MUSIC, THE UNIVERSE, AND THE HUMAN SOUL


This spring, I was challenged with a large research project in my Ancient World History class. Naturally, I found an overly complicated way to connect the philosophies of ancient Greece to music. The more I researched, the more I became pulled into a world of theories. Thus, this paper was created: an unapologetically nerdy take on the things that I find myself questioning when I lay awake at night.


This is only the start of a much larger research thesis, which will eventually be taken out of the parameters of ancient Greece, and move into a multi-cultural study to be presented at an Honors Conference. 

Feel free to leave me any and all comments. I would love your input on my work so far.

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Throughout time, music has served as a fundamental point of human culture. In the era of ancient Greece, music was used both ceremonially and leisurely. At this time, music theorists were developing mathematical ways to measure harmonies and create new styles of music. Consequently, Greek astrologers applied the musical mathematics to the bodies of the universe, creating a popular theory called the Harmony of the Spheres. At the same time, Greek philosophers studied and theorized effects of the styles on the human condition. Because the mathematical harmonies found in Greek Music Theory were culturally connected to the philosophy of the human ethos, the theory of Harmony of the Spheres led the Greeks to believe that music, the universe, and the human soul are connected.

    The understanding of the cosmological connection to music first requires an understanding of music theory developed during the ancient Greek era. In its simplest form, all music comes back to frequencies, that is, the movement of soundwaves in a given amount of time. It is the comparison of multiple frequencies that creates the melodies and harmonies attributed to music (Fauvel 14). Pythagoras studied this intensively. Using the ratios between notes, he created what is now known as the Pythagorean Scale (Fauvel 15). Imagine a lyre were to be composed of 2 strings of equal widths and varying lengths (in this case, 12 inches and 6 inches). The 6 inch string would vibrate at twice the speed of the 12 inch, and the first two strings have the ratio of 2:1.  This is an octave (such as the first two notes in the melody of Somewhere Over the Rainbow). Inside of an octave, other ratios can be computed to create notes of a scale, such as 3:2 (known as a perfect fifth) or 9:8 (a whole step). Once a ratio basis for a scale was created, the rearranging of the specific notes created a range of modes of music, such as the Aeolian, Lydian, Dorian, and Phrygian, which are heavily discussed in the Greek musical philosophies. These modes can be understood, in a more simple sense, as styles in which melodies are composed.

    Rational harmonies are not limited to classical musical instruments. In fact, due to the mathematical nature of music, harmonies can be created by many physical functions throughout the universe. When a hammer strikes a piece of metal, one can observe either a particularly pleasing or displeasing sound from the combination of the ringing from each object. Because of the resonating material of the metal, the ear/brain mechanism can compare the sound waves and recognize ratios. The ratios (coming from a number of factors such as the speed of the strike, density, and mass) determine whether the combined sound is pleasing to the ear or not. Either situation is an example of the way music is constantly naturally occuring.

    Several Greek philosophers, cosmologists, and mathematicians expanded the mathematical musical harmonies into a concept called the Harmony of the Spheres. The idea expands the concept of the hammer and metal, implying that the planets create similar harmonic functions. Aristotle writes of Pythagoras’ theory of the Harmony of the Spheres in his work On Heavens, “The motion of bodies that size [planets] must produce a noise, since on our earth the motion of bodies far inferior in size and speed of movement has that effect” (James 56). Aristotle’s reasoning is straightforward. If small objects on earth create harmonies due to the ratios of the sound waves they emit, the planets (emitting their own large waves from their rotation) should also create their own music. Obviously, sound emitting from space does not find itself in the constant daily lives of humans. Pythagoras believed that the apparent lack of sounds from the universe was due to the harmonies being trapped in the human subconscious. The sounds have been present since birth. Since his calculations determined that the changes in harmony would be incredibly slow and minute (relative to sounds humans hear on earth), the silence was attributed to the brain no longer processing the sound signals. Today, scientists know this effect as Selective Attention and Memory Storage (hereafter, SAMS) (Cowan 163). SAMS is the process such as when the brain “chooses” to no longer process the image of one’s nose in his or her frame of vision or the touch-signal of feeling clothes on his or her back (Cowan 164). After a certain period of time, the brain stops processing the signals its receiving over and over. Although the Greeks did not have as much in-depth knowledge of SAMS, the theory of the Harmony of the Spheres was built on the idea of music being trapped in the same unconscious.

    Apart from the astrological studies of music, Greek philosophers were interested in the psychological human attributes. Musical harmonies, textures, and modal degrees were believed to have influence on the human ethos. The term ethos comes from the Greek ēthos, meaning nature, character, or disposition (“Ethos”). This is believed to be a part of the human soul, which by definition is, “the part of a person that expresses the basic qualities that make it what it is” (“Soul”). The Greeks studied the natural human characteristics under the scope of harmonic affectance. Philosophers most often focussed on the juxtaposition of that which is beautiful and good with its opposite. One of the most famous philosophers in the discussion of music and the human ethos is Socrates. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates engages Glaucon in a conversation where they create a utopian city, which metaphorically creates “the most good” people. He explains to Glaucon that men should only be presented with music that is (what he deems) good and beautiful.  “Education in music is most sovereign, because more than anything else rhythm and harmonia [the rational musical harmonies] find their way to the inmost soul...if one is rightly trained,...he would praise beautiful things and take delight in them and receive them into his soul to foster its growth and become himself beautiful and good” (Plato 401). Socrates believed that by being exposed to the beautiful sounds, one’s soul would recognize goodness and beauty. The inner understanding would allow one to guide his or her life decisions based on such.  If a person was educated that a certain type of music was beautiful, he or she would have something memorized to judge all other life experiences in comparison.

Going even further, some Greek philosophers made a connection between humans’ imitation of what is good and specific modes of music. In Socrates’ discussion of his utopia, he explains that only two modes of music should exist, “Just leave the [Dorian] mode which would appropriately imitate the sounds and accents of a man who is courageous in warlike deeds...leave another mode [Phrygian] for a man who performs a peaceful deed...These two modes will produce the finest imitation of the sounds of unfortunate and fortunate, moderate and courageous,” (Plato 78). Socrates believed that the human soul was imitative of that which it was exposed to. The combination of notes in a Dorian scale create feelings of empowerment and strength; thus, it is useful for the souls of those who need such qualities. Not only will they be surrounded by this music as a backdrop of their life, they will have it as a comparison to hold other experiences to. The Phrygian mode creates melodies that are inherently more peaceful. But in the same way that peace is a characteristic necessary for individuals who live more submissive rolls in the society, it can create laziness for those who do not. Socrates believed that in order for individuals to have their spirit filled with the proper values, they should only surround themselves with music that exemplifies that which is best for their personality or civic duty.

    The Greeks heavily emphasized the importance of harmonia: the idea of harmony, balance, and cohesiveness in the individual human, society, and the universe, but the implications are far deeper than a desire for beautiful melodic lines. The desire for harmony can be illustrated in conjunction with a desire for order. Cicero writes on the orderly desire in his letter, On Duties, “ that of all animals man alone has a sense of order” (Cicero 24). Cicero explains that humans are unique in their understanding of beauty and harmony. He believed that this desire was built into the human character. Exploring a more complex rationale, Pythagoras made attributions to the universe for this order-seeking human phenomena. Through an amalgamation of his own mathematical calculations and those of other cosmologists at the time, Pythagoras came to the conclusion that the orbiting of bodies of the universe did in fact create resounding pitches, and therefore orderly harmonies in combination. Due to the (relatively) slow nature of those bodies, the universe created sounds in a way that gave itself order. Each body created its own sound wave that interacted with other sound waves rationally. Thus, the universe radiates its own solid harmony. Pythagoras writes, “Health, virtuous character, spiritual well-being, the well-ordered state, and the interdependence and essential orderliness of the manifold parts of the universe: seem to have been attributable in some degree to the influence of this magical force,” (Bowman 33).  This harmony is the “magical force” he references. Pythagoras believed that the universe’s radiating rationality was the source of human’s deep and seemingly innate desire for order. Just as humans hear beauty in music and therefore strive for beautiful things, the human subconscious hears beautiful order and strives for the same.

It is the human desire for harmonious order, attributed to the invisible universal harmonies that intertwines music, the human soul, and the universe. Pythagoras states, “Number and ratio are sources of important insight into ultimate reality, divine gifts with the power to mediate truths inaccessible to sense perception,” (Bowman 25). This is the foundation upon which the Greeks could begin to latch onto: mathematics formulate rationality for music, allowing it to be applied to the physics of outer-space. Once those who studied the human condition made attributions of human nature to observance of beauty in music, the human character was brought into the picture. Those select Greeks saw the order that the universe created with itself was internalized by humans, and resonated in the unconscious. The overall conclusion is best stated by another philosopher and mathematician, “For when, by means of what in ourselves is well and fitly ordered, we apprehend what in sounds is well and fitly combined, and take pleasure in it, we recognize that we ourselves are united by this likeness. For likeness is agreeable, unlikeness hateful and contrary,” (Boethius 80). As the universe emits its own musical harmony and order, so the human soul strives for the same in itself.

Today, astronomers still study the sounds trapped in the vacuum of space, but even more relevant are the studies of music’s effect on the human condition. In her studies of Greek and Chinese philosophies of music, researcher Yuhwen Wang found, “If feeble, trivial, and rushed music prevails, people will be sad. If harmonious, peaceful music prevails, people will be gratified and happy. If vigorous, violent, and forceful music prevails, which arouses people to move their limbs and animates their blood circulation, they will be steadfast and resolute,” (Wang 3). Her conclusion serves as a lesson for humans’ day-to-day lives: the music one surrounds themself with makes an impact on the way they feel on the inside. Melodically minor, sad music after a breakup may only perpetuate the feeling. Subsequently, surrounding oneself with happier musical styles, regardless of the lyrical content can have a deep psychological impact. Differing slightly from the Greek’s focus on the order of human soul, Wang adds to a modern approach that explores not only good and bad, beautiful and ugly, but more complex happiness, sadness, and contentment. If, in fact, mathematical harmonies are capable of creating such an emotional response, and those harmonies occur strongly in the universe, there lies an even deeper argument for the connectivity between the three entities (music, soul, universe).

    Such broad thoughts of the universe affecting humans’ life were a stretch for the general Greek public. Thus, it was never adopted into traditional Greek philosophy or astronomy, and only the fragments remain, as presented in this research. Through the preservation of texts explaining the mathematics of the music theory, scientific and philosophical astronomy, and social philosophies, the ideas of the few who made relational claims survive. Scientists still work to find validity in the complex Greek theories; however, the work of Greek philosophers, musicians, mathematicians, and astronomers opened the door for conversations of the interconnectedness of music, the universe, and the human soul that still live on today.

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Works Cited:Boethius, De institutione musica, Book I; trans. William Strunk, Jr., and Oliver Strunk, in Oliver Strunk, Source Readings in Music History: Antiquity and the Middle Ages (New York: W.W. Norton, 1965), 80.Christensen, Thomas. The Cambridge History of Western Music Theory. Cambridge University Press, 2007.Cicero, Marcus Tullius. On Duties. Cornell University Press, 2016.Cowan, N. "Evolving conceptions of memory storage, selective attention, and their mutual constraints within the human information-processing system." Psychological Bulletin 104. (1988): 163-191.Fauvel, John “Music and Mathematics in History.” Music and Mathematics: From Pythagoras to Fractals. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.Godwin, Joscelyn “The Order of the Planets and the Celestial Concert.” The Harmony of the Spheres: The Pythagorean Tradition in Music. New York City: Simon and Schuster, 1992. Google Books Web. 31 January 2018.Haupt, Paul. “The Harmony of the Spheres.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 38, no. 3/4, 1919, pp. 180–183.James, Jamie The Music of the Spheres: Music, Science, and the Natural Order of the Universe. Göttingen: Copernicus Publications, 1995.Kilpatrick, William. Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right from Wrong. Simon & Schuster, 1993. Web. 5 May 2018.Mathiesen, Thomas J. Apollo's Lyre: Greek Music and Music Theory in Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Lincoln: U of Nebraska Press, 1999. Google Books Web. 30 January 2018.Plato. Plato's The Republic. New York: Books, Inc., 1943.Wang, Yuhwen, “The Ethical Power of Music: Ancient Greek and Chinese Thoughts” The Journal of Aesthetic Education 38.1 (Spring 2004): 89-104 (Article). Web. 31 January 2018.