Speaking of tuning, before there was Cosmos and Carl Sagan, there was BBC’s Ascent of Man. (Make that “humankind” now, of course.) And there’s something charming about its breathless reminder of the mystical magic of Pythagorean tuning, and its mythical discovery in folklore. Fact check – as the film sort of suggests, we don’t really know how this discovery took place since our knowledge is fragmentary. It may not have involved any individual named Pythagoras, or indeed taken place on Samos. But the power associated with the harmony of mathematics, sound, and perception does have historical basis – in the Classical era, in the resurrection of those ideals (in the Middle Ages and Renaissance), and in modern times.
Actually, interestingly, it may be the notion of “Western,” if anything, that’s breaking apart. The disclaimer the BBC attached to what is or isn’t pleasing in tuning may artificially separate western European civilization from everything else. In reality, tuning systems were historically diverse up until the belated standardization on 440Hz A and 12-tone-equal temperament in modern times – and even those aren’t universal across America and Europe in classical concert music, let alone when you take into account everything else. To look at it the other way, the audiences watching this BBC documentary in the UK were already used to harmonies in popular music that contain far more complex sonorities than whole tone ratios would suggest.
Likewise, I’ve never read any convincing argument that any particular tuning is definitively pleasing to the ears. Our ears are, however, sensitive to tuning, and can learn to appreciate alternative tunings just as they can learn to hear different rhythmic or metrical structures.
But what is more consistent is the sense of wonder about Pythagorean findings and the early human understanding of the world. And why not? The Pythagorean Theorem and the discovery of tuning is pretty darned cool, fellow humans.