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date: 17 November 2019

Ibn Sīnā [Abū ‘Alī al-Ḥusayn; Avicenna]locked

  • Owen Wright


[Abū ‘Alī al-Ḥusayn; Avicenna]

(b nr Bukhara, 980; d Hamadan, 1037). Persian philosopher, administrator and physician. Educated in Bukhara, he was a student of such precocity that he had mastered the whole range of traditional sciences by the age of 18. He led an eventful life of fluctuating fortunes as a minister and adviser to various rulers, but enjoyed in his later years a period of relative peace at Isfahan. One of the great intellectual figures of Islam, he became known as Avicenna in the West, where his philosophical and medical works, notably the authoritative Qānūn fī al-ṭibb (‘Canon on medicine’), exerted considerable influence.

Ibn Sīnā’s main contribution to the development of musical theory is contained in the Kitāb al-shifā’ (‘The book of healing’), an encyclopedia in which music is classed as one of the mathematical sciences (quadrivium). His general approach is similar to that of al- Fārābī, but the treatment, while necessarily terser, is sometimes more logical in its organization. The introduction dismisses the doctrine of ethos and discusses the nature of sound as both functional and expressive. The goal of the science of music is defined as knowledge of compositional procedures, and the first of the two main sections, fundamentally abstract and analytical, deals with pitch organization: notes, intervals (defined by ratios and ranked by degrees of consonance), tetrachord species and combinations thereof within the Greater Perfect System. The second is concerned with rhythm and, taking al-Fārābī’s account as its model, provides a schematic outline of possible structures; it is only towards the end that reference is made to those in current use. A briefer third section deals with processes of composition and with instruments; this introduces organological distinctions between, for example, ways of mounting strings or the presence or absence of a reed, and discusses the fretting of the lute. It also includes a valuable list – albeit one not always easy to interpret – of the more important melodic modes....

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Oxford, Bodleian Library