Searching for the Lost Chord: Ancient Uses and Modern Trends

By Andrew Rooke
There is geometry in the humming of the strings. There is music in the spacing of the spheres. -- PYTHAGORAS (6th C. B.C.)

The amplified rhythms of today's rock generation move their devotees to trance-like ecstasy whilst their parents retreat in disarray before what they perceive as an auditory barrage of excruciating proportion. Everyone has had some experience of the power of music to affect mood. How often have we all sought solace in the symphonies of nature from the cacophony generated by our urban environment! Waves lapping on the seashore, the wind whispering through tall trees, the purling of a mountain stream, have been the consolation of the weary and the inspiration of poets through the ages. Every mother knows the soothing effect rhythmic rocking, humming, and singing have on an infant. Music has a far greater dimension than just entertainment. Indeed, it may hold potent keys to understanding nature's secrets and provide an avenue for humanity to reestablish harmony within the larger symphony of life.

There is considerable evidence that the hidden knowledge of music and sound was once widespread amongst the world's peoples, and efforts are currently being made to uncover these long-forgotten treasures of our heritage. The concept that the universe is built of varying levels of vibration was well known in the Mystery schools of the ancient world. Each entity, from atom to sun, follows its path of destiny, singing its own keynote of life inaudible to our ears. Since Pythagoras, this cosmic symphony has become known as the Music of the Spheres.

Throughout the ages, scientists and musicians have sought ways to transpose the cosmic harmonies into patterns suitable for human ears. In the Renaissance vague remnants of Pythagorean teachings on the "music in the spacing of the spheres" were rediscovered by three outstanding scholars: the Jesuit Father Athanasius Kircher who compared the creation of the world to the music of the organ, the English Rosicrucian Robert Fludd, who spoke of the "World Monochord," and the astronomer and discoverer of planetary laws, Johannes Kepler. Perhaps the work of such researchers into the secrets of the ancients inspired Shakespeare to write of this celestial music:

There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young ey'd cherubims:
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But, whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it. -- The Merchant of Venice, V, i

These pioneer spirits knew that we are constantly surrounded by a sea of cosmic music, which is none other than the harmoniously vibrating life-atoms that form the vehicles of spiritual forces underlying manifestation. Perhaps the beautiful colors in nature are manifestations of the symphonic harmonies singing about us. From the bubbling of a brook to the complex rhythms of a classical symphony, the many forms of music we hear are translations to our plane of the music which fills the universe.

This truth provides the key to the use of music for healing in antiquity. Just as in an orchestra each musician plays his part, so each of us, inaudibly singing our own keynote, is enwebbed in the larger harmonies of our environment. G. de Purucker describes a human being as --

somewhat like a sounding board, strung with seven chords like Apollo's lyre, across which sweep the winds of eternity, and the combined notes of these chords produce within him a cosmic symphony -- each one of us being a living mystic lyre vibrating in sympathy with the Music of the Spheres. -- Fountain-Source of Occultism, p. 203

A violinist or flutist who plays out of tune or out of time will cause disharmonies in the performance of a symphony; similarly, our disharmonious thoughts and actions will result in some form of ill-health, physical or mental.

Men of medicine long ago learned that music could be used in healing the mind and body. From so-called primitive man, down to the traditional peoples all over the world today, all used incantations, songs, rhythms, and sound to ward off evil spirits, absolve sins, or placate the gods. Initiate priest-physicians of Egypt, who called music "the physic of the soul," specialized in its use to alleviate a wide range of diseases, especially nervous disorders. The ancient Persians played the lute to cure many illnesses and the Hebrews record the story of David who by the power of his harp soothed the madness of Saul.

Greek legend tells of Orpheus who, with his lyre, charmed wild beasts and stilled troubled minds. Homer recommended music to counter negative emotions, and the physician Asclepiades of Bithynia in 100 B.C. is reputed to have used it to cure disorders of the ear, and to have advocated the use of a trumpet played in the Phrygian mode against the affected parts of the body to relieve sciatica. Likewise, Democritus believed that many diseases could be cured by the melodious strains of a flute, and it is recorded of Pythagoras that he used songs to treat nervous illnesses, while Plato went so far as to link music with the future welfare of whole nations. Aristotle believed it to be an emotional catharsis, and his most famous student, Alexander the Great, used music to rouse his troops to martial ardor, and also to calm them after battle.

Galen, physician to the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, was a firm believer in the application of music for healing, and for many centuries his influence on the development of medicine was profound. He also recommended the playing of the flute upon afflicted parts of the body on the principle of a "medical bath" -- the principle being that prolonged immersion in a particular note caused sympathetic vibrations in the nerve fibers, thus relieving pain.

Statesmen such as Cicero and Seneca followed the Platonic belief that music profoundly affected the whole basis of social behavior. The Roman physician Celsus, who had an extensive influence on European medicine down to the Middle Ages, recognized its therapeutic effect on the mentally ill in the manner of modern psychiatric hospitals. In later centuries, the Austrian physician Mesmer (1734-18l5) prescribed the use of a glass harmonica to induce magnetic cures.

As we interact within the intricate patterns of nature, it is but a short step in our analogy to conclude that by reestablishing inner harmony we will restore good health, and that music forms a natural medium to achieve this end. For beyond the effect of music on the body, the ancients were even more aware of the power of music on the soul. The Swiss physician and alchemist Paracelsus restated the occult principle that disease was caused primarily by discordant states of mind interfering with the normal happiness of an individual; if allowed to continue, they would lead to bodily dysfunction and ill-health. With the ancients, Paracelsus believed that every living thing radiates or vibrates, and that certain herbal remedies, colors, and sounds have the capacity to restore normalcy to the disturbed centers of the body. By flooding the sick person with beautiful music, or any uplifting medium that provides inspiration and focuses the consciousness on spiritual realities, the inner constitution would gradually find balance and the body would reflect this in time with a cure.

In ancient Greece, the Good and Beautiful were equated with Order and Harmony as reflections of Truth. Aristotle likened the man who attempts to live a good life to a musician: both seek to express the harmonies within themselves and thus encourage balance and symmetry in the sphere of their influence. The good life was considered a work of art.

The use of music to impress love of beauty was not only fundamental to ancient medicine but amongst some cultures an animating principle of education. Prior to pursuing academic disciplines Plato advocated the cultivation of music, love of Beauty, of the True, and of the Good, for these touch the spiritual life of the individual, his source of all knowledge. Unlike our present system of education which emphasizes intellectual development in order to meet the demands of our materialistic culture, Plato's aim was to draw out the highest qualities latent in the soul by surrounding the student with an environment which embodied spiritual realities. Hence the importance in education of assimilating good music and the beautiful in the arts. Plato's vision in The Republic has immense ramifications today when our attention is constantly distracted towards the negative aspects of life:

Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making graceful the soul of him who is rightly educated, . . . The charms of music poured into the soul through the ears, as through a pipe, soften it like iron (in fire) and make the soul serviceable, instead of useless and harsh. -- III, 401e; IV, 411a

The power of rhythm, which is such a motivating influence in popular music today, is an integral factor in the religious life of traditional communities in Africa and the Americas. Percussive music with its hypnotic effects was used in a variety of ceremonies within the context of a wider view of reality. The awakening and stimulation of various centers of the nature by rhythm is evidenced in the religious music of peoples the world over and, in more enlightened ages, philosophers have warned of the negative influence of discordant rhythms, particularly on the young.

Knowledge of the Music of the Spheres is part of the human heritage and thus in evidence around the world. From the monotonous rhythm of the Mongolian shaman's drum to the intricate patterns of the Indian raga, the music of Asia is vibrant with purpose. Ravi Shankar, the Indian sitar virtuoso, expresses this feeling in almost Platonic terms in his book My Music, My Life: "The highest aim of our music is to reveal the essence of the universe it reflects, and the ragas are among the means by which this essence can be apprehended. Thus, through music, one can reach God" (p. 17).

Music as spiritual language is the motivating force in much of the ritual use of sound in Asia. The subtle tonalities of Indian instruments, the gamelan orchestras of Java, and the hauntingly sonorous drone of Tibetan monks, have power to elevate our thoughts and raise our consciousness. Some systems of Indian yoga are based on this fact, and it is said that in former ages musician-sages roamed India who sang only for the gods -- yet the beneficial effects of their melodies reached ordinary people toiling unawares amongst the exigencies of daily life. Communities devoted to higher values, such as the Sufis of Islam, even today intone chants designed to convey the mystic message of their scriptures.

The entire human family is engaged in the search for the lost chord of harmony with nature. In this sacred quest there is much we can learn from the wisdom of our forebears so that our own keynotes may harmonize with the celestial symphony.


In a previous lecture we discussed the uses of music amongst ancient peoples in such varied fields as healing, education, astronomy, statecraft, physics, and personal transformation. During the Dark Ages in Europe, music therapy fell into disuse but surfaced briefly as a remedy for the mass hysteria or "dancing mania" which swept across the continent in 1374 following the great plague. After the Renaissance, a growing number of physicians began to investigate the value of music in the prevention and treatment of disease. Efforts initiated in the 1700s to examine scientifically the precise effects of music on the human body steadily gained momentum. Today there is even speculation on the sounds of the micro-universes of the atomic world, while the science of radio astronomy is built on the interpretation of vibration and radiation emanating from distant stars, bearing witness to the reality of Pythagoras' discovery of the Music of the Spheres.

This afternoon we have the opportunity to discuss the ongoing rediscovery of this ancient knowledge as it applies to our lives in the 20th century, when music is having such an impact on the whole tenor of our civilization. Think of the pervasive influence of popular music on young people the world over, and we can see how vital it is to consider the harmonics of our environment in the 1980s.

One of the first hospital uses of music therapy in our century was to strengthen the morale of wounded and especially shell-shocked veterans of World War II. These therapeutic uses were based on laboratory studies in the 1930s and speculation in the early part of the century on the healing properties of music. In the 1940s music therapy was included in the curricula of the University of Kansas and Michigan State University. Since then it has been applied in a wide variety of ways. These range from relieving the boredom of repetitive exercises in physiotherapy to direct psychiatric treatment. The latter forms the main use in helping mentally disturbed patients to reestablish communication, encouraging self-confidence, socialization, and restoring the sense of self-worth in severely withdrawn and mentally retarded people.

Most of the experimentation since the 1960s to the present has aimed to identify and correlate the physiological effects of different types of music and their efficacy in reducing anxiety. These experiments have led to the use of background music in hospitals' and dentists' waiting areas, delivery rooms, and, of course, the ubiquitous "Musak" at public venues. It is also used to stimulate higher productivity in factories. At a more serious therapeutic level, researchers reported in 1982 that classical music reduced the amount of pain medication required by terminally ill cancer patients at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal, Canada, that symphonic music likewise reduced patients' painful neurological symptoms in a recent study conducted in Poland, and that music played in the delivery room at the University of Kansas Medical Center lowered anaesthetic requirements.

Perhaps the most unexpected discovery of the hidden effects of musical vibration was its impact on other kingdoms of life. One of the earliest pioneers in this area of investigation was Dr. Jagadis Chandra Bose (1858-1937) of Calcutta, India. His book, Responses in the Living and Non-Living published in 1902 showed that fundamental properties of animal life were shared by plants and even minerals. He established research institutes at both Calcutta and Darjeeling for detailed studies of consciousness in plants. His work was continued by Dr. T. C. N. Singh of Annamalai Music College in Madras, with emphasis on increasing crop yields through the use of traditional Indian music. From 1960 to 1963 Dr. Singh conducted a number of remarkably successful experiments in rice fields around Madras and in Pondicherry, increasing yields from 25 % to 60% when the plants were exposed to the rhythms of the charukesi raga. These experiments were repeated with similar success by Canadian researchers using Bach violin sonatas which stimulated a 66% greater harvest in a test plot of wheat. In the late 1960s American botanists continued this work, using Gershwin's music and high-frequency waves to boost crop yields and to control insect damage to crops.

Inevitably this scientific work caught the popular imagination, largely spurred on by Dorothy Retallack's book The Sound of Music and Plants and Peter Tompkins' and Christopher Bird's classic The Secret Life of Plants, both published in 1973. Dorothy Retallack's experiments showed convincingly that plant growth was promoted by certain types of Western classical and traditional Indian music and retarded by rock music. This sparked a wave of controversy over the effect of heavy-metal rock on a whole generation of young people raised on it, while it had gardeners around the world enthusiastically playing Bach to their plants. In their book Tompkins and Bird covered a wide range of evidence indicating that a type of consciousness exists in plants. A film and hit record by American popular artist Stevie Wonder in 1979 further fired the public imagination in this fascinating area of speculation.

Consequent to these experiments work was conducted by Swiss researcher Dr. Hans Jenny in the late 1960s on the effects of vibration on living things, which led to the evolving science of cymatics that deals with the "structure and dynamics of waves and vibrations." Part of these experiments involved high-speed photography of vibrations, including music, which produce distinctive patterns in sand, liquids, powders, iron filings, etc. He developed a "tonoscope" which allows one to see the visually complex patterns formed by different types of sound, ranging from the human voice to intricate orchestral music. Striking examples of Dr. Jenny's work show lattices of circles, triangles, and squares as well as five-, six-, and seven-sided symmetrical figures, many with surprisingly beautiful floral designs. Dr. Jenny explains:

The purpose of these observations was to show that such figures and patterns can give rise to a visual experience which can be fully equated to the aural experience. This is an achievement which not only opens up a new world to those with normal hearing, who see for themselves that their speech actually involves the production of vibrating patterns which continually penetrate and fill space, but also, and most important of all, it enables the deaf to experience what they are actually producing with the speech they have learnt. . . . He can see the to-and-fro motion of his sounds, his words and sentences, and also the flow patterns made by good speech. -- pp. 80-81

This impact of sound on form leads us to further speculation regarding its effect on humanity and other life forms. The rhythmic chanting of bards and rishis of old suggests that ancient peoples had knowledge of the potency of vibration on the inner planes of being, a science which is only beginning to be understood in minute degree even with all our technical wizardry in the late 20th century. Once again, however, these experiments and their implications are far from being generally accepted or widely utilized.

The same cannot be said of popular and especially rock music, which has a dominating influence on the lives of tens of millions of young people throughout the world. There are numerous streams of rock music, e.g., punk rock, symphonic rock, soft rock, heavy-metal rock, Latin rock, etc. The forms vary from the lilting and gentle strains of folk-influenced music (Don Maclean, James Taylor, John Denver) to highly amplified electronic guitar and synthesizer music which aims to provide an overwhelming musical and emotional experience (Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and their successors in the 1980s, Quiet Riot, Twisted Sister). Whatever its shade, rock represents the modern folk music, indicating, as music of the people has done through the ages, the emotions, frustrations, and aspirations of ordinary people, often at rather a basic level musically and in terms of its message.

If we trace rock back to its roots, through the blunt statements of Afro-American blues to the rhythmic vitality of traditional African music, we can readily appreciate its limitations as a medium for expressing mystical or spiritual ideas. This is because its rhythms in the main expressed physical vitality and were designed to excite the desire nature. This no doubt accounts for the popularity of rock and its sometimes negative effects on huge audiences. Some rock musicians have of course reached beyond the basic level of excitation to express mystical elements (the British rock band, Moody Blues). Many have attempted to embody Eastern metaphysical ideas in their music, among these the Beatles (especially George Harrison). Others, like Bob Dylan, reflect their own journeys of self-discovery, whilst in recent years many show the influence of fundamentalist Christianity on popular culture. In their own ways all are expressing, although sometimes in rather bizarre terms, the ordinary man's joy and pain of human relationships, his yearning for love, equity, and the chance for a peaceful life.

Dorothy Retallack's experiments in the 1970s indicating that acid rock was destructive to plant life, roused widely diverse reactions. At one extreme, some latter-day "occultists" asserted that discordant music helps break harmonic molds in the world's thought atmosphere, making way for a New Age of musical expression. At the other extreme, scientific researchers, according to Steven Halpern, have demonstrated that the rock rhythm in a large proportion of popular music today is contrary to the body's natural heart and arterial rhythms. They have shown that the standard rock rhythm arrangement that we hear in pop music -- short-short-long -- has a weakening effect on muscle strength, whether the subject liked this style of music or not. Interestingly this was in direct opposition to the effect of clapping out the long-short-short rhythm -- as in traditional American Indian music.

Although rock music is the source of tremendous fun and enjoyment to millions who do not take it quite so seriously, it has in the past decade engendered a new and entirely opposite musical style which one of its leading practitioners calls the Anti-Frantic Alternative, more commonly known as New Age or Meditative Music. Notable for its lack of pronounced rhythm, for its use of natural sounds and quiet melodic strains, it attempts to create an atmosphere conducive to reflection, relaxation, and spiritual aspiration rather than the heavily loaded emotional experience of most rock. Much of it is based on an acquaintance with the esoteric aspects of sound, Eastern religion, yoga, and meditation.

In summary, several effects of great importance are elicited through the medium of music: the search for harmony within oneself and with nature, the need of centering the consciousness on inspirational ideas and on the beautiful, and the awareness that the manifest universe is built of varying levels of vibration -- music -- and that each individual interacts with the environment in ways besides the physical, for beauty has a profoundly healing and balancing effect. Perhaps we are coming full circle to a rediscovery of the ancient wisdom encapsulated in this new music which holds great promise as a harmonizing influence for the future.

Bjerregaard, C. H. A., "Plato and the Greeks on Music as an Element in Education," The Word (16:5) February 1913, New York.
Blavatsky, H. P., The Secret Doctrine, Theosophical University Press, Pasadena, 1977: facsimile reprint of 1888 edition.
Isis Unveiled, Theosophical University Press, Pasadena, 1972: verbatim with 1877 edition.
Bose, J. C., Response in the Living and Non-Living, Longmans, Green & Co., New York, 1902.
Cook, J. D., "The Therapeutic Use of Music," Nursing Forum, Hillsdale, New Jersey, 1981, (20:3), pp. 253-66.
Halpern, Steven, Tuning the Human Instrument, Spectrum Research Institute, Palo Alto, CA, 1978.
Hamel, Peter Michael, Through Music to the Self: How to Appreciate and Experience Music Anew, trans. Peter Lemesurier, Shambala, Boulder, 1979.
Jenny Hans, Kymatik (Cymatics), The Structure and Dynamics of Waves and Vibrations (2 Vols.), Schocken and Co., New York, 1975; trans. from the German: Basler Druckund Verlagsanstalt, 1967, 1974.
Lange, Daniel de, "Thoughts on Music," series of ten articles, The Theosophical Path, Point Loma, CA, (11:6-14:5), December 1916-May 1918.
Purucker, G. de, Fountain-Source of Occultism, Theosophical University Press, Pasadena, 1974.
Retallack, Dorothy, The Sound of Music and Plants, DeVorss & Co., Marina del Rev CA, 1973.
Shankar, Ravi, My Music, My Life, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1968.
Tompkins, Peter, and Christopher Bird, The Secret Life of Plants, Harper & Row, New York, 1973.
Vescelius, Eva Augusta, Music and Health, Goodyear Book Shop, New York, 1918.
Watson, Lyell, Supernature, Bantam, New York, 1973.
[Condensed from public lectures given on April 2 and June 1, 1983 in Melbourne under the auspices of the Australasian Section of the Theosophical Society (Pasadena).]

(From Sunrise magazine, December 1985/January 1986, and February/March 1986; copyright © 1985 Theosophical University Press)

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