Sunrise Magazine Online

Music of the Spheres

By J. Hugh Pruett, Astronomer, Extension Division, Oregon Higher Education System

Los Angeles Times, October 18, 1953

. . . To my listening ears
All nature sings, and round me rings
The music of the spheres

Although we moderns have largely succumbed to notions prosaic, yet to some of us there is still a considerable charm in the poetical idea of the ancients that the planets as they encircle the central sun "in order bright" produce exquisite and harmonious music. Sir Thomas Browne wrote:

There is music wherever there is harmony, order or proportion; and thus far we may maintain the music of the spheres.

[image]When we contemplate a clear night sky artistically set with its myriads of twinkling stars of many degrees of brilliancy, and note how the entire crystalline sphere seems smoothly to turn westward, do we not sometimes feel that intertwined in all this perfect order there is something closely akin to real music?

Many of the ancient peoples believed that harmonious sounds were actually present in the starry heavens. Some worked out definite relations between the movements of the planets and their music. From this we get the expression "the music of the spheres."

The noted Grecian Pythagoras (6th century B.C.) taught that as the planets swung through the firmament they emitted clear and pure musical notes. Since each note depended upon the planet's speed — and this in turn upon its solar distance — he felt that the spacing of these heavenly bodies was perfectly arranged, for the combinations of the notes produced splendid harmony; indeed, a symphony so majestic as well-nigh to surpass human comprehension. The slower moving, more distant planets were thought to account for the lower notes; those nearer the sun — and moving faster in their orbits — the higher notes.

The Pythagoreans reasoned that the sounds produced by the planets in motion are extremely loud, but they are in perfect harmony. Then why is the music not noticed? Because we become so accustomed to it — having heard it since birth — that we are no more conscious of these vibrations than is a coppersmith of the din he produces. The seven planets (sun and moon included) are the seven strings of the heavenly lyre which give us this beautiful harmony of the spheres. It is a heptachord. The sphere of the fixed stars furnishes an eighth.

This notion was generally held even to the time of Kepler (around A.D. 1600), who, knowing that any one planet varied somewhat in speed, wrote several notes as the contribution of each. To Saturn he assigned the deep bass, around two octaves below middle C. Swift Mercury's notes were far above the treble staff.

One correspondent wrote me a few years ago: "Perhaps I am a Pythagorean. Why, of course there is music in the universe! Because our puny ears can hear only certain tones doesn't prove that others are not there. That marvelous display of the Aurora Borealis which I watched from the hill in the early morning hours was at times like a great symphony. It was almost too grand and exquisite to bear. I was seeing the tones and harmonies that I could not hear."

Astronomy and music surely are not discordant. Witness the great of the world who have worshiped at the shrines of both: Galileo, Herschel, Saint-Saens, Jeans, Einstein. In his symphonic suite of seven tone poems, "The Planets," Gustav Hoist memorialized the harmony of the spheres.

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Not the truth, whose possession man has, or believes that he has, but the sincere effort which he makes to obtain it, constitutes the real value of the man. Because, not possession but search after truth widens his powers, and herein lies his continuous growing perfectibility. Possession causes stagnation, idleness, and pride. If God held hidden in his right hand all truth, and in his left only the desire for truth with the possibility of being eternally in error, and were to ask me which of the two I preferred, I should fall in humility before his left hand, and should say: Give me the desire for truth! — the pure truth is with you alone. — Lessing