Friday, December 18, 2015

The History of Music, the Limits of Humanity, and the Nature of the Cosmos

Tingsha cymbals - one of may instrument types that emits sacred sounds

Introductory Note from the Editor

The concept presented by this piece cannot be fully encapsulated into a title, even with a subtitle added in for clarity's sake; so here I offer you an overview. I had asked Race to write a piece on the healing properties of sound, not from a specific perspective, but to go with his heart on it. So as you'll soon see, that's the beauty of this piece - that he did just that. This work provides a quality overview of the basics of how sound healing works, and also throws in a good measure of history, and how slowly enough was learnt of what goes on to define it on some level.

Sacred Sounds and a Snapshot of their History

by Race MoChridhe

All the great civilizations have a term for fundamental sound—sound beyond sound, beyond frequency or vibration—as the substrate of Creation. The West uses variations on one word: Sanskrit Aum, Hebrew Amen, Arabic Amin, Egyptian Amun, Welsh Awen. The East has its own words. In China, the sound was called Kung and, more than anywhere else, the attunement of civilization to the Kung was conceived as the fundamental responsibility of human governance.

The legendary second emperor, Huang Ti, sent his minister Ling Lun to seek a special set of bamboo pipes rumored to hold the precise standard pitches to which all other instruments should be tuned for the good of cosmic order. This was the Chinese equivalent of the Holy Grail. If it seems somewhat presumptuous for human beings to task themselves with tuning the world, it must be remembered that the Chinese were far too clever to believe in fixed and immutable realities. The Kung shifts with the changing of the world ages, and thus requires from humans a continual and subtle adjustment of all worldly affairs. One of the most important ways of accomplishing this was through the creation of properly tuned musical scales.

The Tao Te Ching states that “One has produced two, two has produced three, and three has produced all the numbers.” This aphorism is well-nigh universal, and students of alchemy may recognize its Western formulation in Maria Prophetissa’s statement that “From the first comes the second, from the second the third, and from the third comes the fourth as the One.” In China, three was the number which represented heaven (just as it has in the Christian West), and two was the number representing earth (comparable to the use of four in Greek thought).

Five was the number of the classical Chinese elements. The mathematical ratio of 3:2 forms the musical interval called a fifth, which derives its name from the fact that it is the interval—the sonic space—separating the first and fifth notes of a scale. More importantly, it is the most acoustically stable, or consonant, interval after the octave. In China, the fifth was thus seen as the interval that symbolically united heaven (3) with earth (2) to engender the five elements (the five notes spanned by the interval of a fifth). Thus the octave being self identifying in that all octaves reflect back upon the original note, a concept akin to the ideal of traditional French poetry—preferring to rhyme words with themselves, became the means of engendering the entire cosmos from the fundamental tone of Kung.

burnt music on the sand

The predominant Chinese musical scale was pentatonic, meaning it contained five notes generated from fifths, and these notes corresponded to the five elements, to the four directions and the still center, to the four seasons and eternity, etc. In this way, Chinese music served as the symbolic means of relating all manifest existence to its fundamental Source, and listening to the music was conceived as way of restoring one’s connection with Divinity.

Music (named for Zeus’ daughters the Muses) was equally sacred in ancient Greece, but there all music was built on the tetrachord—a series of four notes that span the interval of a perfect fourth, which is the mathematical inversion of the perfect fifth and has the ratio 4:3. This corresponded to the Greek system of four elements (the fifth element, aethyr, was not added until some centuries later by Aristotle), and thus achieved within the framework of Greek thought the same metaphysical perfection that the fifth had in China. The tetrachord was viewed almost as an act of divine revelation, with the four-stringed lyre having been developed by Apollo’s son Linos. The musician Trepander of Antissa expanded this system by combining two tetrachords with a whole tone between them to produce a full octave. His lyre then had seven strings, seven being a sacred number gifted by Hermes and related to the seven visible planets of Greek astrology.

It was the students of Pythagoras, the legendary mathematician-philosopher, who realized that Trepander’s system allowed the octave to be analyzed as the combination of a fourth and a fifth. The trouble was that the fifth and the fourth, though complementary, were nonetheless two very different bases for musical reckoning, and the fit between them was never perfect. It was while trying to reconcile the two that the Pythagoreans made a shocking discovery. Like the Chinese, they built scales on intervals of a fifth, developing the circle of fifths still in use today, but while struggling to rectify the fifth, which is the arithmetic mean of an octave (i.e. the average of the notes at either end), with the fourth, which is the octave’s harmonic mean (i.e. related to the notes at both ends by the same fraction), the Pythagoreans found that no progression of fifths would ever fit exactly into any progression of octaves.

That small discrepancy, now called the Pythagorean comma, would always force one fifth to be just a little bit smaller than the others in order for a progression of fifths to fit evenly. The Chinese had found this as well, and devised various imperfect means of accommodating it (a fundamental problem which remains a lively debate among musicians today). In the process of making this discovery, however, the Pythagoreans found something even more troubling—the square root of two.

The square root of two is an irrational number, which means that it cannot be expressed by regular whole numbers like we use to count with, or by fractions of those numbers. Today, irrational numbers are a very important and intensely studied part of mathematical theory. To the Pythagoreans, however, they were an entirely new phenomenon—one which shattered many of their comfortable assumptions about the rationality of the universe. Simply put, the square root of two meant that there was no “center” of an octave. The fifth and the fourth would never sit entirely comfortably with one another, and thus there was no perfect union of opposites. In the context of Pythagorean thought, the comma came to appear as nothing less than a window into the realm beyond sensible reality—a portal through which one might peer, like the figure in the famous Flammarion woodcut, into a domain not meant for mortals to view.

The Pythagoreans’ early work has left us a variety of expressions that still link music to perfect order: we speak of the “music of the spheres” and use the word “harmony” (which, in the original Greek, simply meant “octave”) to mean true and equitable balance. The irony is that music was central to the deconstruction of such ideas, and the appreciation of the fundamental conflicts and irrationalities that underpin our existence. In this respect, the classical vision of “rational man” in a rational universe hit first in music with the Pythagoreans the same hard barriers of reality that it would hit in physics with Einstein, or in psychology with Freud.

In the following centuries, the Greeks were forced to reimagine their way of looking at the world, with many lasting consequences for Western thought. In a way, however, they had simply been forced to appreciate the deeper understanding at which the Chinese had already arrived—that there is no fixed and unchangeable reality which human beings might describe with everlasting perfection, but instead only a fluctuating sound, like the vibrato of a human voice trembling with both joy and sorrow, that shifts through all the range of being with the passing of the ages, and before which we must listen, attentive in the silence.

For a much fuller treatment of this subject, the author recommends some of the work of Thomas Hightower.

Deuter; Koyasan: Reiki Sound Healing

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