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Aristoxenus


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Of Tarentum (b. c.370 bc), best known for musical writings but also a philosopher, biographer, and historian. He was trained in music, possibly to professional standards. Later he studied with the Pythagorean (see Pythagoras) Xenophilus, pupil of Philolaus, before joining Aristotle's Lyceum. Here his success made him expect to inherit the headship; and when Aristotle bequeathed it to Theophrastus instead, his remarks about Aristotle (acc. to the Suda) were memorably rude. The waspishness of criticisms levelled at others in his writings makes this believable; but his intellectual orientation is unmistakably Aristotelian, and his one surviving reference to Aristotle is also the one unqualified compliment paid to anyone in that work. Most influential were his writings on harmonics, of which three incomplete books survive. Aristoxenus saw himself as pioneering a wholly new and scientific approach to harmonics. Pythagoreans had conceived pitches as quantities, and studied their mathematical relations. Earlier empiricists had sought merely to tabulate various forms of attunement and scale. Aristoxenus takes his subject, melody or attunement, to be a ‘nature’ existing solely in the audible domain; and he holds that the science must therefore represent it as it appears to the ear, not through a physicist's conception of sounds as movements of the air, since sounds are not heard in that guise, and specifically harmonic or musical properties attach only to what is heard. The main task of harmonics is to identify the components of audible melody, to abstract the principles governing their relations, and to demonstrate that aesthetic distinctions between melodic and unmelodic sequences and structures are determined by these principles. Harmonics is to be a science of the sort analysed in Aristotle's Posterior Analytics.

His biographies included Lives of at least four philosophers, Pythagoras, Archytas, Socrates, and Plato. Fragments of the latter two are scurrilous and vituperative; but his work on Pythagoras probably underlies much of the later tradition.

Subjects: Classical Studies.


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