Universal Brotherhood Path – January 1900

THE PHILOSOPHY OF SOUND — Charlotte E. Woods

The universal power of music over mental states gives rise to much fascinating speculation among musicians who are philosophically inclined concerning the rationale of sound, and its correspondence with other vibrational phenomena in nature. It is not enough for some minds to experience the elevating effects of certain combinations of sounds upon themselves and others; they must further inquire why sound affects, and seek to investigate the subtle connection between waves or vibrations of ether, and waves or vibrations of the inner psychic nature of man. And such inquirers, though they often lose in art what they gain from scientific criticism directed toward it, do much to uphold the dignity of music as an actual factor in the evolution of the human soul.

"Music," it has been intuitively said, "is not only one of the refinements of life, but life itself." If this be true, our poets may speak more literally than we wot of, when they figure the life of man and the Universe in terms of sound.

"And I know not if, save in this, such gift be allowed to man,
That out of three sounds he frame, not a fourth sound, but a star.
Consider it well; each tone of our scale in itself is naught;
It is everywhere in the world — loud and soft, and all is said."

The science of vibrations, then, imperfectly though it is yet understood, appears to open to us at least one portal of the mystery of life. Penetrate far enough — "and all is said." Since all vibration produces sound, and since all matter is in motion or vibration, it follows that whenever there is matter or substance there must also be sound, though inaudible. Hence every object and part of the universe will be continually producing a certain definite sound, though our ears may not be sufficiently sensitive to receive it. Truly and literally the world is a vast orchestra of pulsing vibration, and the "music of the spheres" exist equally for the scientist, as for the man of imagination.

Professor Huxley's oft-quoted statement in his essay on the "Physical Basis of Life" will come readily to the mind of many:

"The wonderful noonday silence of a tropical forest, is, after all, due only to the dullness of our hearing; and could our ears catch the murmur of these tiny maelstroms, as they whirl in the innumerable myriads of living cells which constitute each tree, we should be stunned, as with the roar of a great city."

A musician's pursuit leads him sometimes away from the practical side of his art, to the speculative. He has to become, for the time, a philosopher, seeking to know how sound is made, and its relation to the ultimates of things. And Science gives us such big hints — sets us so tall a ladder to climb, that climb we will, to find, when we have got high enough, that the Easterns have been before us, and have relegated Sound — primordial matter in vibration — to the very forefront of the divine program of the Universe.

According to the Puranas, the world, with its countless forms, conditions, and aspects, is built out of a single Substance, to whose earliest manifestations belongs the only conceivable attribute of Sound. The Vedas set forth the cause of Sound, and the "Voice of Nature" under the allegory of the Gandharvas, the 6,333 heavenly Singers and Musicians of Indra's Realm, who personify, even in numbers, the manifold sounds in nature, spiritual and physical. The Hindus interpret them to mean the forces of solar fire, and their association with both heat and sound is an interesting forestallment of the hypothesis of modern Science that heat is a specific form of vibratory motion, all vibration producing sound, audible and inaudible.

Of course Science laughs at the Vedas, and their fairytale methods of dealing with hard facts. It knows nothing of a hypothetical Akasa-Ether as the origin of sound. "Sound is the result of the vibrations of the air," say our wiser men. For all that, we will just glance at a little more archaic nonsense on the subject.

The three most dissimilar religious philosophies of the ancient world agree in the idea of creation, or transmutation, by Word or Sound. The Hindu Brahma through Vach (divine Speech) created the Primordial Waters. Light, Sound, Number, the Ten Words, or Sephiroth, are the three factors in creation, according to the Chaldean-Hebrew Kabbalah. The Pythagoreans held that the Logos called forth the world out of Chaos by Sound or Harmony, and constructed it according to the principles of musical proportion. For this reason, Pythagoras made a knowledge of music and mathematics necessary to admission into his schools.

Let us grant, for the sake of argument, that these ancients knew something, that their Akasa — Vach — Logos — Verbum contained high suggestions of a condition of (if I may so speak) spiritualised Sound, the result of vibrations so rapid in a medium so attenuated as to defy investigation by physical means, and to be reached in thought only by induction from the law of analogy on all the planes of Nature. This will give us some conception of Sound as a (possibly) creative potency, and a factor in the early evolution of Form. Is not this hypothesis borne out by the celebrated Watts-Hughes experiments in which sand on stretched vellum is thrown into geometrical shapes by the vibrations of a violin-string? Science, indeed, seems to be awakening, in many directions, to the great possibilities connected with the right use and understanding of sound, and its sister, color.

Every atom of matter in the Universe, of every grade of density, has probably a fixed rate of vibration. One may produce, by sound, the key-note of the atoms composing a structure or organism, and may harmonise or disturb them according to the particular ratio of vibration employed. In cases where illness is due to a disturbance of the right balance of molecular motion — either of the physical or psychic man — the proper use of sound as a restorer of equability is scientifically conceivable. We have lately heard of the Guild of St. Cecilia whose object is to allay certain forms of suffering by music performed in the sick-room by competent musicians who have devoted themselves to this experiment. In Paris, too, the different colours of the spectrum have lately been made to play a part in the treatment of disease.

Sound is the first link in a (possibly) infinite chain of phenomena resulting from vibratory motion of matter in different degrees of modification. From 32 to 32,000 vibrations per second lies the range of sound audible to the human ear, conveyed by the air. From 32,000, to a third of a billion vibrations is the region of the electric rays, the medium being ether. These rays Lord Armstrong has shown to be productive of form in geometrical proportion. From 35 to 1875 billions per second, we have the range of the heat and light rays — a narrow margin comprising red at 450, and violet at 750 billions. Some steps upward may be found the vibrations of the Rontgen rays, from a fourth of a trillion, to ten times that number per second. Then a vast, almost unexplored region in which the rays cease to be refracted, reflected, or polarized, and traverse dense bodies as though they were transparent.

Professor Crookes is our authority for this vibrational ladder, and he sets no limit to its ascent in ever-increasing rates of velocity. An observation of the exceedingly narrow limits of our perceptions and knowledge gives rise to the speculation as to whether sound might not exist at stages of inconceivable height, as well as at the comparatively low point in the ascent at which we find it. Whether on the principle that extremes meet, the Hindu Akasa — spiritualized sound — may not be so very unscientific, after all.

But to return to terra-firma. Sound, form, colour, heat are a series of apparently interdependent effects arising from the one cause of matter in motion. Arrange now the vibrations of sound in certain definite combinations, as in music, and we get a distinct impression on the mind and emotions, and are confronted again with the time-honoured problem of associating changes in matter with changes in mind and feeling. A new, and totally dissimilar phenomenon has been added to our list of correspondences — one that has ever constituted the "Thus far" of the scientist.

One clue only can be offered here, and that an insufficient one. Huxley, as we have seen, regards every atom in nature as pulsing with inaudible sound. If his statement be true, it follows that not only the physical body of man, but the ether interpenetrating it, and even the substance or inner vehicle of man's mind must each have its own dominant note, which can be altered and modified by the power of sound in different combinations. If this were not so, if sound did not exist within man in some form or another, by reason of the regularly toned molecules of his sensitive inner nature, there could be no connection between himself and the sounds reaching him from without. Hence it is easy to understand why every organism, with its own peculiar key-note, or rate of vibration, will be differently affected by different classes of music, certain combinations of sounds influencing some natures strongly in a particular direction, and leaving others untouched through lack of the appropriate key-note.

From the Eastern custom of mantram chanting, or the deliberate employment of certain sound-vibrations for the production of certain states of consciousness, to the leit-motif of our modern orchestral writers, is probably a far cry; yet both have a common principle. In Wagner's Dramas, for instance, the hearer associates in consciousness certain personages and dramatic points with an appropriate combination of notes. Every part of the work stands to each, and to the hearer, in a definite vibrational ratio. So that by constant repetition of the individual motifs, or logoi (the latter a significant term) the consciousness of the audience becomes attuned to a sympathetic relation with the characters and episodes as presented, of which the motifs are the attempted sound-equivalents. This mantramic power of music to arouse corresponding states of consciousness is within the experience of all.

Of modern composers, possibly Wagner and Schumann had the deepest insight into the influence of sound upon the inner, psychic organism. To these men, the composer's power lay in the expression and interpretation, in terms of sound, of certain stages of soul-experience. Without a perfect attunement of the inner vibrations that make up individuality, with their outer correspondences, without the true inspiration founded on nature and soul-life, music may pass into the realm of intellectual sound-gymnastics, but it can never become true art.

According to what a man has done, suffered, thought, and experienced, will be the harmony or discord of the psychic note he utters. In each man this note is dominant, sounding through his entire individuality, jarring or harmonising according to the mind-pitch of those with whom he comes in contact. To this fact may, perhaps, be attributed the superior affecting power of the human voice over other forms of musical expression. This instrument may accurately disclose the interior state of a speaker or singer. If a man has had a wide experience of suffering, it is stored up within him, and his voice will carry with it the synthetic expression of his entire being. A superficial or unformed character is unmistakably revealed in this way.

To a certain extent, the audience and the music-maker are one, in that what the latter conveys in terms of outer vibrations, the former answers in terms of emotion and thought. Some music, it is true, touches deeper places; awakens experiences that are not to be expressed by phenomena so shallow as feeling. It creates, or re-creates within a state all too high and fleeting for the scalpels of the musical psychologist, in which the hearers regain, for a flash, the Beatific Vision, and being led to the "edge of the Infinite, gaze for one moment into That."

After which Science may say its little say to deaf ears.


Universal Brotherhood Path

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