The Music of the Spheres is an ancient concept, generally attributed by historians to Pythagoras. It is suspected by some, Plato among them, that musical traditions and even poetry were in fact derived from the Egyptians and had existed for at least the previous ten thousand years.
These compositions were considered to be of such an exalted state that only gods or godlike men could have created them. The Pythagoreans wedded this concept to mathematics, believing that number preceded harmony, based on the law of harmonic proportions. Having established in his own mind music as an exact science, Pythagoras applied his newly developed intervals to all of Nature, going so far as to demonstrate the harmonic relationship of the planets, constellations and elements. Musicians of the Harmonic School, however, asserted taste and instinct to be the true normative principles of harmony. There is also a myth which states it was Aphrodite who taught Hermes mathematics, which would suggest that harmony and proportion were the guiding lights of mathematical astronomy, and not the other way around. Nevertheless, it is Pythagoras that we consider to be the father of the diatonic scale used in music.
Musica universalis (lit. universal music, or music of the spheres) or Harmony of the Spheres
“Pythagoras cured many ailments of the spirit, soul, and body by having certain specially prepared musical compositions played in the presence of the sufferer or by personally reciting short selections from such early poets as Hesiod and Homer. In his university at Crotona it was customary for the Pythagoreans to open and close each day with songs– those in the morning calculated to clear the mind from sleep and inspire it to the activities of the coming day; those in the evening of a mode soothing, relaxing, and conducive to rest. At the vernal equinox, Pythagoras caused his disciples to gather in a circle around one of their number who led them in song and played their accompaniment upon a lyre.”
“. . . Pythagoreans recognized a connection between the seven Greek modes and the planets. As an example, Pliny declares that Saturn moves in the Dorian mode and Jupiter in the Phrgian mode. It is also apparent that the temperaments are keyed to the various modes, and the passions likewise. Thus, anger– which is a fiery passion– may be accentuated by a fiery mode or its power neutralized by a watery mode.”
“The Pythagoreans believed that everything which existed had a voice and that all creatures were eternally singing the praise of the Creator. Man fails to hear these divine melodies because his soul is enmeshed in the illusion of material existence. When he liberates himself from the bondage of the lower world with its sense limitations, the Music of the Spheres will again be audible as it was in the Golden Age. Harmony recognized harmony, and when the human soul regains its true estate it will not only hear the celestial choir but also join with it in an everlasting anthem of praise to that Eternal Good controlling the infinite number of parts and conditions of Being.”
“It is related that while observing the stars one night (Pythagoras) encountered a young man befuddled with strong drink and mad with jealousy who was piling faggots about his mistress’ door with the intention of burning the house. The frenzy of the youth was accentuated by a flutist a short distance away who was playing a tune in the stirring Phrygian mode. Pythagoras induced the musician to change his air to the slow and rhythmic Spondaic mode, whereupon the intoxicated youth immediately became composed and, gathering up his bundles of wood, returned quietly to his own home.”
“A notable example of modern corroboration of ancient philosophical teaching us is that of the progression of the elements according to harmonic ratios. While making a list of the elements in the ascending order of their atomic weights, John A. Newlands discovered at every eighth element a distinct repetition of properties. This discovery is known as the law of octaves in modern chemistry.”
A good friend of mine once claimed that after an evening of particularly festive note he had experienced an episode after falling asleep wherein he heard the most exquisite, ethereal music, unlike any he had heard either before or since.
In this Pythagorean speculation, it is the different ratios of the distance of the planets to the Sun that causes these tones, and they seem to ‘hum’ at a vibratory rate not perceivable to the modern ear, depending upon the location of these planets in their celestial trek and their relationship to each other.
Astronomers today will tell you this is impossible, because there is no atmosphere in space that would be able to carry a tune.
Not even in a bucket.
But while we fixate on Pythagoras and Plato, or even the Egyptians, there are those of even a far older era who do recall these distinctive melodies, long ago left behind by civilization’s modern ear.
The Silence of the Stars
When Laurens van der Post one night
in the Kalihari Desert told the Bushmen
he couldn’t hear the stars singing,
they didn’t believe him. They looked at him,
half-smiling. They examined his face
to see whether he was joking
or deceiving them. Then two of those small men
who plant nothing, who have almost
nothing to hunt, who live
on almost nothing, and with no one
but themselves, led him away
from the crackling thorn-scrub fire
and stood with him under the night sky
and listened. One of them whispered,
“Do you not hear them now?”
And van der Post listened, not wanting
to disbelieve, but had to answer,
no. They walked him slowly
like a sick man to the small dim
circle of firelight and told him
they were terribly sorry,
and he felt even sorrier
for himself and blamed his ancestors
for their strange loss of hearing,
which was his loss now. On some clear nights
when nearby houses have turned off their visions,
when the traffic dwindles, when through streets
are between sirens and the jets overhead
are between crossings, when the wind
is hanging fire in the fir trees
and the long-eared owl in the neighboring grove
between calls is regarding his own darkness,
I look at the stars again as I first did
to school myself in the names of constellations
and remember my first sense of their terrible distance,
I can still hear what I thought
at the edge of silence where the inside jokes
of my heartbeat, my arterial traffic,
the C above high C of my inner ear, myself
tunelessly humming, but now I know what they are:
My fair share of the music of the spheres
and clusters of ripening stars,
of the songs from the throats of the old gods
still tending even tone-deaf creatures
through their exiles in the desert.