The Eutopian Power of Music


The power of music has been lauded as essential not just to man but to the cosmos by diverse figures ranging from Plato to Martin Luther, who declared “next to the word of God, music deserves the highest praise.”[1] Pythagoras first spoke of the “music of the spheres” in an astronomical sense, as the same geometry found in humming strings could be found in the spacing of the planets; Aristotle argued against such “music of the spheres” (since no one could actually hear it), though two millennia (1619) later Johannes Kepler published De Harmonice Mundi (Harmony of the Spheres) arguing for just such a connection.[2]

Plato gives his account of creation in Timaeus, incorporating just such musical mathematics, using Pythagoras’s harmonic ratios of 2:1, 3:2, 4:3 and 9:8, and a harmony of opposites, [3] placing the planets according to the ratios, with earth in the center and “all the figures of them circling as in a dance.”[4] Of music itself, while Plato is famous for booting the artists from his ideal Republic unless they can prove their moral worth,[5] he yet states that

“so much of music as is adapted to the sound of the voice and to the sense of hearing is granted to us for the sake of harmony; and harmony, which has motions akin to the revolutions of our souls is not … of the Muses as given by them with a view to irrational pleasure, which is deemed the purpose of it in our day, but as meant to correct any discord which may have arisen in the courses of the soul, and to be our ally in bringing her into harmony and agreement with herself; and rhythm was given too for the same reason, on account of the irregular and graceless ways which prevail among mankind generally, and to help us against them.”[6]


Plato thus claims that music thus serves as a corrective to dystopia, both of the cosmos and of the soul!

Echoes of Plato’s observation sound even today: music therapy has joined holistic medicine since being pioneered by Professor Paul Nordoff and special needs educator Paul Nordoff in the 1950s and 1960s. In a novel approach, the harmony found in music has served as inspiration for cognitive scientists: Harvard researcher Leonid Perlovsky cites Aristotle, Kant and current research to extend Aristotle’s query, “How does music, being merely sound, affect our soul?” Perlovsky thus models the brain’s processing of music and its preference for harmony to develop computing algorithms for optimizing solutions to difficult problems.[7]

But Plato’s hearkening to music as a model of harmony predates even Bill S. Preston  and Ted “Theodore” Logan whose Wyld Stallions music would bring cosmic harmony.[8] In his Republic (written thirty years prior to the Timaeus), Plato recounts how in the myth of Er that beyond the eight spheres of planets and stars, all spinning synchronously, sit three sirens (the Fates, Lachesis, Clotho and Atropos who measure, spin and cut the thread of life) “hymning a single tone or note … accompany[ing] with their voices the harmony of the sirens,” revolving the cosmos in a melodious harmony.[9]


It is with this Platonic model in mind that Dante’s concluding lines to his Divine Comedy can be best appreciated,

Here ceased the powers of my high fantasy

Already were all my will and my desires

Turned – as a wheel in equal balance – by

The Love that moves the sun and the other stars.” [10]

stars dance

Music also figures prominently in various accounts of creation, such as that given by Hesiod (between 750 B.C. and 650 B.C., contemporaneous with Homer and predating Plato by three centuries) in which Muses dance and sing of history of the gods.[11] Tolkien’s One (Eru or who in Arda was called Iluvatar) spoke to his offspring (Ainur, or Holy Ones) in song, and proceeded to create Middle Earth by way of music: “I will now that ye make in harmony together a Great Music,” “endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights,” overflowing the places of Iluvatar’s dwelling, going “into the Void, and it was not void.”[12]

Likewise, C.S. Lewis’s Aslan creates Narnia with song: <definitely could use shortened>

“The Lion was pacing to and fro about that empty land and singing his new song. It was softer and more lilting than the song by which he called up the stars and the sun; a gentle, rippling music. And as he walked and sang, the valley grew green with grass … Polly was finding the song more and more interesting because she thought she was beginning to see a connection between the music and the things that were happening. When a line of dark firs sprang up on a ridge about a hundred yards away she felt they were connected with a series of deep, prolonged notes which the Lion had sung a second before. And when he burst into a rapid series of lighter notes she was not surprised to see primroses suddenly appearing in every direction … now the song had once more changed. It was more like what we should call a tune, but it was also far wilder. It made you want to run and jump and climb. It made you want to rush at other people and either hug them or fight them. But what the song did to the two humans was nothing compared with what it was doing to the country. Can you imagine a stretch of grassy land bubbling like water in a pot? … Showers of birds came out of the trees. Butterflies fluttered. Bees got to work … and now you could hardly hear the song of the Lion; there was so much cawing, cooing, braying, neighing, baying, barking, lowing, bleating, and trumpeting… The Lion opened his mouth, but no sound came from it; he was breathing out, a long, warm breath; it seemed to sway all the beasts as the wind sways a line of trees. Far overhead from beyond the veil of blue sky which hid them the stars sang again; a pure, cold, difficult music. Then there came a swift flash like fire (but it burnt nobody) either from the sky or from the Lion itself, and every drop of blood tingled in the children’s bodies, and the deepest, wildest voice they had ever heard was saying: “Narnia, Narnia, Narnia, awake. Love. Think. Speak. Be walking trees. Be talking beasts. Be divine waters.”


The essentially musical nature of existence goes back beyond the observation of the 2007 film August Rush, “that the music is everywhere, you just have to listen for it,”[13] to the medieval idea of creation engaged in “The Great Dance.” In 1596, William Shakespeare’s slightly younger contemporary, the poet Sir John Davies, published Orchestra, or A Poem of Dancing[14] which cast not just the cosmos but human society itself as a dance driven by love. The poem tells the Homeric-era story of how a would-be suitor (Antinous) of Penelope (while Ulysses is absent) describes the whole universe – both nature and humanity – as driven by love in a great dance.  When Penelope declines to dance (since it was not something she thought the divine forefathers would have approved), Antinous responds that not only did nature thus begin,

“Dancing, bright lady, then began to be

When the first seeds whereof the world did spring,

The fire, air, earth and water did agree,

By Love’s persuasion, nature’s mighty king,

To leave their disordered combating

And in a dance such measure to observe

As all the world their motion should preserve”[15]


but that nature is governed by a dance of love


“This wondrous miracle doth Love devise,

For dancing is Love’s proper exercise.”[16]


and it is an intelligently designed dance, explaining that of the “goodly architecture” of nature


“They err that say they did concur by chance;

Love made them meet in a well-ordered dance.”[17]


This dance with its music, Davies claims, can even set about to heal dystopia:


“As when Amphion with his charming lyre

Begot so sweet a siren of the air

That with her rhetoric made the stones conspire

The ruins of a city to repair,

A work of wit, and reason’s wise affair,

So Love’s smooth tongue the motes such measures taught

That they joined hands, and so the world was wrought.”[18]


Just as David played his harp to soothe the soul of King Saul, music can be a key to personally dealing with dystopic situations.

.[1] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. liii. Liturgy and Hymns (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1965), 23. Cited in Jeremy Begbie, Music, Modernity and God: Essays in Listening (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 10.


[3] Plato, Timaeus 35-36 in Great Books of the Western World: Plato, ed. Mortimer J. Adler, trans. Benjamin Jowett (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2003), 449.

[4] Ibid., Timaeus 40, GBWW 452.

[5] Plato, Republic, X.

[6] Plato, Timaeus, 47.

[7] Leonid Perlovsky, Music, Cognition, Mechanisms and Role of Music in Cognition at .

[8] Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Orion Pictures, 1989.

[9] Lato, Republic X, 617 in Great Books of the Western World, 439.

[10] Dante Alighieri, Paradise XXXIII.142 -145. In Dante, Paradise,  trans. Anthony Esolen (New York: The Modern Library, 2007), 359.

[11] Hesiod, “Theogeny” in Theogeny and Works and Days (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 3.

[12] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion (New York: Ballantine Books, 2002), 4.

[13] August Rush, directed by Kirsten Sheridan (Warner Bros. Pictures, 2007).

[14] Also discussed in Malcolm Guite, Faith, Hope and Poetry .

[15] Sir John Davies, Orchestra, or a Poem of Dancing, 1594, Stanza 17. Online

[16] Ibid., 18.

[17] Ibid., 20.

[18] Ibid., 21.

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