March 13: Alexander Rehding

Alexander Rehding is Fanny Peabody Professor of Music at Harvard University.

Pythagoras plays the Monochord; Or, The Instruments of Music Theory


The historical study of music theory has long depended on treatises as its
mainstay. This focus on written texts takes a rather narrow view of what
music theory is or can be. My paper explores musical instruments as a
source for the historical study of music theory. The figure of Pythagoras
and his alleged penchant for the monochord offers a way into this
exploration of the theory-bearing dimensions of instruments.

Musicians tend to think of instruments primarily in terms of music-making,
but in other contexts instruments are, more broadly, tools. In the context
of scientific experimentation, specifically, instruments help researchers
come to terms with “epistemic things”―objects under scrutiny that carry
specific (but as yet unknown) sources of knowledge within them. Aspects of
this experimental practice can productively be transferred to the study of
music theory and will be explored in a number of examples drawn from
various periods of music history.