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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Volume 6 (2000) No. 2

Music, Science and Natural Magic in Seventeenth-Century England. By Penelope Gouk. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999. [xii, 308 pp. ISBN 0-300-07383-6 $35.00.]

Reviewed by Thomas Christensen*

1. The Occult and the Scientific

2. Gouk’s Approach

3. Newton and Music


1. The Occult and the Scientific

1.1 Students of intellectual history used to learn that the seventeenth century constituted a watershed of the European Enlightenment, a period in which the tools of empirical philosophy and mechanistic science were first widely introduced and applied. In this attractive scenario, the century saw the introduction of a wholly new spirit of philosophical skepticism and rational inquiry that eventually replaced the melange of Aristotelian science, Neoplatonic mysticism, and hermetic superstitions that comprised the intellectual heritage of the previous centuries.

1.2 Of course we now know that such a picture is a simplification. Far from constituting a decisive epistemological break with the Renaissance, scientists and philosophers in the early modern period relied heavily upon received metaphysical assumptions and scholastic methods. In particular, the Renaissance pursuit of “natural magic” was a strong influence upon scientific practice in the new century. As Lynn Thorndike and Frances Yates long ago documented, the experimental scientist of the seventeenth century was striving to understand and control the very same occult natural properties as were the natural magicians and alchemists of earlier times.1

1.3 Seventeenth-century research on such mysterious natural phenomena as magnetism, gravity, light, and of course, sound can only be fully understood in the context of these hermetic and alchemic traditions. If more recent research has qualified our view of the seventeenth-century experimental scientist as little more than an institutionalized Renaissance magus, the essential insights of Thorndike and Yates nonetheless continue to inspire and provoke, leading in the most recent decades to a profound reassessment of such paradigmatic scientific thinkers as René Descartes, Robert Boyle, and Isaac Newton.

1.4 One area in which the overlap of natural magic and science is vividly apparent (not to say audible) is that of music. As D. P. Walker argued in a number of pioneering studies, music was an essential mediator between occult and scientific traditions.2 On the one hand, no subject seemed to have been more tenaciously credited with occult properties (music’s Orphic power to move the passions); on the other hand, no phenomenon seemed more susceptible to analysis with the new mechanical philosophy (for example, explaining musical consonance as the result of coincidental sound frequencies).

1.5 Since the appearance of Walker’s writings, much more research has been undertaken concerning the role of music in seventeenth-century scientific culture, a culture, as we have seen, that is inextricably bound to traditions of natural magic and gnostic knowledge.3 But there has until now been no single work to which readers could turn that comprehensively traces the rich entanglement of music, science and natural magic in the seventeenth century. Penelope Gouk—a historian of science trained at the prestigious Warburg Institute in London—offers us just such a study in her brilliant new book. Richly panoramic in scope, meticulously researched, beautifully illustrated, and written in a lucid and engaging prose, Gouk’s study is sure to become a landmark to which both musicologists and intellectual historians will gratefully be referring for many years to come.

2. Gouk’s Approach

2.1 As noted above, Gouk continues Walker’s project by showing the intricate overlap of music, magic, and science in seventeenth-century English thought. (She is generous, by the way, in acknowledging her debt to Walker, her former teacher at the Warburg Institute, even dedicating the book to his memory.) As her title suggests, she largely delimits her study to seventeenth-century England, although at times her narrative necessarily spills across both chronological and geographical boundaries. Her primary concentration upon English thought is a wise one, as it was in England—and particularly in Oxford—that we find some of the most interesting intellectual alchemy in which the three topics seem to meld.

2.2 In order to navigate her story, Gouk must employ a careful triangulation in her narrative, moving deftly between topics of natural magic, music theory, and scientific practice. She does this first by showing the “geographies” of seventeenth-century thought, in which the practices of music, magic and science all overlapped. The difficulties many early encyclopedists such as John Dee and Francis Bacon had in categorizing and mapping topics of science (which did not even exist at the time as a commonly used designation) along with those of magic and music suggest how ill-defined the boundaries were between these topics. But the geography was not simply conceptual; again and again Gouk shows how the practices of natural magic, scientific experimentation, and musical performance physically overlapped, whether in an Oxford classroom, a London coffee house, or the laboratories of the Royal Society. In the third and final section of her book, entitled “Narratives” (I will return in a moment to consider the special nature of her middle section), Gouk explores how these overlapping performances converged in the newly established discipline of physical acoustics. Gouk provides here a number of revealing case studies from the later half of the century, including chapters devoted to the work of Robert Hooke and Isaac Newton.

2.3 To understand the close relation of musical acoustics and magic during this period, it may be useful to consider an example. Certainly the most vivid phenomenon by which the “magical” qualities of music could be made empirically manifest is that of sympathetic vibration. For many seventeenth-century observers, the ability of a given vibrating string to set into motion another string at a distance was a marvelous illustration of music’s occult powers. It was widely accepted that a similar kind of sympathetic resonance must take place when music is perceived by the human ear and certain affections could be “set into motion” within the listener. (Through a long Pythagorean tradition, the human body was depicted as a kind of extended monochord composed of various harmonious proportions.)

2.4 To be sure, it was in the seventeenth century that scientists finally began to understand the physical causes of sympathetic vibration by studying the nature of sound propagation through the air, and analyzing the complex motions of vibrating bodies. (At the same time, of course, physicians such as Harvey were beginning to understand the biological nature of the human body.) Yet this by no means diminished the interest or mystery of the phenomenon of sympathetic resonance. Indeed, for Robert Hooke, the curator of experimental science in the newly founded Royal Society, a viol gut resounding in sympathetic resonance to another was called a “magicall string.” As Gouk shows us (pp. 193–223), the vibrating string was not just a heuristic device for Hooke, it was a fundamental model by which to understand and explain other natural phenomena (such as magnetism, gravity, and light). No less than for earlier generations of stoic mystics and Neoplatonists, Hooke saw the harmonies of the macrocosm and microcosm as identical, connected by an ethereal substance of spiritus which could transmit vibrations between realms as does a plucked musical string transmit sound.4

2.5 One of the most innovative features of Gouk’s book—and certainly one of its most entertaining—is its middle section, entitled “Gallery” (pp. 115–53). Constituting a kind of “Theatrum Instrumentorum” (borrowing from the title of Michael Praetorius’s book of organology published in 1620), and serving as an intermezzo to the “geographical” and “narrative” sections which surround it, Gouk presents an annotated visual arcade of some 48 engravings, drawings, figures, and plates taken from a variety of seventeenth-century sources depicting musical instruments, practices, concepts, and notations. Her presentation, the reader quickly realizes, is not particularly systematic. Gouk moves quickly from selected pictures of instrumental groups to tables of tuning systems, examples of string and tablature notations, species of solfege systems and musical cryptography, and allegorical plates of cosmic harmonics. (Here, as one might expect, Fludd and Kircher provide some of the most striking sources.)

2.6 I should confess that it was not always clear to me how this pot-pourri of sources upon which Gouk draws are to be integrated. For example, I think she overstates the extent to which the various keyboard and lute tablatures developed on the continent that she illustrates (pp. 131–33) represent alternative conceptions of musical space, let alone how this impinges upon the scientific outlook of individuals such as Hooke or Newton. Still, the overall intersection in this chapter of visual and aural cultures serves well to buttress her arguments as to the importance of music as a conceptual model for representing—and mediating—both the corporeal world of the natural philosopher, and the immaterial world of the magus. Indeed, the very eclectic presentation of this chapter with its pell-mell accumulation of empirical artifacts suggests a kind of Baconian “artificial history”: a scientific “cabinet” for public display found in the laboratories of numerous seventeenth-century virtuosi. (Early in the chapter Gouk aptly likens the result to a “broken” consort of diverse musical instruments playing harmoniously together.) Her argument proceeds not through methodical induction, but as with much scientific practice of the time, heuristically through analogy and accretion.

3. Newton and Music

3.1 The penultimate chapter on Isaac Newton is surely the climax of Gouk’s study (pp. 224–57). Arguably one of the most significant discoveries in the history of science within the last quarter of a century has been Newton’s clandestine involvement—indeed, obsession—with theological and alchemic problems, topics upon which he expended extraordinary time and effort during many critical years of his life.5 Gouk helps to round off this picture by showing how music theory also formed part of Newton’s activities as a “Pythagorean magus.” In numerous early manuscripts—many here revealed and analyzed for the first time—we find Newton following well trodden trails of previous speculative theorists concerning issues of tuning, consonance ranking , and acoustics.

3.2 I do feel, however, that Gouk sometimes pushes her thesis too far in this chapter. There seems no doubt that Newton did subscribe to the reality of an original theology (prisca theologia) in which a kind of universal wisdom known to the ancient magi might be recoverable, and that musical harmonies were a wonderful instantiation of this knowledge. But I don’t ever get the sense that music was the decisive catalyst to Newton’s views—certainly not the way it was for Hooke, Mersenne, or Fludd. (Unlike these later individuals, Newton—as Gouk admits at several points—had virtually no knowledge or interest in practical music.)6

3.3 Given that so much of music’s heuristic aura in the early modern period lay in its affective power—its ability to arouse and agitate in sympathetic vibration the humorous fibers of the body—the lack of any visceral response to music’s magic on the part of Newton suggests to me that it never could have had the vital metaphysical significance for him that Gouk suggests it did. Ultimately, I think music was just one manifestation of a more abstract kind of macrocosmic order to which Newton adhered, one more ingredient of the philosopher’s stone he sought to uncover. But it was not itself the driving force behind his work.

3.4 Still, hermetic traditions and natural magic were obvious potent forces upon Newton, just as they were for many seventeenth-century scientists. And there was no subject in the early modern period that seemed to keep alive the resonance between science and traditions of natural magic than music. Together, music, natural magic, and science created a heady, potent brew in the seventeenth century, one whose pungent fumes were as difficult to separate in practice as they were irresistible to inhale. Gouk has provided a splendid analysis of this intellectual alchemy that itself should have continuing resonance in seventeenth-century studies.7


* Thomas Christensen (tchriste@midway.uchicago.edu) is Professor of Music and the Humanities at the University of Chicago. His research interests have centered on the history of music theory and aesthetics in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He is currently president of the Society for Music Theory, and is general editor of the forthcoming Cambridge History of Western Music Theory. Return to beginning


1. Lynn Thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science, vols. V and VI, The Sixteenth Century. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1941); Frances A. Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1964); Yates, The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972). Return to text

2. D.P. Walker, Studies in Musical Science in the Late Renaissance (London: Warburg Institute, 1978). Return to text

3. See, for example, H. F. Cohen, Quantifying Music: The Science of Music at the First Stage of the Scientific Revolution, 1580–1650 (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1984). Gary Tomlinson has provided a penetrating study of Renaissance magical traditions and music that points broadly to many intellectual currents that would swell in the seventeenth century. See his Music in Renaissance Magic: Toward a Historiography of Others (Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 1993). And in a number of important studies, Joscelyn Godwin has sympathetically reported on the intersection of music and magic in the writings of numerous seventeenth-century polymaths, including Kircher and Fludd. See e.g., Joscelyn Godwin, Robert Fludd: Hermetic Philosopher and Surveyor of Two Worlds (London: Thames and Hudson, 1979); and Music, Mysticism and Magic (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986). Finally, the work of Claude Palisca has contributed greatly to our knowledge of music and science in the seventeenth century. His pioneering study is “Scientific Empiricism in Musical Thought,” in Seventeenth-Century Science and the Arts, ed. Hedley Howell Rhys (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), 91–137. Return to text

4. I find it odd that Gouk did not buttress her evidence concerning the widespread acceptance of musica mundana among English thinkers of the seventeenth century by citing the countless literary and poetic sources in which universal harmonia is used as a trope. The classical study here is John Hollander, The Untuning of the Sky: Ideas of Music in English Poetry, 1500–1700 (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1961). Of course, the value of Gouk’s book is precisely to show that musical harmonia was more than a poetic metaphor for many seventeenth-century scientists; it was a real and vital truth that decisively shaped their research. It helped determine the kinds of questions they sought to answer (e.g. Kepler’s search for harmonic order in the cosmos) , and the tools and methods by which to accomplish this (e.g. Boyle’s testing of matter for properties of “affinity” or “attraction”). Return to text

5. The pioneering work here is Betty Joe Teeter Dobbs, The Foundations of Newton’s Alchemy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975). Return to text

6. One provocative instance where Gouk shows how music might have influenced Newton’s scientific work lies in optics, and specifically Newton’s analogy between the colors of the spectrum and the diatonic scale. Gouk argues that it was only by a desire to produce a correspondence with the seven tones of the major scale that Newton eventually decided that there were seven colors refracted through his prism whose ratios of sine angle corresponded to the proportions of Zarlino’s syntonic diatonic. (In previous experiments, he identified only five colors). But it should be noted that Gouk’s thesis has not always met with acceptance. See, for example, David Topper, “Newton on the Number of Colors in the Spectrum,” Studies on the History and Philosophy of Science 21/2 (1990): 269–79. Return to text

7. Certainly Gouk’s finding concerning English thought of the time can be extended fruitfully to the continent. A provocative recent article by David Yearsley exploring the importance of hermetic and alchemic thought upon counterpoint pedagogy in Germany suggests some of the fascinating avenues such future research might take. See David Yearsley, “Alchemy and Counterpoint in the Age of Reason,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 51/2 (1998): 201–43. Return to text

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