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How the Music of the Spheres Informs Classical Education

The idea of an interconnected and structured universe finds its root in the creative order of an Almighty God who made the heavens and the earth. For thousands of years, this was the dominant idea and foundation of intellectual and theological thought. Since God created an orderly world, mankind in his work and calling sought to bring order to his sphere of influence. This is the creation mandate of Genesis 1:28 in its fullest—taking dominion over the earth and bringing order. In the arts, that included taking dominion over color, language, movement and, with regard to music, taking dominion over sound and time.

The intentionality and orderliness inherent in the creative cosmos was a discipline for study and emulation. This was especially true in the area of music. The Music of the Spheres was the controlling concept that the order of the cosmos was analogous to the inner structure of music—in its ratios and relationships as well as in its harmonie.

Gioseffo Zarlino writes in Le istitutioni harmoniche (1558), “But every reason persuades us to believe that the world is composed with harmony, both because its soul is a harmony (as Plato believed), and because the heavens are turned round their intelligences with harmony, as may be gathered from their revolutions, which are proportionate to each other in velocity. This harmony is known also from the distances of the celestial spheres, for these distances (as some believe) are related in harmonic proportion, which although not measured by the sense, is measured by the reason.”

God created the universe and the heavenly spheres to make harmonious music together in relationship to one another.

Scholars, philosophers, theologians and scientists such as Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, Confucius, Augustine, Boethius, Cassiodorus, Ptolemy, Kepler, Luther and Newton started from this perspective of the universe. For Augustine, Boethius, Ptolemy, and Kepler this also led to the writing of books on music. Martin Luther wrote, “You will find that from the beginning of the world [music] has been instilled and implanted in all creatures, individually and collectively. For nothing is without sound or harmony…Music is a gift and largesse of God, not a human gift. Praise through word and music is a sermon in sound.”

There is still much to learn from the Music of the Spheres and the implications of these ideas. Some of the principles inherent in the concept of the harmonious musical spheres have distinct repercussions regarding our view of the universe and of truth.

1. Creation has purpose and each part plays a role. The created order is filled with examples of purpose and interconnectedness such as the food chain, an interdependent habitat, the Great Chain of Being. If God created it, it is because He desired it. As James Schall writes in The Order of Things,

We have noted that, if the inner life of the Godhead is complete in itself, then what is not God need not exist. But if what need not exist does in fact exist, as we see that it does, we seek to account for its order or purpose. Why does it stand out of nothingness? Why is it this configuration and not that? From nothingness, nothing comes. The origin of something existing cannot be, in any strict sense, “nothing”. This is one thing of which our minds can be quite sure on their own evidence. When the Psalmist declared that the heavens manifested the glory of God, he also indicated by that very term “glory” that the heavens were not wholly accidental, even if they need not exist in the first place.

2. Parts work together to form a greater whole. As we study and seek to understand any idea, discipline, or concept, we cannot do so in isolation from the whole. This is part of the undermining travesty of modern higher education—specialization without greater context. Goethe wrote, “The universe is a harmonious whole, each creature is but a note, a shade of a great harmony, which man must study in its entirety and greatness, lest each detail should remain a dead letter.”

God created the universe and the heavenly spheres to make harmonious music together in relationship to one another.

3. Creation is intended to be beautiful. The heavens declare the glory, the beauty, of God and the earth displays His handiwork. Scripture uses the idea of music to convey this glory in the Psalms in such passages as “The pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy, the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy” (Psalm 65:12-13). In Job 38:7, God speaks to Job and says where were you “when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”

As Athanasius wrote in Discourse Against the Pagans, “It is right that creation should exist as he made it and as we see it happening, because this is his will, which no one would deny. For if the movement of the universe were irrational, and the world rolled on in random fashion, one would be justified in disbelieving what we say. But if the world is founded on reason, wisdom and science, and is filled with orderly beauty, then it must owe its origin and order to none other than the Word of God.”

4. Harmony shows the way things ought to be and brings shalom. J.S. Bach viewed the very basic elements of music “as constituting a religious reality, that the more perfectly the task of composition (and, indeed, performance) is realized, the more God is immanent in music.” Shalom is the rightness of all things—the harmony of Eden and the relationship between Creator and creature; the peace that Christ, as the second Adam, incarnates and brings by the blood of his cross (Col 1:20); the recreation and making of all things new and the passing away of former things (Rev 21:4-5). This is harmony, concord, peace. There exists a parallel between the “harmony of music and that of creation” built upon the medieval theocentric understanding of the universe in which everything finds its intersection point in the nature and character of God.

5. The brokenness of the world shows the need for a Redeemer. The fact that harmony falls into discord, that created things atrophy, that sin mars and stains beauty is the groaning for redemption (Rom 8:23) and the recognition of our current state. The irregularities in the medieval world “model,” as C.S. Lewis calls it, are not cause to dismiss the model in its entirety, but to identify the brokenness of the world that longs for shalom.

6. God controls the Dance as a beautiful expression of One Truth. The Great Dance is the picture of divine Love moving the stars and spheres, cultures and nations, families and communities, all creation and all of life as one beautiful, harmonious, complex, and purposeful dance. In submission, we learn the steps—haltingly and limping—as our loves become ordered to divine Love. Cassiodorus writes that, “Music indeed is the knowledge of apt modulation. If we live virtuously, we are constantly proved to be under its discipline, but when we commit injustice we are without music. The heavens and the earth, indeed all things in them which are directed by a higher power, share in the discipline of music, for Pythagoras attests that this universe was founded by and can be governed by music.”

While these points apply to the Music of the Spheres particularly (and much more could be said for its inclusion in our studies), the principles from the Spheres also pertain to education as a whole—and particularly classical education. Consider the following:

  • Each discipline has a purpose
  • All the disciplines work together.
  • We should fill students with awe and wonder at the world and for the Creator who has made such things.
  • Rest for our students partially consists in being who God has called them to be, and, therefore, to draw that out of them.
  • Education is a process of repentance.
  • We must submit to the work of the Lord in the unity of Truth.

Joseph Ratzinger wrote, “For the Pythagoreans, this mathematical order of the universe (‘cosmos’ means ‘order’!) was identical with the essence of beauty itself. Beauty comes from meaningful inner order. And for them this beauty was not only optical but also musical…The beauty of music depends on its conformity to the rhythmic and harmonic laws of the universe. The more that human music adapts itself to the musical laws of the universe, the more beautiful it will be.”

This inner beauty, order, and harmony not only expresses itself in glorious music, but also in the forming of beautiful souls and minds.

i. Jamie James, The Music of the Spheres: Music, Science and the Natural Order of The Universe (New York: Copernicus, 1993), 91-92.

ii. James R. Gaines, Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment (New York: Harper Perennial, 2005), 43.

iii. John Butt, “Bach’s metaphysics of music.” Ed. John Butt, The Cambridge Companion to Bach (Cambridge: The Cambridge University Press, 2000), 46.

iv. Ibid., 48.

v. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 152-153.

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