Speculative Music and Harmony of the Spheres

With recent advances in brain imaging over just the past 10 years we know now that music is processed differently than spoken language. It is also not simply mathematics, nor physics alone, but in some ways it is a synthesis of all these things.  That is part of music’s incredible power, to synthesize so many ways of knowing into a holistic experience, such as what happens as we learn to play or even when simply listening.

“There is a principle in music which has yet to be discovered.”  – Sir John Herschel

The centuries old art and science of ‘speculative music’ involves seeing music in cosmic terms, and seeing the cosmos in musical terms.  This has been an active field of study in Europe for many years, centuries. For example the Pythagorean science of musical intervalic ratios considered beautiful or harmonius brought about the first major breakthrough in mathematics as relevant to understanding the proportions that seem to be at work in nature, man and the cosmos. This would eventually lead to astronomer Johannes Kepler’s Harmonices Mundi, The Harmony of the Worlds in 1619 and his Planetary Songs, which  had some historical precedence in Arab astronmy and elsewhere.

But Kepler’s ideas were the first actually based on years of intense observation. The importance of this work for the history of science is undisputed. It completed what were later named the three Keplerian Laws of Planetary Motion. These eventually formed the basis for Isaac Newton (1643–1727) to develop his theory of universal gravitation.

Kepler’s master was Tycho Brahe (1506-1601) which is where Kepler got his original set of calculations. This involved accepting the Copernican heliocentric theories that overtuned the older clutter of the mechanics of the Ptolemic or geocentric system.

Ptolemy like Aristotle believed that everything in the heavens moved in perfect circles. Even when Copernicus shifted the planetary orbits to circle the Sun rather than the Earth, he went along with the notion of perfect circles.  Unfortunately as Kepler and later Newton found out, this could not work because gravity would not be uniform across the solar system and hence the orbits were found to be elliptical, not circular. Kepler never could finally solve the exact mechanics of it, but did save the appearances by justifying the Copernican arrangement of the planets around the sun by means of a geometric argument involving the five Platonic solids. Why should God have made these orbits elliptical rather than circular, and so various in their degrees of ellipticality?  We can see throughout the scriptures however that God does not always reveal Himself or His methods in very transparent ways.

“God cannot be ‘seen’ (1. Timothy 6:16), but only perceived through the ‘intellect’ (Romans 1:20), he is ‘spirit’ (John 4:24), ‘one singular, completely simple and unchanging spiritual substance’ (Vatic.), thusa personality above the world.”

Even the poets join the scientists and philosophers in an effort to understand these mysteries.  Dante indicates the wish that God would be a little more forthcoming in these two final passages of  his poem

                               The Dawn

Æons may pass before my hopes for earth are all fulfilled;                                                        But let “the dawn” approach, I pray, Before my lips are stilled!

And let true knowledge cover earth As waters cover sea—                                                 Knowledge of truth, knowledge of love, Knowledge, dear God, of Thee!

I wait the music of the spheres, The rhythmic pulse of earth,                                                 Which, when Death’s angelus doth ring, Announce immortal birth:

In that blest home beyond the veil No discord rends the air.                                                   The law of harmony prevails And love reigns everywhere.

I remember reading Herman Hesse’s Magister Ludi, The Glass Bead Game. Hesse led the reader on what at first appears a fruitless quest after the ‘Holy Grail’ of The Glass Bead Game, although the 3 short stories at the end supposedly written by the main character were literary gems.  However I recently ran into The Glass Bead Game on a site called The Seeker’s Sanctum  http://www.sacredscience.com/LivingLibrary/index.html  which is a sub-site to The Sacred Science Translation Project website where Jocelyn Godwin and his son Ariel have been translating many intriguing works never before available in English. Perhaps the most illuminating thing I found there were many quotes from Hesse about the Glass Bead Game, particularly the one where he says something to the effect of “anyone may learn to play the Game, but few will ever be able to teach it.” Kepler’s Harmonies of the Worlds along with Pythagorean and later notions of a “music of the spheres” are very much like Hesse’s Glass Bead Game.  One really needs to approach this kind of thing in a different way than we would when teaching or learning the ‘hard’ sciences.  It’s more of an alchemical approach which integrates science, art and spirituality, a method quite familiar to every culture in the world until the so-called ‘Enlightenment’ came along in the 17th century and started imposing artificial boundaries between different ways of knowing, primarily to keep the scientists from being censored by the Church.

Jocelyn Godwin, a professor of music at Colgate University, has published many well-informed studies on the esoteric aspects of music and harmonics. His writings are where I first found out about the field of ‘speculative music’. His books on Pythagorean music and number theory and the theosophical enlightenment in France and Germany from medieval times right into the 21st century, have brought much clarity to the so-called ‘occult’ philosophies that turn many away from what is in fact a great repository of practical knowledge. Godwin does a great job of navigating us through the labyrinthine hall of mirrors and helps us separate the wheat from the chaff.

“….the key is always the same, unlocking the doors of insight into a numbered and harmonius universe, in which microcosm and macrocosm reflect in time and space infinite variations on a central theme.”   –  Joscelyn Godwin, Harmony of the Spheres, A Sourcebook of the Pythagorean tradition in music.

The first book of his that I return to frequently is about the life of one of the last rennaisance rosicrucian philosophers named Robert Fludd who designed the ‘Heavenly Monochord’ you will see in the Sound Possibilities logo at the top of every page in this blog.  The hermetic philosophy “as above, so below” worked its way into all kinds of artistic and scientific ideas.  Kepler thought perhaps we could write music on earth that emulated the music of the spheres.  But a later hermetic philosopher and Jesuit scientist Anthanius Kircher took Kepler’s ideas to the next level and reached the conclusion that the elliptics as well as the often ‘non-pythagorean’ proportions would not lend themselves to harmonius music for human ears.

NASA has put out some recordings of planetary sounds from a Voyager mission.                                                     Check these out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e3fqE01YYWs&feature=BFa&list=PL3C19C119DA6E8309&index=8

Interesting as it is, after listening to some of the NASA ‘music’ it appears that Kircher was right.  This is not the kind of music that will performed at Glee Club any time soon.  But the evolving theories of a music of the spheres from Kepler to today, and into the future, will not go quietly into the night. They teem with sound possibilities which become all the more possible the more they are developed and refined.  One idea about speculative music is that it may not be the sort of music that was ever meant to actually be performed on instruments, or sung by choirs.  It may be more about the ‘inner music’, the alchemical work that is carried out within our hearts and minds.

Kepler was a Luthern reformist and since Copernicism was being repressed by the Vatican as were Gallileo and Giorduno Bruno for possibly undermining the authority of the Church, it took many centuries for these ideas to get worked out.  The work continues today as the mathematics and the physics of the music of the spheres is always being adjusted to account for new discoveries, new facts which once integrated into the basic concept, make it ever more clear that music has many applications the ancients knew about which we have passed over or forgotten in this day and age of reductionist thinking and materialistic values.

One of the primary goals of Sound Possibilities is to bring greater access to tools and methods we can use from both ancient and contemporary sources. Watch these pages for links and other information that will assist us in getting a grasp on things like proportion, harmony, interval, rhythm, and the many ways music can bring more sound possibilities into the realm of emerging realities.

Here is one contemporary classic, if you’ve never watched it, check it out. The wonderful film “Powers of Ten” takes us on a journey from the sub atomic to the supra galactic and back: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0fKBhvDjuy0&feature=player_embedded in just a few minutes. less time than it took for you to read this page.  Be sure to leave a comment below, subscribe for updates, or share other sound possibilities you may know about.

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About Tim McKamey

Founder of Sound Possibilities - Practitioner of Music, Song, Folklore & Musicology - songwriter - guitarist - guitar instructor - web design - videography
This entry was posted in Education, Music in Society, Science of Sound and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Speculative Music and Harmony of the Spheres

  1. Pingback: J’ai écouté l’Univers, et voici ce qu’Il m’a dit.

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