Jim Drake’s Entertainment Blog: Thinking outside of the box on music theory

I’m reading a terrific book right now. It’s terrific because, well, when you get to read translations of very old manuscripts about super-important stuff — and even find analogies to music that can tie into the current Instrumental art show — I’d call that terrific.

The art of the instrument maker has been around a long time, and it seems that the struggle to make ends meet for these hardworking souls was recognized early.

In this book I came across, a passage essentially talked about a man who made a minimal living giving music lessons and had to work for his wife’s family to supplement his income, but “at heart he was a musical theorist in the days when musical theory was considered a special branch of mathematics.”

It goes on to say that he taught his son to play several different instruments and taught him the “Pythagorean rule of musical ratio which involved exact following of numerical properties of notes in a scale.”

He recognized that music came from vibrations of air, and he even developed an “ideal tuning formula for the lute by fractionally shortening the intervals between successive frets.”

Finally, he promoted his new tuning method because he thought it brought out the instrument’s own unique sound, rather than basing the building on “strict numerical relationships between notes.”

Essentially, to me, this man challenged the authority of the time, and it’s evident that trait was passed down to his son, because this was Galileo’s father. The year is approximately 1570.

The tie-in for the Instrumental show is uncanny, because on display right now are things like John Marvin Kite’s prototype guitar and lute-like instrument, which incorporate his own ideas about how an instrument can be improved and made differently. Plus, the show has what has to be the largest collection of handmade cigar-box guitars anywhere on earth — each I’m sure had to be slightly adjusted for maximum playability. I feel the ancient builders would approve of this.

Later on, after Galileo invented the telescope and observed sunspots, he wrote to one of his colleagues to generate discussion on this mysterious phenomena. No one knew what they were, and some thought they may be new stars crossing the sun. It’s amazing to me that Galileo’s view of the universe incorporated analogies to musical instruments and sound.

He wrote to a friend, “I hope this new thing (his discovery of sunspots) will turn out to be of admirable service in tuning for me some reed in this great discordant organ of our philosophy, an instrument on which I think I see many organists wearing themselves out trying to get the whole thing in perfect harmony, vainly, because they leave three or four of the principal reeds in discord, making it quite impossible for the others to respond in perfect time.”

The “philosophy” refers to things like questioning whether the Earth was really the center of the universe and questioning that the heavens remained unchanging.

And now I think about that every time I look at an instrument.

Instrumental runs through April 2 at the Columbia Center for the Arts. The book is “Galileo’s Daughter,” by Dava Sobel.

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