Picking up the fifth hammer

Mita Williams
4 min readDec 31, 2020

There is a well-known conservative pundit who doesn’t believe that rap is music. To him, the statement “rap is not music” is a “fact” because he was told by his father — who studied music theory — that music has three elements: harmony, melody, and rhythm. Rap lacks harmony and melody and so ergo, it is not music.

Let’s put aside the absurdity that an application of logic can somehow invalidate the decisions of millions of people who have chosen hiphop to be the soundtrack of their lives. Applying logic to music feels absurd but there is historical precedent for the inclination to do so. Pythagoras, the ancient Greek philosopher that most of us associate with triangles, was known as both The Father of Mathematics and The Father of Music. Perhaps though it would be more accurate to call him The Father of Music Theory for his discovery that musical intervals are created by the length of an instrument (such as strings in a lyre) that follow simple numeric ratios.

These particular ratios produced pleasing sounds. The music became more beautiful because it fit a theory that was itself considered beautiful and pleasing to Pythagoras because the ratios were made up of whole numbers that added up to ten.

You should watch Adam Neely’s illuminating September 2020 YouTube video “Music Theory and White Supremacy” if you want to learn how the music theory of Ancient Greece progressed until it ossified into the cudgel of The Harmonic Style of 18th Century European Musicians that continues to be used to bash jazz, hiphop, and other forms of non-European music to this day.

Neely’s explainer of how music theory has been weaponized is robust enough that even a non-musician like myself now feels like I can readily defend my musical tastes from logic.

But in one particular way, I don’t believe that Neely goes far enough.

Let me tell you a little-known story about Pythagoras’ discovery of the mathematics behind harmonics and his music theory: it was based on a lie of omission.

An ancient tradition holds that Pythagoras invented harmony. It is said that one day, he wandered by a forge and, hearing a wondrous sound come from within, ventured in to…



Mita Williams

I’m a librarian living in Southwestern Ontario. I write about technology, feminism, and cities. Subscribe to my newsletter: tinyletter.com/UniversityofWinds