The Musical Universe

Via orwellwasright:

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.”

Andrew Dilks writes at orwellwasright. His Kindle books Goliath and Flow are available for free on Friday 20th September.

Prehistoric Highs: Mind-Altering Plants and the Birth of Civilization will be available in 2014.

33 Comments on "The Musical Universe"

  1. William Zeitler – Music of the Spheres

    Music of the Spheres (for glass armonica and harp) is inspired by an ancient musical concept of the Universe.
    The journey begins at Earth, and travels through the planets to the Great Beyond.
    Passionate and mystical, this album revels in the wonders of the Cosmos. Music of the Spheres incorporates a year of my research into ancient

    musical symbolism, and portrays the soul’s journey from Earth into the realm of God.

  2. Hocketeer | Sep 19, 2013 at 3:13 pm |

    Leonard Horowitz is definitely no music pioneer, just another christian dipshit fundamentalist who pushes the evil/satanic frequency nonsense. Like Bach he is the perfect example for the fear-based christian control freak culture. Would have been nice to see a Helmholtz quote concerning temperament.
    Sorry to say, but this article has many problems. Lots of good info, mixed with even more bad info, very disappointing.

    • Andy Dilks | Sep 20, 2013 at 1:42 am |

      Sorry to disappoint. I’m not sure that Bach deserves such condemnation, but then I am a fan of a lot of his music (I’m not a Christian, by the way!). I thought the Horowitz quote was interesting in terms of the current views on occultism in popular music (Vigilant Citizen writes about that a lot) – again, whether or not you buy into that is another matter…

      • Hocketeer | Sep 20, 2013 at 4:34 am |

        Sure he does, Bach was on of the forerunners pushing the equal temperament, forcing a spiral into a circle, destroying any natural form of harmony. Please check out what Helmholtz and many others have to say about this. Vigilant Citizen is hardly a reliable source, more hysterical and paranoid than anything else. You even got your Chinese philosophy wrong… tststs

        • The Well Dressed Man | Sep 20, 2013 at 9:11 pm |

          This is an interesting perspective, and one I’ll have to research. Equal temperament is the compromise that allowed the tonal system comprising functional harmony which enabled musics from classical to jazz and beyond. For the abstract and drony side of art music, other divisions of the octave have a marvelous purity. But try writing 4 part parallel modulated through the whole circle of 5ths in just intonation without curdling every ear in shot. No Johann Sebastian no Ludwig Van. Without Ludwig Van, I’m afraid there’d be much less of the old in out in out.
          edit – this looks interesting:

          • don’t get your clockwork orange reference there… still, I agree with the rest.

          • The Well Dressed Man | Sep 21, 2013 at 9:59 am |

            it’s difficult to imagine Beethoven would have been as great without studying Bach, and without Beethoven’s greatness, what would our droogie’s angel trumpets and devil trombones have sounded like?

          • Just tuning is just another silly attempt to dominate the octave. The most complex types of polyphonies and polyrhythms can be found in cultures that do not even bother describing a scale or tuning. Anthropology/Ethnomusicology is a good field to study when it comes to delving deeper into music. Not even jazz or the types of Stravinsky, which are a well meant attempt to escape the imposed limitations can compare in terms of complexity. The whole fundamental approach to modern music is flawed, mirroring the current social status quo – rather compete than cooperate. On the other hand, it is quite refreshing to see inventions like the fluid piano make their way into society, still far to go though.
            I’ll leave it with paraphrasing Helmholtz “The only reason we find contemporary music beautiful, is because our ears have been spoiled since childhood”. Interestingly enough, pure string orchestras who have no mechanical tuning limitations find it quite painful when suddenly a piano is introduced.

          • Hocketeer | Sep 24, 2013 at 9:27 am |

            Just tuning was just another silly attempt to dominate the octave. The most complex polyphonies and polyrhythms can be found among cultures that do not even bother with tuning or with describing a scale, they just use their ears, not silly math. Not even the likes of Stravinsky or jazz musicians, who try so hard to push the limits, can compare in terms of complexity and flow. Anthropology/Ethnomusicolgy are good fields to study when delving deeper into the field of music. In the end the current way music is produced just mirrors the current status quo of society: rather compete than cooperate, hence the total lack of quality, even if it seems beautiful.

          • The Well Dressed Man | Sep 24, 2013 at 10:07 am |

            “The most complex polyphonies and polyrhythms can be found among cultures that do not bother tuning”

            -Seems reasonable, but polyphony is only a step toward harmony.

            “they just use their ears, not silly math.”

            -Yes ignore the implications of the periodic function, its divisions, and overtone series, silly human.

            “Anthropology/Ethnomusicolgy are good fields to study when delving deeper into the field of music”

            -Musicology is down the hall in the “critical studies” department. When they accidentally enroll in music theory classes, you can see their little minds explode….

            I’m almost in agreement on your last point. Total lack of quality in current state of music. It doesn’t even seem beautiful.

          • Hocketeer | Sep 24, 2013 at 10:34 am |

            Silly human indeed, music is no machine, at least at some point it wasn’t. It is possible to spawn an infinite amount of tones which are in perfect harmony/relation to each other, by only using your ears and a string. Harmony was practically cancelled out due to overthinking. Too bad nobody’s head exploded before it was too late. Math is great for analyzing and describing music, but shouldn’t necessarily be used for defining and systematizing it.
            Your views on ethnomusicology seem quite limited, I wonder how you come to such a generalization? Music theory is usually a must for anybody who is seriously interested in a comprehensive study of music, maybe in the States or wherever you are situated it’s different. It is refreshing however to see inventions like the fluid piano entering society, still a long way to go though. Paraphrasing Helmholtz “The only reason we find music beautiful is because our ears have been spoiled from childhood.” To people with absolute pitch, the 5th found in equal temperament is quite annoying (especially when played as a chord, the microbeats are like a mosquito), same goes for pure string orchestras (no mechanical limitations) who suddenly face the challenge of accompanying a pianist, counter-intuitive.
            But honestly, the “tuning” aspect is the least of the problems, it just further complicated things and therefore made making music more inaccessible to all. The main problem is still the fact that music has gone from a community activity with context and tradition, which everybody can take part in (creating infinite complexity as a neat side-effect), to a commodity where only the “most talented/hyped” producers pacify the rest, taking away the most important experience of “doing”. Very unbalanced.

          • The Well Dressed Man | Sep 24, 2013 at 4:03 pm |

            I suppose my views may be somewhat limited. Looking at UCLA catalog, musicology students take 3 semesters of undergrad theory.

            My perception was perhaps shaped when i was studying music, by the utter bafflement various critical theory types exclaimed at the idea that music theory was the study of the functional structures of music itself as opposed to a cultural studies course. I’m also biased in the perceptions that the level of academic rigor in music theory, similar to science and mathematics, is far higher than in the cultural studies.

            Any system of tuning / scaling will have pros and cons. Perhaps eventually music will evolve to surmount this obstacle. The hostility I perceive in your attitude toward Bach seems rather extreme. I feel that the functional harmony exemplified by his work is one of the crowning achievements of intellectual rigor. If there’s some other system of music that displays an equal harmonic depth, please enlighten us.

          • Hocketeer | Sep 24, 2013 at 6:22 pm |

            Since I have not studied music at a university, the only thing I can say is that surprisingly many musicians (especially classical and popular) and musicologists I have talked to have little knowledge about music theory whatsoever and that there exists a certain hatred between the two groups. On the other hand, the more dedicated and holistic types in both groups tend to have a very firm grasp of theory & practice. So much to bias.
            Crowning achievements of intellectual rigor -> so much as that there was no real harmony left. But I can agree that his music, using the given framework to his time is beautiful, at least subjectively and emotionally. I prefer the physiological type, the ecstatic and the non-calculated, something more raw, spontaneous and honest. The hocket (not the medieval type) is a good example for superior harmonic depth (can be spun with as many voices as the heart desires), especially emphasizing harmonic depth among the participants;) Imho, these more “raw” types of music allow for the participant, who is not only a passive listener, to enter the more mystical realms of perception. Music becomes a tool, a bridge, not an immortalized commodity of the intellect. I can see by your comments, our approaches to music are fundamentally different.
            You, as Bach, are indeed a well dressed man, whereas I am just a “savage” with some feathers and a koteka.

          • The Well Dressed Man | Sep 24, 2013 at 7:26 pm |

            The hocket is something I’ll have to look into. A google image search of my avatar will provide some clue as to the WDM, but will reveal little of my musical taste beyond a fondness for mid century pop Americana.
            Never finished that music degree, as my tastes are less structured than you might think. I suppose I think a reconciliation between Apollonian and Dionysian attitudes on structure and mayhem in music is possible. Traditional functional harmony is extremely rigid and rather archaic, but IMO worth hanging on to as a tool. Equal tempered thirds bang on my ears, so I always use a digital tuner for consistency, but find myself bending chords a bit to more pleasant ratios.

          • Hocketeer | Sep 24, 2013 at 8:23 pm |

            Speaking of bending, the roli seaboard caught my eye a while ago. Too bad its digital.

          • The Well Dressed Man | Sep 25, 2013 at 2:15 am |

            Hot damn that looks like a sexy item, like one could actually polish the surface with silicone lube if performing with the right sort of goth band. In a perfect world one could afford to purchase that as the ultimate midi controller to drive say an Alesis Andromeda…

          • Calypso_1 | Sep 25, 2013 at 9:40 am |

            …now you have me thinking of the possibilities for a biofeedback ‘orgasmatron’ controller. Thx.

          • Calypso_1 | Sep 25, 2013 at 9:35 am |

            Periodic functions, overtones yes… but psychoacoustics is a different story. The brain (illusory) & ear (actual) generate their own overtones. Long term exposure to unique sonic signatures creates an attuned bias of perception to various partials and psychoacoustic phenomenon that are not perceived by naive listeners. The younger generation truly perceives their music differently than their elders can due to the level of plasticity their minds are at when imprinted. Change in overtone perception/preference in pop music has been tracked in several studies. What does’t seem beautiful to you may be exquisite to another & this is not an aesthetic judgement but neurological. In fact one of the possible signs of neuro damage in an adult is suddenly finding music that was distasteful to be appealing without any apparent rational (ie attempts at music appreciation, etc).

          • The Well Dressed Man | Sep 25, 2013 at 1:35 pm |

            Generational tonal imprints brings to mind autotune. The synthetic vocal harmonies that seem to define contemporary pop drive me nuts. It’s done in such a naive sounding way, as if a chorus of mind melded clones with perfect pitch are actually singing together into an xy condenser mic array. It’s transparently artificial without any self consciousness on the part of the producer as to media and message. I’d definitely be brain damaged if my ears began telling me this was musically significant.

      • atlanticus | Sep 20, 2013 at 7:57 pm |

        Oh no…you don’t believe Vigilant Citizen, do you? Let me tell you about the post I left a couple of years ago, which he promptly removed from his site:

        I pointed out that the rise in “occult” imagery in popular music was an obvious copy-cat move, borrowed from Witch House. Now, a few of the early fore-runners of the short-lived Witch House thing really were occultists, and who knows what their intentions were for releasing certain imagery into the collective consciousness, but Lady Gaga, et al, were obviously just copying things they thought were “hip” and/or “underground” for their own benefit.

        Besides, nothing new under the sun…Robert Johnson claimed to have sold his soul to the devil for musical talent. It’s an easy and obvious gimmick to make one seem edgier than they really are.

        • The Well Dressed Man | Sep 20, 2013 at 9:16 pm |

          🙂 my theory on our current pop occultism is that it’s sort of a secular Pascal’s Wager. If there really is a massive reptillian old money conspiracy pulling the strings, then conspicuous Illuminati symbolism in one’s trashy music videos may result in preferential treatment?

        • Calypso_1 | Sep 20, 2013 at 9:48 pm |

          Every sold your soul?

  3. Jordon Flato | Sep 19, 2013 at 3:24 pm |

    One of the best modern synthesis of music and the octave in relation to the cosmos is the cosmology offered by G.I. Gurdjieff. Most of his cosmology is based on the octave, but most interestingly, a big part of that is the two discontinuities between mi-fa and si-do. It is a fascinating take.

  4. Tchoutoye | Sep 19, 2013 at 4:41 pm |

    The article falsely claims that 432 Hz used to be a standard. It never has been. And because it wasn’t, it wasn’t deviated from by Joseph Goebbels either. This is a myth that was concocted by the Schiller Institute, a Lyndon LaRouche think tank.

    Just like the railway pushed for a standardisation of time, so did international radio broadcasting push for a standardisation of musical pitch. 440 Hz was arrived at in 1939 during an international conference in London. It was based on the (rather contrived) British 439 Hz standard of the British Philharmonic Society set in 1896. The BBC wanted to produce the standard frequency by electronic means, and 440 was easier to produce (1000*11/25) than the prime number 439.

    • Calypso_1 | Sep 19, 2013 at 7:01 pm |

      What info source are you using for your history of concert pitch standardization? Are you aware of the derivation of 432 Hz, it’s ratio & how these were arrived at before the Hz measurement scale?

      • The Well Dressed Man | Sep 19, 2013 at 10:40 pm |

        I thought that pitch inflation of concert A from below 400 had been pretty well established by analyzing surviving instruments from the classical period.

        • Calypso_1 | Sep 20, 2013 at 1:42 am |

          indeed, and its in the period lit. & prior to Hz there were monochord string w/ specified weight ratio for tuning and air pipe lengths. Somehow…magically perhaps, standard 440 tuning forks were being used a century prior to any BBC radio transmission needs.

  5. BuzzCoastin | Sep 19, 2013 at 10:10 pm |

    The power of music and sound may be far more profound than we realise

    I hear ya

    • Hocketeer | Sep 20, 2013 at 4:30 am |

      Most definitely is, just not the superficial & erroneous way it is presented here. Would hope the author is responsible & studies up a bit to produce something of more value next time.

  6. My two cents, as a life-long musician. It’s more about relationships than it is about the specific vibration of particular elements. Every note will have octaves, fourths, fifths and all the other harmonious relationships. Chords that have discord or disharmony in them bridge from one harmonious relationship to another. As with chaos and fractals.

    At times I have tuned my guitar by ear for long periods of time. When I got around to checking it against a tuning device, I had strayed a lot more than 440-432. Yet “sad” music was still sad and so on.

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