What Ever Happened to the Quadrivium?

“Just as erudite scholars are not satisfied by merely seeing colors and forms without also investigating their properties, so musicians should not be satisfied by merely finding pleasure in music without knowing by what musical proportions these sounds are put together. . .” — Boethius, De institutione musica, Book 1


← Meet Boethius.


Boethius was a Roman.  He lived from the late fifth century through the early sixth century, C.E.  He was a pretty cool dude.  He liked math, and philosophy, and Christianity, and music.  He studied the writings and works of the ancient Greeks, a thousand years before his time.  He especially loved Pythagoras.  →

Pythagoras — yeah, the triangle guy.  Pythagoras was the world’s first music theorist, kind of.  He viewed music as math — a set of ratios representing different tonal intervals.  After Pythagoras, guys like PlatoAristotle, and Aristoxenus incorporated passion and art and the cosmos into their definitions of music.  But to Pythagoras, it was purely mathematical.

Pythagoras lived in the sixth century, B.C.E.  By Boethius’ time, the Pythagorean school of musical thought had faded away… until dear old Boethius started preaching Music According To Pythagoras.

Boethius did not practice music — he studied it.  He had all sorts of interesting ideas that came to shape medieval society’s views on music for centuries — for example, he identified three types of music (musica mundana, musica humana, and musica intrumentalis) and a hierarchy of musicians (“judges,” composers, and instrumentalists).  Like Pythagoras, he saw music in the abstract, all numbers and ratios.  Boethius’ computative conceptualization of music gave rise to a core curriculum that defined medieval education for the rest of the Middle Ages: THE QUADRIVIUM

The Quadrivium represented the most important four of the seven Liberal Arts according to medieval Roman culture: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music.  These fields were considered the gateways to all knowledge.  The other three Liberal Arts — collectively known as the Trivium — encompassed the “language arts” of grammar, rhetoric, and logic.  The fields of the Trivium were considered ancillary and far inferior to those of the Quadrivium.  (This is the etymology of the English word “trivial”!)

In my very first college-level music history lecture this past Tuesday, my professor (who is an internationally-renowned musicologist and also just generally awesome) assigned a journal-style response to the question: Do you think of music as a math/science or as a “language art”?  Why?

If anyone actually reads this post, please go ahead and comment with your own answer!  I’d love to hear other opinions!  In writing my own response, I was surprised to find myself completely conflicted.  On the one hand, as an artist, I want to think of my art as, well, an art.  I certainly believe that music is intended to communicate ideas and express emotions, much like the language arts within the Trivium.  Most musical instruments were in fact invented to mimic the human voice — a concept known as umana voce — and, having taken several courses in psycholinguistics and language acquisition (dual-degree FTW!), I can confirm that music functions neurologically in a manner very similar to human speech (more on this in another post, another time).  Besides, I hate math and love music.  I wouldn’t love music if it were a type of math, would I?

But if music is a language art, that places it in the Trivium.  That’s like saying, “Music is trivial.  Extra.  Nonessential.”  Which is basically how society (at least, American society) treats music today.  Every day, music is cut from Quadrivium-esque school curricula because society views it as an art — not nearly as useful (or lucrative) as the hard sciences.

Sometime between early Christian Rome and now, music went from being one of the absolute most important fields of education, to one of the least.  When did that happen?  Why did that happen?

Of course music is so much more than numbers and ratios.  It’s storytelling, and dreaming, and being.  It’s color, and motion, and feeling, which can’t be explained through physics or arithmetic, no matter how many frequencies and temperaments and reverberations you calculate.  Even Boethius acknowledged in his De institutione musica that music has the capacity for “improving or degrading the morals of men.”  But if classical music is to have a future, it needs to be viewed scientifically, mathematically, abstractly — as it was in Pythagoras’ Greece and in Boethius’ Rome.  It needs to be placed front-and-center in our educational system, no longer faltering in the depths of the Trivium.  We need to revive the Quadrivium in order to revive classical music.  Simple as that.


3 thoughts on “What Ever Happened to the Quadrivium?

  1. simonsometimessays January 19, 2013 / 2:54 pm

    For me, music is art – but the unquestionable fact that music can be described in high mathematical and physical terms proves the point that art is more than colour and feeling. You’re embarking on a wonderful study here – I hope we hear more about it. Here’s something much more trivial (or at least frivolous) that I wrote on the subject a few months ago: http://simonsometimessays.wordpress.com/2012/10/09/the-number-of-the-beat/

  2. M January 28, 2013 / 11:11 am

    Great post. I’m currently researching Boethius and his translations of the Quadrivium, particularly his music book. Just looking for people who know much more about it than I do. Any chance I can ask a few questions, or at least get pointed in the right direction? I can be reached at: boethius520@gmail.com. Thanks!

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