A strong strand in narratives of sonic beauty in Western music history warns of the power of beautiful sound—frequently figured as female singing—to overcome reason, to enchant, to beguile. Such singing can lead its listeners astray, ultimately even to their deaths. A complementary set of stories, however, relies on the idea that the beauty of sound was guaranteed by its reflection of the harmonic ratios of the universe. The sound of beauty thus represented something uniquely rational and divine. “The Sound of Beauty” explores both negative and positive understandings of the beauty of sound from antiquity to the present. What emerges is a history of varied human judgments of music, arguments over the ethics of music’s power, and disagreements over music’s proper place in defining individual humanity.
Elizabeth Eva Leach is University Lecturer in Music at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of St Hugh’s College. She is the author of Sung Birds: Music, Nature, and Poetry in the Later Middle Ages (Cornell, 2007), and has broad interests in song, music, music theory, and literature. Her monograph entitled Guillaume de Machaut: Secretary, Poet, Musician will be published by Cornell University Press in 2011.