Harmonies at work: Marin Mersenne and the early modern observer

Subproject of Leendert van der Miesen 

This project focuses on the changing role of experience, techniques of observation and the use of material instruments in seventeenth-century acoustics. It concentrates on the French scholar Marin Mersenne (1588–1648), who has been identified as a ‘founding father,’ or one of the main important authors in the emerging field of acoustics. In line with UP C04, this project investigates the production of new research tools, practices and materials in musical and acoustical discourse in the early seventeenth century by looking more closely at Mersenne’s personal network in France and the Low Countries.  

In my PhD project, I argue that in the early modern period a particular shift in musical and acoustical techniques of observations took place. Mersenne and his collaborators stand for a growing scientific attention towards the materiality of musical instruments and objects, such as the string, organ pipe, voice and echo, which made sound visible, tangible, and susceptible to investigation. As one of the first scholars, Mersenne did not only observe these instruments from a distance; he experimented with them and developed a strong interest in the practical knowledge of instrument makers and musicians. In addition, my project aims to show that Mersenne developed new practices of collecting and observing musical objects and knowledge. To see how knowledge of sound moved between different fields and across cultural boundaries, I consider practices of listening in aesthetic and scientific realm and the validation and transfer of such experiences, techniques of description and visualization in the field of music, the development of new musical instruments and Mersenne’s contacts with musicians and artisans.