Last week in my music history class, as my thoughts wandered among the doodles of my page, I suddenly sat up and paid attention to my professor. I looked at him with a dumbfounded expression.
“They called this pure, inaudible music Musica Mundana,” my professor droned on, “and our participation in it Musica Humana. Musica Instrumentalis, music that is audible, they considered only a poor imitation.”
I don’t know if your reaction just now was pure shock like mine was, but there’s something about the phrase “inaudible music” that doesn’t quite sit right. That’s impossible, isn’t it? Music means nothing if we can’t hear it!
As I paid attention more, however, I began to understand. The Greeks were, in fact, not crazy. They were in touch-or in tune, I should say-with the depth of music. They spoke of it with rich vocabulary in a way our culture has since lost. Music to them was a kind of harmony that brought balance and order to the universe (Musica Mundana) and to our bodies (Musica Humana). Today, we compartmentalize planetary motion and physical balance to the realm of physics. Our conscious understanding of music per se is limited to what we hear. However, we do acknowledge the same truth the Greeks did with certain phrases. Just think of what we mean when we say “They dwelled in peace and harmony.” We don’t literally picture a group of people in our heads sitting around fiddling with violins and trumpets. Perhaps we picture them standing in a circle, joining hands, feeling unified from within.
Why then do we use the word harmony to describe a non musical scenario? It is because we instinctually know that music is more than temporary audible pleasure, just as food is more than a fleeting experience of taste. Music and food affect us deeply and have the power to influence us both physically and psychologically.
It turns out that when we listen to beautiful music, we regain a sense of stability in ourselves— the organized sound gives us a sense of order amidst the chaos of the world. We also regain a sense of stability among others, because we experience the miracle of a common emotional response to the music, and discover a common ground that is deeper than all that separates us.
To get back to physics, there’s many surprising physical reasons why music can make us feel internally balanced and unified with others. It’s called the overtone series, and will be discussed in next month’s article.
Until then, happy listening to you, and while you do, I hope you encounter music and harmony in a new way!
Your Choir Director,