Gioseffo Zarlino

Gioseffo Zarlino was born March 22, 1517 and died February 4, 1590 in Chioggia, Italy.

Zarlino was one of the most learned and enlightened musical theorists of the 16th century. He was generally known as Zarlinus Clodiensis.

He spent his youth studying for the church and was admitted to the Minor Orders in 1539 and was ordained Deacon in 1541.

In 1541 he went to Venice and his knowledge of the Greek and Hebrew languages, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy and chemistry gained him a high position.

But his love for music as he tells us in the dedication prefixed to ‘Istitutioni armonich,’ ‘he had felt a natural inclination from his tenderest years,’ tempted him to forsake all other studies for favorite pursuit.

He was taught by Adriano Willaert, the founder of the Venetian Polyphonic school, under whom he studied, in company with Cipriano di Rore and other noephytes.

When Cipriano de Rore went to Parma in 1565, Zarlino was elected first Maestro de Cappella at St. Mark’s. The duties connected with this appointment were not confined to the offices sung in the cathedral.

After the Battle of Lepanto, October 7, 1571, Zarlino was commissioned to celebrate the victory with music worthy of the occasion.

When Henri III visited Venice, on his return to France from Poland in 1574, he was greeted, on board the Bucentaur, by a composition, the Latin verses for which were furnished by Rocco Benedetti and Cornelio Frangipani, and the music by Zarlino, who also composed the music sung in the Cathedral, and a dramatic piece, called ‘Orfeo,’ which was performed in the Sala del Gran Consiglio.

In 1577 when the church of S. Maria della Salute was founded in memory of the plague, Zarlino was commissioned to compose a Mass for the solemn occasion. None of these works has been preserved.

Zarlino did not entirely neglect the duties of his ecclesiastical status. In 1582 he was elected Canon of Chioggia; and on the death of Marco de’ Medici, Bishop of Chioggia in 1583, he was chosen to fill the vacant spot.

This proceeding was so strongly opposed by the Doge, Niccolo da Ponti, and the Senate, that Zarlino consented to retain his appointment at St. Mark’s and he continued to perform the duties of Maestro di Capella until his death February 4, 1590. He was buried in the church of San Lorenzo.

Zarlino’s chief fame was from three treatises:

  1. Istitutioni armoniche (Venice 1558)
  2. Dimostrationi armoniche (Venice 1571)
  3. Sopplimenti musicali (Venice 1588)

The Istitutioni is divided into four sections:

Lib. I. contains sixty-nine chapters, chiefly devoted to a dissertation on the excellence of music; mystical elucidation of the transcendental properties of the number 6; and a description of the different forms of arithmetical, geometrical and harmonical proportion.

Lib II. has fifty-one chapters in which Zarlino demonstrates the superiority of the system known as the syntonous, or intense diatonic, of Ptolomy, above all other systems whatsoever. In this system, the tetrachord is divided into a greater tone, a lesser tone, and a greater hemitone – the diatonic semitone of modern music – as represented by the fractions 8/9 9/10, 15/16.


The system was not a new one and Zarlino made no attempt to claim the honor of its invention. The constitution of the lesser tone had been demonstrated by Didymus as early as the 60th year of the Christian era. The misfortune was that Didymus placed the lesser below the greater; an error which was corrected about the year 130, by Claudius Ptolomy, who gave his name to the system.


The merit of Zarlino lay in his clear recognition of the correctness of this division of the tetrachord.

By following the curves in Figure 1 we can ascertain the exact proportions in Just Intonation, of the diatonic semitone, the greater and lesser tone, the major and minor third, the perfect fourth, and the perfect fifth in different parts of the octave.

Like Pietro Aron, Ludovico Fogliano, and other theoretical writers of the 16th century, Zarlino was fond of illustrating his theses by diagram so this kind; and it was the practical utility of the custom that tempted Des Cartes to illustrate this self same system by the canonical circle which later theorists extended every possible diatonic interval within the limits of the octave.


Lib III of the Istitutioni discusses the laws of counterpoint which were not always set forth with the clearness for which Zacconi did so well.

In the examples with which this part of the work is illustrated an interesting use is made of the well known canto fermo which forms so conspicuous a feature in ‘Non nobis Domine,’ and so many other works of the 16th and 17th centuries.


Lib IV discusses the Modes: more especially in the later forms introduced by the early Christians, and systematized by S. Ambrose and S. Gregory.

In common with Glareanus, and all the great theorists of the polyphonic school, Zarlino insists upon the recognition of twelve modes, and twelve only; rejecting the Locrian and Hypolocrian forms as inadmissible, by reason of the false fifth inseparable from the one, and the tritonus which forms an integral part of the other.

But, though thus entirely at one with the author of the Dodeachordon on the main facts, he arranges the Modes in a different order of succession.

Instead of beginning his series with the Dorian mode, he begins with the Ionian mode, arranging his series as:


This arrangement would almost seem to have been dictated by a prophetic anticipation of the change which was to lead to the abandonment of the modes in favor of a newer tonality.

The series begins with a form which corresponds exactly with our modern major mode and ends with the prototype of the descending minor scale of modern music.