Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.–Plato, Ancient Greek Philosopher (428/7 – 348/7 BC)
Music of the soul
Of all human creative activities, music is probably the most universally popular art form.
Music can range from improvised music-making to pieces that are strictly organised in every detail for both composition and performance. Its types cross a number of genres and sub-genres, which can be tightly defined or have dividing lines blurred, often quite intentionally. It can be classed as everything from a fine art through folk music to popular music. Music even has strict and somewhat surprising connections to physics and mathematics through the measurement of tonality, rhythm and pitch.
Able to be used for everything from religious observance to disco dancing, music has the power, probably like no other artistic medium, to uplift and transform, even to aid transcendence. With good reason, it has been said that “music hath charms to soothe the savage beast”. In fact this famous saying (see Spiritual Wellbeing for some others) seems to be a misquote as the original is from William Congreve’s play, The Mourning Bride, of 1697:
Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.
I’ve read, that things inanimate have mov’d,
And, as with living Souls, have been inform’d,
By Magick Numbers and persuasive Sound.
The earliest musical instrument was almost definitely the human voice, but prehistoric flutes dating back 40,000 years have been unearthed.
The Ancient Egyptians credited their god of Wisdom and Writing, the ibis-headed Thoth, with the invention of music. Thoth was the great intellectual – and workhorse – of the Egyptian pantheon.
In Ancient Greece, the great mathematician Pythagoras identified the pitch of a musical note as being in proportion to the length of string that produces it. He also found that the intervals between harmonious sounds were mathematically measurable ratios.
Pythagoras further went on to comment on the accepted view of the cosmos, which was then thought to be a series of concentric spheres to which each of the planets was fixed. These spheres then moved in orbit. He postulated that each of the planets, moving along its set plane and in set proportions to each of the other planets within their respective spheres, emitted its own unique sound vibration, which in turn varied in proportion to the sound vibration of the other planets. This hum or frequency vibration was the musica universalis, a divine “Harmony of the Spheres” – not an audible music, but more a harmonic, mathematical and religious concept.
The only proof for the existence of God
“If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph:
THE ONLY PROOF HE NEEDED
FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD
― Kurt Vonnegut, AMERICAN NOVELIST (1922-2007)
So, we have seen the ancient idea of the relationship of sound and music to the divine essence. Today, we may have different ideas, but the experience we have in hearing music is one that we share with the ancients.
You may love swinging to the beat at a rock concert, grooving to jazz improvisations; you may get absorbed in hypnotic African drum beats, or want to dance to Irish folk. Perhaps you’re into Sixties music – Beatles, Rolling Stones, early BeeGees; or the great lyricist-songwriters like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez or Leonard Cohen. Maybe your thing is Punk, Grunge or New Wave. Or the Easy Listeners – Dean Martin, Herb Alpert, James Last and their modern counterparts Michael Bublé and André Rieu. Or perhaps you get swept away by an inspiring film score, cry at Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, or marvel at the integration of popular and classical traditions in Bernstein’s West Side Story. Or you are carried away by the terpsichorean rhythms of Rameau, admire the intellectual precision of Bach, or the effortless genius of Mozart, the intensity and vision of Beethoven, the breathtaking complexity of Wagner, the orchestral colour of Mahler, or the excess of Bruckner. You might love or hate Shostakovitch, Stravinsky or the revolution of Schoenberg and anarchy of his modern successors. Or countless other possibilities.
Perhaps you’re a singer – solo or in a massed choir. A musician in a band or folk group, a busker, or a player in the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. If you’re any of these, you know the joy of making good music together, of the whole being infinitely more than the sum of the parts.
It’s all music, we all have it in common, and it has a power over us like no other.
Vonnegut was right. At least, he certainly speaks for me.
Without music, life would be a mistake.–Friedrich Nietzsche, German Philosopher (1844-1900)