When, in opening the 1938 NYS Federation of Music Clubs Convention in Binghamton, Chamber of Commerce manager J. Kennard Johnson spoke of the “harmony of the spheres descending upon this fair city,” he invoked a concept of antiquity that marries music, mathematics, philosophy, and astrophysics.
It was the 6th c. BC Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras, best known for his formula for calculating the hypotenuse of a right triangle, who observed that plucking a taught string produces a tone. Further, he discovered, plucking a string exactly half as long produces a tone exactly one octave higher. His further experiments discovered mathematical ratios at the basis of musical intervals like the 5th and the 4th.
Pythagoras had discovered that at the heart of all music is vibration – whether of strings, or columns of air, or vocal cords. Somehow he made a leap of extrapolation to theorize that the planets must also produce some sound, perhaps imperceptible, as they travel through space. These sounds became known as the Musica Universalis, Music of the Universe, also known as The Harmony of the Spheres.
The concept of Harmony of the Spheres waxed and waned (pardon the pun) over the centuries, not only in philosophy but also in astronomy. The early 17th century astronomer Johannes Kepler even wrote down his notion of the sound of each of the 6 known planets and our moon in his 1619 book Harmonices Mundi.
