Everything begins with the Greeks. The Greeks thought about everything worth thinking about. They invented theater, democracy, philosophy, and the Olympic games. They wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey. So it is no surprise that they thought about music.
The story is told that one morning, Pythagoras, a Greek mathematician and philosopher, was walking by a blacksmith's shop. Inside, the blacksmiths were beating glowing iron into shapes with hammers. Their ringing blows could be heard from the street. And Pythagoras noticed that the sound was different when they used a larger or smaller hammer. He was intrigued.
Pythagoras believed that all things could be described mathematically. Mathematics is, he said, a hidden and divine language. And so, he worked out the mathematical relationships (called intervals) between musical sounds.
Pythagoras also taught that each planet makes a sound in its orbit, a sound so beautiful that human beings cannot hear it. These sounds in harmony govern all nature, he said. He called it the musica mundana, the "music of the spheres". And thanks to his discovery of the math behind the music, people could now hear these sounds and write songs based on its perfect ratios.
Finally, Pythagoras claimed the planetary harmonies could cure mental and physical illness. Music affects your health, he said. He encouraged his students to purify their souls by listening to stringed music. (He loved the stringed lyre. And did I mention that he ran a school?) And he warned them not to defile their ears with flutes or cymbals. At his school, certain songs began and ended each day. Morning music chased away sleepiness and inspired action. Evening music was soothing and relaxing.
I do not know how it happened. Perhaps Pythagoras's musical theory was so influential that it just survived over nearly a thousand years. But, somehow, in the sixth century AD, we find Pythagoras's ratios alive and well in a new kind of song called plainchant (also called Gregorian chant, after Pope St. Gregory the Great).
The origins of plainchant are practical. Monks and nuns who chanted the psalms and other religious verses together each day eventually sang their way along. Singing makes it easier to stay together in a group, and singing pours the sacred in. Human beings are singing creatures.
Plainchant used Pythagoras's intervals. As singers opened their mouths in praise, they sang the music of the spheres. They sang, if you will, on behalf of and using the language of all creation. They sang to their creator. And they would have believed, with Pythagoras, that music heals its hearers. And so they sang for the healing of the nations as well. They sang as priests before God for the world. They sang for love of God and of neighbor.
I'm fascinated by this. And what fascinates me is not wholly the music of it or the theology of it. I am also fascinated by the model it demonstrates of how the best science of the day--Pythagoras's mathematical ratios--was picked up and made a part of the living work of the church. These monks and nuns took everything they had, including the best model of music that they knew, and made it into a beautiful sacrifice of praise.
In so doing, they invented the Western musical tradition we enjoy today. They were the first to write down musical pitches onto a staff, for example. Their monophonic chant paved the way for the firework explosion of polyphony that was to come. And they trained the ears of the culture for ever-more-beautiful, subtle, and expressive sounds.