The Music of the Spheres

According to my mother, this is a slightly odd website, but this article is absolutely brilliant.  I'll quote some parts here but the full article itself deserves a read.  

The seminal idea of western music is that music reflects the harmonies and moral order of the universe and, therefore, has a divine origin. This idea came to the Greeks in the eighth century AD, endured through the centuries, stimulated a vast musical repertoire, and sputtered out during the decadent twentieth century.

The implication of the traditional idea of music is that music can embody objective realities and manifest intrinsic values, and is not just about subjective personal taste or the passing fads of a culture. Furthermore, music formulated according a higher order suggests to the listener that the heavens, the earth, and nature are really there, embody orderly forms, and manifest a divine beauty and harmony that reflects the Creator. The fact that man can listen to and participate in the sublime harmonies of the cosmos reveals much about the rational, spiritual, and moral nature of man.

. . .

Man has the gift of reason and can discern something about the order of the cosmos. Music is designed to reflect the larger harmonies that exist in the universe and assists human reason in discerning those harmonies. Human interest in reason and in musical harmony tend to rise and fall together.

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Plato believed that harmony and rhythm seep into the human soul, attach themselves to the inward being, and impart grace. He thought that music has a decisive effect on the character of the citizenry. Since music is the enchantment of goddesses, a subversive music can come from a sorcery based in ignorance. Plato did not believe in evil, only ignorance. Therefore, the evil sorcery of the occult played no part in his theory of music. But he had a concept of bad music based upon ignorance and confusion. He gave examples of the different music of different cities and the good and bad character qualities it produced in the citizens. He proposed that three kinds of music be encouraged in his ideal republic, and three types be forbidden. He was worried that musical discord could distort, disorient, and confuse the human spirit, just as harmony could order, compose, beautify, and enlighten it.

Plato might have had something more to say about the corrosive effects of corrupt music if he could have observed the depraved party of sex, drugs, and rock and roll at Woodstock. But the hippies would not have listened to him, because Western man no longer believed in the music of the spheres, or that intrinsic values can be found in music. Along with this change was the loss of belief in a correspondence between reason and objective reality. Just as harmony in music is a sign of rationality, dissonant chords that are not resolved by harmonious chords are a sign of irrationality. Chant-like repetitions of a refrain with no resolution also can also hint at irrationality.

Plato's idea that bad music can cause moral corruption is too simple, of course. According to the scriptures, the root cause of sin is the fallen nature of man and perverse and disobedient choices. However, subversive music can serve as part of the seduction and temptation of evil and can reinforce moral decadence. In the Hollywood movie scenes of a character entering a den of iniquity, it is the seductive music that strikes one first and last.

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St. Thomas Aquinas (13th century), favored Hesiod's model in spite of being a famous devotee of Aristotle. It seems that the ascent of Mount Helicon is conceptually similar to the Neoplatonic ascent to the One, developed by Plotinus (3rd century). Christian mystics were already using an adapted form of the techniques of Plotinus in their meditations and prayers seeking union with God. The Gregorian Chant with its mystical, detached, and other worldly evocations was the perfect accompaniment for this form of mystical spirituality. Aquinas, being a great synthesizer, used Hesiod's mountain ascent to the light and to the One because it fit the mystic spirituality of ascent in stages to union with God. However, Aquinas could not bear to leave Aristotle out of anything he wrote and smuggled in an idea by him into the ascent up the mountain. The first half of the ascent was an arduous struggle. For the Catholic, this involved the arduous process of practicing painful spiritual disciplines. The second half of the climb was the mystic flight. Instead of dancing with Muses on the mountaintop, the mystic soars upward and hears the music of the spheres as he is approaching union with God. The Latin scholar has to master classical Latin with pain and suffering on the first half of the mountain climb before he can soar with joy as he reads the classics. The musician has to painfully master the difficult techniques of his art before he can play the music of the spheres and soar to sublime delights.

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Composer John Adams said that "tonality died when Nietzsche's God died. When God disappears, the intelligible order of the creation disappears. If there is no God, Nature no longer serves as a reflection of its Creator. If you lose the Logos of St. Clement, you also lose the ratio (logos) of Pythagoras. Nature is stripped of its normative power."

Reilly comments "If there is no preexisting intelligible order to go out to and apprehend, and to search through for what lies beyond it — which is the Creator — what then is music to express? If external order does not exist, then music collapses in on itself....Any ordering of things becomes simply the whim of man's will." (And no one has any grounds for criticizing the whim of another man.) "Without a 'music of the spheres' to approximate, modern music, like the other arts, begins to unravel. Music's self-destruction became logically imperative once it undermined its own foundation."

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"Cicero spoke of music as enabling man to return to the divine region, implying a place once lost to man. What is it, in and about music, that gives one an experience so outside of oneself that one can see reality anew, as if newborn in a strange but wonderful world? British composer John Tavener proposes an answer to this mystery in his artistic credo: "My goal is to recover one simple memory from which all art derives. The constant memory of the paradise from which we have fallen leads to the paradise which was promised to the repentant thief. The gentleness of our sleepy recollection promises something else. That which we once perceived in a glass darkly, we shall see face to face." We shall not only see; we shall hear, as well, the New Song."


  1. Aw. When I saw this, I was hoping you'd be talking about Dante.


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