Three Blind Mice

Pythagoras (bottom left), detail from Raphael,  The School of Athens , 1511. Vatican Museums.

Pythagoras (bottom left), detail from Raphael, The School of Athens, 1511. Vatican Museums.

On Harmony

Once upon a time, when the smiths were beating their anvils, sweating profusely by their blazing forge, under the heat of a hot summer sun, a young man passed by on his way to meet some friends in the shady colonnade in front of the temple. He was an ardent scholar, going to meet a group of other young people who shared his passion for knowledge. There were patterns in the world – this much they did know – but there were countless questions to which they had no answers. Geometry, numbers, the motions of the sun and moon, the sea, the stars – these were some of the subjects the earnest band of students enthusiastically discussed as they strove to comprehend the symmetry and order that might provide a rational framework for the bustle, noise and seeming chaos of daily life.

John W. Ivimey,  Ye Three Blind Mice , illustrated by Walton Corbould (1909).

John W. Ivimey, Ye Three Blind Mice, illustrated by Walton Corbould (1909).

On this bright morning, when the sound of the hammers striking the anvils reached his ears, the young man suddenly paused. He fixed his eye on the slender line, far off in the distance, where sun meets sky, and strained his hearing to catch the varying sounds that rang out as metal struck metal. He’d heard these noises a thousand times before, but this time they seemed somehow different, making patterns he’d never noticed before. He listened: doh-low, doh-high, doh-low, doh-high … doh, sohdoh, midoh, fahdoh, remi, redoh … mi, redoh … Just at that moment three mice scuttled blindly by. The young man followed them into the blacksmiths’ yard, and while the smiths stopped to eat their bread and cheese the mice feasted on crumbs and the young man examined the hammers that lay on the dusty ground.

To cut a long story short, Pythagoras (for it was he!) discovered that the relationships between the different sounds depended on the relative weights of the hammers. He dashed home and plotted the weight ratios he’d observed on a string pulled tight like the string of a guitar: 1:1, the octave (doh-low, doh-high); 3:2, the perfect fifth (soh); 4:3, the perfect fourth (fah); and 5:4, the major third (mi). The story is apocryphal, of course (and who let those pesky mice in?) but somewhere in the mists of time someone did discover the fundamentals of western music in the ambient sounds that filled the world, millennia before the air was invaded by recorded music.

From Festival O/Modernt 2016 programme booklet. To read more click here.