The "Arca Musurgica", designed in 1650 is a unique device with which a musician or a non-musician can compose music in both contrapuntal and homophonic settings using prearranged musical fragments inscribed on inserts and arranged in columns inside the box. Each type of insert corresponds to a particular metrical unit and on each section there were examples of counterpoint on one side and more simple note settings on the other. There are a few of these devices still in existence.
The Arca Musurgica was described in a publication Musurgia Universalis by Jesuit Father Athanasius Kircher, published in two volumes in Rome in 1650. The book is one of the seminal works of musicology and was hugely influential in the development of Western music – in particular on J.S.Bach (1685-1750) and Beethoven (1770-1827).
Father Kircher lived and worked at the Collegio Romano in Rome for most of his life and his position at the hub of a huge international organization – the 40,000 or so strong Society of Jesus - had two very important effects: first of all he received thousands of letters from Jesuits and others in places as far apart and little-known as China and Mexico, giving him access to unparalleled sources of knowledge mostly unknown to the western world. It was by facilitating a wide diffusion of knowledge, by stimulating thought and discussion by his vast collections of scientific information, that Kircher earned a place among the fathers of modern science and the titles of "universal genius" and "master of a hundred arts".
The Musurgia Universalis was at the time a famous publication and has been since it appeared in 1650. Its most famous image is probably that of the birds with their songs written out in musical notation beside their pictures. Rameau and Beethoven may well have been influenced by this picture which still appears in musical textbooks used in the United Kingdom for 8-9 year-olds.
The following MIDI transcriptions were taken from Musurgia Universalia.
The pieces were intended as as programming examples for those who where interested in learning how to program the automatic organs that Kircher described in the book. The program was written on paper and then transferred to a metal cylinder, called cylindrus phonotacticus, that controlled controlled the instrument. The music was also intended as a demonstration of the capabilities of automatic instruments, with syncopations and short note-values. Many historian believe that these pieces may have been composed with the Arca Musurgica.