Sunday, June 22, 2014

About The Superstition That "Xians Banned Thirds"

I talked with a friend of mine who pursued a degree in musicology and specialized in medieval music for a time, with the silly comment I addressed Friday.   My friend thought it was even funnier than I did, especially since I said that the person who made it is, by her report, something of a professional musician.

He said that, contrary to that statement, the third was never "banned", that the idea it could have been is ridiculous.  He notes that as soon as organum began to generate some linear independence, thirds appear harmonically in the manuscripts.  He notes that it was not used in a way that implies it is a perfect consonance for a couple of centuries but that's a far sight short of it being "banned".  

He said that he would look for a harmonic analysis of Perotin-Leonin style counterpoint he recalled reading that noted how often thirds and other intervals used as dissonances appeared in those pieces.  If I can find it online, I will note it in an update.   Here is Leonin, the earlier and more conservative of the two, his setting of a verse of Haec Dies, played on a portative organ.   As you can hear, there are quite a few thirds, I'd argue at least a few are treated more as consonances needing no resolution.


My friend found it as funny as I did that the claim was made as it was, indeed, Christians who first began to use thirds as consonant, harmonic intervals and, as musical practice developed, began to base harmony on them.

His extensive, practical experience with the Pythagorean tuning commonly advocated in medieval theoretical and practical texts (especially the famous musical treatise of Odo of Cluny that is sometimes, somewhat humorously translated,  "How to make a hurdy-gurdy" ) said that he thought the ranking of intervals as perfect consonances was directly the result of the acoustics of that tuning, based on the perfect fifth.  He said that the importance of that perfectly tuned interval and its inversion to the medieval ear was obviously one of the most important and satisfying of musical experiences and that the later affection for thirds, leading to the mean-tone systems, with an emphasis on justness of thirds and a distortion of fifths was an important stylistic feature based on changing taste in music.  Of course, there was a MUSICAL prohibition of the use of parallel fifths and related types of voice leading, perhaps because it was too associated with the religious practice of parallel organum.  Fourths, which had been considered a perfect consonance, became, officially, dissonant.

Finally, he noted that, while it is doubtful that an unaccompanied choral group would perform strictly in Pythagorean tuning, probably singing intervals more flexibly than can be done on a fixed-pitch instrument, the sound of perfect fifths would have been thoroughly embedded into their ears and their musical experience.  He said it was like musicians now having to learn to sing perfect fifths and just thirds since the slightly distorted fifths and thirds of equal temperament are the basis of our musical experience.

Now, aren't you glad I asked an expert?   And that I didn't use the rather bad pun on the name of the gal who made the ridiculous claim.


  1. Well, it was the Middle Ages, Christians probably banned something!

    I mean, that's all they did in the Middle Ages, was ban stuff! At least that's what I read on the intertoobs, so it must be true! Besides, everybody knows that's all Christianity is about, is banning stuff!

    Anyway, I can't tell you what a pleasure it is to read the comments of people trained in music. It's been too long since I was around people so serious about music and so knowledgeable about it. I still know only enough to know how much I don't know. I find for most people, however, that condition induces in them the conviction that they know more than everyone else, and have access to "secret" knowledge which is widely repressed because of it's "explosive" nature.

    Kind of like "The DaVinci Code" and it's dangerous allegation that Jesus was a daddy (or whatever nonsense it was), which knowledge would destroy the Church. Funny how people imagine the pillars of civilization actually rest on such unsteady and fragile foundations. In an X-Files episode I watched recently, the crux was a fake "Gospel of Mary Magdalene" which only asserted Jesus was married (an old assertion, made by some scholars), which if true, would cause the Church to crumble into dust.

    Yeah, right. Those guys need to catch up on 19th century Biblical scholarship.

    A little knowledge really is a dangerous thing, especially with modern technology to bruit it around.

  2. The more I know about music the more I know I don't know about it. Talking with my friend makes me want to go out to the shed and finding the wood to make a monochord so I can tune those intervals. In his great book on Gregorian Chant, Willi Apel pointed out that within the system of diatonic modes on the "white keys" plus b-flat they managed to come up with a more varied melodic expression than the later composers did with the full resources of the later major-minor music. I didn't really get it until we got to the music and started singing it. A soon as you start singing it, you see what he meant. Yeah, I think I'm going to go look to see if I've got suitable boards to hear how Pythagorean intervals add to that.

    Usury, the medieval church banned usury. I'll bet most of the tots wouldn't understand the significance of that.