Musica Universalis

Harmonices Mundi

The musica universalis (literally ‘universal music’), also called ‘music of the spheres’ or ‘harmony of the spheres,’ is an ancient philosophical concept that regards proportions in the movements of celestial bodies—the Sun, Moon, and planets—as a form of music. This ‘music’ is not thought to be audible, but rather a harmonic, mathematical, or religious concept.

The idea continued to appeal to scholars until the end of the Renaissance, influencing many kinds of scholars, including humanists. Further scientific exploration discovered orbital resonance in specific proportions in some orbital motion.

The discovery of the precise relation between the pitch of the musical note and the length of the string that produces it is attributed to Greek philosopher Pythagoras. The Music of the Spheres incorporates the metaphysical principle that mathematical relationships express qualities or ‘tones’ of energy which manifest in numbers, visual angles, shapes and sounds – all connected within a pattern of proportion.

Pythagoras first identified that the pitch of a musical note is in inverse proportion to the length of the string that produces it, and that intervals between harmonious sound frequencies form simple numerical ratios. In a theory known as the Harmony of the Spheres, Pythagoras proposed that the Sun, Moon and planets all emit their own unique hum based on their orbital revolution, and that the quality of life on Earth reflects the tenor of celestial sounds which are physically imperceptible to the human ear.

Subsequently, Plato described astronomy and music as ‘twinned’ studies of sensual recognition: astronomy for the eyes, music for the ears, and both requiring knowledge of numerical proportions. Aristotle criticized the notion that celestial bodies make a sound in moving in the context of his own cosmological model.

The three branches of the Medieval concept of ‘musica’ were presented in the fifth century by Roman philosopher Boethius in his book ‘De Musica’: ‘musica mundana’ (sometimes referred to as ‘musica universalis’), ‘musica humana’ (the internal music of the human body), and ‘musica quae in quibusdam constituta est instrumentis’ (sounds made by singers and instrumentalists)

In 1619, German astronomer Johannes Kepler published ‘Harmonices Mundi’ (‘The Harmony of the World’). Written entirely in Latin, Kepler discusses harmony and congruence in geometrical forms and physical phenomena. He posited that musical intervals and harmonies describe the motions of the six known planets of the time. He believed that this harmony, while inaudible, could be heard by the soul, and that it gave a ‘very agreeable feeling of bliss, afforded him by this music in the imitation of God.’ In ‘Harmonices,’ Kepler who differed from Pythagorean observations, laid out an argument for a christian-centric creator who had made an explicit connection between geometry, astronomy, and music, and that the planets were arranged intelligently.

The connection between music, mathematics, and astronomy had a profound impact on history. It resulted in music’s inclusion in the Quadrivium, the medieval curriculum that included arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy, and along with the Trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) made up the seven liberal arts, which are still the basis for higher education today.

A small number of recent compositions either make reference to or are based on the concepts of Musica Universalis or Harmony of the Spheres. Among these are ‘Music of the Spheres’ by Mike Oldfield, ‘Om’ by the Moody Blues, ‘The Earth Sings Mi Fa Mi’ album by The Receiving End of Sirens, ‘Music of the Spheres’ by Ian Brown, and Björk’s single ‘Cosmogony,’ included in her 2011 album ‘Biophilia.’ Earlier, in the 1910s, Danish composer Rued Langgaard composed a pioneering orchestral work titled ‘Music of the Spheres.’

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