17h Century Astonomy in Music? “Harmonices mundi: The Meditations of Johannes Kepler”

Johannes Kepler has long been an interest of mine: a brilliant 17th century astronomer/mathematician credited with determining the eliptical orbits of the planets who earned his living casting horoscopes for pre-modern kings; a modern scientist living in an age of superstition. Nonetheless, Kepler himself was a product of his age, and could not resist the ancient, beautiful, mystical idea that the heavenly bodies must produce a cosmic music during their elegantly mathematical movement through the cosmos- a music audible only to the angels: the “music of the spheres.” In his 1621 magnum opus Harmonices mundi (the music of the worlds) he laid out his theories of planetary motion, and speculated on the harmonies that surely the planets must produce as they swing in their majestic orbits about the sun.

There were six known planets in Kepler’s day: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Kepler proposed, according to his scrupulous analysis of the observed data of the planetary orbits, that they each produced a cosmic glissando as they moved in their elipses from closer to further positions from the sun and sped up and slowed down in their orbits- sweeping out “equal areas in equal times.” Mercury produced the widest glissando of changing pitches: from C# up an octave and a third to E. Venus was the most stable- producing an almost unchanging E natural. The earth produced an oscillation between G and G#; Mars a perfect fifth between F and an C; Jupiter  a minor third between B and D, and Saturn a major third between G and B.

I found always this idea wonderfully weird and beautiful, tying together my own twin fascinations with music and astronomy and so, when asked to compose a piece for the Tacoma Youth Symphony, I decided to use this concept as a plan for the composition. Of course Holst’s “The Planets” exists as one of the world’s more famous orchestra pieces, but his compositional concept is purely astrological and mythological, so I decided not to worry about the obvious comparison. Mine would be astronomical, mathematical and historical. I would use Kepler’s pitches as starting points for musical language, but devise my own scenario in which Kepler would enter the solar system in a space craft in search of the music” (presumably the 16th-17th century music he knew) that he assumed one would hear if one could ascend into the heavens. He would hear unfamiliar and perhaps strange music of interstellar space-background radiation from the big bang- then the sounds of clouds of dust and gas followed by the bumps and clunks of interplanetary bodies such as asteroids. Finally he would discern the “harmony” of the orbits of the larger planets as they came into view, dancing in their elegant gravitational waltz around the sun. The inner planets would next come into view and hearing, singing duets and trios according to the ratios of their orbital periods. He would listen so hard for the glorious 17th century polyphony he would have considered music that he might have actually heard it- even if only in his mind’s ear. Thus I introduce snippets of such music here and there- half heard amidst the more “scientific” chords of actual modern planetary science. Finally he would have left the other side of the solar system- back out through the dust clouds to the background radiation of intergalactic space, wondering if he had indeed heard that “music of the spheres” at all, or if it had been a dream…

I adopted Kepler’s recommended pitch oscillations as representing each planet, and added my own cosmic motives: a Planetary chord” that used all Kepler’s pitches together in one grand arpeggio: G-B-F-G#-E-C#-G.

I also invented a “Chord of Creation and Destruction” that represents the cosmic background radiation of empty space: the sound of the processes of the universe that created, destroyed and created again the elements of the physical universe from Hydrogen to Uranium and beyond.

Finally I invented a “Grand Arpeggio” that comprises every third from bottom to top of Kepler’s pitches in a giant chord of unification: G-B-D-F-A-C-E-G-B-D-F#-A-C#-E-G#.

Here is a chart of the basic ideas of the piece:

HM sketches

The actual music components (themes) of the piece ended up being:

1) The Chord of Creation and Destruction (e minor 7)

2) Clouds of Dust (giant clusters of half steps played by the strings)

3) Planetary Arpeggios (using variants of the planetary chords)

4) Planetary Harmonies (the “harmonies” of the worlds as they sing together in duets or trios)

5) Renassiance Tunes (which I wrote) that represent the music Kepler would have been listening for.

In my wildest dreams, this piece would be performed with slides of Hubble Telescope photos of planets, dust clouds and nebulae  projected above the orchestra. This would drive home the point that art, like nature, need not always be “pretty” but can choose rather to awe us with sublime experience, such as the power of storm-driven surf, tornadoes, or indeed, images of cosmic creation.

Try playing this one with the lights out and a good pair of headphones or speakers. Let your mind join Kepler’s in that spacecraft- entering, exploring and then exiting the solar system and its “music of the worlds.”


One thought on “17h Century Astonomy in Music? “Harmonices mundi: The Meditations of Johannes Kepler”

  1. zhang er says:

    what would be the music of the moon?
    have you seen Glass’s Kepler? a live recording of its world premier in 2009 at Landestheater Linz, Austria is on DVD now. It’s spectacular and very moving. I think it is one of Glass’s best operas. Like you, Glass is fascinated with him as well. here is a review on it. http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/culturemonster/2009/11/philip-glass-kepler-has-us-premiere-at-bam.html

    wonderful piece, when was it performed?

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