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James Murray Barbour papers

Identifier: UA-17.387

Scope and Content

The James Murray Barbour collection contains correspondence with numerous individuals, most notably with Gladys Watson Tipple, whose enthusiasm for dividing the musical scale into 53 intervals led to a year-long correspondence and the creation of a template slide rule. The collection also contains Barbour’s article for MGG (Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart) and the preparatory work for that article, as well as numerous reviews and articles in the original journal issues. Other material includes eight original compositions for voice and piano, an excerpt from an opera for which he wrote the music while at Ithaca College, four choral compositions, and two instrumental works. The opera excerpt is a photocopy of the manuscript; the other works are all in manuscript (black ink). A series of emails between Louis Pine and Mary Black [Junttonen] are included in which Pine seeks information on Barbour and Joseph Schillinger's relationship. Also included is a preservation cassette copy of Barbour's recording "Meantone temperament in theory and practice".


  • Creation: 1931-1969, 2000, undated


Language of Materials

Some of the materials are in German.

Conditions Governing Access

Collection is open for research.

Biographical Note

James Murray Barbour (1897-1970) was born March 31 in Chambersburg, PA. He graduated from Dickinson College (B.A., M.A.) and Temple University (Mus.B.) and studied in Cologne and Berlin, Germany. In 1932, he was granted a doctorate in musicology from Cornell University, the first person in the U.S. to receive this degree. His dissertation was entitled “Equal Temperament: Its History from Ramis (1482) to Rameau (1737).” He also attended the University of Toronto, from which he received a second doctorate in music in 1936. He held short-term positions at Haverford College and Wells before accepting a position at Ithaca College, Ithaca, New York, from 1932-1939. From 1939 to 1964, he taught at Michigan State University. He died in Homestead, Pennsylvania, on January 4, 1970, where he had moved to be near his daughter, Marjorie Humer, and her family. He also had one son, James. Barbour’s wife, Mary, died in 1963. He received an honorary doctorate from Temple University in 1965.

Barbour was internationally known for his work on tuning and temperament. His most important book, “Tuning and temperament: a historical survey”, was based on his dissertation, and was published by Michigan State College Press in 1951, later republished by Dover in 2004 and 2013. The renowned German music encyclopedia, Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, commissioned him to write an article on the same topic, with an emphasis on Asian practices. He was also renowned as an acoustician, which led to correspondence with several theorists in the early 1950s, when his interest in mathematical formulae was at its peak. A second influential book was his “Trumpets, horns and music”, published by the MSU Press, 1964, which combined his interest in acoustics with a study of the overtone series of brass instruments as they had developed over centuries. He also wrote numerous articles and reviews for a variety of publications. A 1966 bibliography, compiled by Carol Bauer for the American Musicological Society, listed 57 scholarly publications plus 37 compositions, many of which were published and performed. He was a long-standing member of the American Musicological Society and served as its president in the 1956-1957 season.

Barbour was involved with a series of three LP records dealing with temperament in the early 1950s, for the Musurgia Company, in conjunction with Fritz Kuttner. Musical examples are played on organ and harpsichord, in various tunings, by Robert Conant.

Barbour’s main instrument was the organ. At Michigan State University, he primarily taught music theory and compositional technique, although during World War II, he was required to teach mathematics, one of his true specialties.

Conditions Governing Use

Permission to publish material from this collection must be obtained from University Archives & Historical Collections, Michigan State University.


1.5 Cubic Feet

Legal Status

Copyright: Michigan State University.

Property Rights: Michigan State University.

James Murray Barbour Papers
4 Published And Cataloged
M. Black Junttonen
November 216
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Repository Details

Part of the University Archives and Historical Collections Repository

Conrad Hall
943 Conrad Road, Room 101
East Lansing MI 48824 US