Music of the Spheres

We may move in different circles but we all dance the same dance on the music of the spheres.

― Wald Wassermann

The formative influence on the American avant-garde composer Charles Ives (1874-1954) was his father George, a local music teacher and band leader from Danbury, Connecticut. The hymns and marches George played might seem worlds removed from the radically original music his son was known for. However, the elder Ives imparted a valuable lesson in how to listen beneath the surface of things. In a memoir dictated to his secretary, the younger Ives — an insurance executive by day — told the story of an outdoor camp meeting where a conservatory student complained to George Ives about the raucous, off-key hymn-singing of a local stonemason. To put it politely, the stonemason was making “a joyful noise unto the Lord.” To the elder Ives, however, the stonemason was “a supreme musician.” He advised the young conservatory student, “Look into his face and hear the music of the ages. Don't pay too much attention to the sounds. If you do, you may miss the music.”

I am struck by how closely this remembrance tracks with a scene near the end of Hermann Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf in which Mozart materializes in modern dress and tunes in Handel’s Concerto in F Major on an ancient radio. The novel’s protagonist, Harry Haller, is outraged that the music of the immortals is so badly mutilated by this primitive device. But Mozart only twits him for failing to appreciate the cosmic humor of it all. “Just listen, you poor creature,” he advises, “listen without either pathos or mockery, while far away behind the veil of this hopelessly idiotic and ridiculous apparatus the form of this divine music passes by….You hear not only a Handel who, disfigured by the radio, is, all the same, in this most ghastly of devices still divine; you hear as well and you observe, most worthy sir, a most admirable symbol of all life.”

The Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras first proposed in the sixth-century BCE that here was a harmonic order to the cosmos itself. He had discovered that intervals between musical tones could be expressed in simple mathematical ratios and reasoned that the same principle applied to all moving objects. “There is geometry in the humming of the strings,” he said. “There is music in the spacing of the spheres.” He thought the celestial bodies actually made music; indeed, he claimed to have heard the “music of the spheres.” The 17th-century German philosopher Johannes Kepler picked up on the same idea in his laws of planetary motion, although for him the harmonics of the universe was more a matter of the intellect than of the ear. Recently, astronomers searching for planets outside our solar system found a star system called K2-138 in which its five plants were all spaced in 3:2 resonances, meaning that each planet makes three circuits around the star in the time it takes the one next farthest out to travel around twice. The intervals between their orbits is what musicians call a “perfect fifth.”

I do not claim to have heard the music of the spheres or even to detect when I am singing off-key. Growing up, my mother insisted I was tone-deaf. A music teacher I knew later on assured me this was not the case, since I can distinguish different tones. However, I can recall singing lullabies to my older son when he was still in a crib and having him tell me, “Don’t sing, Daddy.” (Turns out the child had perfect pitch.) I fear I am much like the hymn-singing stonemason in Charles Ives’ account who made a joyful noise unto the Lord. Still, I hold out hope that somewhere well beneath the surface of things, my heart-felt singing is backed by heavenly choirs.

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