The Monochord in the Medieval and Modern Classrooms

The Monochord in the Medieval and Modern Classrooms

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The Monochord in the Medieval and Modern Classrooms

Kathryn Buehler-McWilliams, Russell E. Murray

Journal of Music History Pedagogy: vol. 3 no. 2, pp. 151–72.


The monochord was a standard feature of musical pedagogy in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In the modern classroom, it allows our students to experience the pedagogical world of the medieval classroom, bringing a deeper reality to an otherwise abstract series of concepts. This article presents a general overview of the various uses of the monochord in medieval and Renaissance pedagogy and provides a lesson plan for using the instrument effectively in an undergraduate music history class.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the monochord was a vehicle for turning abstract number ratios into empirical evidence perceptible by eye and ear, making musical concepts physically present for the student. A sec- tion on how to divide the monochord was a standard inclusion in the music theorist’s treatise, and about 150 monochord divisions survive from the ninth through the fifteenth century. Sometimes these discussions seem to be inserted into the medieval texts merely as an expected component, but in other treatises they are accompanied by instructions or insights suggesting that the theorist had a specific lesson plan in mind. Authors of the period had different pedagogical aims in the use of the monochord, which ranged from the pragmatic need to teach pitch and interval recognition, to the academic need for understanding the derivation of notes by ratio, on to the more esoteric realm of understanding the complex ratios that were at the heart of tun- ing and temperament.

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