The best of Fred Hutchison
The music of the spheres
Fred Hutchison, RenewAmerica analyst
October 18, 2012

Originally published February 28, 2005

The seminal idea of western music is that music reflects the harmonies and moral order of the universe and, therefore, has a divine origin. This idea came to the Greeks in the eighth century AD, endured through the centuries, stimulated a vast musical repertoire, and sputtered out during the decadent twentieth century.

The implication of the traditional idea of music is that music can embody objective realities and manifest intrinsic values, and is not just about subjective personal taste or the passing fads of a culture. Furthermore, music formulated according a higher order suggests to the listener that the heavens, the earth, and nature are really there, embody orderly forms, and manifest a divine beauty and harmony that reflects the Creator. The fact that man can listen to and participate in the sublime harmonies of the cosmos reveals much about the rational, spiritual, and moral nature of man.

The Muses

The word "music" originally meant the enchantment of the Muses. "Amusement" meant to be charmed by the Muses. Hesiod (8th century B.C.) described the Muses as female divinities who danced on Mount Helicon. (Some Greeks placed the Muses on Mt. Olympus and some place them on Mt. Parnassus.) There were nine Muses and each had a different musical instrument and a different song. The Muses danced in a sacred grove in "bright places" adorned with works of art. The Muses and Graces, who were also goddesses, united in dance under the direction of Apollo, the god of music and harmony.

The seeker climbed Mount Helicon from the miasma of the dark valley toward the light where the Muses were dancing. He ascended from confusion in the valley and drew toward the light and clarity of divine "One." As the climber reached great heights, he could see breathtaking vistas and hear the choral music of the Muses. Enchanted by the divine music, he joined the dance. The poet or the musician who has danced with the Muses descends the mountain inspired by the laws of beauty, harmony, and grace. He sang enchanted songs to the barbarians in the dark miasma in the valley and directed them toward the light so that they could become civilized men.

The logos

In the sixth century B.C., Pythagoras discovered that exact ratios of vibrating string produce harmonies. A string that is reduced in length by one half will produce a note one octave higher. Within an eight-note octave, an interval of a "fourth" is from the first to the fourth note in and represents a ratio of 3:2 in string length. Sing the first three notes of "Taps," a sunset bugle call, or the first two notes of "Here Comes the Bride," and you have sounded a fourth. Strike the two notes together on the piano and you hear a simple harmony. All the consonant harmonies in music are based upon orderly ratios of this kind. All euphonious melodies are a series of notes developed from harmonic ratios, just as Taps begins with a simple fourth and ends on a fourth.

Pythagoras thought numbers and ratios are the key to understanding the structure of the universe, and that numbers have a divine quality. Since music is based upon ratios of numbers, he concluded that music is the ordering principle of the world. The Greek word for ratio is logos, which also means reason and word. Therefore, a reasoning intelligence, namely God, must lie behind the orderly creation. Man has the gift of reason and can discern something about the order of the cosmos. Music is designed to reflect the larger harmonies that exist in the universe and assists human reason in discerning those harmonies. Human interest in reason and in musical harmony tend to rise and fall together.

The spheres

Aristotle (Greek, fourth century) theorized that the planets and stars are set upon concentric crystalline spheres which rotate around the earth. He said that if Pythagoras is correct about ratios, the heavenly spheres are arranged in harmonic ratios. Each sphere produces a musical tone, and the revolution of the various spheres in concert produces harmonies and melodies. The "music of the spheres" vibrates through the world, and when men make earthly music to accompany this music of the heavens, they participate in the harmony of the universe.

Cicero (Roman, first century A.D.) subscribed to Plato's theory of music. He attributed to Plato (Greek, fourth century B.C.) the idea that "...the concord of tones separated by unequal but nevertheless carefully proportional intervals, caused by the rapid movement of the spheres themselves....[S]killful men imitating this harmony on stringed instruments and in singing have gained for themselves a return to this region, as have those who have cultivated their exceptional abilities to search for divine truths." Man has lost a divine paradise, but through imitating the music of the spheres, seeks to return to paradise.

The Sirens

Plato believed that harmony and rhythm seep into the human soul, attach themselves to the inward being, and impart grace. He thought that music has a decisive effect on the character of the citizenry. Since music is the enchantment of goddesses, a subversive music can come from a sorcery based in ignorance. Plato did not believe in evil, only ignorance. Therefore, the evil sorcery of the occult played no part in his theory of music. But he had a concept of bad music based upon ignorance and confusion. He gave examples of the different music of different cities and the good and bad character qualities it produced in the citizens. He proposed that three kinds of music be encouraged in his ideal republic, and three types be forbidden. He was worried that musical discord could distort, disorient, and confuse the human spirit, just as harmony could order, compose, beautify, and enlighten it.

Plato might have had something more to say about the corrosive effects of corrupt music if he could have observed the depraved party of sex, drugs, and rock and roll at Woodstock. But the hippies would not have listened to him, because Western man no longer believed in the music of the spheres, or that intrinsic values can be found in music. Along with this change was the loss of belief in a correspondence between reason and objective reality. Just as harmony in music is a sign of rationality, dissonant chords that are not resolved by harmonious chords are a sign of irrationality. Chant-like repetitions of a refrain with no resolution also can also hint at irrationality.

Plato's idea that bad music can cause moral corruption is too simple, of course. According to the scriptures, the root cause of sin is the fallen nature of man and perverse and disobedient choices. However, subversive music can serve as part of the seduction and temptation of evil and can reinforce moral decadence. In the Hollywood movie scenes of a character entering a den of iniquity, it is the seductive music that strikes one first and last.

Centuries prior to Hesiod, Homer wrote of the Sirens (feminine divinities again), whose seductive songs lured sailors to their doom on the rocks. Odysseus commanded his crew to stop their ears with wax so they could not hear the Sirens. He wanted to hear the Sirens, so had himself bound to the mast and commanded his men to ignore him. The Sirens drove him mad with longing, but in spite of his screams and protests, his sailors ignored his pleas to follow the Sirens. Perverse music is essential to the arts of seduction and temptation, but in the end it is probably more of a symptom of cultural decadence than the efficient cause. Our decadent music is the sign of a decadent culture. Better music probably cannot do a lot to heal the culture, but when an individual listens to a lot of good music, the seductive music of Sirens might have less appeal to that person. If Odysseus had listened to the songs of the Muses, the songs of the Sirens might not have overwhelmed him with desire.

The medieval synthesis

Christian writers like St. Clement of Alexandra, Cassiodorus, Boethius, Saint Isidore, the Venerable Bede, and Alcuin of York selectively adopted ideas about music from Homer, Hesiod, Pythagoras, Aristotle, and Plato. For example, Boethius (6th century) harked back to Plato when he said that "...the whole of the world is held together by a musical concord. For when we compare that which is coherently and harmoniously joined together within our own being with that which is coherently and harmoniously joined together in we come to recognize that we ourselves are united according to the same principle of harmony." His conclusion was that music is related to morality.

Alcuin, headmaster of Charlemagne's Palace School, had the Seven Liberal Arts taught at all the Cathedral Schools of Europe, and music was one of the seven disciplines of study. Through the work of these Christian scholars, the "One" of Hesiod became God and the "logos" of Pythagoras became Christ. However, Hesiod's account of the ascent of mount Helicon did not match Aristotle's music of the spheres. It required the thinkers of the High Middle Ages, who had a genius for synthesis, to reconcile these two models of music and find a place for them in Christian spirituality.

St. Thomas Aquinas (13th century), favored Hesiod's model in spite of being a famous devotee of Aristotle. It seems that the ascent of Mount Helicon is conceptually similar to the Neoplatonic ascent to the One, developed by Plotinus (3rd century). Christian mystics were already using an adapted form of the techniques of Plotinus in their meditations and prayers seeking union with God. The Gregorian Chant with its mystical, detached, and other worldly evocations was the perfect accompaniment for this form of mystical spirituality. Aquinas, being a great synthesizer, used Hesiod's mountain ascent to the light and to the One because it fit the mystic spirituality of ascent in stages to union with God. However, Aquinas could not bear to leave Aristotle out of anything he wrote and smuggled in an idea by him into the ascent up the mountain. The first half of the ascent was an arduous struggle. For the Catholic, this involved the arduous process of practicing painful spiritual disciplines. The second half of the climb was the mystic flight. Instead of dancing with Muses on the mountaintop, the mystic soars upward and hears the music of the spheres as he is approaching union with God. The Latin scholar has to master classical Latin with pain and suffering on the first half of the mountain climb before he can soar with joy as he reads the classics. The musician has to painfully master the difficult techniques of his art before he can play the music of the spheres and soar to sublime delights.

Dante's ascent up the spiral road of Mount Purgatory in Purgatorio is like Aquinas' painful ascent of the lower half of the mountain. Interestingly, Dante (14th century) was guided by Virgil, whom he regarded as his master in Latin. Ah, Latin scholars everywhere, groaning under your cruel taskmasters holding their hickory switches, have patience in your purgatorial sufferings! Like Dante in purgatory, you can yet reach the top of the spiral mountain of toil. At the top of Mount Purgatory, Dante found the earthly paradise, the end of earthly labors. The next part of his journey was to soar upwards by sheer grace from the top of Mount Purgatory to the crystalline spheres. Dante heard the music of the spheres as he ascended through nine concentric crystalline spheres of heaven in his journey toward union with God. Dante's guide to the spheres was Beatrice, who served as Dante's Muse. (The Muse must be a goddess or a spiritual woman.) Dante integrated Hesiod's concept of the inspiration of the Muses on the mountaintop by having Beatrice appear on the mountaintop. He integrated Aristotle's music of the spheres into his cosmology by having Dante and Beatrice ascend up to the spheres of heaven. Dante's mystic flight after struggling up the spiral mountain corresponds to Aquinas' sequence of struggling half way up the mountain and flying the second half. By depicting Purgatory as a journey and a heavy labor, Dante reconciled Catholic doctrine with Hesiod and with Neoplatonic spirituality and music.

Post-Copernican metaphors

After Copernicus discovered that the earth revolved around the sun, the music of the spheres became a metaphor, instead of a sound made by literal crystalline spheres.

The Renaissance, Protestant Reformation, and Catholic Counter-reformation each added metaphysical substance to replace the literal cosmology of Dante. Europe would never again be so metaphysically snug and tidy, but gained a new metaphysical breadth and scope, which was, in the long run, very good for music.

Renaissance philosophy sponsored a renewed popularity of the metaphysics of Neoplatonism. The great chain of being represented an ontological hierarchy of higher and higher levels of being. Artists and poets began to climb mountains to meditate and seek inspiration from their Muses in the higher altitudes of being. Musicians climbed mountains hoping to hear the music of the spheres. They still believed in the spheres and the Muses, as metaphysical states of being, but not, of course, as physical entities.

Protestant music conceptually returned to the ratios of Pythagoras, and thus to harmony as logos, logos as the Word of God, and The Logos as Christ. A new music of proclamation of the Word and praise sprang up. Bach, a German Lutheran, wrote a cantata based upon the following passage from Psalm 19. Notice how this passage perfectly harmonizes proclamation and praise.
    "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth his handiwork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night showeth knowledge. There is no speech nor language where their voice is not heard. Their line is gone out through all the world and their words to the end of the world."
I cannot read these lines without electric thrills running up and down my spine. As a young piano student, I played a snippet from this cantata. Bach wrote into the score words which are roughly translated from German, "The heavens are telling." As I began to play while meditating on these words, I imagined that the sounds emerging from the piano were a message from the heavens. Bach inserted the following unforgettable words into another score, "Ah, what am I, a sinner to do?"

Composer Jean Sibelius, a Lutheran from Finland, harked back to Saint Clement when he wrote that "the essence of man's being is his striving after God. It [the composition of music] is brought to life by means of the logos, the divine in art. That is the only thing that has significance." The music of Protestantism is filled with direct and indirect references to the logos.

The Catholic Church of the Counter-reformation was the inspiration for baroque music, architecture, and culture. The theme of this culture was grandeur and obedience. Kings began to claim to rule by divine right. Dieu et Mon Droit (God and My Right) was their motto. The church had a very close relationship with these kings. Cardinal Richelieu ruled France. The court of the pope, known as "The Holy See," had a great throne from which the pope ruled. When he made a statement "Ex Cathedra" (from the throne), that statement allegedly had the authority of infallibility. "Cathedrals" were the thrones of bishops, or contained, such thrones surrounded by baroque glory. The grand architecture of a bishops palace looked precisely like the palace of a great prince. These baroque palaces expressed the concept of grandeur, majesty, and authority like no other buildings that have ever been constructed. And what is that noble sound we hear from the court? Trumpets and drums! The baroque music of grandeur!

Bach and Handel

Under the influence of high metaphysical aspirations, music slowly developed in the West. The influence of an intense rationalism in philosophy led to the development of the techniques of harmony that were mastered by the period 1700-1750, the era of Bach and Handel. The rigorous technical mountain climbing phase of musical development was almost over, and the time to soar in bliss was at hand. I know of no music of more intense joy than Bach's Christmas Cantata and Handel's Messiah. However, as one who has tried his hand at the Bach two-part and three-part inventions, I feel that the master was sometimes still trying to master the rigorous arts of mountain-climbing instead of soaring in joyous flight.

Classicism and Romanticism

After the era of Bach and Handel came the golden era of Mozart and Haydn. The musical thought of this era is best summarized by a famous debate between Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Jean-Philipe Rameau. In addition to being a famous political philosopher, Rousseau was a composer, wrote essays on music theory, and supported himself by making copies of music scores. Rameau was a leading French composer, an influential musical theorist, and the leading musicologist of France. Rameau was the co-author, with Denis Diderot, of a 1750 essay on harmony for the Encyclopedia. When Italian opera came to Paris in 1755, a controversy erupted about whether harmony or melody should dominate in music. Rameau argued that harmony should dominate because the mission of music is to bring reason and order to a disordered world. Harmony is the rational principle in music. Rameau's view came to be known as the "classical" view of music. Rousseau, who had been an admirer with Rameau, broke ranks and argued that melody should dominate over harmony. The spirit soars with the melody and the spiritual aspirations of man take flight. Rousseau's view came to be known as the "Romantic" theory of music. One could also say that Rousseau saw things Dante's way involving a mystic flight to hear the music of the spheres, and Rameau was more of a disciplined mountain climber and wanted to hear the Muses and their message of harmony.

The young Mozart sided with Rousseau in this debate. Baroque music was classical, in that harmony was emphasized. Mozart was a transitional composer between classical and romantic music, and struck a wonderful balance between melody and harmony in his body of his works. He was a little ahead of his time and was not popular until after his death. Haydn, my personal favorite, was born a generation before Mozart and outlived Mozart by a generation, and his countless compositions spanned from the late Baroque to the early Romantic eras of music composition. Haydn had a student of whom Mozart said, "One day he shall make a great noise in the music world." The name of Haydn's student was Beethoven. Although Beethoven wrote many purely classical pieces, His melodies often soared with such sublimity, or struck with lightning flashes of such passion, that the melody dominated the harmony in a new way. He was the first great composer of the Romantic era. To us, he is still the greatest of the master composers, because our parents were born in the twilight of the Romantic era, and the memories of that fading glory can still reach our hearts.

Metaphysical catastrophe

I am heavily indebted to an essay by Robert R. Reilly, music critic for Crisis magazine, and Chairman of the Committee for Western Civilization, for the inspiration of this essay and selected snippets of content. "Oh, happy steal!" The essay, The Music of the Spheres: or the Metaphysics of Music, appeared in Intercollegiate Review, Fall 2001. Reilly's thesis was that the present crisis in music represents a metaphysical catastrophe. I shall quote directly from Reilly about this catastrophe.

Composers, in their creative work "...respond and give voice to certain metaphysical visions. Most composers speak explicitly in philosophical terms about the nature of the reality they try to reflect. When the forms of musical expression change radically, it is always because the underlying metaphysical grasp of reality has changed as well [emphasis mine]. Music, in a way, is the sound of metaphysics, or metaphysics in sound."

Reilly pointed out that for twenty-five-hundred years, music in the west had a shared concept of reality. "But by the early twentieth century, this was no longer true. Music was re-conceptualized so completely that it could no longer be called music, i.e., with melody, harmony, and rhythm. This catastrophic rupture...was...a reflection of a deeper metaphysical divide that severed the composer from any meaningful contact with external reality. As a result, art was reduced to the arbitrary fragments of sound."

Reilly was speaking specifically here of modern atonal composers such as Arnold Schoenberg and John Cage. Technically, he was not addressing popular contemporary music, which retains simple melodies, harmonies, and rhythms. However, when I criticize the poor quality of such music, the defenders of it invariably deny that there is any connection of music with metaphysics. They insist that music is purely a matter of subjective mood and taste and that my criticisms are purely a matter of my own private taste. In other words, no objective or rational critique of contemporary music is possible. This musical nihilism goes straight back to the metaphysical revolution of Shoenberg and Cage, which was "a metaphysical divide that severed the composer from any meaningful contact with external reality. As a result, art was reduced to arbitrary fragments of sound."

From whence then comes the new contemporary music? It must come from somewhere. Cut off from external reality, it comes from a subjective inner world, the same dark, fallen realm from which primitive pagan tribes, which know not God, get their music of primaeval rhythm and chant inspired by the shamans of their cults.

Composer John Adams said that "tonality died when Nietzsche's God died. When God disappears, the intelligible order of the creation disappears. If there is no God, Nature no longer serves as a reflection of its Creator. If you lose the Logos of St. Clement, you also lose the ratio (logos) of Pythagoras. Nature is stripped of its normative power."

Reilly comments "If there is no preexisting intelligible order to go out to and apprehend, and to search through for what lies beyond it — which is the Creator — what then is music to express? If external order does not exist, then music collapses in on itself....Any ordering of things becomes simply the whim of man's will." (And no one has any grounds for criticizing the whim of another man.) "Without a 'music of the spheres' to approximate, modern music, like the other arts, begins to unravel. Music's self-destruction became logically imperative once it undermined its own foundation."

Reilly continued through a long and brilliant discourse of the collapse of twentieth century music into nihilism. He ends with a hopeful note of new composers seeking to return to tonal music which is anchored in a higher metaphysics. He concludes with these words.
    Cicero spoke of music as enabling man to return to the divine region, implying a place once lost to man. What is it, in and about music, that gives one an experience so outside of oneself that one can see reality anew, as if newborn in a strange but wonderful world? British composer John Tavener proposes an answer to this mystery in his artistic credo: "My goal is to recover one simple memory from which all art derives. The constant memory of the paradise from which we have fallen leads to the paradise which was promised to the repentant thief. The gentleness of our sleepy recollection promises something else. That which we once perceived in a glass darkly, we shall see face to face." We shall not only see; we shall hear, as well, the New Song.

A message from Stephen Stone, President, RenewAmerica

I first became acquainted with Fred Hutchison in December 2003, when he contacted me about an article he was interested in writing for RenewAmerica about Alan Keyes. From that auspicious moment until God took him a little more than six years later, we published over 200 of Fred's incomparable essays — usually on some vital aspect of the modern "culture war," written with wit and disarming logic from Fred's brilliant perspective of history, philosophy, science, and scripture.

It was obvious to me from the beginning that Fred was in a class by himself among American conservative writers, and I was honored to feature his insights at RA.

I greatly miss Fred, who died of a brain tumor on August 10, 2010. What a gentle — yet profoundly powerful — voice of reason and godly truth! I'm delighted to see his remarkable essays on the history of conservatism brought together in a masterfully-edited volume by Julie Klusty. Restoring History is a wonderful tribute to a truly great man.

The book is available at

© Fred Hutchison


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They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. —Isaiah 40:31