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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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The idea of music as a divine art implies that music
is not considered on its merits alone, but points beyond
itself and man to the divine. Thus music can be under-
stood as an invention of divinities or as a general
principle of divine creation. It may be interpreted as
an image, imitation, or anticipation of divine or
heavenly music. It can be understood as a means of
influencing divinities. And, finally, the meaning and


mission of music can be realized in cultic praise of
the divinity.

Such conceptions are encountered both in magical
and in mythical eras, throughout cosmological and
theological-metaphysical forms of thought, indeed well
into structured philosophical systems. They possess a
strongly thematic character, so that their “history” is
broadly developed in variations of the same or similar
conceptions and perspectives. Nonetheless, shades of
meaning may be differentiated in various periods. The
idea of music as a divine art is active from the earliest
times at least down to the age of baroque in Europe.
Thereafter it increasingly becomes a victim of ration-
alistic skepticism and, after a brief revival in the ro-
mantic period, finally yields to a purely this-worldly
concept of music. Closely connected with this idea,
dependent upon it in many ways, or antithetically
presupposed by it, is the idea of music as a demonic

1. Primitive Peoples. To the primitive mind the
sounds of nature are the voices of spirits, demons, and
gods. Their imitation establishes a magical connection
with them. Disguising the human voice becomes a
tonal “mask” in order to imitate demons or gods in
the shape of animals. The same purpose is served by
musical instruments. A demon is enclosed within the
sounding instrument. The shaman or medicine man
who makes use of such sounds is possessed of divine
powers, by means of which he can magically conjure
up or exorcise evil spirits or demons. With his “music”
he can guide the dead (the soul) into another world.
Such notions persist well into civilized cultures.

2. Civilized Cultures. The idea of music as a divine
art is common to all civilized cultures. Whether this
idea developed independently in each of the cultures
or arose by reciprocal influences is difficult to say.

Sumerian representations of music-making animals,
dating from about 3000 B.C. in Ur, undoubtedly possess
a divine and sacred meaning; they probably represent
animal gods or at least display their survival in
memories of older rites and conceptions. The terms
“song” and “religious festival” were represented in
Sumerian by the same cuneiform character, the stylized
picture of a pagoda-like temple, thus clearly displaying
the affinity of meaning.

A connection between music and the divine is quite
clear in Egyptian beliefs. The god Thoth divided the
world into spheres with his sevenfold “laughter,” from
which the seven basic sounds (vowels) and the seven
strings of the lyre derive. Thoth is also credited as the
“inventor” of music and of divine song. Osiris is de-
nominated the god of the sistrum and Hathor the
goddess of music and of the dance. Many repre-
sentations of music-making animals or animal gods
point also to divine connections or ancient totemistic
origins. In China music was regarded from antiquity
as a transcendent power. The belief in the connection
of musical tones with the universe is certainly very
old here, even though it can only be documented about
500 B.C. In the idea of a universal harmony primeval
notions of the magical power of sounds survive in
transformed and spiritualized form. Music, especially
ritual music, serves as an indicator of the macro-
microcosmic order. “Proper” music sustains the stabil-
ity of the cosmos as of the state, while the “wrong”
music disturbs it. In Indian civilization music is like-
wise no isolated phenomenon, but is intimately con-
nected with religion, cosmology, and philosophy. A
torso of a dancing god dates from the third millennium
B.C. In Sanskrit “singing” is called gangharavidya (the
art of higher beings). According to the Vedic writings
(about 1500 B.C.) sound and tone are identical with
divine principles of the universe. The primeval musical
rhythms of the world are the font of all cosmic ener-
gies. The Rigveda says that all things are called into
existence by the song of praise composed by the gods.
The creator god Pragápati creates the waters with his
voice. As a world principle of creation sound is sym-
bolized in post-Vedic times in the syllable OM. It
dwells in the divinity (Shiva) as well as in the human
heart. One can be guided by music to the divine prin-
ciples of the cosmos.

3. Greek Culture. In Greek the very name of music
(= the art of the Muses) points to its divine origin.
From Homer to an advanced period the Muses were
regarded as divine beings sprung from the union of
Zeus and Mnemosyne (= memory, recollection). They
belong to Zeus' Olympian domain and sing of the
origins of things, of the lives of the gods, and of the
fate of men. Their leader is Apollo (Musagetes), a god
in human (not animal) shape bearing a lyre, inventor
of music. Those touched by Apollo and the Muses
compose and sing praise of the gods. Sons of Apollo
by a Muse are Linos and Orpheus. Other divinities also
bear a relationship to music. Hermes invented the lyre
and gave it to Apollo, retaining the syrinx for himself
and his son Pan as shepherd gods. Dionysos' connection
with music is less specific than Apollo's, but still he
is ranked as inventor of the dithyramb. Music is more
important among his followers, the satyrs and maenads;
it was the latter who tore to pieces the unfortunate
Apollonian singer Orpheus. Among the Greeks the
dance of gods, Muses, nereids, and nymphs is often
mentioned and depicted along with music. Particular
importance is attributed to the singing or instru-
ment-playing sirens as the “Muses of the other world.”
Their home is thought of as located in Hades, as well
as in space. In their role as singing guides of souls they
are associated with death. Originally in the form of
animals (birds), they came to assume human shape. A


related notion is documented in Book XII of the
Odyssey: the sirens as death-bringing singing monsters.
Their function as musical soul-guides is transferred to
the angels in Christianity.

The idea of a correspondence between macro- and
microcosmic music, which had already been familiar
to the ancient oriental cultures, appears to have been
developed first by the Greeks into a more rationally
structured system. Plato adopts something of a middle
position between mythos and logos (Republic 616-17):
the music of the heavenly bodies (harmony of the
spheres) arises because on each of the eight spheres
a siren is sitting who produces a particular note. But
above all, scientific cosmological speculation is associ-
ated with the name of Pythagoras, according to whom
the divine world order is maintained by harmonic
numbers. They correspond to the fundamental rela-
tionships in music (1:2 = an octave; 2:3 = a fifth;
3:4 = a fourth) and determine both the harmony of the
spheres and musical assonance, the balance of the
seasons, the elements, body and soul as well as spiritual
powers, temperaments, and human ethos. By means of
the numerical proportions in music the analogical
character of everything that exists can be known and
demonstrated. Music thus attains philosophical status,
revealing knowledge of the world. The whole world
appears to the Greek as a harmonious cosmos held
together by musical number. At the apex stands the
orderly rotation of the stars sounding in spherical orbit,
which are the prototype and model for all existence
and therewith for human music and dance.

In the hands of Neo-Pythagoreans and Neo-Platonists
these ideas become symbolic and mystical in later
antiquity. The harmonic numbers are taken to be su-
pernatural beings. Different sounds, numbers, and songs
pertain to different gods, who can be reached by these
means (Iamblichos). Music can lead to unity with the
divine and establishes the connection with the divine
intercessors. A network of musical and symbolic nu-
merical relationships is drawn about the visible and
invisible, the sensuous and spiritual, world: the number
One, for example, signifies the beginning and funda-
ment of harmony; Two is opposition, the manifold,
division, the source of all consonance; Three is perfec-
tion, beginning, middle, and end, the true regulator
of music; Four is the four elements, the seasons, all
perfect assonances; Seven is the foundation of all
manifestations of sound in the cosmos, the planets, the
strings of the lyre, etc. In addition to the harmonic
numbers, musical instruments are symbolically inter-
preted. The cosmos is seen as the instrument of god,
as is the individual human being on whom divinity
plays. Before birth the soul has heard the divine har-
monies, and recognizes them by contemplation of per-
fect numerical relationships. The musician ()
is elevated by this knowledge from sensuous to spiritual

4. Christian Middle Ages. The Old Testament vi-
sions of Isaiah and Ezekiel display the one Jahweh,
worshipped by seraphim and cherubim in service and
praise. This praise is not perceived as “beautiful”
music, but as numinous sounding and ringing of over-
powering volume. The singing of the Gloria by the
angels on the birth of Christ allowed the heavenly
chant to be heard on earth. Revelation contains the
description of an entire liturgy in heaven undoubtedly
containing elements of Jewish and early Christian
liturgies. The performers of this heavenly music are
the four “beasts” (throne bearers), the twenty-four
Elders, and above all the angels. They sing the three-
fold “Holy,” the “new song,” Amen and Alleluia. The
instruments are the cithara and the tuba, the latter in
its magical function of heralding plagues.

What is new and characteristic of Christian thought
is the idea of the celestial liturgy. Its significance and
therewith the significance of all Christian music is
praise of the Creator. Its climax is the singing angel.
For the whole of the Middle Ages the angel is the
origin, prototype, and eternal goal of all earthly
liturgical music. Its divinity, its dignity, and its power
are all founded in the angel.

The angels sing alter ad alterum (“to one another”),
sine fine (“without end”), una voce (“unison”). These
labels became central themes, repeatedly employed
down to the baroque era and realized again and again
in the liturgical music of the Church. Of the liturgical
chants the ones that were assimilated repeatedly to the
angelic music were preferably the Gloria, the Sanctus
(in which, according to the preceding text of the
Preface, the praise of the faithful is united with that
of the angels), but also psalms and hymns. From time
immemorial similar treatment was accorded to the
wordless Jubilus, the melismatic Alleluia, and together
with these the related musical forms dating from
Carolingian times and later: sequence, tropus, poly-
phony, all regarded as particularly closely related to
the angelic song. In addition to the intimate connection
with the liturgical music of the Church, the function
of the angels, singing, playing, and dancing as they
guide the soul to the other world, was of great impor-
tance for the entire Middle Ages.

The ideas of angelic music, its themes and motifs
are, owing to the Bible, the Fathers, and the liturgical
texts, in their essence of extraordinarily stable, and all
but invariable, continuity. About this essence an il-
limitably varied range of developments and ornamen-
tation appears in literature and art.

Visions and otherworldly migrations describe the
heavenly music in ever-new variations. Here there is
a combination of ancient (Elysium) and Irish-Celtic


fairy tale traditional themes (singing trees, sounding
pillars and rocks, self-playing instruments, etc.) with
the liturgical themes. Dante's Divina Commedia, that
great compendium of such traditions, contains a sys-
tematic array of many such liturgical and nonliturgical
motifs. In the rich literature of legend the theme of
guide to the soul is frequently encountered. Sometimes,
in addition to the singing angels, Christ also appears
as a minstrel or dancer to receive and guide the soul
with music. In the liturgical drama springing directly
from the liturgy, angelic music is brought to the eye
and ear. With their Latin chants the angels survive
even in the later vernacular morality plays down to
the sixteenth century as representatives of liturgical
and therewith of celestial music.

In art the representations of the celestial liturgy, or
of the singing angels, begin at the altar zone (mosaics
or frescos), i.e., at the point in the church building
where the connection between the heavenly and the
earthly liturgy is established. They are to be found in
increasing numbers in illustrations of liturgical books
(miniatures), in Romanesque and Gothic cathedral
sculpture, in stained glass and frescos, and finally in
panel paintings. Whether represented with scrolls,
books, or (increasingly from the thirteenth century on)
with musical instruments, angelic music is always un-
derstood to be song, with the exception of the tuba,
canonized by the Bible in the representation of the
Day of Judgment. In the course of a general develop-
ment of style from the fourteenth century on, the
realistic nature of the depictions becomes more
emphatic. Representations of celestial music increas-
ingly resemble the earthly music, even though the
liturgical sense long remains constant. However, the
music-making angel increasingly becomes, beginning
with the Italian Renaissance, a freely available theme,
ornament, and decorative motif. In baroque painting
(panel paintings, dome and ceiling frescos, organ fronts)
the ancient theme rises once again to a significant level
before completely declining.

The theological symbolism of the Middle Ages was
concerned with particular intensity since patristic
times with musical instruments. This is undoubtedly
connected with the contradiction that arose from the
circumstance that on the one hand the Bible, particu-
larly Psalms, seemed to have canonized and approved
musical instruments as tools of divine praise, while on
the other hand they had been rigorously excluded from
the church liturgy since the days of early Christianity.
Thus they were given an allegorical or symbolic mean-
ing derived either from their names, shapes, material,
or sound. For example, the psalter instruments were
taken in their totality as symbols of Christianity, the
tuba as God's Word, the psaltery as God's tongue or
as the body of Christ, its triangular shape as symbol
of the Trinity, the cithara as Christ's Cross or as a symbol
of the vita activa, the tympanum as mortification of
the flesh, cymbals as lips in praise of God. Even the
innumerable depictions of king David playing the harp
do not possess the nature of a realistic portrayal as
much as a symbolic and attributive significance.

The specifically Christian conceptions are frequently
in reference to, but also in competition with, the ideas
deriving from ancient thought concerning the numeri-
cally ordered harmonious cosmos as transmitted to the
Middle Ages, above all in the classification of music
by Boethius (died A.D. 524): uppermost stands the
Musica mundana of the heavenly bodies, below that
comes Musica humana primarily displayed in the har-
monious balance of body and soul, and finally Musica
actual music, produced with the help
of “tools” (instrumenta!)—the voice and musical in-
struments, and in which the same numerical propor-
tions prevail as in the foregoing higher levels of music.
The dualism of ancient and Christian ideas is unmis-
takable: on the one hand the music of the universe
with the harmony of the spheres; on the other the
celestial-earthly liturgy with the music of the angels
at its peak. The ancient cosmological concept of music
retained even in the Middle Ages its theoretical and
philosophical orientation—music was classed in the
system of artes liberales as the science of tonal numbers
in the quadrivium along with arithmetic, astronomy,
and geometry, whereas the theological concept of
liturgical music was tied more to practice. Not until
the later Middle Ages was the attempt made to con-
ceive of both sides systematically as one (Jacobus of
Liège) or poetically as one (Dante): Jacobus in his
Speculum musicae (before 1330) by expanding
Boethius' tripartite division by a further (higher) level,
Musica coelestis vel divina; Dante, in his Divina Com-
(ca. 1310) by harmonizing the song of angels,
celestial liturgy, harmony of the spheres, and actual
earthly music. Toward the end of the Middle Ages the
numerical musical speculation of quadrivium is in-
creasingly abandoned—the numerical structural prin-
ciples of concrete composition were of greater interest
to musicians than the laws of the harmony of the
spheres—while the ideas of the celestial liturgy and
its connection with the earthly liturgy being closer to
actual practice survived longer.

5. Reformation. To Martin Luther music is God's
creation implanted in the world from the beginning.
Its purpose is praise of God. Thus it is most intimately
related to theology. A characteristic of Luther's atti-
tude towards music in opposition to the medieval
tradition is a strongly eschatological tendency. The
relationship of heavenly and earthly music does not


appear to him as it did then in the sense of becoming
one (as, for example, in the Sanctus of the Mass) or
of participation, but rather at most as a hint or foretaste
of the heavenly chorus in which the faithful join after
death. Calvin likewise emphasizes the divine origin of
music as a gift of God, but is at the same time suspi-
cious of it. In clearly purist tones he warns against its
dangers, above all those of sensual lust and vanity. It
is useful only where it is employed in fear of God for
praise and thanks.

6. The Baroque. Ancient and medieval ideas un-
dergo a powerful revival, albeit with characteristic
transformations, in the baroque era, especially in the
circles of theoreticians, cantors, and organists of
German Protestantism. Once again cosmology and
theology are combined. God appears as the initiator
of a numerically ordered Creation. The whole world
is allegorically represented as a monumental organ
played upon by the Creator Himself (cf. Athanasius
Kircher, 1650). Robert Fludd (1574-1637) describes the
harmony of the world as monochordum mundanum.
The great astronomer, Johann Kepler still strongly
believed in a universal harmony of the world and tried
to demonstrate it scientifically. In the third and fifth
books of his Harmonices mundi (1619) he associates
the planetary orbits with musical harmonics and pre-
sents them in musical notation. Like Pythagoras he
also uses the monochord as an instrument of proof. He
furthermore calculates by transposition of the numeri-
cal values of planetary orbits tonic notes and scales
for music theory. The over-all harmony of all the
planets virtually serves him as a proof of the existence
of God.

As with Kepler, other authors likewise assimilate the
preexistent numerical order and its “sound” not only
generally to all creation, but also make it the founda-
tion of all music theory, indeed even of every proper
musical fabric, of every composition. Thus the totality
of intervals is thought of as a graduated structure
leading from unitas via the perfect and imperfect
assonances to the dissonances and nonharmonic rela-
tionships. A particular role is played in this by the
trinitas or trias harmonica (= triad) as a fundamental
musical phenomenon whose trinitarian theological
symbolic meaning is constantly being referred to.
Symbolic theological perspectives penetrate even into
details of stylistic and performance practice. Michael
Praetorius, for example, esteems the employment of
several alternating choruses “because the method of
singing per choros is in truth the proper heavenly way
of making music.” Polychoral music-making is thus “at
the same time an anticipation and taste of heavenly
joys.” This is simply a highly contemporary inter-
pretation of the old alter ad alterum. At the same time
one recognizes once again the typical eschatological
feature of Protestant musical perspective: that earthly
music furnishes only a premonition of the heavenly,
for only after a blessed death will the faithful pass
utterly into the “heavenly chorus.”

In Germany such ideas, along with the cosmological
thought of the quadrivium, remained alive as late as
the milieu and work of Johann Sebastian Bach. But
the Italians and also the French turned away earlier
and more logically from them to more modern musical
concepts which saw the significance of music and of
the musical work of art not so much in its transcend-
ence and symbolic character but rather in its this-
worldly quality, as an aesthetic object, as absoluta
serving the expression of human emotions.
In a polemical play on the well-known motto ad
majorem Dei gloriam,
the Italian composer Marco
Scacchi (born 1602), for example, proposes, in a letter,
that the composer should rather write ad majorem
Musicae artis gloriam.

7. Post-baroque. With the Enlightenment, Storm
and Stress, and classicism, the preconditions for the
metaphysic of music finally disappeared, even in
Germany. Only romanticism still bears, if only in a
markedly secularized, poetic, or mystically colored
form, a late reverberation of the old ideas—when
music, for example, is taken to be a mere symbol of in-
finity, as an “expression of endless longing” (E. T. A.
Hoffman), as a “sonorous world-Idea” (Schopen-
hauer). On the other hand romanticism and late
romanticism completely dissolved the religious and
universalistic ties by placing music, along with art
generally, virtually in the place occupied by religion
and metaphysics, as in the case of Richard Wagner and
others. Post-baroque musical thought conceives of its
subject-matter only as a this-worldly phenomenon, as
an aesthetic object, whether it is henceforth thought
of as the expression of human feelings, as something
autonomous, as “sonorous motile form” (Hanslick), or
as a product of societal structures and processes. The
spiritual reference of music has experienced in the
history of ideas a good many vicissitudes of con-
sciousness from magic via cosmology, theology, philos-
ophy of Nature, to aesthetics and sociology. Today the
old ideas of music as a divine art have disappeared,
and can at best be completely grasped in the course of
an historical understanding of older music and musi-
cal perspectives.


There is no previous monograph on the subject of this
article. Only in the case of particular periods or problems
are there a few specialized accounts which, however, are
often only remotely connected with the topic.


H. Abert, Die Musikanschauung des Mittelalters und ihre
(Halle, 1905). E. Buschor, Die Musen des
(Munich, 1944). R. Dammann, Der Musikbegriff im
deutschen Barock
(Cologne, 1968). H. G. Farmer, “The
Music of Ancient Mesopotamia,” “The Music of Ancient
Egypt,” The New Oxford History of Music, Vol. I (London
and New York, 1960). Th. Gérold, Les pères de l'église et
la musique
(Paris, 1931). R. Hammerstein, Die Musik der
Engel. Untersuchungen zur Musikanschauung des Mittelal-
(Berne and Munich, 1962); idem, “Die Musik in Dantes
Divina Commedia,Deutsches Dante-Jahrbuch, 41/42
(Weimar, 1964). K. Meyer-Baer, Music of the Spheres and
the Dance of Death. Studies in Musical Iconology
1970). W. F. Otto, Die Musen und der göttliche Ursprung
des Singens und Sagens
(Düsseldorf and Cologne, 1955).
L. Picken, “The Music of Far Eastern Asia,” “The Music
of India,” The New Oxford History of Music, Vol. I (London
and New York, 1960). J. Quasten, Musik und Gesang in den
Kulten der heidnischen Antike und der christlichen Frühzeit

(Münster, 1930). C. Sachs, Geist und Werden der Musikin-
(Berlin, 1929); trans. as History of Musical Instru-
(New York, 1940); idem, The Rise of Music in the
Ancient World, East and West
(New York, 1943). R. Schäfke,
Geschichte der Musikästhetik (Berlin, 1934). M. Schneider,
“Primitive Music,” The New Oxford History of Music, Vol.
I (London and New York, 1960). M. Wegner, Das Musikleben
der Griechen
(Berlin, 1949). W. Wiora, The Four Ages of
(New York, 1965).


[See also Baroque in Literature; Dualism; God; Hierarchy;
Holy; Macrocosm and Microcosm; Music as a Demonic Art;
Neo-Platonism; Pythagorean...; Religion, Origins, Ritual.]