5, “that which is consonance to the ears is bellezza to the eyes”. For more on the Renaissance use of harmonic proportions in architecture, with a particular emphasis on Palladio’s applications, see Wittkower 1998 and Howard/Longair 1982.


See Jones 2000, 231 n. 47.


Saliou 2009, XXXVIII-XXXIX. Her chart shows that Book V.4 follows the order of El. Harm. more closely than the other authors from the Aristoxenian tradition. See also Copeland 1995, who defines ordinatio as the “hierarchical arrangement of information” (206).


See Landels 1967, Poulle 2000 and Hagel 2009, 251-5.


As Hagel 2009, 251 explains, this row is ‘associated with harmonia’, referring not to the pitches of the enharmonic genus, but rather to the ‘fixed’ notes of the so-called Perfect System. In this row, Vitruvius excludes the lowest pitch, the proslambanomenos but includes the nêtê synêmmenôn.


V.5.5. See Landels 1967, 88-89.


Hagel 2009, 255: ‘[. . .] the specific design reported by Vitruvius perfectly suits the general requirements of Roman Imperial music’.


See Saliou 2009, 387-409.


See Falkener 1854, 19.


See Sear 2006, 146 and Saliou 2009, 397-399.


Polychronopolous 2013, 67.


Saliou 2009, 225.


X.8.6. See Hyde 1938 and West 1992, 114-8.


See Section IIb and Saliou 2009, 225.


West 1992, 76 describes the shape of the sambuca as a “primitive arched harp”; see also Mathiesen 1999, 275-280.


See Rowland 1999, 256 and Callebat 2004, 82.


See Hagel 2009, 117-22.


See Isaac 2006, 60-69.


See Callebat 2004, 71.


Callebat 2004, 72.


Cf. Callebat 2004, 74.


Doody 2009, 13.


Doody 2009, 13.


Masterson 2004, 391.


Ibid., 388.


Ibid., 393. Doody 2009, 13: “the more impressive the breadth of enkyklios paideia, the more exalted the subject [must be]”.


Ibid., 387.


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