The Aesthetics of Music and Sound -              

Cross-Disciplinary Interplay between the Humanities, Technology and Musical Practice    


Project Descriptions



2. Intermediality


d) Are Treatments of the Metaphysics of Music in Medieval Literature Relevant for Current Theories of Musical Meaning and Significance?


A Preliminary Sketch for a Research Project


As a medievalist, I am fascinated by the idea that the structure of the universe is synchronically embedded in the musical intervals. The originally Pythagorean notion was adopted and extended in the Middle Ages, whose world picture placed everything in a single unified system – the famous chain or ladder of being.

The steps of this ladder – as well as all members within each step -form a system of mutually resonant analogies. Change at one level, therefore reverberates at every other level. Thus, a person’s sin will cause havoc at the level of stars, of the climate/atmosphere, of the earth’s stability, etc.


Shakespeare has the despotic Ulysses harp upon the need to observe order to insure a harmonious state in Troilus and Cressida.  And John Donne attributes the harmony of worldly matters gone wrong to the death of a perfect woman, whose death he celebrates and commemorates in a poem on the anniversary of her demise. Here we see how virtue, no less than sin, rings through the spheres and may here be understood in terms of planetary harmony. The martyred Saint Cecilia’s excellence is expounded by reference to the spheres, which, in turn, are understood by the example of the Saint.


Even to this day, our vocabulary retains a rich musical vocabulary for situations of peace or strife: a couple may live in harmony, although discordant notes may occasionally jar the harmony or concord. We still believe – and can prove - that harmonious music of Mozart makes cows yield more milk than heavy metal, even as therapists prescribe certain kinds of music for fragile minds. Soothing music is harmonious music.

In former periods, the trust in music as effect and iconic sign was so strong that music formed part of the MA quadrivium along with Astronomy, Geometry, and Mathematics (following the BA Trivium of linguistic disciplines). Church architects, wishing to make a cathedral a microcosm of the universe, trusted to the musical intervals and their analogous mathematical and geometric proportions to guide them in building. Thus Bishop Suger seems to have constructed Chartres Cathedral on the principle of the proportions 3:5:8 variously multiplied. And music itself was composed not to appeal to the ear, but to recreate celestial harmonies and intervals in an imitation of the music of the spheres through to boom away all the time, but inaudible because of habit. As late as 1726, Jonathan Swift, in his satire upon the overly theoretical Fellows of the Royal Society depicts the scientists of Laputa as wholly caught up in astronomy and music; and shows how the music actually produced sounds awful because it is purely theoretical.

Strangely enough, however, the theoretical music of the Middle Ages, in so far as it may be reconstructed, sounds quite good. There is an enigma here – the result of pure theory neglecting what we might call ’beauty’ or aesthetic criteria, does create ’beauty’. This suggests that the universe – or nature – is beautiful in a certain sense;  that ”truth is beauty, beauty truth”. This is weird, and metaphysically interesting! 

One interval used to be theologically problematic: the so-called diabolus in musica (tritonus), which pointed in two directions at one and the same time and was therefore thought duplicitous, double-tongued like the serpent. Another problem, I imagine, must have been the untempered scale – but this is something I do not know about and would like to find out about.

(Marianne Børch)



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Institute for the Study of Culture

Institut for Kulturvidenskaber (IKV)


Research Director for

The Aesthetics of

Music and Sound


Editor and Webmaster for

Cynthia M. Grund





(For descriptions, please click on the tabs at the top of the page.)


1.Understanding Music through Modern Technology

a) Recognizing Music

b) Recognition of Expressive Styles in Music Performance

c) Autonomous Agents – An Accompanist in VR

d) The Composition and Its Role in the Ensemble

2. Intermediality

a) Intermediality

b) Lyric and Meaning in Music

c) Towards an Aesthetic Theory of Correlativity

d) Are Treatments of the Metaphysics of Music in Medieval Literature Relevant for Current Theories of Musical Meaning and Significance?

3. Learning through Music

a) Music Communication

b) Children's Knowledge Creation with Intelligent Agents in Music Education - Understanding for Optimizing Motivations

c) Adaptable Interfaces & Augmented Avatar - Introducing Tools for the Disabled and Musicians in VR

d) Community Singing and/or Ideology

e) Creating Creativity

f) Understanding Musical Creativity and Aesthetics in a Digital-Based Youth Cultural Context

g) The Sound of Movement - the Sound of Learning

4. Practice-based Research

a) Analysis and Implementation of Practice-Based Research

b) Relationship of Gesture to Communicative Authenticity in Performance

c) Musical Implications of the Work of Selected Philosophers

d) Employing the Methods of Discourse Narrative to Support Interpretive Choices Faced by the Practicing Musician

e) Soundmapping the Genes

f) A Program of Practice-based Research Designed to Examine Listener Reaction to Olivier Messiaens Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant Jesus

g) The Interrelationship of Notation and Performance

h) Technological and Aesthetic Investigations of the Physical Movements of Pianists

5. Selective Bibliography