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No. 81: May-Jun 1992

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Rhythms In Rhythm

"We are currently living in the last quarter-century of the fifth 500-year cycle, which began with the Italian Renaissance in the fifteenth century. All the harmonies we hear today were developed in this last cycle."

So begins the final section of a recent reprinting of W.D. Allen's sweeping 1951 overview of the human fascination with music. But what's this about a 500-year cycle in music? It turns out that not only is there a 500-year pulse in musical creativity, but nested within the long swings are 100-year subcycles!

Allen's article, as it appeared originally in the Journal of Human Ecology (1:1, 1951), ran 41 pages. We can hit only a few high notes here. And, since we are concerned mainly with anomalies, we shall concentrate on this unexpected periodicity in musical creativity.

Allen describes how musical theorists have proposed both supernatural and evolutionary explanations for this periodicity, which commenced some 2,500 years ago with the Ancient Greeks. He is not convinced by either class of explanations. Instead, Allen has been beguiled by the long-period tones of environmental cycles:

"Now we have knowledge of a constantly operating cyclic factor in our cosmos, scientifically based on a mass of inductive evidence that goes beyond recorded history into the tree-ring records from centuries B.C. For the first time, we are provided with a powerful conditioning factor, if not a determinant, in the creation of music."

Here are two statements reflecting Allen's observations on the subject:

"After 1590, as a new warm period began in the 100-year cycle, a new Golden Age began in music, as in Science.

"In our own day, some composers have been extremely sensitive to cyclic changes. Stravinsky, notably in his return to neoclassicism after 1920, reflected the warm trend."

(Allen, Warren Dwight; "The 500-Year Cycle in Music: The Modern Period," Cycles, 42:100, 1991. A reprinting.)

Comment. Left unexplained in the "weather theory" of culture is just how warm trends inspire creativity. If warmth alone were the crucial factor, we would expect to see an inspiring outpouring of great music from today's Equatorial regions!

From Science Frontiers #81, MAY-JUN 1992. 1992-2000 William R. Corliss