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Saturday morning quotes 7.33: Reason

January 11, 2020

rameau_th_03Today’s brief post offers a few quotes from Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683 – 1764), from the Preface of his Traité de l’harmonie, 1722.  Rameau capably contrasts the value of Reason versus Experience, which in this case refers to a logic derived from solid training and a thorough structural comprehension of music, versus making things up as you go along, employing gimmicks, and judging quality simply by reaction to effects.

In today’s terms, what Rameau defines as Reason may be described as a skill and understanding derived from careful attention to historical example and innovation based upon knowledge, while Experience may be equated with effect, or what we have come to call today, Disruption.

In an alternative slightly modified take on the quotations below that may be extrapolated to fit the larger picture, try substituting the word Wisdom for Reason, and Google for Experience, which is very revealing and quite applicable in nearly every case.  We have added bold to the pertinent cases.

“However much progress music may have made until our time, it appears that the more sensitive the ear has become to the marvelous effects of this art, the less inquisitive the mind has been about its true principles.  One might say that reason has lost its rights, while experience has acquired a certain authority.”

“The surviving writings of the Ancients show us clearly that reason alone enabled them to discover most of the properties of music.  Although experience still obliges us to accept the greater part of their rules, we neglect today all the advantages to be derived from the use of reason in favor of purely practical experience.”

“Even if experience can enlighten us concerning the different properties of music, it alone cannot lead us to discover the principle behind these properties with the precision appropriate to reason.”

“Conclusions drawn from experience are often false, or at least leave us with doubts that only reason can dispel.  How, for example, could we prove that our music is more perfect than that of the Ancients, since it no longer appears to produce the same effects they attributed to theirs?  Should we answer that the more things become familiar the less they cause surprise, and the the admiration which they can originally inspire degenerates imperceptibly as we accustom ourselves to them, until what we admired becomes at last merely diverting?”

– Jean-Philippe Rameau, Traité de l’harmonie, 1722, translated by Philip Gossett.



  1. Christopher Barker permalink

    I wish Alban Berg had read this, or maybe our own Gilbert Isbin as well!

  2. Thanks for your comment, Chris. I think I know what you mean about Alban Berg, who deserved these comments from a review in 1935:

    “It was very hard to sing and unpleasant to the ear…To us Mr. Berg and his ilk are becoming tedious, rather childish and distasteful. Isn’t it time that we say ‘enough’ to music which bluffs itself and will bluff us, too, if we allow it to do so? Who wants to be such a dupe of an artistic deception?”

    – Olin Downes, New York Times, April 5, 1935; from Nicholas Slonimsky, Lexicon of Musical Invective.

    But to be fair, I think Gilbert Isbin’s modern music for the lute has some appealing qualities.


  3. I thought you might be interested in what Aristotle says in the First Book of the Metaphysics:

    “We regard knowledge (to eidénai) and proficiency (to epaîein) as belonging more to art (téchne) than to experience (empeiría), and we believe that artists are wiser than men of experience; and this indicates that wisdom (sophía) is attributed to men in virtue of their knowledge rather than their experience, inasmuch as the former know the cause (aitía), whereas the latter do not. For men of experience know the fact (to hóti), but not the why of it (to dióti), but men of art know the why of it or the cause.”

    (Please forgive the crude transliterations.)

  4. Christopher Barker permalink

    Why I love music composed before 1750 (deaths of Bach & Handel I think): A prime example… Every time I turn on Tony Morris’s show CLASSICAL GUITAR ALIVE, he might play five minutes or less of pre 1900 classical guitar music and fifty five of music that sounds pretty much like a New York City traffic jam! To me the music of the present is unlistenable, and may not be identifiable as music any way.

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