Friday, 8 February 2013

Musical Spheres

I've been enjoying Howard Goodall's TV series on the history of music. It's his personal view and it inspired me to take a look at what my own might be. Coinciding with this, I had to summarise in ten minutes a talk that I've been preparing for the WI called "Musical Spheres" which explores the way that music has been regarded by philosophers in the past. The challenge was to squeeze this overview, which ranges from ancient Babylon to contemporary times, into a few brief minutes and without any off-putting technical terms. When contemplating this task, the Reduced Shakespeare Company came to mind.  Here is the result.

The ancient Greeks were the first to describe the way a vibrating string works. They discovered the simple relationships between the sounds produced and the length of the string. They also viewed the universe in terms of planetary spheres with the earth at the centre and everything else revolving round it. Each planetary sphere was associated with a vibration, with a particular note. To describe how the planets and constellations moved, they superimposed their findings about vibrating strings.

What sort of universe were they describing? Going back even further in time, the Babylonians thought that the planets were gods, roaming about the skies. The planetary gods came to have personalities and there are well known Greek myths about them. The sun god, Apollo, for example, was particularly associated with music. Music and sound, as employed by the gods were thought to have great powers, even having the ability to move huge rocks. Musical "modes", like our own major and minor modes, had their own particular qualities and effects.

The quality of sound, its timbre, is dependent on the harmonic series which is a development from the Greek's string theory. In the 16th century, Kepler described the movement of the planets with his three laws of planetary motion. These were inspired by the maths of musical vibrations, using the harmonic series, so the idea of a "music of the spheres" was continued. The quest was still on to unite heaven and earth and music was the key.

Music can unite opposing forces, like rhythm and melody and also represents opposites through forms of music, such as folk music, which is earthy, and sacred music which is mystical. You could describe these as expressing the opposites of heaven and earth and the Greeks had represented them with two cults, those of Apollo and of Dionysus. The first was spiritual, intellectual and heavenly, the second orgiastic, hedonistic and earthly.

Two later philosophers who were interested in music were Schopenhauer and Nietzsche (1844-1900). Schopenhauer was a pessimist and thought that music was a means to escape from the terrible realities and suffering in the world, while Nietzsche said that music was the way to live life more fully, not to escape from it but to live it to the full. He described those opposites as Apollonian and Dionysian and that they have a psychological significance. He believed that the imagination, art and music in particular, were the means for uniting them. In this way we can become whole.

Music since the early twentieth century has continued to represent the division of opposites and we today have a clear opposition between classical and popular music. The ancients attempt to unify heaven and earth has become in modern times a psychology to do with the conscious and unconscious mind, the inner and outer worlds of experience.  Modern composers are now as concerned with what goes on in the mind as in expressing what lies outside it. Modern music explores how to bring all of these things together and can be described as a healing force. Indeed, there has been much research into and application of the relaxing and healing effects of music.

That's it.  I reckon about ten-minutes worth!

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