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Book Commentary/Review – Harmonies of Heaven and Earth: From Antiquity to the Avant-Garde by Joscelyn Godwin September 10, 2012

Posted by rwf1954 in book review, books, Harmonies of Heaven and Earth: From Antiquity to the Avant-Garde, Joscelyn Godwin, music.
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(This is the ninth of what will be a series of commentaries about a series of ten or so books about the nature of music. The other commentaries of this series were about the books Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks, This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin, Music, the Brain and Ecstasy by Robert Jourdain, Music and the Mind by Anthony Storr, Good Vibrations/The Physics of Music by Barry Parker, Measured Tones by Ian JohnstonExploring Music by Charles Taylor and Music and Mathematics: From Pythagoras to Fractals, edited by John Fauvel, Raymond Flood and Robin Wilson. This series has been triggered as a result of  my rediscovery of the love of creating and performing music. There is definitely a spiritual connection to this rediscovery, evidenced by my recent release of “Issa Music” and my posts about mystical/spiritual aspects of the music of the progressive rock group Yes (The Poetry of (the Progressive Rock Group) Yes: Introduction to “The Revealing Science of God—Dance of the Dawn” from “Tales from Topographic Oceans”  and The Poetry of (the Progressive Rock Group) Yes). This further relates to spiritual meditations with the theme of more than one path to God, and the possible coming together of both physics and metaphysics I and II).

Joscelyn Godwin’s book Harmonies of Heaven and Earth: Mysticism in Music is indeed about music and mysticism as the title implies, including lots of discussion of “music of the spheres.”  But for me, one of the most insight-generating sections of her book is her broad discussion of the general trajectory of “Western music” over the last seven hundred or so years. Godwin admits to undergoing a change in attitude toward contemporary music. She is now less disdainful of rock and jazz, and understands how the composer of “serious music”/“concert music”/“classical music”/“art music”—I would even add “conservatory music—has lost most of the audience. (I have written about “concert music”/“classical music” at my website with my essay “Is ‘Classical Music’ Fading Into Obscurity?”) She reminds us with profound simplicity of how this has happened.  Composers got the idea that there were no new options for tonality, that all the ideas were used up, so they needed to reach for esoteric, wild schemes to create new music, new frontiers. In a way, this went along with frontier-busting advances in the sciences and changes in the rest of society. But for music, this is a false idea. One of the conclusions I have drawn from this study of music, metaphysics and physics is that there are general rules about consonance and dissonance, but the cultural context then creates a wide variety of listener perspectives. So the cultural context of consonance and dissonance is constantly flexible, constantly shifting. Music creators never run out of possibilities because they are always creating music within a new and different cultural context. There will be new sounds, new tones, new rhythmic ideas from changes in technology, from cross-cultural interaction—cultures constantly change, so music customs change, so music options change. There will always be new contexts so always opportunities for new music within an accessible tonal framework. So there is no reason to create a whole new set of esoteric systems of musical expression, some of them unfathomable and disconnected from what humans naturally hear as music, under the false belief that all musical ideas have been exhausted. I don’t believe they can ever be exhausted. 

Specific comments about Joscelyn Godwin’s book:

Part I: Ascending Parnassus

Chapter One – The Marvelous Effects of Music

  • There is a branch of Hindu philosophy that considers sound the parent of all senses. This points to a cross-cultural recognition of the power of music for humans.
  • The rest of the chapter offers various historical and cultural perspectives, linkages of music to the soul. This linkage has been challenged within the last few centuries. In a sense, Godwin’s book, and my own excursions on the subject, challenge that challenge, and call for the possible restoration of that link, now in the context of current science and spiritual thought.
  • A great modern example of this linkage cited by Godwin is the inspiring use of music to facilitate the recovery of brain-damaged patients, and to improve the conditions of the autistic, the blind and even the “supposedly deaf.”

Chapter Two -Hearing Secret Harmonies

  • Some religions fear music (both strict Christian and Muslim denominations do), recognizing the power of music to captivate the “soul,” and affect behavior. In my view, we should embrace this aspect of music’s potential, known to our ancestors, even to our prehistoric ancestors.
  • Godwin discusses Celtic legends that “leave an unforgettable impression of a dreamlike existence suffused with music.”
  • When humanity began to understand the actual nature of “up,” and that “up” leads us out to the stars, into space,  “heaven,” sometimes considered “up there,” became devalued, even discarded. But Godwin points out that even the ancients understood “Heaven,” or “Nirvana,” or other forms of spiritual bliss, exist as something outside of the material, not something positioned in the clouds, or out in the stars. Music has been a way to access that “locale,” wherever it is.
  • Traditional Islam does not embrace music. But the mystical Sufi Muslims do!
  • Religions that have angels give those angels “musical attributes.”
  • Pierre Teilhard de Chardin also embraces music in his mystical conception of reality.

 Part II: The Great Work

 Chapter Three – Musical Alchemy

  • I love this thought – thank you Joscelyn Godwin! “In order to undertake this work, the true composer, like the alchemist, does not choose his profession: he is summoned to it by a call that cannot be ignored.”
  • Godwin identifies three types of music: 1) “visceral music, usually marked by strong rhythm,” 2) “music of the heart and its emotions” and 3) “music which sets thought in motion.”

 Chapter Four – Music and the Currents of Time

  • Above, I refer to Godwin’s discussion of Western music, and the insight that discussion gave me. (Godwin’s discussion of the trajectory of Western music takes place in this particular chapter.)
  • Godwin acknowledges what a number of modern discussions of music fail to consider, that in the early development of humanity, “music was a handmaid to the traditional functions of worship, song, and dance; it did not yet exist for its own sake.”
  • In the past, “the composer, poet and singer are often one and the same person.” I invite readers to review my recent blog post on CADD!
  • She also confirms the apparent universality of “twelve chromatic tones.” Music traditions can have scales of less than twelve tones; pentatonic scales are common among many disparate cultures. But more than twelve tones, as functional-primary pitch production, seems nearly unheard of. So-called “micro tones” pop up as adjuncts to the twelve tones in some music, and as intellectual curiosities in modern “art music.” But they are rare, and sound utterly foreign to all but the most sophisticated ear, familiar with micro tones through training, immersion and repetition.

Part III: The Music of the Spheres

  • Most of Part III features short sections describing what I find to be mainly unsuccessful attempts to relate the math of music to the math of planetary and celestial phenomena. I will say that simple ratios pervade both, which demonstrates to me the profound insight numbers provide to understanding reality. But I don’t think there is “music” in the stars. On the other hand, I do think looking at numbers for a mystical connection between ratios, even a musical connection, is a worthy search.


This is a remarkable book, written by an author trained in conservatory traditions, but willing to pursue this subject in an objective, non-elitist way. My comments do not in any way encompass all of the intriguing material she presents. I focused on what is germane to my own personal look at music, physics and metaphysics, germane to my own narrow objectives for this study. Someone interested in this topic will find a lot of great food for thought in Joscelyn Godwin’s book.


I have two books left on my reading list for this project. The first is a lengthy textbook on ethnomusicology. The second is Leonard Bernstein’s interview/book on the nature of music, often considered a “defense of tonality” against the atonal trends prevalent in his day for “concert music.” Before posting on those final two books, I do have some interim conclusions concerning this subject matter, some overall ideas, that I will offer in a blog post soon.


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