In Da Vinci: Shaping the Future, music is investigated through specially constructed models of da Vinci’s instrument designs, which have been commissioned especially for the exhibition, facsimiles of pages of the Codex Atlanticus, interactive exhibits, and hands-on educational activities. 
When Leonardo da Vinci arrived at the court of Milan in 1482, he presented himself not as a painter, nor as a scientist, but as a musician. In the Music gallery, the fifth thematic chapter of the exhibition, Da Vinci’s studies on the principles of sound and its application in musical instruments are presented. Although music was viewed as having a spiritual role during the Renaissance, Da Vinci was interested in its tangible components. In his theoretical drawings and instrumental designs, he visualised music in an accessible and simple way.
His legacy is seen in the contemporary artwork of Conrad Shawcross, which uses three different mediums to visually represent a musical phenomenon known as the perfect third chord.
  • Music
  • Music Image Gallery
  • Video
Description of an Echo  Circa 1507 F.211 verso  Leonardo da Vinci Codex Atlanticus

The Nature of Sound

Typical of da Vinci’s intellectual process, he explored the properties of sound through analogies to other phenomena such as percussion, momentum and reflection. By comparing how sound travels in different circumstances, he was able to refine and expand his understanding of acoustics.

Like the ancient Roman philosophers, Vitruvius and Boethius, da Vinci asserted that sound was transferred through air. He looked to his studies of projectile motion in military machines for the language to describe sound travel and to his studies of optics for sound echo and reflection. Da Vinci studied the nature of sound travel in various architectural contexts, but also in different mediums such as water. He was fascinated by all facets of sound, from its source, to its tonal quality, dissipation over time and space, and its perception by the ear.

Though da Vinci did not introduce new principles on sound, he expanded on existing principles by approaching them from an interdisciplinary perspective. He was the first to recognise the broad generality of the law of reflection and to apply it to acoustics. For da Vinci, every aspect of the natural world was interconnected, and music was no exception.

Mechanical Drum Circa 1503—05  F.837 recto Leonardo da Vinci Codex Atlanticus

Musical Instruments

Da Vinci designed radically new musical instruments, many of which corrected existing deficiencies while others pushed the boundaries of conventional instrumental design. He saw musical instruments as a way to tangibly represent sound and to imagine new ways of producing sound. We can see da Vinci’s rejection of pre-existing formulas as he crossed the boundaries within and outside the discipline of music. 

Within the discipline of music, he combined tones and timbres from different instruments, and even provided multi-note capabilities to existing instruments.  Looking to anatomy, he compared the design of instruments to the anatomy of the throat, developing a technique which enabled pitch to gradually move up and down. 

Often da Vinci complained about the fleeting nature of music, comparing how it fades over time to the principles of energy. This preoccupation led him to develop and obsess over mechanised instruments which could generate sound continuously, the development of which he based on principles of physics. Many of his instrument designs were likely conceived for the theatre of the court of Milan where he was a set designer and theatrical producer. 
Analogies on Optics and Acoustics Concerning Light and Sound Waves Circa 1467—90  F.347 recto  Leonardo da Vinci Codex Atlanticus
Description of an Echo  Circa 1507 F.211 verso  Leonardo da Vinci Codex Atlanticus
Mechanical Drum Circa 1503—05  F.837 recto Leonardo da Vinci Codex Atlanticus
Detail for a Viola Organista  Circa 1493—95  F.568 recto  Leonardo da Vinci Codex Atlanticus