Introducing Sound Possibilites, Part 2

<–Have you read Part 1 ?

Philosophy (the lady in blue wearing an elaborate headdress known as a hennin) presenting the Seven Liberal Arts to Boethius; from left to right the Trivium of grammar, rhetoric and logic, followed by the Quadrivium of music, geometry, arithmetic, and astronomy. Artist: Coëtivy Master (Henri de Vulcop?) (French, active about 1450 – 1485)

It is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain quality music programs in schools these days, at least in the U.S. STEM education enthusiasts must be tone-deaf. This has not always been the case. The positive effects of music on learning have been clearly demonstrated time and again. In the medieval curriculum known as the Quadrivium, music was studied as one of four interrelated fields; arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. De Institutione Musica, written by the sixth century Roman philosopher Boethius, was one of the first musical works to be printed in Venice in 1492, just as Columbus set sail for the East by heading west. De Musica helped medieval authors later during the ninth century understand Greek music. Like his Greek predecessors, Boethius believed that arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music were intertwined, hence the Quadrivium helped to mutually reinforce the understanding of each, and together exemplified the fundamental principles of order and harmony in the understanding of the universe as it was known during that time.

In his treatise De Musica, Boethius sees music operating at three different levels:

  • musica mundana  – sometimes referred to as musica universalis – this ‘music’ was not intended to be heard but understood, ie; the “music of the spheres”.
  • musica humana  – the internal music of the human body – think “biorhythms” and their effect on body and mind.
  • musica instrumentalis  – music made by singers and instrumentalists.

Today in western society we tend to think only of this third one, musica instrumentalis, when dealing with music; music as a consumer-driven product having to do mostly with material fame and fortune.  Musica mundana and musica humana have by and large been relegated to the dustbin of history.

Boethius, Anicius Manlius Torquatus Severinus (1492) [5th or 6th century] Arithmetica Geometrica Musica (treatise) (1st printed ed.) (probably related with: De institutione musica also by Boethius (first printed in 1491 or 1492 in Venice)), CC BY-SA 4.0,

Sound Possibilities is all about dusting off these ancient and venerable ideas and reintegrating them into contemporary applications for the benefit of all. In most cultures throughout history and around the world music was first and foremost a tool for healing the body, mind and soul; individually and in a social context. The idea of branding, marketing, and the consumerism that treats music as a mere commercial product was anathema to what the ancients understood the power of music to be about.

One is reminded of the urban folk-legend of bluesman Robert Johnson “goin’ down to the crossroads” where he sold his soul to the devil to become the greatest guitar player alive. The facts around Johnson’s death are hazy, but whether it was the result of poison administered by a jealous rival or the outcome of heavy drinking combined with being born with congenital syphilis, the great bluesman died young at age 27. 

This tale epitomizes the plight of our modern western musical culture. (Is it merely coincidence that this same culture that venerates material success considers healthcare a privilege rather than a basic human right?) Sound Possibilities suggest ways to reintegrate our material being at this moment in history with a higher purpose and to evolve more meaningful careers in music in order to heal ourselves as we heal our world.

Legendary Bluesman Robert Johnson – (1911-1938)

As Above, So Below

The Divine Monochord of Robert Fludd, (16th C.), pictured in the Sound Possibilities Logo suggests that the science of sound and the art of music provide a conduit for energy and information to pass back and forth between the physical and spiritual realms of existence through the medium of vibration and harmonic resonance. Expressing the relationship of Microcosm/Macrocosm, “as above, so below”, is one of the most ancient applications of music and sound. It has been utilized by shamans in tribal societies, found in the sacred chants of both eastern and western religious practices, and continues to be explored by all kinds of music practitioners today.  

      Considered from a variety of perspectives music becomes a many-faceted, multi-purpose tool, the Swiss Army Knife of art forms. For example:

  • we may consider architecture as frozen music
  • or music as architecture unfolding through time rather than space
  • the sacred geometrical properties elaborated on in the teachings of Pythagoras
  • the “Harmony of the Worlds” by the astronomer Johannes Kepler
  • the physics of the harmonic series of overtones
  • the variations of scales and modes of tuning employed around the world throughout history
  • the creative (and destructive) power of music and sound
  • the healing power of music

Music and the Brain/Mind    

     In recent studies on the brain/mind relationship we are beginning to conceive of the mind as the ‘social organ’ through which we share an ever shifting flow of information and energy with others and how the mind may be using the brain to create itself.  (Conventional science still clings to the materialistic notion that ‘mind’ is merely dreamed up by chemical reactions in the brain – that is to say that consciousness is nothing more than the product of ‘brain juice’.) Whatever the relationship between brain and mind may turn out to be, these new views present sound possibilities for the practicing musician – improving our skills and technique through mindfulness developed in insight meditation for example.  They also open up new models for performance and audience interaction as well – both for a concert setting or as applied in music therapy. 

     Some physical functions of the brain, memory and learning for example, have now been found to occur throughout the body, not just within the space between our ears. With recent understandings of neuroplasticity, we now know that we have the capacity to acquire new neurons in our prefrontal cortex throughout life, not just when we are young as once believed. These neurons begin their life as specially modified cells created in bone marrow and migrate through the endocrine system to the brain!  Electrical energy, electromagnetism, light and sound waves all have measurable effects on our brains and nervous systems, stimulating or relaxing the sympathetic and para-sympathetic pathways that involve the brain as well as muscles and nerves throughout the body. These connections can then in turn regulate the flow of a variety of enzymes, hormones and chemicals produced naturally in the brain.  

     These and other recent developments are beginning to reveal some of the gateways that music and sound have utilized for centuries to access various levels of our innermost being. Until now however that knowledge was largely intuitive and not generally available. As mapping of the brain/mind develops, we may begin to see significant changes introduced into music schools and music therapy departments around the world as everyone realizes the sound possibilities this kind of knowledge offers. 

Music and Sound as Metaphors    

      Another way in which music informs us has to do with its unique ability to model certain ideas and concepts and present them to us directly. This programmatic capability has of course been used by composers for centuries. Bach’s fugues and concertos are pure expressions of mathematical proportions, while Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite paints musical scenes of natural landscapes and Stravinsky’s Firebird or Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scherezade are orchestral re-tellings of legends and folktales. But even without the involvement of the composer’s imagination, the fundamental relativity inherent in the elements of music reflects the underlying natural laws of the physics of sound.  The theoretical underpinnings of music arise from the very same templates used in physics, astronomy and cosmology, mathematics and chemistry. In some cultures it is not at all unusual to see the elements of music assigned the same roles and relationships attributed to members of a family.  So music, like these other systems, is a multi-leveled language well suited for expressing all kinds of things occurring in the natural (and so-called supernatural) world.

 Multi-dimensionality of Notes and Intervals 

     For example, a note of music has a few inherent properties of its own, it’s frequency, a few harmonics lending it a certain ‘color’ perhaps related to the physical properties of the instrument on which it is sounded. But the same note without being changed in any way will acquire a whole range of different qualities when we place it within the context of a musical interval, a chord, or as one of a series of notes in a melody.  The function of the note changes depending on the harmonic context we find it in, its position in a scale, it may be a third now, and a fifth later, it may be the root in one case, and a leading tone in another, and so forth.  

Music of Life    

     Everywhere in music we find principles at work like this, universals, with obvious parallels to life.  We seek harmony in our relationships, we feel beat, certain skills are instrumental to achieving success, we take a classical approach to some things, in other cases we improvise. In the other direction we just as often  identify things in music, as in life as being coolhotradpunkrockin’ and so on. The old joke about what Beethoven did after he died and was buried; he started de-composing. Puns are funny because a word is suddenly encountered in a different context altering it’s meaning. Sound Possibilities then are the potentialities that exist all around us in everything, even within ourselves, but may never be recognized until we suddenly recognize them in a different context. 

“One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor” – Paul Simon

It’s the same old song, but with a different meaning since you’ve been gone.” – The Four Tops

Originally posted on December 22, 2010 – Updated July 30, 2019

Check out another, more ‘right-brain’ approach to understanding Sound Possibilities – this one in VERSE: The Divine Musical Comedy; or A Musical Theory Of Nearly Everything.

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