University of Tartu, Faculty of Arts and Humanities, Institute of Philosophy and Semiotics, Department of Philosophy (Estonia)
The Monochord Experiment Considered within Rom Harré’s Typology of Scientific Experiments
In his book Great Scientific Experiments: Twenty Experiments that changed our View of the World (1981) Rom Harré divides all the experiments discussed in this book into three large groups, which are further subdivided into twelve kinds or types. I propose to show that the monochord experiment could fit well into the kind Use of Models to simulate otherwise Unresearchable Processes.
The monochord is one of the oldest, and at the same time one of the simplest, devices constructed to explore musical intervals. In music theory, an interval refers to the distance between two sounds, which may sound either simultaneously or sequentially.
The invention of a one-stringed instrument that consists of a wooden soundbox and one movable bridge under the string is attributed to Pythagoras (6th century BC), but its first appearance in Greek literature according to David Creese was much later – in the treatise The Division of the Monochord (c.300 BC). The monochord entered Western medieval musical culture through Boëthius’s treatise De institutione musica, written in the beginning of 6th century AD. Since then, numerous treatises have appeared describing the monochord experiment and its results. The mathematically expressed relationships of musical intervals supported the division of intervals into consonances and dissonances. These rules, based on the connections between numerical ratios and the audible intervals, had a profound effect on the formation of Western polyphony, and aesthetic decisions on the use of harmony in musical compositions.
Why should we try to fit the monochord case study into a category of scientific experiments? If the monochord is classified as a scientific instrument, then it should be accepted as a scientific experiment, even if it is a simple one. If we follow the Pythagorean legend described in treatises, then we can see that the monochord has all the features of a scientific experiment. Consider the following sequences: problem – event – observation – experiments with various materials – invention – rational explanation, based on mathematical ratios, of the interrelations between two sounds. The experiments on the monochord are repeatable. Taking into account its great influence on aesthetic judgements, allows me to propose to consider this case as one of the great Western scientific experiments.