Music is a universal language. It conveys emotions and tell stories that can't be expressed in any other way. In the ancient world, the secret power of music was often believed to come from invisible forces, anchored in the planets above. Though each culture has their own name for the concept, in English it's commonly called the harmony of the spheres.
Thanks to decades of work by professor Joscelyn Godwin, we have access to English translations for many dozens of major texts on this subject. Taken as a whole, his books show a historical precedent for the idea that Western Classical music was designed around an astronomical and philosophical framework.
What is the Harmony of the Spheres?
The Harmony of the Spheres was an ancient theory comparing planetary orbits to musical vibrations. Most of the ancient works on music + astronomy come out of ancient Greece, India, Egypt, and China. They each had their own cosmologies and myths about music, but beneath those stories were the same mathematical constants.
We'll do our best in this article to provide you with an introduction to the historical concept of the Harmony of the Spheres, followed by speculative musical journey through the foundations of Western music theory.
Let's take a simple starting point. There are 88 constellations officially recognized by NASA. These constellations surround the Earth, so naturally they are divided into a northern and southern hemispheres.
Neil DeGrass Tyson pointed out that the ratio of 36 constellations in the south and 52 in the north was a mirror of the 36 black keys and 52 white keys on a full size, 88-key grand piano.
On a seemingly unrelated note, there are 88 days in the planet Mercury's orbit around the sun. In Greek mythology, Mercury was the god of music and lyrical poetry. So it seems fitting that the piano combines these two musical coincidences into its underlying structure, even if it's all a happy accident.
With that disclaimer out of the way, we've created a map of the article for those who want to skip around. Enjoy and don't take it too seriously!
A Brief History of the Harmony of the Spheres
Just a couple of months ago, British band Coldplay released a new album titled Music of the Spheres, driving a renewed interest in an ancient science of musical astronomy. Twenty years prior, Coldplay's hit song Yellow crooned the words "Look at the stars, see how they shine for you". So maybe they thought they could fire up the old musical star machine and get to work. But if we want to really want to understand the meaning behind the Music of the Spheres, we'll the have to dig into its ancient origins.
The earliest records of the harmony of the spheres can be found in the 5th century BCE, in the works of Plato. In his story The Myth of Er, he described the descent of a human soul from the outer limits of the solar system through the orbital path of each planetary sphere. In the same way that musical tones are defined by wavelengths, the length of a planet's orbit was believed to have its own vibration and musical tone. These planetary notes, when played together, formed a kind of celestial music known as musica universalis, or the universal music.
The harmony of the spheres was also described by Pythagoras, who believed that if you took stringed instruments tuned to any vibrating chord and played them close enough to each other they would start sounding similar notes. This effect is called octave equivalence—the theory that two strings are equivalent when they vibrate at the same speed and produce a sound an octave apart. Using this theory, Pythagoras proposed that there was not one musica universalis but several. He believed each planet had its own distinct harmony and sphere of influence over human emotions.
In addition to Plato's eternal world of ideas, Aristotle also believed in a celestial music. However, he felt that the planets created their own unique sounds, rather than resonating with a universal chord. This difference of opinion led to a long debate among philosophers about the nature of the harmony of the spheres.
The harmony of the spheres was eventually lost to history as people began to focus more on science and mathematics. But in the early sixteenth century, the idea was revived by Johannes Kepler. He believed that each planet created its own unique musical tone as it traveled through space and projected a sound wave into the universe.
According to Kepler's calculations, it would take about two hundred years for one of these planetary sounds to reach Earth from another solar system—which meant we were currently living in the midst of a cosmic symphony.
While Kepler's theory could not be proven, it did inspire later scientists like Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke to develop the field of astrology. Today, we know that there is no celestial music playing in the heavens. However, that doesn't mean that the harmony of the spheres isn't real.
In fact, you can harness these same musical principles to create your own harmonic resonance with the world around you and achieve a state of total calmness in even the most chaotic situations. In other words, music is where science and spirituality come together—and understanding the harmony of the spheres will help you become more effective at sharing your message through songwriting.
Music of the Spheres Encoded into the Grand Piano
Now that we've covered the basics of this concept behind the harmony of the spheres, it's time to dive into some of the juicier details. These are concepts that you won't find anywhere else because they are highly speculative. You need to use your imagination to understand how each planet was woven into the matrix of meaning that lies behind music theory as we know it today.
The 88 Piano Keys and our Galaxy's Constellations
Let's begin with one of the best kept secrets in music theory. Did you know that there are 88 constellations recognized by the International Astronomical Union? Of these star clusters, 36 constellations are stationed in the northern part of the sky, while the remaining 52 constellations are in the southern part.
The contemporary grand piano mirrors this relationship with 52 white keys and 36 black keys, the latter being raised above the white keys to symbolize their northern position. It follows that each piano key represents an entire constellation. Neil deGrasse Tyson outlined his observations of this secret about the piano and 88 constellations back in 1994.
If you open up the piano and look inside, each key controls a hammer that strikes a set of multiple strings. This means that each constellation of stars is represented by one key with multiple strings, tying the constellation together. The fundamental note represents the brightest star, while the notes in the harmonic overtone series represent the fainter stars of the constellation.
To summarize, the 88 keys of the grand piano are an ancient symbol for communication that has been passed down through the ages. When you play a song on the piano, you are tapping into this harmony of the spheres and opening up a channel of communication with the divine.
The Solar Symbolism of our Twelve-Tone Scale
Have you ever wondered why there are twelve hours on a clock, twelve months in a year, twelve inches in a foot, and twelve notes in the musical scale? It all comes back to the solar symbolism of our ancestors. Just as the sun moves across the sky in a predictable pattern, so too does musical rhythm follow a set of inherent laws.
The twelve notes in the chromatic scale are arranged in such a way that they correspond to the twelve divisions of the zodiac. Each note is assigned to one of the astrological signs and vibrates at a specific frequency. The twelve major and minor keys of music correspond to the twelve hours of day and night in each daily cycle. Bach famously illustrated this in his masterwork, the Well Tempered Klavier.
Within the solar system, there are seven heavenly bodies that ancient people considered to be part of the harmony of the spheres. They are the sun, moon, and five innermost planets, not including the earth. We will take the remainder of this article to go through some highlights of each planet and its musical symbolism.
Mercury's Orbit and the Musical Staff of Healing
As we move out from the sun, the first planet we encounter is Mercury. We'll continue along this path to learn more about the harmony of the spheres as it applies to the music theory we use every day.
Just as the 88 keys of a grand piano are divided up to mirror the 88 constellations of our galaxy, it can also be interpreted as a symbol of the planet Mercury.
Mercury's orbital period lasts for 88 days on Earth. This ratio of 88:1 is encapsulated by the 88 keys on a single piano. If you wrapped the piano in a circular formation, the 88 piano keys would represent markers of Mercury's orbit, like lines on a ruler.
Ancient Romans equated Mercury with the god of communication and healing. His healing staff, called the caduceus, is loaded with deeper musical meaning.
In music theory, sheet music is written on a staff. The grand piano employs a special grand staff, large enough to convey every frequency of the instrument. The ascending and descending musical scales correspond to the scales of a snake. Visually, the snakes of the caduceus resemble the numeral 8 stacked twice upon each other. This allusion to the number 88 is consistent with our previous observations.
Keeping in mind that the number eight represents the octave, the foundation of harmony of the spheres, the caduceus therefore doubles as the symbol of music.
The Venus Scales: Pentatonic, Diatonic, Chromatic
Moving outward from the Sun and Mercury, we encounter the planet Venus next.
Remember that the harmony of the spheres is based on the relationship between planets. The image above depicts the orbital path of Venus and the Earth around the sun. As time progresses, the relationship between Venus and Earth creates a five-petaled flower shape known as the Venus Pentagram. At least, this was the estimation of early astronomers. The true orbit is closer to an ellipse and so the five points are not perfectly symmetrical in reality.
Due to the gravitational relationship between Earth and Venus, the two bodies have reached a near perfect resonance with each other. Every 8 Earth years, Venus circles the Sun a total of 13 times.
The same numbers are found in music theory. The 8th note of diatonic scale is the octave of the original tone, while the 13th note of a chromatic scale would hit that same octave. Additionally, the lowest and highest notes on the grand piano cover a span of eight octaves, replicating the 8-note pattern of the octave to an 8-octave pattern in the full piano.
Renaissance magicians associated Venus with the pentagram, most likely because of this secret astronomical knowledge. The shape is only completed when the Earth and Venus both complete their orbital resonance and lock back into their original positions.
Early music theorists called the musical staff pentagramma, meaning five-letters. This is because they used the five note scale and gave each note one letter. In occult symbolism, the upright pentagram is a symbol of Venus, representing maternal protection and healing. The pentagram is surrounded by a circle, representing the completion of a path around the five pointed star.
In conclusion, the orbit of Venus encompasses the octave of a pentatonic, diatonic, and chromatic scale. When we take all of this into account, it's clear that there is more to music than just sound. There is an underlying geometry that creates the harmonic intervals we hear. This is the beauty of the harmony of the spheres.
The Four Seasons of Earth and its Musical Triads
Next in line is our own precious planet, Earth. As we move through our own year, there is no external planet to compare ourselves to. Instead of ratios of planetary harmony of the spheres, we are faced with the seasonal weather patterns that stand between us and heaven. The four quadrants of Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter bring with it elemental changes that can be found in music theory as well.
There are four basic types of chords in music theory, corresponding to each of the four seasons. Spring is represented by the Major triad. As we pass through to summer, we hit the augmented triad made up of two major thirds. The augmented triad is the summer sun at its highest peak, burning hotter and brighter than ever before.
Fall brings with it the minor chord, symbolizing the incoming cold weather upon the warm earth. The diminished chord is associated with winter - two minor thirds stacked on each other - when all life seems to be in hibernation. When taken together, we see how the four elements mirror the seasons.
Alongside musical harmony and chords, the four seasons that divide up our twelve-month year are mirrored by the four weeks contained within a calendar month. This pattern of quartering time can be found in the 4/4 rhythms that structure popular music. While the harmony of the spheres usually refers to musical tones, it can also apply to principles of rhythm.
The Earth's Moon and Its Musical Meaning
The moon is the next planet up, and just like our own home it has its own unique relationship with music. Here's where things start to get really exciting!
Ancient astronomers claimed that there were seven planets in the sky, two of which were the sun and the moon. We've previously covered the interpretation of the black and white keys as the northern and southern constellations of our galaxy.
The five black keys could be said to represent the planets in the darkness of space. It's only when the sun and moon are introduced to the harmony of the spheres that the darkness turns to light. The five black keys of darkness become the seven white keys that include the solar and lunar light. We are able to see Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn because of the solar light.
If we look at just the Sun and Moon, we find a second layer of musical meaning. They share the same light, but the sun is generative while the moon is reflective. By this same token, the major and minor scales are made up of the same notes. They simply have different starting points. This is known in music theory as the relative keys of major and minor.
People often says that the major scale feels "happy" and the minor scale feels "sad", but what if we redefined them within the context of astronomy? By this definition, the major scale would feel like a time of day (the morning or afternoon) while the minor scale would be associated with night. This interpretation brings a more open ended meaning to the scales.
The Musical Orbit of Mars Relative to Earth
Onward we go, further into the outer reaches of space! The next planet we encounter after Earth is Mars. So where does Mars fit into the harmony of the spheres?
Let's begin where we often do, with the orbital of the planet around the sun. The orbital length of Mars is 687 Earth days, which means that the ratio of a year on Mars to a year on earth is 687:365.
Pull up your calculator and you'll find that 687 divided by 365 is 1.88, meaning the orbit of Mars is 88% slower than that of Earth. Earlier in this article, we highlighted that the 88 day of Mercury and the 88 constellations as they relate to the 88 keys of a piano. In both cases, we found that the octave was the underlying principle. So here once again, in a new form, we find that Mars invokes the number 88, this time representing a percentage of growth over time measured in Earth days.
The Musical Octaves Between the Moons of Jupiter
Now it's time to move on to the largest planet in our solar system, Jupiter. The astronomer Galileo detected Jupiter's four largest moons during the early 1600's, whose size were comparable to our own moon here on Earth.
The 3 innermost Galilean moons of Jupiter are named Io, Europa, and Ganymede. They are locked into an orbital resonance of 4:2:1. There are two conjunctions between Io-Europa and three between Io-Ganymede for each Europa-Ganymede conjunction.
If these were musical octaves, Ganymede would be the fundamental tone and Europa would be the octave above it with a vibration of twice the speed. Io would be the third octave. When the rotational speed of the Galilean moons is multiplied by 250 million, the three inner moons produce what we consider an A note, 28 octaves above the frequency of the moons themselves.
Here we find that the harmony of the spheres applies not only to our planets, but the moons that orbit around those planets as well!
The Ringing of Saturn and its Hexagon
The last planetary orbit we'll talk about is Saturn. As the God of Time, Saturn could be seen to represent the strict rules of tempo and rhythm. The Greeks called Saturn Cronos, which is where we get words like chronological, meaning the sequential passage through time. In other words, Saturn represents the medium of time through which notes travel.
One year on Saturn is equal to 29 years on earth, echoing the 29 day lunar cycle around the Earth. Here we see the familiar pattern of resonance between the number of days on Earth and Years on Earth. This is the core concept that fascinated ancient astronomers and led them to teach the harmony of the spheres as a cosmic principle.
Another fascinating thing about Saturn is the mysterious hexagon located at its pole. This shape is believed to be a cymatic pattern, meaning that it is formed by the interference of sound waves. One explanation for this hexagon is that it is being caused by a massive tone being played at Saturn's poles!
The word cymatics comes from the Greek word cyma, meaning wave. When a sound wave travels through certain physical mediums (like sand or starch) at a constant rate, it can cause the matter to self-organize into geometric patterns. As the sound frequency increases, the geometry produced becomes more complex and beautiful, forming the basis for some of nature's most impressive patterns.
Accessing the Harmony of the Spheres Yourself
Interesting as this topic is, I'm sure you're wondering where any of this information can help us as music producers. We've covered some interesting facts about the harmony of the spheres and how planets relate to musical harmony. I think it's time we tie all of these concepts together and see what they mean for our music production workflows.
One way is to simply choose notes that feel good to you and that have personal meaning. When you play or sing these notes, allow yourself to connect with the energy of the planets they represent. Another way is to use a tuning system like Pythagorean tuning, which is based on the harmonic relationships between the planets. This will allow your music to be in harmony with the cosmos.
You could also explore the harmony of the spheres through language, using an app like AudioCipher. In the example below, we've used the names of the planets Sun, Venus, and Earth in the key of F# Major to create a melody:
AudioCipher is a MIDI plugin that lets you type in words, choose a key signature, select a rhythm. Use the drag to midi feature to turn it directly into music notes. This technique is called a musical cryptogram and was invented by the very same philosophers and artists who mused over the harmony of the spheres.
Each time you do this, you generate a unique melody that resonates with your beliefs about that heavenly body. This is a great way to explore harmonic patterns by playing with the stars, constellations, and other celestial objects that we see overhead every night!
You can find an example of how the word Night Sky was turned into music with AudioCipher in the video below.
No matter how you choose to do it, the important thing is that you allow yourself to be open to cosmic influences while you're creating your music. By aligning yourself with the music of the spheres, you can infuse your songs with a feeling of transcendence and connect with something far greater than yourself.