ARISTOXENUS OF TARENTUM (’Αριστοξ ενος)—b. around 354 BC in Tarentum, d. around 300, a peripatetic philosopher, a student of Aristotle, the first theoretician of music in ancient Greece.
Aristoxenus’ education was directed by his father Spintharos who was probably a disciple of Socrates. Aristoxenus studied later with Lampros of Erytrea. He also spent time in Corinth where he met the exiled tyrant from Syracuse, Dionysius the Younger. He went to Athens and studied under the Pythagorean Xenophilos of Chalcis and later became a student of Aristotle and Theophrastus. The height of Aristoxenus’ philosophical work was in the last two decades of the fourth century BC. Because of his work he received the title of “Musician”. The best indication of the respect he enjoyed is that he was one of the candidates for director of the Lyceum, although the position ultimately fell to Theophrastus.
The Book of Sudo (A Byzantine Lexicon of the tenth century) reports that Aristoxenus was the author of more than 450 works, although this number seems to be exaggerated. Aristoxenus’ major works were on the theory of music, and from them only fragments of two works are extant: ’Αρμονικα στοιχεια [Harmonika stoicheia] (Elements of harmonics); and ‘Ρυθμικτα στοιχεια [Rhythmika stoicheia] (Elements of rhythmics. Plutarch used part of another work of Aristoxenus, Συμμικτα συμποτικα [Symmikta sympotika] (Conversations at a feast) in his own treatise on music. Only the titles are known of a few other works: Δοξαι& ‘αρμονικων [Doxai harmonikon] (Principles of harmonics); Περι μουσικης [Peri mousikes] (On music); Περι μελοποιιας [Peri melopoiias] (On the composition of melody); and Περι& μουσικης ’ακροασεως [Peri mousikes aroaseos] (On listening to music).
Aristoxenus also wrote biographies of famous historical figures (including Solon, Socrates, Plato, and Pythagoras). Only some fragments of this works known as the Βιοι ’ανδρων [Bioi andron] [Biographies of men] have survived to this day. The biographies were regarded as models of biographical literature and were highly esteemed by the people of ancient times.
Aristoxenus made music the object of his investigations. He combined the realistic method of peripatetic philosophy with the achievements of the Pythagorean mathematicians and acousticians. In keeping with the Pythagorean tradition, he emphasized the connection between music and ethics. He indicated that moral and pedagogical effect of music. He also believed that music had a therapeutic influence. He held that the Pythagoreans purified the body with the help of therapeutic art, and purified the soul with music; he emphasized that they had discovered not only the laws of harmony in music, but were able to connect these laws with their view of the harmony of the universe. This attitude allowed them to recognize music as one of the powers at work in the cosmos. Aristoxenus developed this view and introduced the principle of harmony to ethical and anthropological investigations. He made the ethical perfection of the soul dependent on the harmony of its elements. He also compared the relation of soul and body to the dependence between the parts of a musical instrument. However, unlike the Pythagoreans, Aristoxenus was interested in the qualitative, not the quantitative, differences between sounds. In keeping with the principles of peripatetic philosophy, in his investigations he primarily used the empirical method. He presented analyses based on auditory experience as opposed to the speculations of the Pythagoreans who searched for mathematical relations of dependence between sounds. He emphasized the fact that for listening to music we need not only the sense of hearing, but also memory that allows us to compare different sounds.
Aristoxenus made a classification of the sciences concerned with music, dividing them into theoretical and practical. He considered harmonics, rhythmics, and metrics as theoretical sciences. The practical sciences included organics (performance on instruments), poetics, and hypocritics (concerned with dance). He also introduced the concept of absolute pitch of sound—μεγεθος [megethos], and systematized the theory of rhythm.
At present Aristoxenus’ work is of interest primarily to historians. The extant fragments of his works are one of the major sources of information about ancient music.
The extant fragments of Aristoxenus’ works were published (in Greek and English) in: Aristoxeni Harmonika stoicheia. The Harmonics of Aristoxenus (Ox 1902).
E. Witkowska-Zaremba, in: Encyklopedia muzyczna PWM [Musical Encyclopedia PWM], Kr 1979, I 78–79; W. Tatarkiewicz, Historia estetyki [History of aesthetics], Wwa 1985, I 209–212; Reale III 162–164.
Robert T. Ptaszek