The ancient Greeks constructed their scales from top to bottom.

For example, Wikipedia:

Note that Greek theorists conceived of scales as descending from higher pitch to lower (the opposite of modern practice)

Western music understands scales from bottom to top.

What is known about this shift in orientation?

1 Answer 1


Boethius (480-525AD) had read a lot of Greek stuff during his lifetime. He wrote a description of music theory that was (and still is) being used. https://classicalliberalarts.com/wp-content/uploads/BOETHIUS-Bower-1989-Fundamentals_of_Music.pdf His writing was very influential.

Boethius seems to be the first person (in Western Music Theory) to call slow vibrations "low" and fast vibrations "high." Later Western theorists followed his lead. Boethius had no way (I think) of measuring the frequency though.

I suppose other choices could be made; I think Norwegian uses bright vs dark and other languages probably make other choices. In early Western theory, B was called a "Hard B" and Bb a "Soft B" (leading to the German B vs H usage.) Some languages use soft and and hard to refer to minor and major chords.

  • Are you suggesting that the tuning direction was actually the same, just the language to describe it changed?
    – Aaron
    Jan 15, 2023 at 23:48
  • No. As I read it, The Greeks called the high-frequency tones "low" and the low-frequency sounds "high." The Greek notes are (approximately) the same as ours, but the labels are different. Maybe more information will be available as time goes on. I haven't found much about Babylonian and Sumerian music but there are a few wedges of information. Names are not always standardized; some theorists called pieces with an anacrusis "masculine" and others called the same structure "feminine." Other than electrical receptacles and pipe threads, masculine and feminine choices are just arbitrary.
    – ttw
    Jan 16, 2023 at 1:45
  • 3
    There's something I'm still missing. I'm reading you as focused on changes in the words used to describe frequencies. Help me make the connection to the pitch order in which scales were understood.
    – Aaron
    Jan 16, 2023 at 2:36
  • 2
    There's still something I'm missing. I get that the naming order was different and that the words describing pitch "height" were different. But I'm having trouble connecting that to the fact that Greeks understood scales from the top down and we understand them from the bottom up. Is it that Boethius misunderstood the "starting note" of the Greek system? That is Boethius thought the Greeks started their scales from the lowest pitch upward and so "renamed" the pitches to match?
    – Aaron
    Jan 16, 2023 at 3:40
  • 1
    @RobertFurber Interesting thought. Speculatively, then, perhaps the change in orientation was related to a shift in the predominant methods of music-making.
    – Aaron
    Jan 16, 2023 at 6:22

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