The Ten Books on Architecture, 5.4

Vitruvius  translated by Morris Hicky Morgan

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4Harmonics is an obscure and difficult branch of musical science, especially for those who do not know Greek. If we desire to treat of it, we must use Greek words, because some of them have no Latin equivalents. Hence, I will explain it as clearly as I can from the writings of Aristoxenus, append his scheme, and define the boundaries of the notes, so that with somewhat careful attention anybody may be able to understand it pretty easily.

2The voice, in its changes of position when shifting pitch, becomes sometimes high, sometimes low, and its movements are of two kinds, in one of which its progress is continuous, in the other by intervals. The continuous voice does not become stationary at the “boundaries” or at any definite place, and so the extremities of its progress are not apparent, but the fact that there are differences of pitch is apparent, as in our ordinary speech in sol, lux, flos, vox; for in these cases we cannot tell at what pitch the voice begins, nor at what pitch it leaves off, but the fact that it becomes low from high and high from low is apparent to the ear. In its progress by intervals the opposite is the case. For here, when the pitch shifts, the voice, by change of position, stations itself on one pitch, then on another, and, as it frequently repeats this alternating process, it appears to the senses to become stationary, as happens in singing when we produce a variation of the mode by changing the pitch of the voice. And so, since it moves by intervals, the points at which it begins and where it leaves off are obviously apparent in the boundaries of the notes, but the intermediate points escape notice and are obscure, owing to the intervals.

3There are three classes of modes: first, that which the Greeks term the enharmonic; second, the chromatic; third, the diatonic. The enharmonic mode is an artistic conception, and therefore execution in it has a specially severe dignity and distinction. The chromatic, with its delicate subtlety and with the “crowding” of its notes, gives a sweeter kind of pleasure. In the diatonic, the distance between the intervals is easier to understand, because it is natural. These three classes differ in their arrangement of the tetrachord. In the enharmonic, the tetrachord consists of two tones and two “dieses.” A diesis is a quarter tone; hence in a semitone there are included two dieses. In the chromatic there are two semitones arranged in succession, and the third interval is a tone and a half. In the diatonic, there are two consecutive tones, and the third interval of a semitone completes the tetrachord. Hence, in the three classes, the tetrachords are equally composed of two tones and a semitone, but when they are regarded separately according to the terms of each class, they differ in the arrangement of their intervals.

4Now then, these intervals of tones and semitones of the tetrachord are a division introduced by nature in the case of the voice, and she has defined their limits by measures according to the magnitude of the intervals, and determined their characteristics in certain different ways. These natural laws are followed by the skilled workmen who fashion musical instruments, in bringing them to the perfection of their proper concords.

5In each class there are eighteen notes, termed in Greek φθὁλλοι, of which eight in all the three classes are constant and fixed, while the other ten, not being tuned to the same pitch, are variable. The fixed notes are those which, being placed between the moveable, make up the unity of the tetrachord, and remain unaltered in their boundaries according to the different classes. Their names are proslambanomenos, hypate hypaton, hypate meson, mese, nete synhemmenon, paramese, nete diezeugmenon, nete hyperbolaeon. The moveable notes are those which, being arranged in the tetrachord between the immoveable, change from place to place according to the different classes. They are called parhypate hypaton, lichanos hypaton, parhypate meson, lichanos meson, trite synhemmenon, paranete synhemmenon, trite diezeugmenon, paranete diezeugmenon, trite hyperbolaeon, paranete hyperbolaeon.

6These notes, from being moveable, take on different qualities; for they may stand at different intervals and increasing distances. Thus, parhypate, which in the enharmonic is at the interval of half a semitone from hypate, has a semitone interval when transferred to the chromatic. What is called lichanos in the enharmonic is at the interval of a semitone from hypate; but when shifted to the chromatic, it goes two semitones away; and in the diatonic it is at an interval of three semitones from hypate. Hence the ten notes produce three different kinds of modes on account of their changes of position in the classes.

7There are five tetrachords: first, the lowest, termed in Greek ὑπατον; second, the middle, called μἑσον; third, the conjunct, termed συνημμἑνον; fourth, the disjunct, named διεξενγμἑνον; the fifth, which is the highest, is termed in Greek ὑπερβὁλαιον. The concords, termed in Greek συμφωνἱαι, of which human modulation will naturally admit, are six in number: the fourth, the fifth, the octave, the octave and fourth, the octave and fifth, and the double octave.

8Their names are therefore due to numerical value; for when the voice becomes stationary on some one note, and then, shifting its pitch, changes its position and passes to the limit of the fourth note from that one, we use the term “fourth”; when it passes to the fifth, the term is “fifth.”

9For there can be no consonancies either in the case of the notes of stringed instruments or of the singing voice, between two intervals or between three or six or seven; but, as written above, it is only the harmonies of the fourth, the fifth, and so on up to the double octave, that have boundaries naturally corresponding to those of the voice: and these concords are produced by the union of the notes.

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