Greek and Latin Music Theory

Greek and Latin Music Theory: Principles and Challenges by Edward Nowacki is a long-needed overview of, and guide to, the principles behind the treatises on music theory written in ancient Greece and Rome and continuing through the Middle Ages. This is a book all theory scholars will want on their shelves, and students especially will appreciate Dr. Nowacki’s dedication to exploring and elucidating many aspects of this challenging but rewarding field of study in a clear, engaging, and straightforward fashion.  

I began writing these essays in 2008, the year I retired from the College-Conservatory of Music, University of Cincinnati, after teaching the history of ancient and medieval music theory for twenty years. It all began when a colleague, who was about to take over my course, asked me if I would mind sharing my lecture notes. I was happy to do so, but only after putting them into some sort of respectable condition. I never taught from a script, and my notes were just rough memos. I sat down one Saturday and began revising my old class notes, not stopping for twelve hours. When I told a trusted friend and advisor what I had done, he uttered five of the most important words in my academic career: “You should write a book.”

It didn’t take long for me to recall how much my teaching career had been motivated by the urge to help my students to comprehend this difficult subject and to overleap the same hurdles that I had found so daunting. In that endeavor, I was often reminded of the irony of the academic model of engaging in publication in order to be a better teacher. That was exactly opposite to my experience, which was to put all my energy into class preparation, and then, if it succeeded, to publish the results. I may be an outlier, but I believe that publication is the consequence of good teaching, not its prerequisite. Every word of my book is the product of my efforts to put myself in my students’ place, and to share with them the goal of mastering the endlessly fascinating subject of ancient Greek and medieval Latin music theory.

While the book has pedagogical roots, it has sprouted specialized branches, which some colleagues may find too advanced for graduate students and better suited to professional journals. To those colleagues I say, my goal has been simply to tell the truth, however difficult it may be. If it challenges my students, I welcome it, as I welcomed the truth telling of my own teachers when I was a graduate student. I have never intended, and do not now intend, to talk down to my students; just as my teachers never talked down to me. The most truthful account of our music history and theory may be difficult, but students will not accept a watered-down version of it.

Such truth telling does not mean couching my discourse in obscure language. I have tried to speak plainly, even when the subject was technical. One of the consequences of that intention is that I frequently address student readers directly, in order to answer questions like those that my own students used to ask—questions that are obvious to students, but often neglected in the advanced literature, because the authors have forgotten how mysterious and nettlesome this subject was, when they first encountered it. Those questions include how to divide the monochord ruler into nine (nine!) equal parts; the geographical meaning of the terms Dorian, Phrygian, and Lydian; why it is impossible to divide the unit (as claimed in the Euclidian Sectio canonis); and the loopy prose of the Alia musica, long a staple of medieval music theory, yet almost incomprehensible to modern readers. I have tried to unwrap each of these mysteries, and many others, just as I used to do in the classroom.

Attentive readers will note certain gaps in my coverage. Martianus Capella, Hucbald, and Regino of Prüm come to mind, along with vast stretches of Guido, Claudius Ptolemy, and Aristoxenus. I plead guilty to the charge that I have failed to cover the subject comprehensively. No one could. The topics that I have selected are ones that I considered to be the most immediately pressing to students of the history of theory. And after ten years of research and writing, I decided to put a punctuation mark on what I had done and to leave the rest to others. If it fulfills no other purpose, I hope my book at least will be considered as a participant in seminars and as an aid to instructors who must prepare lectures on a subject that few find less than daunting.


This guest post was written by Edward Nowacki, Professor Emeritus of musicology at the College-Conservatory of Music, University of Cincinnati.