Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy




Kevin Mooney


This dissertation studies the influence of Newtonianism as a cultural phenomenon on the theoretical writings of Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764). Rameau’s Génération harmonique (1737) shows a change in his thinking from his earlier work that bears witness to the debates around Newtonian science in the scientific community. Scholars have discussed possible connections between Génération harmonique and Newton’s Opticks (1704) but none has studied this issue in detail. I argue that Rameau was influenced by Newtonianism rather than by Newton’s works, and that Rameau was not always aware of this influence. In order to situate Rameau’s work within the larger body of Newtonian works, I have compared it with Newton’s writings as well as other scientific texts of the early eighteenth century.

First I provide a background on Newtonianism and its central figures, focusing especially on Voltaire’s Lettres philosophiques (1734) and the scandal surrounding its publication. I discuss Rameau’s use of experiments to demonstrate his concept of the corps sonore (the resonance of a vibrating body) and the connection between these experiments and other scientific works of the time. These experiments were based largely on the work of Dortous de Mairan (1668-1771) and can be understood as a part of Rameau’s attempt to gain status inside the Académie royale des sciences. Next I study Rameau’s use of certain terms that strongly resonated with Newtonian physics, especially as Voltaire had popularised it. Rameau’s use of these terms can be understood as his attempt to gain social status outside of the Académie by aligning his work with popular scientific works of the time. Finally, I consider the lack of Newtonian influence on Rameau’s works written after the 1730s. I interpret Rameau’s removal of Newtonian concepts and methods as a reflection of his larger goals to gain social status and to elevate music theory to the level of prestige accorded to the sciences. From his later works we can see that he used scientific methods and ideas opportunistically. Studying Rameau from this perspective situates his work within larger trends in Enlightenment science and demonstrates how music theory can be seen as a cultural product.