“Musica Universalis” – The Music of the Spheres

The Music of the Spheres

Franchino Gaffurio. “Theorica Musicae”
Milan: Philippium Mantegatium. (1492)

Throughout the ages and until fairly recently, the heavens were envisioned as a series of crystalline spheres that rotated one inside the other in accordance with the rhythm of harmonious celestial music.

The proponent of this idea was the philosopher Pythagorus. He had noticed that the hammers used by blacksmiths gave off different tonal notes whilst being used. These notes were dependant upon the hammer’s weight. He established a tone to weight ratio.

This ratio is also apparent in stringed instruments. We hear a stringed instrument being played and see its strings vibrate. Our ears pick up the sounds as they travel through the air. The strings have a musical relationship with each other just like the blacksmith’s hammers but the different sound each string makes is due its length and not it’s weight.

It was generally accepted that moving objects produced sound vibrations and it was a very short step to apply this rationale to the celestial realm as it moved overhead. This in turn gave rise to the theory of “Musica Universalis” or The Music of the Spheres.

Musical theory is based upon numerical proportions and ratios that dictate its rhythms, note lengths and key structures. From the simplest of tunes to complex instrumental arrangements, it is the underlying beat that gives movement to all music and this numerical notation is paramount. Pythagorus believed that the Universe followed suit. The same numerical patterns found in music were the principle components that underpinned everything and set the elements moving in a harmonious way. Numbers and numerical structure were responsible for the order of the universe and its rhythms.

Just as there are 7 notes in a musical scale and 7 ‘classical planets’, so too the  Chaldean Order of the planets dictated the distance of each planet the earth and one planet from another. Every planet’s weight, from lightest to heaviest, depended upon their numerical distance from earth. This neatly parallels the blacksmith’s hammers. Pythagorus and other ancient philosopher believed that planets further from the earth had a much graver the note e.g. saturn. Conversely, the moon, the closest heavenly body to earth, has the shrillest note of all. 

But why can’t we hear this celestial music? Given the vastness of the universe the sound must be very loud and audible here on earth. Pythagoras surmised that because this music was continuous and as we had been exposed to it from birth we didn’t actually notice it. It could be thought of as a kind of universal background noise. Since we’d never truly experienced real silence we’d nothing to compare it with. This itself raised the idea of the audible and the inaudible, a physical realm that we could experience with our senses and a non-physical realm we couldn’t that existed side by side.

Although not all philosophers agreed with Pythagorus, this rather lovely idea of the heavenly music of the spheres persists in our modern world.