Music Blog

The Official Blog of the Music Conservatory of Westchester

Music of the Spheres

 Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Jean Newton, Executive Director 

A few days ago, physicists announced the successful recording of the sounds created by gravitational waves resulting from the collision of two black holes in a remote corner of the universe (listen to it here). The scientists described these sounds as musical – a series of pitches culminating in middle C. The experiment helps confirm the nature of gravity – it’s not a force, but rather the result of “wrinkles” in the space-time continuum caused by the movement of objects out there in the universe.  Score one for Albert Einstein and his theory of relativity.

In the 6th century BC, the Greek mathematician Pythagoras theorized the relationship between mathematics and music, having discovered that string length and thickness determine the pitch it creates, and further discovering the proportional relationship between pitches. Those that sound in perfect proportion – the octave (2:1), 5th (3:2), and 4th (4:3) – were considered the most pleasing to the human ear.

Pythagoras and his disciples, among whom Plato was one, theorized that each of the celestial bodies produce a musical pitch as they revolve around the earth (thought to be the stationary center of the universe). These pitches sound in perfectly proportioned intervals, creating celestial “music” which humans cannot hear. 

Not surprisingly, this idea took root and flourished over the centuries. Johannes Kepler, the 17th century mathematician and astronomer best known for his laws of planetary motion, wrote about the music of the spheres in his treatise Harmonice Munde, making the analogy between our musical harmony and the harmony of the heavenly motions, created by God and beyond human understanding.

But perhaps, with this ground-breaking experiment, we’ve uncovered the “music of the spheres” and made it audible to human ears.  The wonders of the universe are perhaps a little less unknowable, although still wondrous, and – yes - poetic. 

Lawrence Krauss summed it up beautifully in his piece “Finding Beauty in the Darkness (NY Times, Sunday February 14, 2016): “Too often people ask, what’s the use of science like this, if it doesn’t produce faster cars or better toasters?  But people rarely ask the same question about a Picasso painting or a Mozart symphony. Such pinnacles of human creativity change our perspective of our place in the universe.  Science, like art, music and literature, has the capacity to amaze and excite, dazzle and bewilder.”

 by Jean Newton, M.A., Ph.D. Executive Director, Music Conservatory of Westchester 


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