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Random Friday Fun Facts: The Music of the Spheres

“music is so naturally united with us that we cannot be free from it even if we so desired”
Boethius: De institutione musica

harmonyspheresalchemyMost serious musicians understand that music and math are inextricably linked.  The early mathematician Pythagoras discovered many different ratios within musical harmonies (a perfect fifth, for example) by playing around with glasses of water, plucked strings, and hammers and anvils, and other experiments.  One of his ideas was that the planets in their orbits made sounds as they were whizzing through space around the earth.

Ptolemy also wrote about music and mathematics, arguing that musical notes could be translated into mathematical equations, which was similar to Pythagoras, though apparently the two had some arguments over how the ratios would work.  Well, I don’t think they had literal arguments.  But their theories were different.  Pythagoras helped put together the scale that we know now using an octave.

There was also a lot of debate around how one actually heard the Music of the Spheres, if one actually did hear it.  Did you have to be dead to hear it?  Unconscious?  Or could you hear it through certain harmonies?  And if so, what were they?  Some early philosophers said that you had to be pure and sin free in order to hear them.  Others said you could hear it through meditation.

Interestingly, in the middle ages there were 8 different modes of scales.  These days we only have two – major (based on a C) and minor (based on an A).  Boethius, a Roman philosopher born around 480 wrote a pamphlet called De Musica which was reprinted in Europe in the Renaissance, and also differentiated between the different modes.  Each of the 8 modes were associated with a planet, and so the mode associated with Mercury was slow and plodding, for example.  Many early monks and healers were actually music therapists before there was such a thing because they believed that music could heal people, and the key to finding the right cure was to figure out what was wrong with the person, and then find the mode that was associated with that malady.  They said it was a type of magic, but not the witchcraft kind (which could get you burned at the stake) but the kind that connects deeply with the Divine Mind of God.  So when you would hear a certain type of music and be moved or cured by it, it was because you were directly connected with God, and not because of anything sinister.

The whole theory started to go awry when the Enlightenment scientists discovered that the earth was not in fact the center of the universe, though some like Copernicus tried to keep it relevant by explaining that Jupiter had an entire choir of moons.  But as science drifted apart from the humanities and the spiritual realm, the idea of the Music of the Spheres, which was the ultimate combination of humanities, science, and religion didn’t seem to fit in anywhere any longer.

Though that’s starting to change now, and in some cases the ideas are actually being proven.  NASA scientists are studying planets and sending back information with vibrations that can be translated to musical tones.  And physicist Brian Greene had this to say about string theory:  “The central idea of string theory is quite straightforward. If you examine any piece of matter ever more finely, at first you’ll find molecules, atoms, sub-atomic particles. Probe the smaller particles, you’ll find something else, a tiny vibrating filament of energy, a little tiny vibrating string.”   So it looks like these guys, who were simply using logic, were on to something.