Musica universalis

The hidden nature of music was speculated upon by Pythagoras as the Harmony of the Spheres, and Boethius in De Musica as musica universalis. Music was by them considered revelatory, an external manifestation of deeper order or governing principle — not so much governing as harmonizing, balancing. Boethius also considered that the principle resided within the body, explaining its autonomic function; the third form of music was the external or gross form created by instruments and voices.

Schopenhauer designed principles of aesthetics but concluded that music transcended all tactile representations such as architecture and painting.

Music stands alone, detached from all the other arts. In music one does not recognize the imitation or reproduction of any Idea of the creatures in the world. Yet music is a great and glorious art, the effect on man’s inmost nature is so powerful, and so completely and so deeply understood by him in his inmost consciousness as a perfectly universal language whole clarity surpasses even that of the perceptible world itself.

To surpass the perceptible world means to surpass the copies of the Ideas which surround us. For Schopenhauer, music is not a copy of anything but the will itself. While objects in the world are perceptible, and suggest universals, music is not of the perceptible world but of the universal world, and is greater than any art than merely suggests the universal. Of course, music is perceived by our sense of hearing, but how can these sounds move our emotions, mere sounds? Schopenhauer was thinking of the music of his day (he mentions Haydn and Rossini), but has clear intimations that music is more than the emotions provoked, and more than arithmetic as Leibnitz suggested. “Music is the unconscious exercise in metaphysics in which the mind does not know that it is philosophizing.”

In his classic The Idea of the Holy, Rudolf Otto notes that music can give expression to the deepest feelings of the mind, though music falls short of expressing “the holy,” arguing that only silence can approach the holy, the numinous. Otto sees the suggestive in music of religious settings of Bach, Mendelssohn or Thomas Luiz as approximating an inkling of the numinous. But even Confucius understood “the power of music on the mind in a way we moderns cannot better, and touches upon just those elements which we also must recognize in the experience of music.” Otto does refer to the fact that even primitive peoples reacted to music with great enthusiasm, incorporating their basic sounds into their rituals.

This comment of Otto suggests the direction of how music today can be understood as universal, using physics. This is the science of cymatics, which identifies the frequencies of vibration of the standard tones or sounds, especially those assigned within the twelve tones familiar in Western music. Cymatics, pioneered by Swiss scientist Hans Jenny, originally intended to identify and correlate vibrations or frequencies with the multidimensional forms it created with given materials (such as sand or water), but it was quickly realized that not only does sound creates forms, but that knowledge of the nature of sound (frequencies) can anticipate the nature of form. Cymatics can then posit a relationship between all given forms and specific frequencies — even postulating that all objects in the universe are (or were) created by sound.

In The Silent Pulse, George Leonard notes that “Our ability to have a world depends on our ability to entrain with it.” By entrain Leonard and other writers mean that the physical rhythms and pulses of nature and the universe affect everything, including human biological systems, and that successful or optimal human activity is best expressed by conforming to, cooperating with, and harmonizing with these grand pulses. Mitchel Gaynor elaborates (in his Sounds of Healing):

Our ability to entrain or experience our harmony with the vibrations of those around us allows us to feel our connection with the world. Without entrainment — the basis of all communication — we would exist in isolation rather than in harmony with the universe.

Gaynor defines entrainment as the “synchronous influence of one energy system on another.” Cymatics offers the scientific method for verifying the existence of such relationships.

Plainly, “communication-with” refers not simply to communication between human beings but with all living and inanimate beings, the entire universe. Indeed, the disharmony between human beings exists not only because of social and cultural factors but because of the more profound or fundamental fact of human alienation from nature and the true ground of human existence, which is not society but the larger panoply of the universe.

With regards to music, sound can reflect the frequencies of all of the bodily functions, and those organs and functions not following their assessed pattern can, according to music therapists, be restored to balance by being calibrated to their original frequency with the assistance of music or sound that does vibrate at the prescribed (or discovered) frequencies.

Cymatics give music a healing potential. Yet an entire store of healing lore or tradition has always existed in Eastern thought, specifically in primordial syllables such as OM, sound harmonization of the chakras, and use of vibrational sound from bowls as harmonization promoting healing. But even in the Western world, chant has always had a regularizing function, explaining its central place in the history of religious music. Gaynor suggests that certain works of classical music have a healing potential as well — perhaps not as literal as spinning anything of Mozart and Beethoven. Seeking out the emotional character of a musical work can promote a certain “unscientific” aesthetic resonance. Though some decades old, the whole pursuit of music therapy is such a valuable potential that it needs greater popularization.

Much of the healing work of sound, however, is easily acquired when turning to the outside world, the natural world. With the sound of wind in tall pines, of bird song, of moving water and raindrops. the self returns to its primordial home, and every cell becomes attuned to its original tonality.