SENK seminar with Henrik Sinding-Larsen

The co-evolution of instruments, notation and music practice: a case of material and immaterial entanglement in cultural evolution

Christian and Muslim playing ouds. 13th century. (image in the public domain)

Perotin: Alleluia nativitas (image in the public domain)

Abstract: As far as we know, Pythagoras was the first to perform systematic experiments with music instruments to prove the relation between intervals and mathematical ratios. In particular he experimented with the length and tensions of strings on the Greek lyre (and a simplified version, the monochord), the lengths of tubes of a pan flute, and the weight of metal bells. He gave musical notes and intervals names based on their mathematical properties and location of strings on the lyre. A first musical notation based on Greek alphabetic letters (or variants of these) was also developed by the the Greeks. But notation and music theory remained largely a marginal philosophic speculation until Charlemagne in 789 AD proclaimed that all Christians in his newly re-established West Roman Empire should sing the same repertory of Gregorian chant. A new and more efficient system of notation was developed. But what was intended as a project of standardization and preservation became a major source of innovation. Precise notation of elementary pitches facilitated a new and larger scale orchestral and choral cooperation with an unprecedented harmonic complexity. However, this complexity hit a limit because the Pythagorean way of tuning instruments (based on simple mathematics) was not scalable in every harmonic direction. Naturally occurring overtones were simply not combinable and scalable the way the Enlightenment composers saw was possible from a notation point of view. So, they changed the instruments and created the equally tempered scale, first imposed on the piano and later dominating almost every instrument on the earth. Musical notation that was once describing what material musical instruments and voices could produce of “immaterial” music became a major driving force for a change of the material infrastructure of music. But standardized and scalable descriptions and prescriptions came with a price. Aesthetically, something was gained and something was lost in the change from a small scale oral tradition to a large scale written tradition. The presentation will provide examples (not least on what happened to Gregorian chant) of the co-evolution of notation as a tool of description and its domain to be described.


Henrik Sinding-Larsen is researcher at the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo, as part of the project Overheating: the three crises of globalisation. For his mag. art. thesis (1983) in social anthropology, Sinding-Larsen did fieldwork among Norwegian fiddlers and looked inter alia at their mixed feelings towards musical notation as a tool for preserving a living tradition. Sinding-Larsen was awarded Spellemannprisen (1985) as member of the ensemble Kalanda Maya playing medieval and renaissance music. The seminar presentation is part of a current work with a chapter for The Oxford Handbook of Sound and Imagination (forthcoming 2018).


The seminar will take place in the seminar room on the 3rd floor, Frederiks gate 2. After the seminar there will be room for informal conversations and drinks.


SENK, Geoffrey Gowlland and Tone Wang
Published Mar. 6, 2017 9:03 AM - Last modified Mar. 6, 2017 9:03 AM