Sunday morning, November 8, 10-10:50 CST

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History of Theory

Maryam A. Moshaver (University of Alberta), Chair

Where Zarlino Got His Listener

Russell O’Rourke (Columbia University)

Russell O’Rourke is an adjunct professor at Columbia University, where he recently graduated from the Ph.D. program in Historical Musicology with a dissertation titled “Representation, Emotion, and the Madrigal in Sixteenth-Century Italy.” He studies the rhetorical “marinade” in which discourses on music–text relations in the Italian madrigal and related genres soaked during the sixteenth century, and leverages his findings to employ new methods for the analysis of madrigals themselves.

At Columbia, he was the recipient of the 2016–17 Core Preceptor Award for Teaching Excellence in Music Humanities. There, he also founded the historical notation study group Ars Nota, in 2017; in the 2018–19 academic year, this group saw over fifty unique attendees from within and without the academy, and was the subject of a short documentary (“Ars Nota: Singing from the Source”). He also serves on the faculty at Greenwood Music Camp (Junior Division) in Cummington, MA, where he teaches viola and coaches chamber music to children ages 10–13 each summer. He lives in Northampton, MA.


This paper reconsiders the origins and significance of Gioseffo Zarlino’s listener concept, or soggetto ben disposto(well-disposed subject), which the theorist introduces in Part 2, chapter 7, of Le istitutioni harmoniche (1558) as one of four ingredients necessary for moving the emotions through music. Pace Moreno (2004), who dismisses the soggetto ben disposto as both theoretically shallow and “ancillary” to Zarlino’s larger project, I demonstrate that this concept in fact stems from a rich theoretical tradition around listening, albeit a nonmusical one—namely rhetoric. In particular, I argue that Zarlino lifted the conceptual scaffolding for his soggetto from vernacular commentaries on the recently recovered Rhetoric of Aristotle. Bartolomeo Cavalcanti’s La retorica (published in 1559, but drafted in the 1540s) is one candidate. In discussing the mental states of those “subjects ready to receive emotions” in rhetorical contexts, Cavalcanti adopts a vocabulary strikingly similar to Zarlino’s. Most telling of the connection, both theorists maintain that listening subjects must be “prepared and disposed” (preparati, e disposti), or predisposed, to be moved. 

Hitherto unacknowledged, the rhetorical foundations of Zarlino’s listener have implications for his theory of music and emotions writ large (Ist. harm. II.7–9). Most importantly, the concept of emotional “predisposition” baked into Zarlino’s soggetto ben disposto finds complementary expression in the theorist’s account of how different kinds of music stimulate different kinds of emotional responses. Hardly ancillary, then, Zarlino’s listener concept and its rhetorical origins open up new avenues for research into his theoretical project and counter the notion that he always subordinates sensation to numerical verity.

“In which it is evident that perception is always deceived”: Pythagorean Rationality and Descartes’ “Clear and Distinct Ideas”

David E. Cohen (Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, Frankfurt am Main)

David E. Cohen researches the history of music theory from Greek antiquity through the nineteenth century. He is currently a Senior Research Scientist with the research group, “Histories of Music, Mind, and Body” at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt. He has held professorships at Tufts, Harvard, and Columbia Universities, and visiting professorships at Yale and McGill. His article, “‘The Imperfect Seeks its Perfection’: Harmonic Progression, Directed Motion, and Aristotelian Physics” won the 2001 Best Publication award of the Society for Music Theory. His current principal writing project is a book, Rameau Before the Enlightenment: The Traité de l’harmonie and the Origins of Modern Harmonic Theory.


Descartes’ early Compendium of Music begins by arguing that the senses can take “delight” only in objects which, because they exhibit simple proportional relations, are perceived “distinctly.” Our minds, he holds, are inevitably deceived by proportions of excessive complexity, such as those involving irrational quantities, which “can in no way be perfectly known … to perception.” Thus—as the eminent Descartes scholar Stephen Gaukroger has observed—right from the start we find Descartes treating as foundational a version of what will later, in his most celebrated and influential writings, constitute the epistemological foundation of the Cogito: those mental entities or events that he comes to call “clear and distinct” ideas or perceptions.

As I go on to show, much the same concern for clarity and simplicity—for immediate, effortless intellectual perspicuity—had for centuries before Descartes played an equally crucial role in precisely this domain of intellectual endeavor, the “Pythagorean,” mathematical theory of music. In discussing these points, I focus on the philosophical reasons why mathematical music theory—unlike geometry—from antiquity through early modernity had always rejected the irrational in favor exclusively of rational quantities, and had moreover sometimes regarded as “irrational” certain proportions that are in fact not so. I thus identify an idiosyncratic “Pythagorean” form of “rationality,” whose lifespan extended from antiquity into at least the seventeenth century, when, transmuted by the alembic of Descartes’ thought, it came to play an unlooked-for role in the foundation of modern philosophy.

Blinded by “Nature”: Walter Young’s “Essay on Rythmical Measures” (1790)

Carmel Raz (Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, Frankfurt am Main)

Carmel Raz leads the research group “Histories of Music, Mind, and Body” at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt, Germany. Before coming to Frankfurt, she was a postdoctoral research fellow at the Columbia University Society of Fellows. She holds a PhD in music theory from Yale University, and also holds degrees from the University of Chicago and the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin. Her current research focuses on the intersection of the histories of music theory and cognition as well as on the interaction between music and neural science in the early Romantic period. Her work has appeared in journals including the Journal of Music Theory, 19th-Century Music, the Journal of the American Musicological Society, the Journal of Sound Studies, and SMT-V.


A major development of earlier proto-cognitivist approaches to music, the “Essay on Rythmical Measures” (1790) by the Scottish cleric and musician Walter Young (1744–1814) anticipates several key tenets underlying psychological and music-theoretical understandings of rhythm of our own day. His goal in the Essay is to reveal exactly how our “rhythmical constitution”—the mental capacities and operations of the kind that are today studied in the field of music cognition—determines the rhythmic properties of works of music and poetry and contributes to our appreciation of them. Although the bulk of the work deals with the perception of musical rhythm, it also provides an account of poetic rhythm, and tries to reconcile reports of ancient Greek music and poetry with the shared cognitive principles which, in Young’s view, hold across all times and places.

The Essay, I argue, represents an early attempt to link universal principles of cognition to the form and reception of cultural productions. As is particularly evident in his conjectural history of ancient Greek musical rhythm, Young’s fervent commitment to the establishment of universal features of perception rendered him blind to his own biases and assumptions, which were firmly anchored in the music of his day. He thus represents a particular kind of response to the larger problem of universalism and relativism, one that continues to resonate with debates in psychology and music cognition today.