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Ancient Concepts of Sound and Vibration

Nada Brahma: The Ancient Science of Sound

The theory of music traces its roots to the earliest intellectual pursuits of the human species. When humankind sought to understand the cosmos, it did so through a science of harmonic tone relationship. It sought to both explain and experience the universe as a fundamental vibration, a Primal Sound, which manifested itself in the human world through a relationship of tones. It was understood that through developing ones’ sensitivity to harmonic relationships, a person could come to understand and experience the harmony between heaven and earth. This, in turn, would aid in creating a harmony within the individual and within society.

This was a belief which can be traced back 3000-4000 years to the cultures of ancient China, Sumeria/Mesopotamia/Chaldea (now Iraq), Egypt and India. All shared an understanding of a cosmic harmony pervading the universe and uniting “heaven and earth,” although they were expressed through various culturally-specific mythologies. These beliefs persisted up to the time of ancient Greece when they were re-expressed in rational terms by the philosopher Pythagoras (6th century B.C.E.), who in turn deeply influenced Plato. All of western music theory until recent times was steeped in Pythagorean thought, and thus the roots of our musical theories are rooted in the soil of ancient cultures which, for millennia, interconnected music with cosmology, psychology, spirituality and ethics.

In this chapter, we will briefly survey the musical theories of ancient cultures, which could be expressed as embodying the mysticism and power of tone and tonal relationship.

Here is a quotation from the book The Secret Power of Music by David Tame:

In ancient times sound itself, the very basis of all music, was thought to be intimately related in some way to non-physical and sacred dimensions or planes of existence. Why was this? Because audible sound was considered to be but an earthly reflection of a vibratory activity taking place beyond the physical world. This vibration was more fundamental, and nearer to the heart of the meaning of things, than any audible sound. Inaudible to human ear, this Cosmic Vibration was the origin and basis of all matter and energy in the universe. In its purest, least differentiated form, this Cosmic Sound was known to the Hindus as OM…

And thus we find ourselves throwing light upon the widely-held belief that all matter is composed of one basic substance or energy. According to the great thinkers of old, this energy was Vibration. In modern times, the physical sciences are now arriving back at this original point of departure. Once again, science is beginning to suspect that matter is all composed of one fundamental something, and that the frequencies or rhythms of this something determine the specific nature of each object and atom.

The universal vibratory energies were called by the ancient Egyptians the Word or Words of their gods; to the Pythagoreans of Greece they were the Music of the Spheres; and the ancient Chinese knew them to be the celestial energies of perfect harmony. The Cosmic Tones, as differentiations of the OM, were the most powerful force in the universe according to the ancients, for these Tones were the universe—the very source of the Creation itself.

And herein lay the vast significance of all audible, earthly sounds, such as are produced by the performing of music or the uttering of speech. For audible sound was believed to be a ‘reflection’, within the world of matter, of the Cosmic Tones. Audible sound itself, which is taken so much for granted today, was in those days thought to contain within itself something of the enormous Creative, Preservative and Destructive force of the Cosmic Tones themselves. The very phenomenon of sound was regarded with great reverence.

And from composer and philosopher Dane Rudhyar, in his book The Magic of Tone and the Art of Music:

In most ancient cosmologies, a release of sound is said to cause the “precipitation” of the Forms of a spiritual realm into the objective, perceptible, and measurable materials constituting the foundations of existential entities. Hindu metaphysics and cosmologies speak of the primordial creative sound AUM (OM) as the power that gives birth to the many worlds of existence. In Genesis, Elohim (the plural God, creator of the universe) said “let there be light: and there was light.” The saying refers to the release of a creative power which should be thought of as Sound in its spiritual or spirit-emanated aspect. The result of the divine utterance is light. Sound therefore precedes light.

…The capacity of music to arouse emotions is quite evident. This power of music is stressed and discussed at great length in many ancient books from China, India and Pythagorean Greece. So also is the power of sound to heal and reinvigorate an organism—by which I mean the mental and emotional components of a person as well as his or her physical body.

And from the scholarly New Oxford History of Music:

The notion that the power of music, especially the intoned word, can influence the course of human destiny and even the order of the Universe, goes back to the very oldest surviving form of Indian music, namely, the music of the Vedas. The intoned formula is the pivot point of the whole elaborate structure of the Vedic offerings and sacrifices. It is the power of the words enunciated with the correct intonation, that determines the efficiency of the rites: a mistake may destroy everything. The priests claim that by their activity they not only uphold the order of human society, but maintain the stability of the universe.

We can see from these quotations that the ancient world experienced and believed in a fundamental principle that was viscerally connected to music and its relationship to a fundamental vibration or cosmic tone. From this fundamental vibration, subsidiary vibrations perceivable on this earth were deduced, broken into 12, 7 and 5 tones, dependent upon a science of numerical ratio. Much of the next chapter will be devoted to exploring these ratios and learning to hear as the ancients might have heard.

In today’s world, science, philosophy, psychology, ethics and music are rather separate disciplines, but in the ancient world up until fairly recent times, they were not. Most of the individuals who we consider to be the major contributors to western philosophy and science—Pythagoras (the focus of the next chapter), Plato, Aristotle, Ptolemy, Boethius, Descartes, Kepler, Galileo, Newton (to name only the most familiar)—were all actively engaged in discussions concerning the science of music. All sought to uncover a universal harmony within the natural world and within the cosmos, a harmony that they believed was best understood through the discipline of music. Ptolemy’s 2nd Century A.D.writing on astronomy was entitled Harmonia. Kepler’s published astronomical text of 1619 was titled De Harmonie Mundi, with the emphasis on the harmony of the universe, not just its physical organization. Sir Isaac Newton experimented with correlating musical scales with a spectra of colors and published his work to great enthusiasm at the time. The list could go on and on. Arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, physics and music were interconnected disciplines for the greatest length of human history. To understand the beauty of harmonic relationship was to understand something of the beauty and structure of the cosmos itself, which could thereby be applied to the creation of musical compositions that reflected a universal harmony.

Ptolemy, Kepler, Galileo and Newton, as well as their contemporaries, are presented to us in school as important scientists and discoverers of fundamental, observable rational truths about the universe—which of course is true. But they were also steeped in what today is called the occult or the mystical—astrology, numerology, the harmony of the spheres, alchemy. These are as much a part of the history of music as scales and rhythms.

Plato’s philosophy was steeped in music theory, much more so than many current presentations of Plato’s thoughts are aware. To Ernest McCain “Plato was the last great harmonical mythographer of the European world; never again did a major philosopher so thoroughly ground his thinking in music”. Entire sections of his writing are based on seemingly strange numerical calculations about the perfect relationships between human beings in society, expressed in terms of numerical ratios. These calculations make perfect sense when one recognizes them as referring to musical intervals! When he writes in the Timaeus about the work of the creator:

…and having made a unity of the three, again he divided the whole into as many parts as was fitting, beginning in this way. First he took one portion from the whole and next a portion double of this, the third half as much again as the second and three times the first, the fourth double of the second and the fifth three times the third, the sixth eight times the first…

these seemingly random numbers are crystal clear when one recognizes them as the musical ratios that form both the musical scale and the harmony of the spheres. This will become clear when we study these ratios in the next chapter.

Boethius, writing in the 6th century C.E., and forming an important bridge between ancient and late medieval thought, systemized music into three interconnected parts:

Music as played or sung, however imperfect, was but an attempt to develop, discover and express a harmony within the body and soul of the player. This in turn was but a method whereby the individual could align her soul with the harmony of the universal vibration, thus bringing about health to the individual and harmony within society. There was an enormous ethical aspect to music theory among the ancients, who believed that certain arrangements of tones could help to create health within the person—psychological and spiritual health as well as physical health—that in turn would benefit society.

One could perhaps relate this to recent social movements, such as the civil rights movement of the 1960s in the U.S., where music played an important role in uniting the people behind a just cause. The power of the music lent power to the ethical claim concerning the necessity for civil rights. Music is also used for therapeutic purposes in contemporary society (there is an entire professional field of music therapy). We can also reflect on our personal lives—how often do many of us turn to music to help us through difficult emotional times, or to celebrate times of joy. These are perhaps modern reflections of what the ancients believed about music’s healing, restorative and ethical powers. This was extended in ancient theory to reflect music’s ability to represent both harmony within the self and harmony on a cosmic scale.

Returning to our consideration of ancient music, Ernest McClain has done considerable research on the connecting link between Sumerian/Mesopotamian musical cosmologies and those of ancient China, India, Egypt and Greece. Here is his lucid explanation about these connecting links:

What seems most astounding in ancient Mesopotamia is the total fusion of what we separate into subjects: music, mathematics, art, science, religion and poetic fantasy. Such a fusion has never been equaled except by Plato, who inherited its forms…The Mesopotamian prototypes to which they lead us fully justify Socrates’ treatment of his own tale as an “ancient Muses’ jest”, inherited from a glorious, lost civilization. Scholars who have become too unmusical to understand mankind’s share in divinity, as Plato feared might happen, still can lean on him for understanding, for all of his many writings about harmonics and music have survived…

…Music was as important in ancient India, Egypt and China as it was in Mesopotamia and Greece. All these cultures had similar mythic imagery emphasizing the same numbers, which are so important in defining musical intervals; this raises doubts about whether any people ever “invented” acoustical theory. For instance, in any culture that knows the harp as intimately as it was known in Egypt and Mesopotamia, its visible variety of string lengths and economy of materials encourage builders, as a sheer survival strategy, to notice the correlation between a string’s length and its intended pitch. Similarly, in China, where by 5000 B.C. the leg bones of large birds, equipped with tone holes appropriate for a scale, appear as flutes in ritual burials, the importance of suitable materials conditioned pipemakers to be alert to lengths. The basic ratios could have been discovered many times in many places. Certainly, the discovery came no later than the fourth millennium B.C., before even the first Egyptian dynasty was founded or the Greeks had reached the Mediterranean shore.”

The “basic ratios” that McClain speaks of here are the methods by which ancient humans sought to express the harmony between heaven and earth. In Chinese thought, the ratios are born out of the T’ai Chi, the Yin-Yang of opposites. Here is a quotation from an ancient Chinese text:

The origins of music lie far back in time. It arises out of proportion and is rooted in the great One. The great One gives rise to the two poles: the two poles give rise to the powers of darkness and light. The powers of darkness and light undergo change; the one ascends into the heights, the other sinks into the depths; heaving and stirring they combine to form bodies. If they are divided they unite themselves again; if they are united they divide themselves again. Heaven and earth are engaged in a cycle. Every ending is followed by a new beginning; every extreme is followed by a return. Everything is coordinated with everything else. Sun, moon and stars move in part quickly, in part slowly. Sun and moon do not agree in the time which they need to complete their path.

That from which all beings arise and in which they have their origin is the great One; that whereby they form and perfect themselves is the duality of darkness and light. As soon as the seed-germs start to stir, they coagulate into a form. The bodily shape belongs to the world of space, and everything spatial has a sound. The sound arises out of harmony. Harmony arises out or relatedness. Harmony and relatedness are the roots from which music arose.

As we shall study in some detail, this relatedness springs from the significance of number. The relationship of 2:1 is the interval of the octave. The relationship of 3:2 is the interval of the perfect fifth (which we hear today for example as the distance between two well-tuned strings on a violin or cello). In all of these systems, the relationship of 3:2 gives birth to five tones, then seven tones, then twelve tones. (We explore this in detail soon). In the ancient Chinese Record of Rites the significance of these numbers is expressed this way:

Music expresses the harmony of heaven and earth. Since 3 is the symbolic numeral of heaven and 2 that of earth, sounds in the ratio 3:2 will harmonize heaven and earth. Hence the mysticism attached to the numbers 1, 2, 3, 5, 7 and 12 is discovered within music as follows:

  • 1-the one tone, or cosmic sound, of the supreme.
  • 2-the t’ai chi; the first differentiation of the one
  • 3-the trinity; offspring of the t’ai chi.
  • 12-the twelve tones of the zodiac, their earthly counterparts being produced from a series of 3:2 ratios
  • 5-the five minor tones of the twelve.
  • 7-the seven major tones of the 12 (of which five are whole tones and two semitones)

We will see a remarkably similar ordering when we study Pythagorean theory in the third section of this chapter, and then look at the Pythagorean ratios at the beginning of the third chapter.

The next link will look a little more deeply at the concepts of sound and vibration during the Renaissance period. It is not yet written as of Sept 14, 2008.

Next: Harmonia Mundi in the Renaissance

The following chapter on Pythagoras, chapter 2C is active as of Sept 14: The Legend of Pythagoras