THE SEARCH FOR THE MUSIC OF THE SPHERES

Dr John Pickard, Bristol University, on 7 Nov 2003

Music and astronomy have been linked for more than 2,500 years. Pythagoras of Samos (582-500 BCE) discovered the mathematical nature of the musical scale and the relationship between music and number. He considered that there were three kinds of music:

Musica Instrumentalis – practical

Musica Humana – the harmony of the body

Musica Mundana– created by the heavens

At that time, the Universe was considered Earth-centred.

Pythagoras noted the different notes produced in a brazier’s workshop by striking metals with hammers of different weights: compared with, say, a 12 lb-hammer, a 6 lb-hammer produced a musical interval of an octave, one of 8 lb produced a fifth and a 9 lb one a fourth. He also found from studying strings that for a given tension, lengths of ratios 9:8 produced musical intervals of 1 tone.

Plato considered that the reason for this was in the heavens. He considered that the Universe, created by the ‘Demiurge’, consisted of the spherical world and the ‘World Soul’. The latter was considered to be a strip of a malleable substance split into six longitudinal strips (one for each planet and the Moon) and, in some indefinable fashion, wrapped round the World. The relationship of these strips was expressed in a schematic form often known as the ‘Lambda’ on account of the shape of the diagram, which resembles the Greek letter :

In his Republic Plato describes the experience of the soldier Er who, according to legend, returned from the dead to describe the afterlife:

he is judged; he spends 1000 years in either heaven or hell where the next life is decided; finally he becomes intoxicated by drinking form the river Lethe and forgets his experience of the afterlife. Crucially, before returning to life, he witnesses "The Spindle of Necessity": the planets revolving in their crystal spheres, each pushed by Siren who sings a note of fixed pitch. From this the concept of the Music of the Spheres emerged.

 

The Medieval universities divided learning into two groupings: the Trivium - grammar, rhetoric and logic; the Quadrivium – arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy. There were two types of musician: ‘Cantores’ – singers and players and ‘Musici’ – theorists of pure music.

Kepler also tried to relate the positions of the planets to musical ratios as well as fitting the five Platonic regular polyhedra into the shells in which he considered the planetary orbits to be constrained.

The 16th century English scientist, Robert Fludde, was almost the last to relate music to the cosmos and published an engraving depicting ‘The Divine Monochord’ in which the planets were sited at different points along a string so that each was associated with a sound in a certain harmony with the others.

Isaac Newton’s Principia ended all these ‘mysteries’.

The speaker then played recordings of works by John Dunstable (c.1453) who was an astronomer-musician whose music made a great impact in Europe; Buxtehude who was organist and ‘Master of the Works’ (which included the astronomical clock there) at Lübeck (N. Germany); and the contemporary composers John Cage, George Crumb and John Pickard himself.

Dunstable’s isorhythmic motet: Albanus rosco rutilat is possibly related to the constellations of Draco and Ursa Minor in which the first part of the cantus firmus is based on 'Platonic' rhythmic relationships in sixths and twelfths and, later, on fourths and eighths

Buxtehude’s Passacaglia for organ has a bass ‘riff’ which is repeated 28 times in four groups (D minor, F major, A minor and D minor) of 7, possibly relating to the four principal phases of the Moon – First quarter, Full, Last quarter and New.

John Cage, in 1961, superposed the musical notation of his AtlasEclipticalis on star charts.

The final piece from George Crumb’s Makrokosmos I, written in 1972 is notated in the shape of a spiral galaxy.

Finally, John Pickard’s own composition, commissioned in 1997 for the St. David’s Cathedral Festival, is a Concerto for trombone, strings and percussion and is based on the myth of Er described above, which depicts the Universe revolving around the Spindle of Necessity.

Richard H Phillips