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.
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!