IAN SKELLY Music moves, heals and connects us to the eternal. How? Music, like Nature, is made up of patterns which have an ordered interconnectivity between them. It is these harmonic patterns that hold the fabric of the universe together.
SOME MONTHS AGO I was presenting a programme on BBC Radio 3 which included the Hallé Orchestra under their great champion, Sir John Barbirolli. They were playing Elgar’s Nimrod, perhaps his most famous variation on that mysterious theme he called ‘the Enigma’, and I found myself listening to it intently. It is stirring music, but to my great surprise I became incredibly moved by it. Barbirolli somehow summoned a magic I had not heard before. Tears flooded my eyes and by the end I simply could not speak, which is a bit of a problem on live, national radio.
As I struggled for composure I wondered what it is about the structure of music that can induce such a powerful response. Of course, moods can easily be evoked – film scores press the right buttons by following well-tried formats – and music can also trigger nostalgic associations, but in this case an enigma was at work which had the capacity to drive me deep within myself to establish a moment of communion. This can happen just as suddenly when I walk in the mountains or catch sight of the gossamer wings of a damselfly. I see for just an instant the detail of a fabric that demonstrates the truth about the natural world; a glimpse of the code that turns a collection of sounds into a music that touches the very core of my being.
We take this architecture in music for granted just as we do the architecture when we step into a medieval cathedral. Despite being so obvious it lies unseen, supporting the immense weight of the stone with effortless ease but also conjuring that same, deep-seated sense of connection. There is no such capacity, by contrast, in the empty gymnastics of so many modern buildings that gleam with glass and steel and dazzle us with their clever, attention-seeking tricks. They evoke no enduring, living presence; nor do they bring to our attention what Robert Schumann saw in music as “the language which permits me to converse with the beyond”.
All of the world’s great sacred traditions value this aspect of music. The Vedantic tradition of India considers music to be the very first of the arts revealed to humanity by Lord Shiva. Pythagoras, who was himself a student of India, taught that, above all else, music has a transcendental significance. He is supposed to have been the first to hammer out the principles of harmony, in a blacksmith’s workshop over 2,500 years ago, yet we know that earlier civilisations grappled with what we now call the ‘Pythagorean comma’. This is the tiny proportional discrepancy between the third, the fifth and the octave. The intervals between the root note and the one that creates the perfect fifth are not compatible with those that create the perfect third, and neither is compatible with the octave. If one is right, the rest sound out.
By Bach’s day attempts to deal with this natural discrepancy tuned a keyboard in favour of the purity of the third, but that meant it was impossible to play in all twenty-four keys without the imperfections in the outer octaves sounding horrible. The alternative was to favour the fifth, which is what happens today, but Bach used something in the middle called ‘well temperament’. His sublime forty-eight preludes and fugues are a masterful demonstration of a well-tempered progress from C major through every key. Not one of them jars the ear and it proved a liberating adventure. Listen to the breathless heights he achieves as he leaps from false summit to false summit in his twentieth fugue of Book 1 (BWV 865). It was music like this that enabled those great romantic composers who followed him in the 19th century to weave those ever more complicated modulations from key to key – modulations that do the essential work of colouring the mood and pulling at our heart-strings.
Scholars have also shown that Bach’s music contains many examples of the so-called divine proportion or golden section which, like the comma, is to be found everywhere in the natural world. It is created by dividing a line at a specific point where the difference between the entire length of the line and the longer bit of the division is the same as the ratio between the two distances on the divided line. The Greeks called it phi. It is the proportion that not only holds up the Parthenon but makes it universally appealing. The ancients considered phi to have a particular vibrational quality which gives it tremendous powers of communication. Kneeling in prayer beneath a dome shaped according to this ratio was said to amplify one’s resonance with the higher realms.
EXPERIMENTS IN MORE recent times have confirmed for doubting rationalists that there is truth in this. Groups who are shown pictures of different faces tend to settle on the same ones when asked which are the most beautiful. Those they choose are found to possess features whose ratios conform most readily to the golden section. Why else would Apple use it to design the iPod?
It seems that we resonate naturally with these proportional ratios. In other words, beauty speaks. It is not something made by us but something we may discover. We sense it rather than think it because it is always there as an innate pattern, borne to us on the wings of harmony. Great music, as all true art, opens wide the doors on this beauty. It flows through our imagination and out into the realm of reflection and in this way brings us into direct contact with the archetypal patterns of creation. In classical thinking, Beauty is one of the Platonic forms. It inspires love and is, therefore, a kind of bait that catches the human soul and draws it back to its source. Thus, music which moves us so deeply does so because it makes us fall in love with what is beautiful, sensitising us to the imprint of the very ground of our being.
Such contact has long been beneficial. It was the Renaissance seer Pico della Mirandola who said that “medicine may heal the soul through the body but music heals the body through the soul.” He was echoing the wisdom of the 10th-century Brethren of Purity in Basra, Ikhwan al-Safa, who found that “melodies with corresponding harmonies appease illnesses, breaking the violence of them and alleviating pain.” Shaman priest-doctors are said to be able to tune the timbre of their voices to that of the patient to ‘iron out’ the disharmony of the diseased body. The same effect, but on the mind, can be seen in action today in Edirne, Turkey, where a hospital has been using music therapy to treat mental illness for over 500 years.
If harmony has healing properties then a body in good health is in harmony and this is found to be so at every level of existence. The ancient Egyptians knew this. Their goddess of harmony, Ma’at (literally ‘plinth’), was of such importance that she appears in the statues of all the other gods, who are always depicted as standing, sitting or kneeling on a plinth. This reflects, symbolically, the same truth that the whole of the cosmos is upheld by harmony; it is the foundation of all. But beware. The Egyptians held that if we fall out of tune with Ma’at then the world will quickly fall foul of Isfet, the counterforce of destruction and chaos brought about by fracture and fragmentation – precisely what the cutting edge of science is now revealing.
Newtonian mechanics have been somewhat superseded by the quantum physics of Werner Heisenberg, who famously told his students to see the world as made of music, not matter. His work suggests that the physical world is made up not of individual parts but of an essential “process and movement” with particles “dancing” from order to disorder and back again. It displays a great diversity of movement but it all happens within a common unity. He agreed with Pythagoras. Chaos is ordered by number, Nature is made up of precise numerical patterns and there is an ordered, harmonic interconnectivity between these patterns holding the very fabric of the universe together. But you do not have to be a quantum physicist to see this in action. Just join a choir and have a go at singing Handel’s Messiah at Christmas. You will see the same picture of ‘diversity within unity’ depicted in the score of every one of Handel’s light-filled choruses.
LITTLE WONDER, THEN, that we are in the mess we are in. The West has become increasingly separated from the tenets of harmony. The craze for modernism at the start of the 20th century flattened so much of our natural perception of things and excluded the language that expressed it. In the built environment and in our industrial approach to life organic complexity has been bulldozed away to make room for the artificial convenience store we now call ‘civilisation’. Our institutions have stopped sustaining harmony and have begun to maintain, instead, the present delusion of separateness so that, wherever you care to look now, there is fragmentation. In our farming, for example, natural balance, harmony, interconnectivity have all been harrowed to smithereens so that straight lines of crops growing in technically dead fields can be raced straight to the dead straight aisles of the supermarket. And the same has happened in music. It has also become rootless, literally.
The likes of Schoenberg and his second Viennese school in the first half of the 20th century pioneered the idea of abandoning tonal harmony for an atonal approach to structure, one where there was no controlling principle of a primary, foundation tone. That, in turn, led to more and more extremes of experimentation by composers like Stockhausen and his Darmstadt School: music so ridiculously rarefied that it remains completely incomprehensible to the majority. It is clever music that appeals only to the most intellectual of heads, implying with every aberrant dissonant turn it takes that we have to be just as clever to understand it; an idea entirely at odds with the root chord of our natural approach: we do not think music, we feel it.
In contrast, the patterns in early sacred music, as the patterns in sacred art, were derived from the natural world which, despite its present battering, still displays the same tendency in all living things towards an active state of harmony and order. Not the human-made order of the city skyscraper nor the clear straight-lined matrix of the modern suburban sprawl but a far more complex, interrelated kind of order dependent upon a delicate balance between all the parts.
The musicians and architects of the past knew that we walk and have our being within this grammar. Hence cathedrals like Lincoln or Chartres whose perfect harmonic chambers Friedrich Schelling somewhere calls “frozen music”. They project by their sheer presence the same explicit message as the music of Mouton or Dufay or, in our own day, Pärt and Tavener: that nothing lies outside the Divinity of Being.
It is for this reason that music should not be seen in schools as a ‘soft’ option. It teaches vital lessons not offered by any other subject about the way harmony operates in the world and, as it does so, puts us instantly in touch with the eternal. Economics or engineering do not speak much to the soul when it is the soul that is excluded from the present debate.
We are born to sing our song, as is the rest of creation, and all within a most marvellous symphony. It is a moving surge, rooted in its wholeness, and music’s capacity to explore and confirm this relationship is a most precious thing. In this difficult, often bleak, time we should guard against becoming numb to its power as we have become so numb to what it reflects. If we do, then I fear we will finally succumb to the full force of the catastrophe that now circles and pounds at our door.
Ian Skelly is a broadcaster for BBC Radio 3 and a writer.