Music is as old as Jubal (Gen. 4:21), but for most of Western history, “music” didn’t mean what it means today. For us, music is a performance art. For acousticians, it’s part of a science of sound. When thinkers of earlier ages talked of “music,” they weren’t talking, in the first instance, about sound at all. Ancient Greek harmonia doesn’t refer to consonance among multiple notes sounded simultaneously, but to something more like a musical scale or mathematical sequence in which notes or numbers are related by a constant ratio. Audible music, what Boethius called musica instrumentalis, possesses a mysterious power because it’s an audible echo of the unheard harmony of the cosmos, the musica mundana.
Because it merges diverse numbers with a single mathematical interval, harmonia provided a master metaphor for uniting the one and the many in metaphysics, psychology, physics, and politics. Pythagoras believed in a fourfold harmony—of strings on a lyre, of body and soul, of the state, and of the starry, starry sky. Timaeus taught about the world soul, mathematical physics, and the origin of the human soul under the rubric of world harmony; and in the Republic Socrates claimed that the spheres revolve harmoniously around the spindle of necessity. According to Cicero, Scipio dreamed of a “large and agreeable sound” caused by the “onward rush and motion” of the heavenly spheres.
Christian thinkers eagerly took up the theme. In his Hexameron, Ambrose gave a biblical gloss to the notion of world harmony by noting that the goodness of creation is designed to awaken wonder and worship of the Creator. Importantly, Ambrose emphasized liturgical music, concluding, in Leo Spitzer’s words, that “the Church echoes the music of the universe.” By the end of the first millennium, theologians and poets had joined harmony with grace, love, and nature to form a “Christian tetrachord” that blended heaven and earth, grace and nature, creation and redemption.
Renaissance writers took for granted that audible music has cosmic and political dimensions. Lorenzo, if not Shakespeare himself, is convinced that a “man that hath no music in himself . . . is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils. . . . Let no such man be trusted” (Merchant of Venice, 5.1). Shakespeare’s Ulysses warns that tampering with hierarchy produces horrifying dissonance, as power collapses into sheer will and will into wolfish appetite that “must make perforce an universal prey, / And last eat up himself.” The slightest dissonance is a step toward anarchy: “Take but degree away, untune that string, / and, hark, what discord follows!” (Troilus and Cressida, 1.3). The metaphor wasn’t merely the province of poets. Kepler’s astronomical theories were laid out in his Harmonices Mundi, and Jean Bodin wrote of the “harmony” of a well-ordered polity. As late as the eighteenth century, the eccentric Christopher Smart imagined creation united in song (Jubilate Agno).
Several centuries ago, music was, in Daniel Chua’s words, “tugged out of its cosmological structure” and reduced to an autonomous creative art. Christians, though, have good reason to rehabilitate ancient musical mysticism and metaphysics.
Music is the best language we have to describe the unified diversity of God’s life, the perfect harmony of Father, Son, and Spirit who is, in Jonathan Edwards’s words, the “Supreme Harmony of all.” The Triune God is a polyphony in three voices, an infinite three-tune fugue, each melody so perfectly attuned to the others as to be one God. As Tolkien and Lewis intuited, the singing God created by singing, so the world might sing back.
Jeremy Begbie has argued that music gives us unique clues to the nature of things. In particular, it reveals time as it is, in all its blooming, buzzing beauty. We tend to think real time is a two-dimensional line, which, like all lines, is made up of discrete points, a series of ticks and tocks. Lived time, on the contrary, is complex and multilayered. Innumerable temporal rhythms beat out every moment. “What time is it?” we ask. We could say “8:13 a.m.,” but it’s equally true to say “Late springtime,” “Daytime,” “Time for another cup of coffee,” “Game time,” “Meeting time,” or “Time to finish my column.” Music’s time is also complex. It includes the beat of the metronome, repetitions of melodic motifs, movements and stanzas, accelerations and decelerations, the sounding and silencing of different instruments. Musical time consists of overlapping, interpenetrating layers. Lived time is musical.
Time is musical in another sense too. Time is famously transient. As soon as Faust says “Stay, you are so fair,” the moment passes and Mephistopheles arrives to whisk him to hell. Time’s transience feels like a threat. We want to slow or stop time, so we can savor moments. Time feels like a curse, and we’re tempted to believe death is true life, because in death things finally stand still. No wonder many religions promise a release from time and change in the sweet release of death.
Begbie argues that time, understood musically, is a promise rather than a threat. Of all the arts, music is the most ephemeral. It is vapor, but it has to be so, or it can’t be music. Each note has to yield to the next note, or we’ll never arrive at a melody. One chord has to die so a fresh chord can live. This isn’t evil; it’s the condition of possibility for music. So too with time. Unless each moment gives itself in self-sacrifice, there is no history. The kaleidoscopic beauty of the world depends on the dying fall of each moment and the rising of the next.
In the ancient framework, music isn’t entertainment or escape. Especially in the face of present cacophony, music gives us a way to express our hope for healing our dissonant planet. For Christians, it’s a solid hope, because time’s story is a story of harmony. Sin put time out of joint, but Jesus retunes the sky, restores harmony between God and creation, between creation and itself. His cross is the cosmic lyre, which plays the gospel of harmony regained.
Peter J. Leithart is president of the Theopolis Institute.
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