Musica Universalis: esoterica, investigation, harmony

Although songbirds, humpback whales, insects, and other members of the animal kingdom may produce complex vocalizations, human beings are the only known species to make (and fully appreciate) music per se. In fact, our species has an intimate relationship with music.

For example, babies understand tones of voice before they understand words. This is something we know instinctively, as even the most respectable and well-spoken adults will happily babble and coo when addressing an infant. As those babies age, music will provide them with comfort, inspiration, entertainment, and more throughout the course of their lives. We have songs for birthdays, holidays, and countries. We have liturgical music, protest music, symphonies, wedding music, drinking songs, children’s songs…

Music is deeply intertwined with the development of not only our species, but our genus, and is tens of thousands of years old at the very least. In 1995, a bone flute believed to belong to Neanderthals was discovered in Slovenia that was dated to be about 60,000 years old. Other ancient examples of musical instruments include:

As evidenced by the bone flute (60kya) and the conch shell (18kya) in particular, we were making music before we had bread, beer, wine, or domesticated animals. Even before we had musical instruments – or perhaps even language – it is believed that we had song.

Our relationship with music is so deep that we readily perceive musical qualities in other phenomena. Birdsong, which many people are adept at imitating, is one such example. Musica universalis, “universal music”, or “music of the spheres”, is another.

This idea can be credited to the Pythegoreans, a group of Greek philosopher-scientists who made discoveries in multiple fields, including astronomy, mathematics, and music. They are perhaps most famous for their eponymous Pythegorean Theorem, an equation describing the relationship between the squares of the lengths of the sides of a right triangle.

Although it is not on the curriculum in most grade schools like their advances in geometry, musica universalis is another one of the Pythegorean’s most enduring concepts, and concerns the arrangement and movement of the planets.

The Pythegoreans were the first to observe that there were mathematical relationships between the physical characteristics of an instrument (e.g the length of a string) and the note it produced. They also discovered that certain collections of notes were considered more pleasing and harmonious. They did so by experimenting with various instruments, including plucked strings, wind instruments, and even vases filled with water.

This relationship between aesthetics, physical phenomena, and mathematics proved to be contagious, and influenced the Pythegoreans to conceive of a kind of musical harmony amongst the planets:

"…occasionally Pythagoras draws on the theory of music, and designates the distance between the Earth and the Moon as a whole tone, that between the Moon and Mercury as a semitone, .... the seven tones thus producing the so-called diapason, i.e.. a universal harmony" (Pliny the Elder, Natural History)

The idea that the movement of the planets could have mathematical and musical beauty was so attractive that it was regularly taught in universities during the Dark Ages. It was then advanced further during the Renaissance, when astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler published Harmonices Mundi, or “Harmony of the Worlds”. In his opinion, the harmonious arrangement of the planets, as well as some of the mathematical laws governing their movement, were evidence of a divine creator with an aesthetic sensibility.

In modern times, the concept of musica universalis has been relegated to a curiosity, or a handy piece of trivia. The musically-inclined might note that it has inspired several songs and albums, perhaps most notably Mike Oldfield’s Music of the Spheres, and the Paul Hindemith symphony Die Harmonie der Welt. Coldplay has alluded to the concept, as has Rush.

Following in the spirit of the Pythagoreans, Musica Universalis seeks to find harmony where it has not yet been found. It will generate novel insight by responsibly smashing together disciplines, perspectives, and ideas. Planned posts include:

  • “Information Efficiency” (media studies/engineering/education)

  • “Hemispheres” (phenomenology/history/psychology)

  • “Back to the Garden” (history/theology/ethnobotany)

About the author

Zachary Strong is a Canadian scholar, marketing consultant, educator, and public thinker. He is passionate about the welfare of children, the organization, harmony, and transmission of knowledge, and the development of self-actualized human beings.

In his work as a marketing research consultant, Zachary uses multiple data collection methodologies to help organizations understand their consumers more deeply. As a scholar, Zachary is fascinated by lifespan development, creativity, knowledge, and wisdom. In his written work, Zachary enjoys exploring eclectic subjects and sharing multi-disciplinary perspectives on contemporary issues.

Zachary holds a B.Eng.Mgt (Engineering Physics & Management, Minor in Mathematics) from McMaster University, and has received coach training from the Co-Active Training Institute and Coaches Rising. As a child, he studied for several years at the Sandra Bald Jones Highland Dance Studio and at the Dundas Valley School of Art.

At different points in his life, Zachary has played the piano, recorder, clarinet, acoustic guitar, and bass guitar. Although he is somewhat rusty, he plans to record an album of instrumental music someday – perhaps a collection of fantasias.