What is it about music that moves us in so many different ways? The rhythm begins and we slide onto the dancefloor, gyrating to the beats; a guitar strikes a chord and we throw ourselves into the crowd, surfing across a sea of hands; a favourite song comes on the radio and we sing along at the top of our voices, oblivious to the looks of bemusement coming from other drivers stuck in the traffic jam. The right songs can change the way we feel in an instant, as effective as the mood pills consumed in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
I recently had the good fortune to attend a live performance of Beethoven’s legendary 9th Symphony. While it is something of a cliché – and perhaps exaggeration – to call this “the greatest music ever written” it’s certainly an intensely powerful experience which has endured the test of time, remaining one of the most popular pieces on the classical repertoire. The impact of “Ode to Joy” may have suffered from its commercial overuse (countless corporations have used it to sell their products and services) it nevertheless still managed to visibly move the audience to tears and, finally, rapturous applause.
This is an example of the immense power music can have over us. Our tastes may differ but music’s ability to move us on a deeply emotional level is universal – like the madeleine cake in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, music can trigger profound memories which previously lay dormant, exciting our sense of nostalgia and creating intense feelings of joy or melancholy. There is something ineffable about the way in which music makes us feel, as if at its most profound level it takes us into the realm of the sacred, where words can no longer do justice and attempts to describe it only sully the experience.
The idea that music connects us to something divine and spiritual is not a new one. Johann Sebastian Bach – arguable the grandfather of the Western musical tradition, whose works including the sublime The Well-Tempered Clavier profoundly influenced generations of composers – once said, “The final aim and reason of all music is nothing other than the glorification of God and the refreshment of the spirit.” From Apollo, the Greek god of music and light, to the Gregorian chants of the Roman Catholic Church, the association between music and the divine is deep-rooted in culture and history. For some, music itself is their religion – in the words of the legendary Frank Zappa, “Music is the only religion that delivers the goods.”
But long before Bach asserted that “music is an agreeable harmony for the honor of God and the permissible delights of the soul,” another great historical Western thinker was developing his own theory of music and its place in the cosmos. After hearing the tones emanating from a blacksmith’s forge and observing their musical quality, Pythagoras went home and experimented with his single string instrument the lyre, leading to his discovery of the octave which was to have such a profound impact upon the nature of music. Like Bach, Pythagoras saw music as a force that, in its highest form, offered something transcendental to the human experience, believing that “the highest goal of music is to connect one’s soul to their Divine Nature, not entertainment.”
His deduction that sound was based on a purely mathematical formula would lead him to propose that music could be used to heal “non-virtuous” thoughts such as anger, as well as physical ailments including sciatica, sitting with the patient while playing the kithara and singing along with it. His ideas reflect what some ancient cultures appear to have known intuitively – music therapy is, after all, of ancient provenance, for example the aboriginals of Australia are known to have used the didgeridoo to heal broken bones.
Pythagoras’s discovery of the “music of the spheres” went beyond its application as a means of physical and psychological healing – he conceived of the universe as a vast lyre in which planets harmonized with other heavenly bodies – an endless, intergalactic mellifluous interaction reverberating through space and time. “Music was number, and the cosmos was music.” There is something mystical about this interpretation which no doubt stems from Pythagoras’s extensive travels and possible initiation into the Egyptian Mystery Schools. Pythagoras was without a doubt a candidate for what we consider a polymath; a man of a higher nature with the ability to reach celestial realms. Did he intuit something about the musical nature of the universe?
His theories had a profound influence on numerous thinkers over the following generations. Philosophers such as Boethius, Johannes Kepler and Robert Fludd took Pythagoras’s monochord – the single string instrument – in new directions, with Kepler in the 17th century attempting to define a harmony of the world in his opus Harmonices Mundi, an attempt to unify music and movement within the solar system.
By the 20th century Pythagoras was influencing Werner Heisenberg and the new field of quantum physics. According to William Irwin Thompson in his book Darkness and Scattered Light, when Heisenberg lectured on Pythagorianism “you will hear him emphasize that the basic building blocks of nature are number and pattern, that the universe is not made out of matter, but music.” The energy of the octave – the magical number 8 – occurs not only in a number of mystical traditions, from the Taoists I Ching to the 8-fold path of Buddhism, but also features prominently in genetic science, with the “language” of DNA and RNA based in groups of 64 codons, or 8×8.
The very words we use to describe music directly correspond to emotional and spiritual principles. When something rings true to us it resonates, often with rich significance evoking a strong emotion. When simultaneous notes combine in a chord in a manner pleasing to the ear we call this harmony, just as when people concur in their opinions and feelings and live their lives in agreeable unison we consider this harmonic. Music which triggers certain emotions is understood universally, with scientific studies confirming that music with happy, sad or fearful emotions in Western music are recognised as such by native Africans, just as Westerners appreciate these same qualities in Hindustani music.
Just as music can provoke positive reactions in people, some argue that it can be used negatively in order to detune us from our natural harmonic relationship with the world around us. Since 1953 the International Standards Organization (ISO) has been tuned music to 440 hertz, changing it from the previous 432 Hz which was thought to transmit beneficial healing energy. One theory is that this change in frequency was brought about by Nazi Joseph Goebbels, who sought to alter the collective mood and make the populace prisoners of negative consciousness. Music pioneer Leonard Horowitz stated in a paper entitled Musical Cult Control: “The music industry features this imposed frequency that is ‘herding’ populations into greater aggression, psycho social agitation, and emotional distress predisposing people to physical illness.”
It isn’t hard to see the negative impact popular music has on contemporary society – corporate music today is an anathema to the principles of music expounded by the likes of Pythagoras, proposing a crude value system of self-adulation, materialism and greed; manufactured music set the videos replete with negative occult imagery which sexualizes and debases the performer and, by association, the viewer. The power of frequencies to affect the universe has long been understood, and just as it can be used for our benefit so too can it be turned against us. Indeed, sound has already been weaponized in the form of the Long Range Accoustic Device (LRAD), a truck-mounted device which emits pain inducing tones which has already been deployed in numerous war zones in the Middle East as well as the streets of America to use against protesters.
The power of frequencies to affect the world is vast, with the potential to trigger earthquakes and radically alter the geological make-up of the planet. Low frequency bass sounds can alter the path of flowing water so that it falls in a corkscrew, seemingly defying gravity.
This is, of course, an optical illusion – more impressive are the Cymatic experiments, which study the effects of sound waves on water, producing some incredible patterns which bear a striking resemblance to those found in sacred geometry:
The power of music and sound may be far more profound than we realise – the word “universe” itself implies the totality of everything singing together in a unified verse. As Nikola Tesla once said, “If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration.”
Prehistoric Highs: Mind-Altering Plants and the Birth of Civilization will be available in 2014.