Myth, Science and Music at the Early Royal Society

When it was founded in 1660, the  Royal Society was the first institution in England dedicated to the study of natural philosophy (what we’d today call ‘science’). In its early years, the society showed considerable interest in investigating the properties of sound and music. There were acoustical experiments, mathematical and theoretical discussion of the nature of consonance, and even occasional musical performances.

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While the Royal Society was at the forefront of new trends in using observation and experiment to find out about the world, they had not yet left behind older traditions of knowledge. One of these traditions was the idea of the powers of music, founded on miraculous tales from classical mythology (e.g. Orpheus), the Bible (e.g. David driving out Saul’s demons), as well as contemporary wonders such as music’s supposed ability to cure tarantula bites (see my previous post on this subject). I’ve been interested in looking at what happens to these myths of music’s powerful effects in the context of the Royal Society’s promotion of new methods of experiment and observation.

Royal Society members did set out to try to test out the truth of some of these stories. One of these concerned music’s ability to break glass. While today we know this to be possible, to the Royal Society this tale would have been every bit as wondrous as stories of music’s ability to cure disease, move stones or tame wild beasts. They received a report from Daniel Morhof (Professor of History at the University of Kiel) who had come across a boy who claimed to be able break a glass by singing. Morhof first asked to witness the phenomenon, then to be taught how to do it. Finally he started to experiment with other ways of making glass vibrate and either shatter or produce sound.  On hearing the report the Royal Society commissioned Robert Hooke to begin experimenting, with mixed results. He had success in causing the glass to ring, though failed to make it break. Nevertheless the attempts inspired a whole series of experiments concerning sound and vibrational patterns.

Tarantella_(Athanasius_Kircher)The Royal Society was also fascinated with tales of music’s ability to cure the bite of tarantulas from the region of Apulia in Italy. At first they believed in the phenomenon without question: it was, after all, attested to by several intelligent and credible witnesses and authors. Then they received a report from Dr Thomas Cornelio. a physician and natural philosopher from Naples claiming that these musical effects were merely ‘the fancies of the credulous vulgar’. The Royal Society would have loved to get their hands on a live Apulian tarantula with which they could have conducted experiments and tested these claims, but despite Cornelio’s promises, none was received. This left the Society arguing over the accounts of competing authorities and wondering how, if even even these authorities could not agree on the truth of the matter, a natural philosopher’s report of observations was to be distinguished from mere anecdote and storytelling.

Perhaps most surprising was the Royal Society’s involvement in contemporary debates as to how modern music measured up the standard of the music of the ancient world, and the wondrous effects described in classical mythology. Experimental Robert Hooke 13_Portrait_of_Robert_Hookesuggested that ancient myths might point to truths about the natural world. He drew parallels between the myth of Amphion moving stones with music and vibrational phenomena in which  when two strings are tuned to the same pitch and one is struck, the second sounds too. In both cases music moves an otherwise inanimate object. Another fellow, John Wallis (Savilian Professor Geometry at Oxford)  explained the myths as hyperbolic stories rooted in the quite ordinary phenomena of rustic people flocking to pipers and fiddlers, and argued that modern music’s contrapuntal complexities made it superior to ancient music, which he believed had relied on a single voice or instrument.

In the early years of the Royal Society myth and science were not yet antagonistic opposites. Royal Society members had a surprisingly firm commitment to the traditional effects of music; if anything the properties of sound they discovered seemed to confirm the underlying truth of these tales. Indeed when contemporary stories came under threat from new evidence, the reluctance of many members to abandon them as false tales indicates an underlying belief in the power of music that was not entirely founded on experiment and reason. While classical myths were no longer the authoritative proof they had been in earlier times, this did not stop such stories forming the basis of lively discussion at the Royal Society or providing inspiration for experiment. Ultimately the Royal Society’s musical discussions would begin to produce new attitudes to music, valuing not for so much for its wondrous effects on the human body and the natural world (increasingly attributed to simpler musics and unskillful audiences), but for the intellectual pleasures sophisticate multi-part music could bring to sophisticated listeners.

If you want to find out more about the Royal Society’s discussions and investigations of tales of music’s powers, you can read my newly published article: Katherine Butler, ‘Myth, Science and the Power of Music in the Early Decades of the Royal Society’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 76 (2015), 47-68 (sadly no open-access version is permitted yet, but I will post one once the embargo period is over).

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