Music of the spheres
“…the people of their island [Laputa]
had their ears adapted to hear the music of the spheres…”
~ Jonathan Swift (1667–1745)
What is ‘Music of the Spheres’? It was the early Greeks who came up with the idea that the planets rotating around the Earth make sound, make music. These sounds were different depending on the size of the planet and their velocity. For them (Pythagoras is the name we associate with this idea’s origins), the universe was organized as a system of musical harmony. To them everything in the universe was vibrating in tune with the larger things that contain it and we were literally living inside this giant musical instrument, which was playing notes, chords, and scales.
This idea lived on in European thinking for centuries. In 1492, Franchinus Gaffurius, a contemporary of Leonardo Da Vinci, published a music theory book in which he connected his ideas about music to Pythagoras and to the planets. Below are two pictures from his work, one showing Pythagoras developing his theories about music, and the next one showing the planetary links.
Once again, R. Murray Schafer is an important reference for this blog. This link takes you to an excerpt from his Tuning of the World, in which he talks about the mythic roots of the idea of the music of the spheres, and where he discusses Robert Fludd’s early 17th century book Utriusque Cosmi Historia. In Fludd’s book there is an illustration entitled “The Tuning of the World”, in which, Schafer writes, “… the earth forms the body of an instrument across which strings are stretched and are tuned by a divine hand. We must try once again to find the secret of that tuning.”
In 1619, Johannes Kepler wrote Harmonice Mundi (Harmonies of the World). Kepler’s goal was to relate musical harmony to planetary motion and to find a “musically harmonious” relation between the distances of the planets from the sun. Kepler describes these ideas in Harmonice Munde as his attempt “…to erect the magnificent edifice of the harmonic system of the musical scale . . . as God, the Creator Himself, has expressed it in harmonizing the heavenly motions.” (Pakhomov)
A lot of music related to astronomy, or inspired by astronomy has been written over the past centuries. Here is a link to a list of such compositions.
The idea of ‘Music of the Spheres’ has not disappeared. It still captivates us.
In 1979, using a computer at Yale University, Willie Ruff and John Rodgers composed what they thought the ‘Music of the Spheres’ sounds like. Here is a link to an article about their work. And here is a link where you can hear what they composed.
Here is another version of the sound of the ‘Music of the Spheres’, created at Princeton.
Software engineer Jim Bumgardner has created The Wheel of Stars, a musical rendition of the music of space based on data collected from the European Space Agency’s Hipparcos satellite. You can read about his work and hear the music here.
And White Vinyl Design has put together a turntable where you can spin the ‘Music of the Spheres’.
At this link you will find a multi-media dance piece of Kepler’s harmony of the planets.
And last but not least, here is the whole idea of the ‘Music of the Spheres’ explained in great detail in a video! It’s great!
Next time you are out late at night, and the sky is clear, and the stars are bright, and the moon is waning, perhaps, if you listen hard enough, you too may hear the ‘Music of the Spheres’.