Timeline 024: Jean Philippe Rameau And The Beginning Of Music Theory

Oct 5, 2015

The 17th Century, also known as the Age of Reason, saw the birth of the scientific method. The music and writings of French composer Jean Phillippe Rameau sought to understand music, and specifically harmony, in scientific terms.

Rameau was the seventh of 11 children. His father was an organist but wanted a better life for his son, so he sent him to college to study law. But, Rameau was much more interested in composing and singing and was soon removed from school. Rameau was 18 when his father finally allowed him to travel to Milan to pursue life as a musician. Rameau soon returned to France, this time Paris, where he made a name for himself as an organist and a composer for the harpsichord. Rameau later took up the mantle left behind by Lully as the foremost French composer.

However, Rameau’s legacy extends beyond the world of opera to the development of modern musical theory.  He considered his study and teaching of theory as equally important as his composing. Rameau believed that the rules of harmony were derived from nature, “The vibrating world” and these rules governed all of music.  Using mathematical proofs, Rameau determined that every pitch has a harmony of its own called a series of overtones. The principle harmony of any one note is a major chord, a triad, three notes – the octave – the fifth – and the third. Long story short, Rameau laid out the basis of chord theory and quality.

In his later writings, Rameau broke down these triads into smaller intervals, major and minor thirds. The quality of a triad/chord is determined by the relationship of the 3rds used to construct it.  A chord is either major – minor – diminished – or augmented.  This vertical view of harmony was revolutionary and influenced musical theorists for centuries.  National schools of music theory in France, England and Germany all have Rameau to thank for their existence.

If you have ever picked up a guitar and learned three chords to play a song, then you are using the chordal theory developed by Rameau.