Musica Universalis
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Musica Universalis
Harmony of the world, 1806

Musica universalis (literally universal music), also called Music of the spheres or Harmony of the Spheres, is an ancient philosophical concept that regards proportions in the movements of celestial bodies--the Sun, Moon, and planets--as a form of musica (the Medieval Latin term for music). This "music" is not usually thought to be literally audible, but a harmonic, mathematical or religious concept. The idea continued to appeal to thinkers about music until the end of the Renaissance, influencing scholars of many kinds, including humanists. Further scientific exploration has determined specific proportions in some orbital motion, described as orbital resonance.


Engraving from Renaissance Italy (Gafurius's Practica musice, 1496) showing Apollo, the Muses, the planetary spheres and musical modes

The discovery of the precise relation between the pitch of the musical note and the length of the string that produces it is attributed to Pythagoras. The Music of the Spheres incorporates the metaphysical principle that mathematical relationships express qualities or "tones" of energy which manifest in numbers, visual angles, shapes and sounds - all connected within a pattern of proportion. Pythagoras first identified that the pitch of a musical note is in inverse proportion to the length of the string that produces it, and that intervals between harmonious sound frequencies form simple numerical ratios.[1] In a theory known as the Harmony of the Spheres, Pythagoras proposed that the Sun, Moon and planets all emit their own unique hum based on their orbital revolution,[2] and that the quality of life on Earth reflects the tenor of celestial sounds which are physically imperceptible to the human ear.[3] Subsequently, Plato described astronomy and music as "twinned" studies of sensual recognition: astronomy for the eyes, music for the ears, and both requiring knowledge of numerical proportions.[4]

Aristotle criticised the notion[5] that celestial bodies make a sound in moving in the context of his own cosmological model.

From all this it is clear that the theory that the movement of the stars produces a harmony, i.e. that the sounds they make are concordant, in spite of the grace and originality with which it has been stated, is nevertheless untrue. Some thinkers suppose that the motion of bodies of that size must produce a noise, since on our earth the motion of bodies far inferior in size and in speed of movement has that effect. Also, when the sun and the moon, they say, and all the stars, so great in number and in size, are moving with so rapid a motion, how should they not produce a sound immensely great? Starting from this argument and from the observation that their speeds, as measured by their distances, are in the same ratios as musical concordances, they assert that the sound given forth by the circular movement of the stars is a harmony. Since, however, it appears unaccountable that we should not hear this music, they explain this by saying that the sound is in our ears from the very moment of birth and is thus indistinguishable from its contrary silence, since sound and silence are discriminated by mutual contrast. What happens to men, then, is just what happens to coppersmiths, who are so accustomed to the noise of the smithy that it makes no difference to them. But, as we said before, melodious and poetical as the theory is, it cannot be a true account of the facts. There is not only the absurdity of our hearing nothing, the ground of which they try to remove, but also the fact that no effect other than sensitive is produced upon us. Excessive noises, we know, shatter the solid bodies even of inanimate things: the noise of thunder, for instance, splits rocks and the strongest of bodies. But if the moving bodies are so great, and the sound which penetrates to us is proportionate to their size, that sound must needs reach us in an intensity many times that of thunder, and the force of its action must be immense.

The three branches of the Medieval concept of musica were presented by Boethius in his book De Musica:[6]

  • musica mundana (sometimes referred to as musica universalis)
  • musica humana (the internal music of the human body)
  • musica quae in quibusdam constituta est instrumentis (sounds made by singers and instrumentalists)

According to Max Heindel's Rosicrucian writings, the heavenly "music of the spheres" is heard in the Region of Concrete Thought, the lower region of the mental plane, which is an ocean of harmony.[]

Use in recent music

The connection between music, mathematics, and astronomy had a profound impact on history. It resulted in music's inclusion in the Quadrivium, the medieval curriculum that included arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy, and along with the Trivium (grammar, logic,and rhetoric) made up the seven liberal arts, which are still the basis for higher education today. A small number of recent compositions either make reference to or are based on the concepts of Musica Universalis or Harmony of the Spheres. Among these are Music of the Spheres by Mike Oldfield, Om by the Moody Blues, The Earth Sings Mi Fa Mi album by The Receiving End of Sirens, Music of the Spheres by Ian Brown, and Björk's single Cosmogony, included in her 2011 album Biophilia. Earlier, in the 1910s, Danish composer Rued Langgaard composed a pioneering orchestral work titled Music of the Spheres. Music of the Spheres was also the title chosen for the musical foundation of the video-game Destiny [[1]],and was composed by Marty O'Donnell, Mike Salvarori and Paul McCartney.

See also


  1. ^ Weiss and Taruskin (2008) p. 3.
  2. ^ Pliny the Elder (77) pp. 277-8, (II.xviii.xx): "...occasionally Pythagoras draws on the theory of music, and designates the distance between the Earth and the Moon as a whole tone, that between the Moon and Mercury as a semitone, .... the seven tones thus producing the so-called diapason, i.e.. a universal harmony".
  3. ^ Houlding (2000) p. 28: For Philolaus, mathematician and Pythagorean astronomer, working around 400 BC, the world was 'harmony and numbers'; everything is ordered according to proportions that correspond to three basic musical intervals: 2:1 (harmony), 3:2 (fifth), 4:3 (fourth). Nicomachus of Gerasa (also a Pythagorean, towards the year 200 BC) assigns the notes of the octave to the celestial bodies, so that they generate a music. "The doctrine of the Pythagoreans was a combination of science and mysticism... Like Anaximenes they viewed the Universe as one integrated, living organism, surrounded by Divine Air (or more literally 'Breath'), which permeates and animates the whole cosmos and filters through to individual creatures ... By partaking of the core essence of the Universe, the individual is said to act as a microcosm in which all the laws in the macrocosm of the Universe are at work".
  4. ^ Davis (1901) p. 252. Plato's Republic VII.XII reads: "As the eyes, said I, seem formed for studying astronomy, so do the ears seem formed for harmonious motions: and these seem to be twin sciences to one another, as also the Pythagoreans say".
  5. ^ Aristotle, On the Heavens, J.L. Stocks' translation,
  6. ^ Boethius, De institutione musica, I.2 (p. 187 Friedlein ed.)


Further reading

  • Calter, Paul. "Pythagoras & Music of the Spheres". Geometry in Art & Architecture. Dartmouth College. Retrieved 2011. 
  • Plant, David. "Johannes Kepler & the Music of the Spheres". Retrieved 2011. 
  • Wille G. Musica Romana. Die Bedeutung der Musik im Leben der Römer. Amsterdam, 1967.
  • Burkert W. Weisheit und Wissenschaft: Studien zu Pythagoras, Philolaos und Platon. Nürnberg, 1962
  • Richter L. Tantus et tam dulcis sonus. Die Lehre von der Sphärenharmonie in Rom und ihre griechischen Quellen // Geschichte der Musiktheorie. Bd. 2. Darmstadt, 2006, SS.505-634.

External links

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