Musical Mysteries and Phenomena

Who doesn’t like musical mysteries?

Or to sink ones teeth into mysterious phenomena? Or both! Well, you need to look no further than the history of music and music theory.

Inspiring Musical Mysteries

Here is a look at some fascinating musical theories, mysteries and discoveries and how they relate to music theory. Maybe you can find some inspiration or tools for your own compositions here?

Harmony of the Spheres

Music of the spheres

As far as we know, Pythagoras of Samos (approx. 570 – 495 BC, Greece) was the first to talk about the Harmony of the Spheres.

He and his followers reasoned that all in nature is related to numbers, like the number sequence of Phi.

The mathematical sequences can be found everywhere in nature, including sound and music.

As one of the greatest musical mysteries, it was believed that the movements of the planets and their relative distances created a certain celestial, humming sound.

This sound can't be heard by humans but is influencing us nevertheless.

In 1619 the mathematician, astronomer and astrologer Johannes Kepler took this idea further in his treatise «Harmonices Mundi».

"The heavenly motions... are nothing but a continuous song for several voices, perceived not by the ear but by the intellect, a figured music which sets landmarks in the immeasurable flow of time."

J. Kepler

The Golden Ratio in Music

The golden cut, ratio, section - all refer to the mathematical calculation going back to Pythagoras and his Phi 0.618.

In art and music, the golden ratio may be seen as a way to measure a universal sense of beauty and balance.

The Golden Ratio

In music the golden ratio can be found in the construction of musical phrases and in the larger construction of a sonata form for example.

If you look at a typical phrase, the melody will move towards a peak, or climax of sorts, and then go back and get softer or less dramatic.

Many times the climax is reached about 2/3 in the phrase- which can loosely be seen as the Golden ratio.

You can hear it in a bigger context as well- listen for where the most complex, or dramatic part is in a composition and you will often find it about 2/3 in the piece.

Read about W.A Mozart’s use of the golden «section» in his sonata compositions: Did Mozart Use the Golden Section?

"The golden ratio is also apparent in the organization of the sections in the music of Debussy's Reflets dans l'eau (Reflections in Water), from Images (1st series, 1905), "in which the sequence of keys is marked out by the intervals 34, 21, 13 and 8, and the main climax sits at the phi position."

(The dynamics of delight: architecture and aesthetics By Peter Frederick Smith quoted in Wikipedia)

Number Symbolism and Other Codes

Bach's Signature CrossThe "Bach Cross". J. S Bach's clever signature. By reading the notes with the correct clef, you will get the notes: B, A, C and H. (In German Bb is B, and B is H).

J.S Bach and W.A Mozart liked to doodle with numbers represented by notes, as did, and do, many other composers.

Composing the music was the easy part- the fun part was to «hide» musical mysteries and riddles relative to the music in the notation, or relating to a biblical text for example, using numbers and visual symbolism.

Read more about Mozart and Bach's fascination with numbers here.

The Circle of Fifths

The Circle of Fifths

Pythagoras created a useful tool for musicians with the magical wheel of intervals called the Circle of Fifths.

By repeating perfect fifths one after the other, you get back again to the starting pitch, just a lot higher, after exactly 12 times.

The easiest way to see this is on a piano. If you start on the lowest C and then play a perfect 5th (exactly 3 ½ steps) up you will play a G.

Continue like this a perfect fifth up each time you will play all the 12 different pitches used in the western notation in this order: C-G-D-A-E-B-F# (or Gb)- Db-Ab-Eb-Bb-F and back to C.

The circle of fifths is useful to see how different notes, scales and chords are related. It shows all key signatures, as well as for example C is right next to F and G, which are also the most important chords to use for a piece in C major.

Overtone Series or Harmonics

The first eight Harmonics in the overtone seriesThe first eight Harmonics in the overtone series.

One of the "musical mysteries" of natural sound are overtones, or harmonics.

Overtones or harmonics are tones that exist in nature and also are "hidden" within a single tone.

It is said that Pythagoras (him again!) “realized” the natural overtone series (and the mathematical sequence they can be represented by) when passing by a blacksmith hammering on metal and making sounds of different intervals.

Musicians are using overtones all the time, when tuning or playing their instruments.

You can sometimes hear at least a part of the natural overtone series when the wind blows on the roof and produces a tone, and a higher one when the wind blows harder.

A number of singers have learned the art of "overtone singing". Some can even sing 2 part melodies with themselves! Check out this amazing singer:

Tritones or "Diabolus In Musica"

A tritone is an interval exactly three whole tones apart. It is called a dissonance since it gives you the feeling of wanting to go «somewhere», and does not sound very peaceful by itself. An augmented fourth or a diminished fifth are both tritones (and enharmonic!).

During the medieval era the tritone interval was not recommended when composing music. This may be since written music was still mainly religious, and as such striving to be peaceful and contemplative, and the tritone sticks out as a rather scratchy one!

It has been suggested that the tritone interval has an “erotic” sound to it (the urge to get solved into either a perfect fifth or fourth) and with some imagination you can understand why it was not favored in the times of the Gregorian chants!

Evil Tritone!

For a great laugh, here is a link to a fun article where I got the picture! 

The tritone has been called "Diabolus in Musica" (the devil in music).This haunting expression was coined sometime during the 18th century, as the tritone had long been considered an awkward interval to compose with and not very pretty in itself.

However, today the tritone is not part of any "musical mysteries" anymore. The tritone interval is used extensively in harmonizing music since it gives great movement forward in a harmonic progression.

Tension (dissonance) leads to solution (consonance), like for example a tritone interval leading to a minor sixth (a semitone in each direction).

Cymatics, Patterns of Sound

You probably know that sound is vibration. But did you know that you can capture the sound in actual, visual patterns?

The vibration of a pitch in different frequencies create amazing patterns in sand or salt on a metal plate or stretched skin like a drum, or any other vibration inductive surface.

Architectural Patterns as Secret Sound Codes?

The Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, recently became even more famous from Dan Brown’s "The Da Vinci Code" but is foremost known by its amazing stone carvings and intriguing history.

Mysterious carvings in Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland.

The Chapel has a series of strangely decorated «boxes» carved in the stone arches.These little cubes have been suggested showing Cymatic or Chladni patterns representing different pitches.Musical mysteries or phenomena,

Cymatics is not a new invention. Sound wave patterns in sand on drums, or dust forming patterns on a vibrating table for example, have most certainly been observed thousands of years earlier.

If you really look, you can find what may be patterns of sound all over the world; in ancient hieroglyphs, mandalas, mosaics and as architectural decoration.

And if you really search, and listen, you can find musical mysteries and riddles in sound and music; subtle, obvious, hidden or even imagined...

Musical mysteries aside, the power of music is unbeatable. Music is magic, since it can reach deep into our soul, or as Plato said:

“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.” Plato

What do you think? Have you stumbled on some other musical mysteries or phenomena? Leave your comments below!


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