Music of the Spheres

Kepler's Harmony of the Universe: Modern Realizations

Consider three examples:  Carl Sagan, Laurie Spiegel and Jonathan Annis.

  • Carl Sagan, Cosmos (New York, 1980)

The Voyager space probes launched in 1977 to explore the outer solar system and travel through interstellar space. Carl Sagan led a NASA committee that prepared two Golden Records to represent humanity and planet Earth to any extraterrestrial intelligence that might someday discover them.

Pythagoras on Music and Astronomy

Ancient Pythagoreans argued that all of nature is a musical scale.  They taught that the heavens are made of numbers; that numbers are the first principles of all things.  Pythagoras allegedly came upon this idea one day when he was walking past a blacksmith shop and heard different notes produced by the strikes of the hammers.  The blacksmith ensemble depicted in Kircher’s automated harpsichord illustration -- a visual reference to this story of Pythagoras -- served as an emblem of the mathematical and musical basis of natural order.

Vincenzo Galilei: Discorso particolare intorno all'unisono

Vincenzo LL

Vincenzo Galilei was among the first music theorists to advocate for a new system of tuning based on performance, instead of the mathematical principles of music set fourth by Pythagoras. Pythagorean music theory bases pitch on the mathematical proportions of dividing a string. Vincenzo's primary problem with this system is that, although it is great for the mathematician and the music theorist, it is impractical for the performer. All music based on this particular system of tuning would inevitably sound out of tune and unpleasant. In this learning leaflet learn about the tuning systems in the late-Renaissance period.


The Celestial Spheres

Celestial spheres, made of a fifth element called ether or the quintessence, explain the obvious motions of the Sun, Moon and stars. They also can account for the planets. 

High overhead the stars appear fixed in the patterns of the constellations, as if they were bright points of light embedded within their own transparent celestial sphere, which rotates around the Earth once each day.  Each star traces one full circle around the sky every 24 hours.

The 5 Pythagorean Regular Solids

We can define a solid as regular when every face, edge and corner angle is identical, whether a square on every side of a cube, or a triangle on every side of a tetrahedron. The Pythagoreans proved that there are only five regular solids: The octahedron has 8 sides; the dodecahedron has 12 sides; and the icosahedron has 20 sides. There are no others.

Kepler's Cosmic Dance suite

Jonathan A. Annis

For the Galileo’s World exhibition, Jonathan A. Annis, a graduate student in the OU School of Music, worked as co-curator of the Music of the Spheres gallery. In this role he composed a suite for harp, flute (doubling alto flute) and oboe (doubling English horn) entirely comprised of musical themes from Kepler’s Harmonices mundi.  Annis arranged the themes, but they derive from Kepler’s musical description of the harmonic law. In this piece, Kepler’s universe becomes a cosmic dance. Visitors to the Music of the Spheres gallery during the Galileo's World exhibition were able to listen to a short excerpt of the suite on an iPad kiosk.  (Background. Learning Leaflet.)  CC-by-sa-nc.


The Celestial Globe: An Introduction


The night sky looks like an upside-down bowl set on the horizon, but as it turns around during the night it is easy to think of it as a giant sphere. Think of the stars as bright points of light lying on the inside surface of a giant celestial sphere. This sphere rotates around us once a day. A model of the sky as a celestial globe explains the appearances of the sky with simplicity and elegance. Learn more about celestial globes with this learning leaflet.