Mitch Nur
from: Mitch Nur

Second Thoughts, A Look at the Beliefs in Sound Therapy: Applying the View of Aristoxenos

Within the confines of the sound healing community, we find a wide variance of protocols in how sound is conducted in a therapeutic manner; and sometimes there is no protocol followed whatsoever. However, through history we find numerous credendums and suggestions from many music philosophers and theorists.

In looking at what is most familiar to westerners is Pythagoras, the Greek philosopher closely associated to the term ‘music of the spheres’, creator of the musical scale, Father of Geometry, and the harmonic series among other achievements. To this day, no one is in agreement to where he was born, some writers put his place of birth on the island of Samos, other writers insist he was born in Sidon (Lebanon). Many writer’s shower him with the creation of the diatonic musical scale, but further investigation reveals that he learned this musical scale from a Thracian teacher he studied with in Persia. He simply brought it to the Greeks. But what is important is the Pythagorean Intervals (harmonics) and how they are widely embraced today by the sound healing community. For example, Pythagorean Tuning Forks, or Planetary Gongs reflecting the thought of cosmic harmony or the music of the spheres. Much has been said, written about, and presented on why these intervals are important in sound healing work. Or, why mathematics is the general rule influencing sound work.

About 100 years after Pythagoras, an Italian music theorist was born, who has been influential in music theory and application from Ptolemy, Boethius, Avicenna, up to Iannis Xenakis and the experimental music composers of modern times. So who was this man, and why is he important to this discussion?

Aristoxenos was from the Greek colony of Tarentum, Italy in the 4th century BC. Early in his life he was associated with the Pythagoreans, but later moved to Athens to study with Aristotle. He was the Son of the noted musician and poet Spintharos, who taught him the musical traditions of the Greek colonies. “The new musical theory that Aristoxenos created about 320BC differed radically from that of the Pythagorean arithmeticians. Instead of measuring intervals with discrete ratios, Aristoxenos used continuously variable quantities.”[1] He was opposed to numeration and held that the trained ear of the musician was accurate enough. He also felt the “Greek music was mostly monophonic, with heterophonic rather than harmonic textures.”[2] His divergence from the prevailing Pythagorean formulas was revolutionary for the times. Looking today at our understanding of the early Greeks, “Present knowledge of acoustics further confirms the Pythagorean formula by showing that reciprocals of harmonic ratios appear among vibration frequencies of musical tones and also among the natural harmonic constituents of composed tones. Thus harmony in music originates in number, while the fundamental laws of the universe as expressed in number achieve palpable form through musical harmony.”[3] Or, what we call today, harmony of the spheres.

But the logic of Aristoxenos does not deny the legitimacy of these observed relationships. “It simply dismisses the Pythagorean formula and their metaphysical extensions as extraneous to the art of music.”[3] Quoting Aristoxenos “The mere sense-discrimination of magnitudes is no part of the general comprehension of music. Mere knowledge of magnitudes does not enlighten one as to the functions of the tetracord, or of the notes, or of the differences of the genera, or, briefly, the differences of simple and compound intervals, or the distinction between modulating and non-modulating scales, or modes of melodic construction, or indeed anything else of the kind.”[5]

It is said that Aristoxenos was the author of 453 books (Pythagoras wrote one)[6] many on the pronouncements of music, dance, musical instruments, and tragedy; with his monumental work Elements of Harmonics having survived to present times. This work inspired Boethius’s De Institutione Musica of the Middle Ages for example. “Aristoxenos invented musicology as a discipline in itself, not subservient to cosmology or ethics. He brought method to the investigation of harmonics, and he devised essential conceptions: that musical sound is that which proceeds by stepped pitches; that note is the first element of melody and that how it functions in a scale is what makes it musical; that larger intervals can be put together from the tone and smaller intervals defined as parts of a tone.”[7] Aristoxenos’s tetracord notations were embraced by the Greek Orthodox church for it’s liturgical modes, and influenced Islamic treatises, specifically the tunings of al-Farabi and Avicenna.

From a sound therapy viewpoint, and which I feel is very important, is that Aristoxenos argued that musical intervals should be classified by their effects on listeners as opposed to merely examining their mathematical ratios which was contrary to the Pythagorean. This notion by Aristoxenos, brought the scientific study of music into the mind, followed by the first psychophysics experiments at the dawn of experimental psychology, which mapped changes in the physical world onto changes in the psychological world. He sought to separate the study of music from that of both physics and mathematics. He refused to make use of any ratios in his treatise, distinctly contra the Pythagoreans, and he also spoke of the raising and lowering of pitch in terms of tension and relaxation, which in his day would admit of no exact numerical measurement, rather than in terms of string-length, from which ratios could be calculated. Aristoxenos rejected the opinion of the Pythagoreans that arithmetic rules were the ultimate judge of intervals and that in every system there must be found a mathematical coincidence before such a system can be said to be harmonic. He asserted that by hearing, we judge the magnitude of an interval, and by the understanding we consider its many powers. And that the nature of melody is best discovered by the perception of sense, and is retained by memory; and that there is no other way of arriving at the knowledge of music. I feel that this philosophy is embraced by many sound healers today, by watching and becoming aware of how the sound is effecting others, and that exact numbers may not be as important as others assert. That perception in the present moment guides us, and defines our actions by reason or intuition. Allowing us to move outside the conception that mathematics is the rule, when we feel that another methodology is most needed, or liberated from the unforgiving rigor of mathematical definition.

Postscript Comment: Pythagoras is quoted as saying: “Through Vibration comes Motion, through Motion comes Color, through Color comes Tone”, there is no recorded evidence that he ever uttered the phrase “the music of the spheres,” it is pure speculation that he said that. Many people also speculate that Pythagoras invented the diatonic musical scale as well, but it was already in existence for 1,000 years before Pythagoras was born.

1 & 2- Divisions of the Tetrachord, John Chalmers, Frog Peak Music
3 & 4- Pythagoras and Aristoxenos Reconciled, Norman Cazden, Journal of the American Musicological Society Vol. 11
5- Elements of Harmonics, Aristoxenos - Oxford Press
6- Sound Therapy Timeline, a private research paper - Mitch Nur, PhD
7- Aristoxenus of Tarentum and the Birth of Musicology. Studies in Classics, vol. 9 by Sophie Gibson, Rutledge Publishing (reprint from the Bryn Mawr Classical Review)

© 2016 Mitch Nur, PhD
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