Home | Reviews | Blog | Daily | Glossary | Orrin's Stuff | Email

The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul. If heed is not paid to this, it is not true music but a diabolical bawling and twanging.
    -J. S. Bach (1685-1750)

To understand the argument of this book it is helpful to refer to the subtitle--"Music, Science, and the Natural Order of the Universe"--even though the conjunction of Science and Music must seem strange to us moderns and the notion of "Natural Order" some kind of cosmic joke. But Mr. James's point is that such was not always the case. In fact, until just recently the two pursuits were intimately connected and guided by the idea that a natural order underlay the universe, and quite possibly to the betterment of us all:
Picture to yourself, if you can, a universe in which everything makes sense. A serene order presides over the earth around you, and the heavens above revove in sublime harmony. Everything you can see and hear and know is an aspect of the ultimate truth: the noble simplicity of a geometric theorem, the predictability of the movements of heavenly bodies, the harmonious beauty of a well-proportioned fugue--all are reflections of the essential perfection of the universe. And here on earth, too, no less than in the heavens and in the world of ideas, order prevails: every creature from the oyster to the emperor has its place, preordained and eternal. It is not simply a matter of faith: the best philosophical and scientific minds have proved that it is so.

This is no New Age fantasy but our own world as scientists, philosophers, and artists knew it until the advent of the Industrial Revolution and its companion in the arts, the Romantic movement. [...]

The concepts of the musical universe and the Great Chain of Being originate in the classical bedrock of our culture, flow through the Christian tradition, and remain firmly centered in the Renaissance and the Age of Reason. They are at the core of the culture. It was not until the the nineteenth century that the perspectives shifted decisively to the earthly, the tangible. Materialism and sensuality, qualities that had been deeply mistrusted throughout most of the Western tradition, emerged ascendant.

All art, including music, was a much more serious matter before the self-conscious aestheticism of the late nineteenth century took root. [...]

In the same way, science was deeply involved in the whole ethos of the culture. [...] The history of science is the continuing process of the widening gulf between the ideals and the practice of science. At the birth of Western science in the sixth century B.C., the two were identical. The asking of the question was the intellectual breakthrough, and the answers were as poetic and expansive as the questions, for there existed no data with which they were expected to conform, aside from the perceived order and beauty of creation. "Doing things" was disdained as unworthy of science, whose true purpose was to elucidate the fundamental unities that explain the function and thuis the meaning of the phenomenal world. [...]

Nowadays most scientists would accept the thesis that the cosmos has no underlying logic in the classical sense, but it rather a confluence of accidents, which are governed by laws. However, the laws themselves are irrational and do not arise from any fundamental orderliness.
The book follows the descent of music in particular away from the ideals of order, universality, and beauty and into the pit of disorder, selfish subjectivism, and mere materialism.

Mr. James begins his story with Pythagoras, and because he is so central to what follows (and because this is the one extended excerpt I was able to find on-line), perhaps it will be appropriate to quote at length:
It is scarcely an overstatement to say that most of what you will read in the first chapters of this history was known to every well-educated person from the earliest days of Greek civilization until the end of the last century. Here is not the place to bemoan the decline of classical education, but it is a fact of modern life that the core of what constituted education and civilization throughout the whole sweep of Western thought is now a scholarly specialty, and a rather exotic one at that. Modern students are able to obtain degrees, even in the humanities, from the country's best colleges having read no more of the classics than translations of the Republic, one of Homer's epics, and the Aeneid. However, in order to make sense of Western music from any period, it is essential to understand its humanistic basis, which is firmly grounded in the classics.

Music and science begin at the same point, where civilization itself begins, and standing at the source is the quasi-mythical figure of Pythagoras. Although most people today know little more about him than the geometrical theorem that bears his name, Pythagoras's contribution to what we call civilization is fundamental. Arthur Koestler used a musical metaphor to describe it:

The sixth century scene evokes the image of an orchestra expectantly tuning up, each player absorbed in his own instrument only, deaf to the caterwaulings of the others. Then there is a dramatic silence, the conductor enters the stage, raps three times with his baton, and harmony emerges from the chaos. The maestro is Pythagoras of Samos, whose influence on the ideas, and thereby on the destiny, of the human race was probably greater than that of any single man before or after him.


We shall never know exactly to what extent the historical Pythagoras corresponds to the Master of humanist tradition, any more than we shall ever know who actually wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey, or whether all those spiritual utterances in the Gospels were really said by the historical Jesus of Nazareth. Yet for the purposes of the historian it really does not matter, for the doubts themselves are anachronistic: the point is that through the vast span of history in which Pythagorean humanism (and the study of Homer, and Christianity) were vibrant intellectual forces, there was never a shadow of doubt as to the authenticity and veracity of the tradition. You can put quotation marks around "Pythagoras" if that will make you feel more up-to-date, but it will not alter the meaning; the people who pursued Pythagoreanism over the course of thousands of years did believe, implicitly, in the historicity of the Master. The real Jesus may have been a charlatan, but the Jesus worshipped by millions of people changed the course of history; and it would be wrong, regardless of what a thousand copiously annotated doctoral dissertations may say, to attribute the Iliad to Anonymous.

Therefore, let us assert that Pythagoras, in or out of quotation marks, was a figure of fundamental importance to Western thought. The very word "philosophy" was coined by him; his primitive precursors were known as 'sophoi'; the wise, but Pythagoras called himself 'philosophos'; a lover of wisdom. Nonetheless, it may not be quite accurate to characterize Pythagoras as simply a thinker or a philosopher; while he propounded a scientific view of the cosmos he was also a mystic who advocated a way of life. If pundit and guru were words not so much sullied by specious usage in recent years, we might aptly apply them to him. The Pythagorean system was not only the first attempt to answer the great questions-What is the universe? From what was it created? What is man? What is the nature of human knowledge?-it also created an overarching view of the cosmos, and showed man his place in this great scheme. Perhaps of even greater importance in establishing philosophy as a thriving enterprise in the emerging civilization, Pythagoras told his adherents how to live. The language used by his tightly knit band of followers was often ambiguous and even baffling, but it covered every aspect of life. [...]

The Pythagorean philosophy, like Zoroastrianism, Taoism, and every early system of higher thought, is based upon the concept of dualism. Pythagoras constructed a table of opposites from which he was able to derive every concept needed for a philosophy of the phenomenal world. As reconstructed by Aristotle in his Metaphysics, the table contains ten dualities (ten being a particularly important number in the Pythagorean system, as we shall see):

Limited - Unlimited
Odd - Even
One - Many
Right - Left
Male - Female
Rest - Motion
Straight - Curved
Light - Dark
Good - Bad
Square - Oblong

Of these dualities, the first is the most important; all the others may be seen as different aspects of this fundamental dichotomy. To establish a rational and consistent relationship between the limited (man, finite time, and so forth) and the unlimited (the cosmos, eternity, etc.) is not only the aim of Pythagoras's system but the central aim of all Western philosophy.
In addition to his philosophical/scientific contributions though, Pythagoras also is creditted with being the first to notice harmonic intervals and developed a theory of music that would prove to be of enduring importance:


Grade: (A+)


See also:

Music Literature
Jamie James Links:

    -EXCERPT: from The Music of The Spheres - Music, Science, and The Natural Order of The Universe
    -ESSAY: Detour: If you're calling in Jakarta, be sure to check out the 800-year-old port of Batavia (Jamie James, 5/05/03, TIME Asia)
    -ESSAY: The Tribe Out of Time: The Tasaday captured the world's imagination. A new book asks if they were really noble savages (Jamie James, 5/26/03,TIME Asia)
    -ESSAY: The Splendor of Angkor: Now is the best time in many decades to visit Cambodia and its ancient Khmer capital (Jamie James, April 2002, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY: Hong Kong: Four years after the handover, Asia's most cosmopolitan city is more sophisticated than ever. Jamie James returns to explore the many paradoxes of the former crown colony (Jamie James, September 2001, Departures)
    -ESSAY: Hong Kong and Macau Reflagged: They may now be part of China, but they remain distinct--and distinctly marvelous (Jamie James, May 2001, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY: Wordsworth Slept Here: And so did Charlotte Bront‘ and James Murray and E. M. Forster and Beatrix Potter (Jamie James, June 2000, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY: The Toronto Circle: In accomplished stories and novels South Asian writers who are exiles in Canada are re-creating the worlds they left behind (Jamie James, April 2000, The Atlantic)
    -ESSAY: The Edge of the World: Tasmania is the Australia, in miniature, that tourists travel so far to see (Jamie James, March 2000, The Atlantic)
    -ESSAY: Ubud, The Heart of Bali: This part of Indonesia remains welcoming and serene (Jamie James, August 1999, Atlantic Monthly)
    -PROFILE: Dawn Upshaw: All-American Diva (Jamie James, March 1999, Salon)
    -ESSAY: This Hawaii is not for Tourists: Poverty, squalor, and violence mark the "anything but paradise" created by Lois-Ann Yamanaka, an award-winning writer whose blistering work is politically controversial (Jamie James, February 1999, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY: Feasting on the island everyone loves to hate: Don't criticize Singapore until you've tried the kaya at the Chin Mee Chin. (Jamie James, November 30, 1999, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of TEMPERAMENT: The Idea That Solved Music's Greatest Riddle By Stuart Isacoff (Jamie James, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Bombay Ice By Leslie Forbes (Jamie James, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle By Haruki Murakami (Jamie James, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Who's Irish by Gish Jen (Jamie James, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of Taking Flight: Inventing the Aerial Age From Antiquity Through the First World War, Richard P. Hallion (Jamie James, LA Times)
    -REVIEW: of The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde (Jamie James, LA Times)
    -REVIEW: of Troubador and Trouv?re Songs: Russell Oberlin, countertenor/Seymour Barab, viol (Jamie James, NY Times)
    -INTERVIEW: The Bali Blues: Jamie James spoke with TIME about his year in Bali researching his novel (BRIAN BENNETT, 1/13/03, TIME Asia)
    -ESSAY: Math and a Music Education (Ivars Peterson's MathLand, May 28, 1996)
    -ARCHIVES: "Jamie James" (MagPortal)
    -ARCHIVES: "Jamie James" (FindArticles)
    -REVIEW: of The Music of the Spheres: Music, Science, and the Natural Order of the Universe by Jamie James(James Wierzbicki, St. Louis Post-Dispatch)
    -REVIEW: of The Music of the Spheres (Paul Taylor)
    -REVIEW: of ECCENTRICS by David Weeks and Jamie James (Paul Taylor)
    -REVIEW: of Eccentrics: A Study of Sanity and Strangeness by David Weeks and Jamie James (Jordan Elgrably, MetroActive)
    -REVIEW: of Andrew and Joey: A Tale of Bali by Jamie James (BRIAN BENNETT, TIME Asia)

Book-related and General Links:

    -Pythagoras (kirjasto)
    -ESSAY: Pythagoras & Music of the Spheres (Geometry in Art & Architecture)
    -ESSAY: A Tour Up The Harmonic Series (David Canright, Journal of the Just Intonation Network)
    -ESSAY: The Harmonic Series: A path to understanding musical intervals, scales, tuning and timbre. (REGINALD BAIN)
    -ESSAY: Just Intonation: Two Definitions (Cristiano M.L. Forster)
    -Early Greek Philosophy: Pythagoras of Samos (John Burnet)
    -ESSAY: Harmonic Relationships (Chris Walker)
    -Mathematics & Music: Pythagoras
    -ESSAY: MUSIC AND THE UNSOLVED PARADOX OF PYTHAGORAS: Violin Building and the World of Harmonic Sound (Caroline Hartmann, Spring 2003, 21st Century)
    -EXCERPT: THE UNSPEAKABLE TRAGEDY: from Julia E. Diggins, String, Straightedge, and Shadow

    -REVIEW: The magus: John Banville applauds a biography of Isaac Newton that doesn't neglect his study of alchemy (John Banville, August 30, 2003, The Guardian)

    -ARTICLE: Out of black hole's deep throat, a bass note: Discovery of low celestial sound waves may help explain how galaxy clusters regulate their growth. (Peter N. Spotts, 9/10/03, CS Monitor)
    -ESSAY: THE ARTS: The New Century--Toward Recovery (Paul Johnson, Jan 24, 2000, National Review) -ESSAY: Math and a Music Education (Ivars Peterson's MathLand, May 28, 1996
    -ESSAY: Science, delusion, and the appetite for wonder (Richard Dawkins, March-April, 1998, Skeptical Inquirer)
    -ESSAY: Sol�s Violin [a work for the Music of the Spheres] (Andrew Kettle, Institute of Modern Art)
    -EXCERPT: RESTORING THE LOST LOGOS: from EPICENTERS OF JUSTICE :�music theory, sound-current nondualism and�radical ecology (DREW W. HEMPEL)
    -ESSAY: Knowledge Gardening through Music: patterns of coherence for future African management as an alternative to Project Logic
    -EXCERPT: Chapter One of The Two Cultures and the Great Theme In The Music of The Spheres (pdf)
    -ESSAY: The Keplerian Hindemith (R. Craig McCollough)
    -REVIEW: of Einstein and Religion: Physics and Theology By MAX JAMMER (Stanley M. Flatte, Judaism)
    -REVIEW: of Temperament: The Idea That Solved Music's Greatest Riddle by Stuart M. Isacoff (Ruth Franklin, New Republic)
    -ESSAY: Prime Obsession: Will the greatest problem in mathematics ever be resolved? (Margaret Wertheim, 8/22/03, LA Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of The Music of the Primes: Why an unsolved Problem in Mathematics Matters by Marcus du Sautoy (Jonathan Heawood, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of (John Banville, The Guardian)
For what sane man would suppose that Pythagoras, that god of philosophers, at whose name all the men of his times rose up to do solemn reverence -- who, I say, would have supposed that he would have brought forward so well grounded a theory? Certainly, if he taught a harmony of the spheres, and a revolution of the heavens to that sweet music, he wished to symbolize in a wise way the intimate relations of the spheres and their even revolution forever in accordance with the law of destiny. In this he seems to have followed the example of the poets -- or, what is almost the same thing, of the divine oracles -- by which no sacred and arcane mystery is ever revealed to vulgar ears without being somehow wrapped up and veiled. The greatest of Mother Nature's interpreters, Plato, has followed him, for he has told us that certain sirens have their respective seats on every one of the heavenly spheres and hold both gods and men fast bound by the wonder of their utterly harmonious song. And that universal interaction of all things, that lovely concord among them, which Pythagoras poetically symbolized as harmony, was splendidly and aptly represented by Homer's figure of the golden chain which Jove suspended from heaven? Hence Aristotle, the rival and perpetual detractor of Pythagoras and Plato, hoping to pave his way to glory over the ruins of the theories of such great men, imputed this symphony of the heavens, which has never been heard, and this music of the spheres to Pythagoras. But, O Father Pythagoras, if only destiny or chance had brought it about that your spirit had transmigrated into me, you would not now be lacking a ready advocate, however great the load of infamy you might bear.

And indeed why should not the heavenly bodies produce musical vibrations? Does it not seem probable to you, Aristotle? Certainly I find it hard to believe that your intelligences could have endured the sedentary task of revolving the heavens for so many aeons, unless the ineffable chanting of the stars had detained them when they would have departed, and persuaded them by its harmonies to delay. If you take that music out of heaven, you hand over those lovely intelligences of yours and their subsidiary gods to slavery, and you condemn them to the treadmill. Why, Atlas himself would have long ago dropped the sky off his shoulders to its destruction if, while he panted and sweated under such a weight, he had not been soothed by the sweet ecstasy of that song. And the Dolphin, tired of the stars, if he had not been consumed by the thought of how far the vocal orbs of heaven surpass the sweetness of Arion's lyre, would long ago have preferred his native ocean to the skies. Why, it is quite credible that the lark herself soars up into the clouds at dawn and that the nightingale passes the night in solitary trilling in order to harmonize their songs with that heavenly music to which they studiously listen.

Hence arose also that primeval story that the Muses dance day and night before Jove's altar; and hence comes that ancient attribution of skill with the lyre to Apollo. Hence reverend antiquity believed Harmonia to be the daughter of Jove and Electra, and at her marriage with Cadmus it was said that all heaven's chorus sang. What though no one on earth has ever heard that symphony of the stars? Is that ground for believing that everything beyond the moon's sphere is absolutely mute and numb with torpid silence? On the contrary, let us blame our own impotent ears, which cannot catch the songs or are unworthy to hear such sweet strains. But this celestial melody is not absolutely unheard; for who, O Aristotle, would think those 'goats? of yours would skip in the mid region of the air unless they cannot resist the impulse to dance when they so plainly hear the music of the neighboring heavens?

But Pythagoras alone of mortals is said to have heard this harmony -- unless he was a good genius or a denizen of the sky who perhaps was sent down by some ordinance of the gods to imbue the minds of men with divine knowledge and to recall them to righteousness. At least, he surely was a man who possessed every kind of virtue, who was worthy to consort with the gods themselves, whom he resembled, and to enjoy celestial society. And so I do not wonder that the gods, who loved him very much, permitted him to enter into the most mysterious secrets of nature.

Our impotence to hear this harmony seems to be a consequence of the insolence of the robber, Prometheus, which brought so many evils upon men, and at the same time deprived us of that felicity which we shall never be permitted to enjoy as long as we wallow in sin and are brutalized by our animal desires. For how can we, whose spirits, as Persius says, are warped earthward, and are defective in every, heavenly element, be sensitive to that celestial sound? If our hearts were as pure, as chaste, as snowy as Pythagoras' was, our ears would resound and be filled with that supremely lovely music of the wheeling stars. Then indeed all things would seem to return to the age of gold. Then we should be immune to pain, and we should enjoy the blessing of a peace that the gods themselves might envy.