Music, Science and the Natural Order of the Universe

Jamie James

Abacus, London, 1995

The reader will find that this is much more about musicians' ideas about science and nature than it is about science and nature themselves and their relation to music. Perhaps the tone is set for the whole book in James's summary of Pythagoras's outlook:

"Pythagoras distinguished three sorts of music in his philosophy: to use the nomenclature of a later era, musica instrumentalis, the ordinary music made by plucking the lyre, blowing the pipe, and so forth; musica humana, the continuous but unheard music made by each human organism, especially the harmonious (or inharmonious) resonance between the soul and the body; and musica mundana, the music made by the cosmos itself, which would come to be known as the music of the spheres." (p.30)

From there we wander into the realms of the Rosicrucians and the schemes of the English occultist, Robert Fludd, with his "vaguely mathematical species of magic" (p.131). The chapter concerning freemasonry is illustrated with a picture of Newton's cenotaph.

With the superficially rationalistic Schoenberg, we find ancient follies in full flight:

"When he marked the measures of his scores he would number them 12, 12A, and 14. 'It's not superstition,' he would say, 'it is belief.' He had a particularly deep fear that he would die in a year of his life that was a multiple of thirteen; on the eve of his sixty-fifth birthday he had a special horoscope drawn up. After he survived that year, he thought it was smooth sailing until he was seventy-eight; but when he turned seventy-six, a friend pointed out to him that the two digits added together made thirteen." (p.224)

By the end of the book, we are given a sample of the ramblings of Stockhausen:

"Each of us is, as you know, a person with many levels... I have a sexual centre, three vital centres, two mental centres, and a suprapersonal centre... I can set my sexual centre in vibration with a certain sort of music, but with another music I can set my supranatural centre in vibration... Hence [?] it is naturally better if one hears music that draws one up higher than one is by nature." (p.239)

This is an erudite offering for those interested in pursuing this aspect of musical history, but will perhaps only engage the scientifically-inclined reader in the early sections explaining the harmonic series and tuning systems. From the particular viewpoint of this site, the author stands accused of a frightful mistake on page 153, where he writes about,

"a trombone player forever moving his valve back and forth".

How can we forgive him?



Paul Taylor 2001