IMAGINE A MUSICAL COSMOS: IS REALITY A FANTASY?

In MUSIC by Michele Svane Squarcia1 Comment

In Europe, since ancient Greece, scientists and artists of all times have studied and gone to great lengths to liken musical systems and the cosmic order. The idea has had names such as, the harmony of the spheres and the science of harmonics. To be fair, this tradition or the philosophy of a musical cosmos is now widely regarded as a form of numerological mysticism rather than science. Nevertheless, there are certain astronomical facts about our solar system, e.g. see the Titius-Bode law, that seem so strikingly similar to certain facts of not only the European musical system but also Middle-Eastern and Indian musical systems. Therefore, whether reality or fantasy, I find it understandable that such connections have been made numerous times in history up until our time. Sadly, since the philosophy, not to call it a religion, demands explanations of mathematics, music theory, astronomy, philosophy and history, it would be too intricate to demonstrate here.

In the modern scientific era of the early 20th century, one of the theory’s advocates, Rudolf Haase, writes that certain patterns found in music recur in various areas such as physics, acoustics, arithmetic, geometry, crystallography, cybernetics, theology and philosophy. Thus, we see the actual problem of the matter: Understanding the notion of a musical cosmos demands insight into all areas of knowledge and does not go well with this postmodern culture of specialisation. I will however endeavour to discuss this theory by comparing elements of two seemingly different phenomena of human culture: physics and music. For the sake of surety, I will mainly speak of what we might call traditional European or Western concepts in the following. Furthermore in the end, these concepts are only certain ideas among many throughout the history and places of this world and cannot be regarded as universal truths.

The smallest structural unit is the phrase, a kind of musical molecule consisting of a number of integrated musical events, possessing a certain completeness, and well adapted to combination with other similar units.
~Arnold Schoenberg~

Beginning with classical European music, it has been tradition as far as written composition goes back, that music is the organisation of tones into melodies and harmonies or chords based on the elements of a simple tonal structure called a scale. From a scale, basic musical patterns called motives are formed. Firstly, these motives are presented in what you might call their most basic form. Then the motives are varied or developed in various ways, creating even larger structures, called phrases, that form melodies and harmonies, and in the end; the whole of the musical piece.

In one of my attempts to academically understand the fantastic music of my favourite composer, Beethoven, I came across an idea proposed by Janet Schmalfeldt, of Beethoven’s music always being in the process of becoming. How I understand it is, that being present in the now, all you experience is the musical pattern in its momental state of constant change. Thus, you will never experience the piece in its entirety. The only reason it is intelligible is that you hear it in relation to your remembrance of what you heard in the past and your anticipation or what you think you will hear in the future. It sounds a lot like human experience generally, doesn’t it? In any case, it’s a good way to exemplify the dynamical process of musical structuring.

As said, these motives build upon another foundational structure; a certain scale, and one way to vary the musical patterns can be to construct a certain motive in exactly the same way in another scale. That way many scales, typically harmonically connected in accordance with certain cultural ideas of special relations between certain notes in a scale, can come into play within a piece of music. Mostly two types of scales consisting of 7 tones are used in European classical music, major and minor, although many others exist and the possibilities of scale construction are theoretically endless. However, the thing almost all of the almost endless possibility of scales have in common, is the fact that they build upon an even more general structure called an octave, which is divided into 12 equal parts called halftones as known from the piano:

Going deeper still, every single one of these tones that we perceive as precisely a single tone, when played on a musical string, consists of a theoretically endless series of overtones. It is in fact the string in question vibrating in many ever-higher frequencies at the same time. To be sure: what you hear when you hear one musical note is actually a harmony of hardly distinguishable tones that continue way outside the human hearing capacity. To sum up this admittedly elaborate explanation of musical structuring, one way of looking at music is that it is made of:

  • uncountable and tiny harmonically structured entities called tones;
  • organised into basic melodic, harmonic and rhythmical structures called motives;
  • organised into larger structures called phrases (and sentences);
  • which are connected into themes;
  • that in combination make out even larger structural parts which are called many different things dependent on the type of music;
  • which, in the end form a musical piece.
  • In many cases, such pieces of music make out but single movements in trilogies or quadrilogies that have some kind of systematic connection.

So when the western musicologists analyse a piece of music, what they do is peel away the layer of tonal and harmonic variation to determine the structural starting point of the music in question. Rather, the structural foundation of the music. This way of structuring music does bring thoughts to mind of both the modern theory of evolution as well as the one so famously called the big bang theory. In the same way as in the description of musical structuring and development, modern physics regards all matter in the universe as structural formations of:

  • subatomic particles;
  • forming atoms;
  • forming molecules;
  • forming all matter;
  • forming stars, and planets and moons and the beings that inhabit some of them;
  • forming galaxies;
  • forming clusters of galaxies;
  • and so on and so forth far beyond the limits of our imagination.

If, for the sake of argument, we were to accept the somewhat discarded String-theory of modern physics; then subatomic particles would even be made of tiny vibrating strings of energy, making a subatomic particle similar to a musical note. One could even say, as the cosmologist Brian Greene amongst others insinuated in detail, that everything and everyone in the universe is made of these uncountable and invisible strings of energy resonating in the fabric of space-time. It might seem far-fetched. So let’s continue by recognising that certain similarities begin to emerge in two seemingly different areas of Western thought, science and music. How is that?

In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order. Every civilized human being, whatever his conscious development, is still an archaic man at the deeper levels of his psyche. Just as the human body connects us with the mammals and displays numerous relics of earlier evolutionary stages going back to even the reptilian age, so the human psyche is likewise a product of evolution which, when followed up to its origins, show countless archaic traits.
~Carl Jung~

It is a very difficult thing to prove. So let me just lay out the idea as a theory of the creative mind, that somewhere around the time of the intellectual or spiritual awakening of our species, something germinated from the soil of human activity. This something – a way of thinking, turned into all the different variations of philosophy, religion, and even music that now pervade the world. Deeply integrated into all these philosophies, religions, and ways of expression, like language, music and arts, of our time, we still find remnants or cultural developments of those original ways of thinking. It has to do with structuring in a certain way in our minds; how we perceive and express the world around us.

Writing my thesis in musicology, I stumbled upon the philosopher Ernst Cassirer who explains it as a way of understanding through symbolic formation. One certain academic interpretation of Cassirers theory by Drucilla Cornell & Kenneth Michael Panfilio, formulates it as: the human, rather than being a rational creature, is a symbolic creature who seeks to explain its intentions and experiences; through things already defined. Things it can already relate to; ultimately through language. If we accept this argument, please indulge me; that all of human culture in this way is a behavioural system of systems intertwined: That this system is based on a network of symbolisms; i.e. beliefs or ways of understanding and expressions. Then, is it so hard to accept this system is coming out of a universal way of structuring? That if a certain cosmological order upholds the universe, then – because we are universal beings – everything we do including thinking and the way we make music, is in its outcome based on this cosmological order. Which is then developed further culturally – in some cases, maybe even this one, to the edge of sanity and beyond.

As I have mentioned above I don’t venture to say I have proof that everything is an endless and diverse development in all directions – even as culture – of some basic universal structure. Who am I even to demand to understand it or try to express it? What I do find understandable is the idea that in everything from cosmology to musicology, as demonstrated, we interpret the world as structural patterns in order to make it comprehensible. To us self. In this way, we are the ones creating the world through the billions of experiences and formulations of these experiences, which of course is a fascinating thought in its own right: That our world exists only in our minds. However, it would never change the fact that the worlds created in the minds of humans are mere symbolic recreations, beautiful as they may be, of a physical reality seemingly accessible only through subjective sensational experience. Thus, I see only two possible conclusions: Either the universe continually exposes itself to us in various systemised or organised ways or we continue to perceive the universe this way because it is how our minds work. The question here is: Does the mind work that way because the universe works that way?

It certainly would make a tremendously beautiful equation; if the cosmological order of the universe was to reflect itself in the creations of one of its own beings.

Without organisation music would be an amorphous mass, as unintelligible as an essay without punctuation,  or as disconnected as a conversation which leaps purposelessly from one subject to another.
~Arnold Schoenberg~

Anyone who, for whatever meaningless purpose, has taken an IQ-test knows that even if you know it is there, a certain pattern does not necessarily reveal itself to you. So how do you know if there even is a pattern? Well you really don’t actually. You suppose so because all the other questions of the test seem to have been about exposing a certain pattern in the figures presented. So failing to see a system doesn’t necessarily mean the system isn’t there. However, it is not so much the actual kind of structure or system that interests me, as it is the fact that everything is structured. I believe if nothing was structured it truly would be chaos. That way, structure must be a premise for existence. It certainly is for most musics I dare say. What my own studies have shown is that the idea of a musical cosmos – which seems to have travelled along the tracks of European history since its beginning – comes out of an ancient, probably Middle-Eastern or Indian, notion that everything, including music, is explainable through mathematics, because all is number. Furthermore, every scientific attempt to prove the musicality of the cosmos, that I have been presented with, has been explained with numerical symbolisation. Then, as for the question: is the universe musical? I would rather say that the human cultural phenomenon of music is universal. This, because we use a general principle of structuring to create music, which can also be found in other structures of the cosmos. It does however remind of the classical dilemma of the chicken and the egg.

The source of all movement,
Shiva’s dance,
Gives rhythm to the universe.
He dances in evil places,
In sacred,
He creates and preserves,
Destroys and releases.
We are part of this dance
This eternal rhythm,
And woe to us if, blinded
By illusions,
We detach ourselves
From the dancing cosmos,
This universal harmony…
~Ruth Peel~

The pressing question is what can the re-realisation of a musical cosmos bring humanity? Another true believer, Joachim-Ernst Berendt in The World is Sound, wants it to be about a change in perception of the world from largely seeing it to largely hearing it. Ultimately meaning an expansion of human consciousness. Another metaphorical and much simpler way to put it would be that we start to listen to each other. Meaning to try to understand each other. We may find we are all different but connected notes in the same universal masterpiece.

If, in any case, in my understanding of Cassirer, everything we touch upon is either consciously or subconsciously made out to be in a certain way, by us. And it really only has to do with reality indirectly. Said differently, it has to do with how we humans perceive reality. Moreover, in this world so desperately in need of a change in point of view, regarding what it means to be human: Who wants to join me and step into a wondrous universe of harmonies and melodies so complex that we need all of our senses and our spiritual minds to even grasp it? Then imagine a musical cosmos in which the simple notion of harmony is the general principle. Let’s bring humanity in tune and accept the idea that everything consists of both physical and metaphysical elements dancing in a balance of relational coexistence. Blending… Evolving… Always in the process of becoming something new and amazing out of what is was before. A cosmic symphony of everything sounding in nothing forever and ever.

We got the power to do that!
~Gorillaz~

About the Author

Michele Svane Squarcia

Master of Arts in Musicology. First Knight to Her Majesty The Universe. Art: Photography, Poetry and other writings, and Music. Soundcloud: TheNatureOfReality / Instagram: the.nature.of.reality


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  1. simply wonderful and compassionte blog thank you from my heart sincerely

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