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The Harmony of the Spheres

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

Kepler 450

We could dismiss Harmony of the Spheres as quaint and na´ve, if it were not for the fact that a branch of modern astrophysics embraces the concept all over again.  According to String Theory, everything in nature is made up of tiny vibrating strings. 
Dr. Michio Kaku is Professor of Theoretical Physics at City College of NY; if you have watched any programs about astronomy on the Science or National Geographic Channel, you would recognize him right away.  In a very concise statement, Dr. Kaku explains how string theory envisions the universe as music. 

“The sub-atomic particles we see in nature – the quarks, the electrons – are nothing but musical notes on a tiny vibrating string.  What is physics?  Physics is nothing but the laws of harmony that you can write on vibrating strings.  What is chemistry?  Chemistry is nothing but the melodies you can play on interacting vibrating strings.  What is the universe?  The universe is a symphony of vibrating strings.  We are nothing but melodies.  We are nothing but cosmic music played out on vibrating strings and membranes.”

And so music is seen as a kind of “cosmic glue,” uniting philosophy, mathematics, and science!

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