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The Melody of Creation: Music as Cosmic Song (Part III: The Music of the Spheres)

Posted by Steve Turley ● May 13, 2015 9:10:00 PM

In our last post, we explored music in the Hebraic world of the Old Testament. We found that Job describes how the morning stars sang together and the sons of God shouted for joy as the world was created (38:7), and learned how the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament) depicted God creating the world as ‘beautiful’ (kallos). We observed that the music of the Temple was interpreted by Jews as a continuation of this cosmic song which manifested the presence of God in the midst of his worshippers.

We shall now explore the Greek concept of the ‘music of the spheres’ and its Christian re-appropriation.

The Music of the Spheres

The Hebrews were not alone in conceiving of the cosmos as an arena of divine song. The Ionian Greek philosopher Pythagoras (ca. 570-490 BC) imagined that the entire cosmos is subject to the same laws of proportion that rule music, such that all things form a great harmony. This term, harmonia, for the Greeks, is not so much a musical term as it is a cosmic one. Harmony is first and foremost a cosmic mathematical principle which involves a blending and combining of opposites into a grand system, a cosmic structure where all things are related to each other. Pythagoras links together the mathematics that comprise the basis for music with the idea that there are underlying mathematical harmonies throughout the entire cosmos to come up with his concept of the ‘music of the spheres.’ Pythagoras envisions the harmoniousness of the whole universe, such that each of these planets and star systems has its own different tonal sequence. And thus it is the combination of the stars and the planets that make the sounds of the heavenly spheres.

The important point here is that music for the Greeks and the wider classical tradition was not so much understood as something performed, composed, practiced, or played; rather music was interpreted as a mathematical discipline, which sought to discover and formalize the symmetrical relations between sounds.[1] It was an integral component to the mathematical disciplines that comprised the quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. For the classical mind, arithmetic revealed ‘number in itself,’ geometry revealed ‘number in space,’ music revealed ‘number in time,’ and astronomy revealed ‘number in space and time.’ In this sense, music was an integral part of the Greek educational curriculum which functioned as a metaphor for this whole cosmic chain of interrelationships and harmonies. Indeed, Plato could say: “The whole choral art is also in our view the whole of education” (Laws Bk II). The Greeks understood the nature of reality and its systems of relations in musical terms.

The Christian Re-appropriation

Christian apologists such as Clement of Alexandria (c.150-c.215) reshaped the Pythagorean concept of the music of the spheres by presenting Christ as “the minstrel who imparts harmony to the universe and makes music to God.”[2] Inspired by cosmic passages such as John 1:1, 1 Corinthians 8:6, and Colossians 1:15-20, the symphony of the cosmos is in fact Christ, the Logos, through whom all things were made and in whom all things hold together. Clement’s successor Origen envisioned a cosmic chorus in Christian worship:

For we sing hymns to the one God who is over all and his only begotten Word, who is God also. So we sing to God and his only begotten as do the sun, the moon, the stars and the entire heavenly host. For all these form a sacred chorus and sing hymns to the God of all and his only begotten along with those among men who are just. (Against Celsus VIII, 67)[3]

Augustine (354-430) developed this even further in his De Musica with the conception that the numbers of music derive from the unchanging order of eternal numbers which themselves proceed from God. Indeed, Augustine concludes his study in Book VI with the insight that God is music. In other words, God is perfect symmetry, proportionality, unity, diversity, harmony, and number.[4] For Augustine, when God formed the world from nothing, the form was itself music. Thus the entire chain of created being is held together and sustained by music. And we are obligated to maintain and perpetuate that harmony as creatures wholly dependent on the promises and provisions of our Creator.

And it all came together with the music theory of Boethius (480-524 AD) in the early sixth-century. In his Principles of Music, he structure music according to the three-fold pattern of the music of the spheres, the music of the natural world, and the music of the soul. His treatise, which was transmitted throughout the Latin West, was influential for the next thousand years. Indeed, Boethius’ Principles of Music was the music theory textbook used at Oxford as recently as 1856.[5]

In Jewish, Greek, and Christian traditions, the goal of music was to reveal reality by awakening on earth the music of the heavens, that is, the numbers, symmetries, consonances, and unities of the cosmos. While we can’t hear this cosmic music (in that we are too far and fallen), we do have access to the mathematics and principles of symmetry by which that music constantly sounds. This is reflected in the Greek word, symmetria, which means ‘beautiful.’ By awakening the music of the heavens on earth through the study of mathematical proportionality and symmetry, we are able to embody such cosmic harmony and thus transform into heavenly beings.

In our next post, we will discover the ways in which this music of the spheres served as a divinely ordained instrument for the sanctification of the soul.

Until then, was this your first encounter with the music of the spheres? If so, does this change your understanding of music, and if so, in what way(s)?

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[1] Carol Harrison, “Augustine and the Art of Music,” in Jeremy S. Begbi, Steve R. Guthrie (eds.), Resonant Witness: Conversations between Music and Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 27-45, 27.

[2] Avery Cardinal Dulles, A History of Apologetics (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1997), 39-40.

[3] Cited in Music in Early Christian Literature, 38.

[4] Harrison, “Augustine,” 31.

[5] Robert Reilly, “The Music of the Spheres,” http://www.theimaginativeconservative.org/2012/02/music-of-spheres.html.

Featured image credit: © 2010 Peter Rosbjerg, Flickr | CC-BY-ND | via Wylio

Topics: music, blog, Greeks, music of the spheres, Patristic theology

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