Many ancient traditions hold the number seven to be basic in their cosmology, for example, the idea of seven heavens arranged in a hierarchy. Your
goal is to advance through them, to reach the seventh heaven where the ultimate divinity resides. In scriptural references, seven symbolizes perfect
completion or a perfect whole.
The Music of the Spheres and the Number Seven
We’ll now look at how the number seven is connected to music in a simple, technical kind of way.
Later, we will see how that number relates to music in a much different fashion.
The purpose now is to reinforce the idea that seven is part of the grand design that underlies everything in creation.
Athenaeus was a third-century Greek parlor intellectual, writing on many subjects. He wrote, “It is plain to me that music should also be the
subject of philosophic reflection. Pythagoras of Samos, with all his great fame as a philosopher, is one of many conspicuous for having taken up
music as no mere hobby; on the contrary he explains the very being of the universe as bound together by musical principles.”
Pythagoras was a
philosopher/mathematician, living around 500 BC, and he was probably the world’s first music theorist, unless the ancient Egyptians figured it out
first and we don’t have any record of it. (Early philosophers were also scientists; there wasn’t much of a dividing line.) Pythagoras discovered
the mathematical basis of musical intervals: that harmonic intervals are small whole number frequency ratios, such as 3:2 and 4:3. An octave is 2:1.
The high note vibrates twice as fast as the lower note. He found that a musical scale could be constructed using seven notes, in a way that
pleasing harmonies could be made from groups of those notes, and he explained how it worked mathematically. Only the seven-note scale harmonizes
well with itself and has the notes more or less equally-spaced. (In an 8-note scale the eighth note is a repeat of the first note, an octave
higher.) He didn’t stop there; he went on to postulate that all creation was simply constructed, logically ordered, and this scale was the basis
of it. The heavenly bodies, including the planets known at the time, “sang” the notes of the scale in their orbital motions, each one a different note,
and this was the unheard (by human ears) “music of the spheres”. This is happening around 500 BC or so.
The philosopher Plato, in his great work Timaeus
, repeats, in excruciating detail, this mathematical derivation in the context of his account of how
the universe was created. Many later writers confessed to not understanding it, including the Roman orator and writer Cicero, who lived in the first
century BC. What interests us here is the account now known as Scipio’s Dream
, that appeared in one of Cicero’s writings (original in Latin). It is
an exposition of the well-ordered musical universe theory based on seven, “this number being, one might almost say, the key to the universe.”
The concept of a small earth-centered cosmos with harmonic structuring was believed universally up until the time of the Renaissance or a little
later, when it started to fade away. Pythagoras’ simplistic model of creation is now a relic of antiquity, at least as far as the science of
cosmology goes. But his derivation of the seven-note scale stands, and the number seven remains in esoteric belief as a fundamental construct.
Interestingly, Pythagoras was a believer in reincarnation. The philosopher and astronomer Heraclides Ponticus, living around 300 BC, reports the
story that Pythagoras claimed that he had lived four lives that he could remember in detail.1
Next: The Seven Stages of Soul Advancement
1 Diogenes Laërtius, Life of Heraclides, translated by Robert Drew Hicks (1925).