Updated: Sep 18
So let’s see....does anyone have a model of just how music interdigitates with astrophysics, physiology, and psychology, in such a way as to promote healing?
Wait, I know who to ask about that…Brian May, lead guitar for Queen. Not only can he wax virtuosic on a guitar but he is also an astrophysicist. But not just any run-of-the-planets astrophysicist: he was appointed chancellor of Liverpool’s John Moore University, awarded Commander of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth and – most honorific of all, methinks – has an asteroid named for him (#552665 Brianmay – the man himself pictured courtesy of NASA/Bill Ingalls).
I have read some of his writings – including Bang! A History of the Universe – but couldn’t find a chapter entitled How Music Interdigitates With Everything. However, I did not explore Professor May’s more technical scientific work including his doctoral thesis A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud and therefore must allow that he might have addressed such questions in these offerings.
Consistent with music’s non-heeding of space-time parameters in both a humorous and an ironic way, I propose we now barrel forward by propelling ourselves 2500 years backward to reacquaint ourselves with Pythagoras. Yes, that Pythagoras…philosopher, mathematician, and rockin’ kithara player.
See, the kithara was an ancient form of guitar, similar to the lyre but somewhat a bit more complex. Kinda like the one pictured (By Hesiod Painter - Jastrow (2005), Public Domain).
So in addition to his philosophizing, Pythagoras (pictured by Raphael - detail from File:La scuola di Atene.jpg, Public Domain) was observed to be able to cure multiple ailments of both body and mind by playing thoughtfully prepared compositions, while sometimes singing the odes of Homer, Hesiod, and Judith Krantz (okay, so not Judith Krantz, but I just wanted you to remain awake during this part…).
Pythagoras's ability to do this was confirmed by Empedocles, Iamblichus, and other reliable sources. As such, he was the first to coin the term “musical medicine” and to establish music’s central place in the realm of healing.
Pythagoras also developed an underlying "musical metaphysics", which, he believed, explained music's healing effects on body and mind (note: for those unclear about the precise definition of metaphysics, may I suggest that posed Severn Darden of Second City: "that branch of philosophy that addresses the question what is...everything....anyhow?") . At its core, was Pythagoras' belief that each sphere – be it planet or atom – had its own note as a result of the rhythm and vibration associated with its movement.
But Pythagoras believed that the action, so to speak, was in the cadence and the spacing of these notes. He discovered that the seven modes of the Greek system of music had the power to incite or quell the various emotions, in turn, altering behavioral states.
For example – Pythagoras reportedly once encountered an intoxicated young man who was busily piling kindling at his mistress’ door with the intention of burning down her house. He noted this rather agitated state seemed accentuated by a flutist a short distance away who was playing a tune in the stirring Phrygian mode. Pythagoras persuaded the musician to change his air to one of the less stirring modes, whereupon the young man thereupon regained his composure, gathered his wood and quietly returned to his own home.
"....Jupiter rotated in Phrygian mode; Saturn...in Dorian mode"
Later Pythagoreans expanded these theories. For example, Pliny the Elder directly connected musical modes to the rotation of planets, hypothesizing that Jupiter rotated in Phrygian mode; Saturn, by contrast, rotated in Dorian mode. That the movement of the planets was a musical event, then, predated those wonderful discoveries from Cambridge which confirmed the 'humming' of the black hole in the Perseid galaxy, and posited that these sounds actually were core to the forming of both the black hole and the galaxy itself (photo of Saturn by NASA, ESA, A. Simon (GSFC), M.H. Wong (University of California, Berkeley), and the OPAL Team).
This wonderfully integrated sort of thinking was applied not only to models of illness, but also to personal development on all levels, including the evolution of "character" and temperament. Try this for an application of an astro-(and therefore implicitly musico-), physio-psycho model for the development of a specific kind of temperament – in certain susceptible people, the planet Saturn was thought to (over-) stimulate the gallbladder to produce an excess of black bile (melan is Greek for "black" and cholia is Greek for bile), thus producing a melancholic temperament.
Now there are some obvious methodological "issues" – what those of us not born and educated in California usually refer to as "problems" – in empirically substantiating this model. But I would point out it took us another 2,500 years before "character" and "temperament" were again seen as the product of the dynamic interaction of a physiological and environmental factors, in addition to the solely "psychological", which supposedly lived in its own rarified realm.
"The musician was less the "opener" for the physician than a peer..."
But considerations regarding the formation of character and temperament are central to the healing enterprise. As Sir William Osler (pictured Public Domain), often considered to be the 'founder of modern medicine" laconically put it: "it is less important what disorder the patient has than what patient has the disorder."
But let us return to the healing temples in Greece. Their existence was predicated upon this dynamic interactive model of illness and treatment in which music, planets, gallbladders, brains, and psyches interact.
Viewed from this angle, the musician was less the “opener” for the physician than a peer who is charged with addressing the musical considerations of the ostensibly medical situation and expanding the healing possibilities by addressing them directly. Consistent with the primacy of the music – especially given its antedating the identified patient by billions and billions of years – it is only logical that any healing sequence would begin with “Call the musician!” (even before calling the physician).
Yes, it is wonderful that the orthodox medical world has again opened up to music as a legitimate and empirically validated healing modality. But, just a minute, here, we are simply re-integrating that which was pre-integrated 2500 years ago.
So how, then, did we (d)evolve to a point where musical education was deemed the dispensable stuff if school budgets ran short? And just as there is increasing empiric proof of music being instrumental (so to speak) in the actual growing of galaxies, so too are we now rediscovering the dramatic ways that music can alter both body and mind. But I can only imagine Pythagoras telling us, “Dudes, I could have told you that…and, as a matter of fact, I did tell you that!”
"It's a kind of magic, the bell that rings inside your mind"
How did this seeming extrusion of music from medicine, physiology, physics happen? I wonder if it has to do with a sense of overwhelm at the appreciation of its power and mystery, that seems to exert its effect according to its -- not irrational, but rather trans-rational -- logos. That last sentence represents a total speculation and I would not dignify it by giving it theory status – alternatively phrased, it's "my two cents...and perhaps worth approximately that."
But maybe Brian May and Queen did enter this particular fray, by speaking to this possibility:
I'm hearing secret harmonies It's a kind of magic The bell that rings inside your mind Is challenging the doors of time It's a kind of magic
And, yes, I admit it....I gleaned a certain amount of chortling satisfaction that this brief melding of music and metaphysics occurred while wielding that very cool guitar with Queen.