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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
170 occurrences of ideology
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170 occurrences of ideology
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Concerning the straunge opinions of the world of
Musicke,” wrote Stephen Batman, in addition to his
famous translation of Bartholomaeus Anglicus in 1582,
“I have thought good... somewhat to speake thereof:
... wheras many cannot away at all with Musick, as
if it were some odious skill ranged from hell,... some
are indifferent,... and some do so far dote in musicke,
without the which they think ther is no religion, that
betweene these unindifferent judgmentes, I am in doubt
... to frame a speech that might qualifie so foule a
discord.” There were, indeed, those who believed, with
the reformer Philip Stubbes, that “sweet Musick, at
the first delighteth the eares, but afterward corrupteth
and depraveth the minde”; others who considered it
“neyther Good nor Evyll” except as it was used for
virtuous or wicked purposes, or who ignored it alto-
gether as beneath the regard of “manly spirits.” But
not a few looked upon music as a reflection of the
divine, a ladder by which man could mount to God,
the Creator of all music: “Even that vulgar and Tavern-
Musicke,” wrote Sir Thomas Browne, in his Religio
([1635], Part II, sec. 9), “which makes one man
merry, another mad, strikes in me a deep fit of devotion
and a profound contemplation of the First Composer.”

Music, to Browne and many another, had in it some-
thing beyond sensuous sound to please the ear—an
essential harmony that appealed even to reason and
that could lead the mind to contemplation or knowl-
edge of other things. Audible music was an image of
higher kinds of harmony, that of the soul and body
of man or of cosmic order, “an Hieroglyphical and
shadowed lesson of the whole World, and creatures of
God.” If the basic principles of music were discovered,
it was said, all things in the universe might be under-
stood. Here was a key to the unchanging laws that
determine the ideal concordance and unity of all that
exists. And here, too, was a “gift of God” to which
man might respond instinctively as well as intellec-
tually with joy and profit.

The immutable properties of music were often said
to derive from mathematical proportions that were to
be found in all creation. They depended, according to
another reasoning, on the inevitable progression of
notes of the scale from low to high, a law to be ob-
served also in the “ordre of astates and degrees” in
the well-ordered commonwealth, where, it was be-
lieved, each class had its destined place: “Take but
degree away, untune that string,/ And, hark! what
discord follows” (Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, I.
iii. 109-10). Harmoniousness was frequently defined as
a reconciliation of opposites, a fitting together of
disparate elements, whether in music, universe, the
body politic, or the body of man. A thoughtful person
might learn many practical lessons from music and
from the instruments that make it sound.

From another less analytical viewpoint, music was
thought, also, to possess an inspired virtue, not easily
defined, but revealed in its power to alter man's very
being: there is “nought so stockish, hard, and full of
rage,/ But music for the time doth change his nature”
(Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, V. i. 81-82).
“Yea, the inarticulate sounds have, in themselves, I
know not what secret power, to move the very affec-
tions of mens soules,” wrote George Wither, in A
Preparation to the Psalter
(1619, p. 81). “Some raise
the spirits to that excessive height, as the soule is almost
ravished, and in an extasie.” Through the senses the
soul could be moved or transported.

Conjectures about the universal qualities in music,
their uses and effects, were most widely expressed in
England during the last quarter of the sixteenth century
and early decades of the seventeenth, later than on
the Continent, and at a time when counterforces of
Puritanism and scientific empiricism were already in
play. This period saw a flowering, too, of English
music. It was then that the madrigal reached its peak
(later than in Italy). Instrumental music was develop-
ing; the Anglican church achieved a music of its own
to replace abolished Catholic ritual. Then, too, signifi-
cant changes in musical style were taking place
through the influence of humanist poets and musicians
in France and Italy, who, on the basis of fragmentary
evidence, attempted to restore the music of the early

Speculative writing, however, reveals little interest
in technical aspects of composition or performance that
were the concern of practical musicians. Indeed, in the
process of evolving analogies between perceived music
and that which could only be glimpsed by the
mind—or reading musical qualities into the universe
and universal qualities into music—music made by man
was often all but forgotten, or dismissed as similar but
far inferior to divine harmony. Composers, on the other
hand, while they defended their art as a representation
of world symmetry and proportion or as a symbol of
the divine, made no application, as far as has been
noted, of metaphysical ideas to the music they com-
posed. As had been true in the past, speculative and
practical ideas about music remained two distinct
spheres of thought (Hollander, pp. 22-24, 43, 53).

Speculative ideas of music were more a part of
philosophy and literature than of music as we think
of it today, and in these areas their influence was
profound. They afforded a vast storehouse of poetic
imagery, but even more significantly, they provided


a broad and seemingly indispensable philosophical
hypothesis that was inextricably woven into the fabric
of contemporary belief. Even when not accepted liter-
ally, these ideas about music were found to image
uniquely and aptly Renaissance concepts of harmony
in the universe and of man's relation to it. In an age
when all things, from lowest stone to highest angel,
were believed to be united in a “great chain of being,”
in which motion or defection of one part moved the
whole; when (to change the figure) all levels of exist-
ence—man, his society and government, geocosm and
macrocosm—were thought to function in similar ways,
each level influenced by the others and all, ideally,
operating as a perfect whole, parallels could easily be
found in music. The inevitable order of notes of the
musical scale, the similarity of intervals within consec-
utive octaves, the concordant sounding of different
parts as they were played together, the discord that
followed “when time is broke and no proportion kept,”
all these made music a fitting image of world harmony.

The origins of these ideas are in the remote past, in
classical philosophy, especially Pythagoreanism, in
Egyptian thought, and in early myth and religious
rite—sources different from those used by practical
musicians who were searching for hints of ancient
musical style. Early ideas were adapted by Church
Fathers to Christian theology, restated by medieval
Arabian writers, and synthesized by Neo-Platonists of
the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, chiefly
by Marsilio Ficino (1433-99), to become a significant
part of the Renaissance world view. Of these concepts,
three will be considered here: music as a mathematical
key to universal order, whether in the spheres or on
earth; music as an image of the soul's harmony and
as a bridge between the soul and heaven; and finally,
music as a vehicle of World Spirit.

1. Music of the Spheres. The place of music in the
cosmic pattern goes back, first of all, to the discovery
of the Pythagoreans (as reported by later writers) that
while musical strings of the same length, thickness, and
tension, when plucked, invariably produce the same
pitch, one such string divided in half always sounds
an octave higher, a segment two-thirds as long a fifth,
one three-fourths as long a fourth. An octave or
diapason was represented by the numerical ratio 1:2,
the fifth (diapente) by 2:3, the fourth (diatesseron) by
3:4. Tones were thus measurable in space, with pitch
related to frequency of vibration. It seemed, then, by
a process of analogy, that these same proportions might
be applicable to motions of an ordered and unchanging
universe, in which planets, from moon to outermost
stars were thought to move at varying speeds in fixed
and concentric circles around the spherical earth as
center—an astronomical system which, highly refined
and varied by Ptolemy, was still widely accepted
throughout the Renaissance, despite the new heliocen-
tric theory of Copernicus. Intervals between the
spheres, it was suggested (with spheres imagined either
as crystal balls or as orbital pathways of the planets),
might be similar to those revealed by strings of musical
instruments; the cosmic instrument could conceivably
produce musical sound comparable to that of instru-
ments made by man.

The Pythagorean myth of Er, recounted in Plato's
Republic (X. 614B-621D), pictured the spheres as
wheels turning on an adamantine spindle, on each a
siren singing one tone and together forming a harmony,
while the three Fates controlled the motions both of
the spheres and of the lives of men. Here was the
“Sirens harmony” described by Milton in the Arcades
(lines 63-73), sung “to those that hold the vital shears,
And turn the Adamantine spindle round,/ On which
the fate of gods and men is wound.” Philosophers after
Plato changed sirens to Muses or Intelligences, while
in the Christian context they were corrected to Angels,
who, in hierarchical order from Angels on the moon
to Seraphs on the sphere nearest to God, filled the
heavens with song. The “Crystall sphears,” in Milton's
Nativity Ode (lines 125-32), made “up full consort to
th'Angelike symphony.”

Whether or not the spheres and planets actually
produced musical sound was a question argued for
centuries, as it was still in the Renaissance. Aristotle,
believing spheres to be crystalline, denied the possi-
bility on the basis that sound, if it existed, would be
so loud as to shatter solid matter. On the other hand,
Macrobius, in his fifth-century Commentary on
Cicero's “Dream of Scipio” (De re publica, VI. xviii.
18-19), discussed seriously the “great and pleasing
sound” of the spheres, unheard by man because of the
limited range of his hearing (or because, others sug-
gested, man's soul, dragged down by his body, is closed
in by “muddy vesture of decay”). In the Renaissance,
philosophers of the occult, led by Ficino and Cornelius
Agrippa, attributed specific tones and voices to the
planets, while Aristotelians restated their Master's
argument. From the beginning, however, this music
had been most often considered a poetic symbol of
universal harmoniousness. Milton could write poeti-
cally in the Arcades (lines 72-73) of this music “which
none can hear/ Of human mould with grosse unpurged
ear,” but in his prolusion “On the Music of the
Spheres,” he saw it as a figure to symbolize in a “wise
way” the intimate “relations of the orbs and their
eternally uniform revolutions according to the fixed
laws of necessity.” Yet, on the Continent, the astron-
omer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), who accepted the
Copernican theory that the sun and not the earth is


the center of the universe, and who, himself, replaced
the circular orbit of heavenly bodies by elliptical ones,
could not abandon the belief that mathematical har-
mony in celestial order is analogous to that of heard
music; and in harmonices mundi (1619), he attempted
still to express planetary motions in musical notation.

Into this mathematical-musical cosmic scheme were
drawn the four elements, which Empedocles made the
indestructible constituents of all things, changed only
by motions of harmony and discord, and which Aris-
totle placed in concentric shells between the spheres
of the moon and the earth. Fire, air, water, and earth
eventually added four strings to the cosmic lyre or
made an unheard music of their own. It was not mere
whimsy that led Robert Fludd, in his Utriusque cosmi
(1617, p. 90), to picture the entire universe as a mono-
chord that reached from earth through the elements
and the spheres, each intervening space designated as
a musical interval, with the hand of God reaching from
outermost heaven to tune it. “Water and Air He for
the Tenor chose,” wrote Abraham Cowley (1618-67),
in his youthful poem, Davideis (Book I, secs. 35-36);
“Earth made the Base, the Treble Flame arose,” a song
accompanied by the sounding strings of the planets.
Man, too, “a little world made cunningly of elements,”
joined in music of macrocosmic spheres and elements.

On the authority of Pythagoras, and of Plato, who
had, in his Timaeus, envisaged a mathematically and
musically ordered universe more intricately contrived
than that suggested by early Pythagorean experiments,
men concluded that the basis of all harmony in macro-
cosm and microcosm alike is mathematical; that what-
ever exists is based on proportion or number, the con-
cordant relationships of which are revealed in music.
For this reason music was included in the medieval
quadrivium of the liberal arts—along with arithmetic,
geometry, and astronomy—where it gained a standing
as an intellective study not otherwise to be achieved.
“How valuable a thing music is,” wrote the school-
master Richard Mulcaster, in prefatory verses to Tallis
and Byrd's Cantiones sacrae (1575), “is shown by those
who teach that numbers constitute the foundation of
everything that has form, and that music is made up
of these.”

Of these numerical relationships the easiest for the
layman to grasp were the Pythagorean intervals of
diatesseron (fourth), diapente (fifth), and diapason
(octave), which by mathematical manipulation could
be combined or altered to form all other concords—for
“musick is but three parts vied and multiplied.” As
Jean Bodin remarked, in his Commonweale (1606, p.
457), Plato's numbers are so difficult that even Aristotle
had jumped over them “as over a dich,” even as Bodin,
and to a large degree, his contemporaries continued
to do. Intervals of the fourth, fifth, and octave, con-
sidered most harmonious and pleasing, symbolized for
many the harmoniousness of all creation. The com-
monwealth “decays when harmonie is broken,” wrote
Bodin (p. 455), “which chaunceth when... you depart
farthest from those concords which the Musitions call
diatesseron and diapente.” By these intervals, the music
philosopher and physician, John Case, in his Praise of
(1586, p. 44), measured proportions of the
rational, irascible, and concupiscible faculties of the
soul. On the authority of the Italian architect, Leone
Battista Alberti (1404-72), who had learned “from the
Schoole of Pythagoras” that harmony in sight is related
to harmony of sound, Sir Henry Wotton advised, in
The Elements of Architecture (1624, pp. 42-43), that
measurements of doors and windows be based on musi-
cal intervals of octave, fourth, and fifth. Music revealed
the secrets of all mathematical order, in spheres, com-
monwealth, the soul of man, and in his artifacts.

2. Music and Soul. Metaphysical interpretations of
music were vastly enriched and broadened by Platonic
ideas (not all of which originated with Plato) that
carried over into Christian thought. In the Timaeus
especially, the concept of music was extended to mean
harmoniousness and concord in the broadest sense.
Numbers, in themselves, had significance only as they
represented abstract Ideas. They took on philosophical
and ethical implication. Furthermore, the whole world,
Plato taught, was animated by soul.

According to the Timaeus (29E-42E), the Demiurge
(later called God), good and rational (in the Symposium
motivated by love), brought the conflicting elements
of Chaos into a harmony, proportion, and unity
modeled on His own Idea of perfection, an ever-
existent Idea intelligible only to reason, of which the
sensible world is an imperfect copy. Into this body,
circular in form and motion, He set a Soul, also circular
in motion and numerically proportioned, but invisible,
partaking of reason and harmony. Stars, planets, ele-
ments, all had souls or gods to move them—beings later
designated as angels or demons, which could descend
to earth in order to aid mankind. A bit of World Soul
passed from the stars, whose gods added lower parts
to the rational, to become the souls of men. The soul
of man is tripartite, Plato continued (69C-70A), and
the Renaissance thinkers, on the whole, agreed. Im-
mortal and rational soul in the brain is distinct from
mortal soul, located in the thorax, which is filled with
passions and dominated by irrational sensations, and
which is further divided by the midriff to form still
another soul that is concerned with wants of the body.
Even animals were granted an inferior soul. Living man
was a part of a living universe and shared its harmony.

Following this tradition, Renaissance Platonists


imagined the soul to be endowed, as was music itself,
with an innate harmony derived from that of the uni-
verse, a harmony too often broken by sin or intemper-
ance, but restorable by dominance of Reason or by
withdrawal from material things to contemplation of
the divine. This harmony was described with varying
metaphor: concord between intellect and desire
sounded music like that of angel's song; reason played
on lower faculties of the soul and those of the body,
as a lutenist on his instrument, to produce the “music”
of Virtue; the soul's “tune” was transposed by prayer
to make the “music” of Love.

Because the soul was by nature harmonious, it was
thought to respond instinctively to the similar harmony
in audible music. It might take intellectual delight in
viewing this image of the divine, but it was moved
“naturally,” too, on both an infra-rational and a super-
rational level. Renaissance meanings of “nature” and
“natural” were varied and require a brief digression.
Nature meant, first, all things made by God in contrast
to those made by man; but it was also a force or energy,
which, acting as an agent of God, dominated natural
things. By Nature, each existing thing was endowed
with an essential property that determined its behavior.
By immutable Laws of Nature, order was imposed and
reactions controlled. The eternal substance of number
in the universe was established by a Law of Nature—
that “Numb'ry Law” remarked on by Du Bartas in his
Divine Weekes and Workes (1621, p. 301), “which did
accompany/ Th'Almighty-most” in the world's crea-
tion. Another law decreed that “every kindred sub-
stance” move inevitably “toward its kind,” as iron
moves toward the lodestone, or move with it in sym-
pathy, as an idle instrument sounds when one similarly
tuned is struck. It seemed “natural,” then, that the soul
of man, to the extent that it retains its original har-
mony, should respond or be attracted to music even
without conscious thought.

Man need not be intellectual to be so affected. The
most barbarous peoples, it was said for centuries, are
inevitably charmed by harmonious sound, an opinion
repeated by John Case in his Praise of Musicke (1586,
p. 42): the infant, destitute of reason, is stilled by the
songs of his nurse; ploughmen and carters “are by the
instinct of their harmonicall soules compelled to frame
their breath into a whistle,” which delights not man
alone but the oxen and horses. And the cause of this
“delectation,” Case concluded (pp. 53-54), is “the
convenience and agreement which musicke hath with
our nature.”

The lowliest souls, even those of animals, experi-
enced irrational pleasure in musical sounds, but the
soul could be moved on a higher instinctive level. It
could, by sympathetic response to the harmonious
motions of music, be brought back to its original har-
mony. “Music... in so far as it uses audible sounds,”
Plato had written in the Timaeus (47C-D), “was be-
stowed for the sake of harmony. And harmony, which
has motions akin to the revolutions of the Soul within
us, was given... not as an aid to irrational pleasure,
... but as an auxiliary to the inner revolution of the
Soul, when it has lost its harmony, to assist in restoring
it to order and concord with itself.” “The very harmony
of sounds... carried from the ear to the spiritual
faculties of our souls,” echoed the Elizabethan church-
man, Richard Hooker, in Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical
([1597], Book V, sec. XXXVIII [1]), “is by a
native puissance and efficacy greatly available to bring
to a perfect temper whatsoever is there troubled.” By
sympathetic response like that of “Brethren strings,”
wrote Abraham Cowley in Davideis (Book I, secs.
39-40), “Davids lyre did Sauls wild rage controul,/ And
tun'd the harsh disorders of his Soul.”

Music was credited with even greater powers. By
virtue of its harmoniousness, it could, by an “occult
magnetism,” draw the soul from body in ecstasy; the
soul returned with delight to its divine origins. Poets
made a commonplace of the image of soul being liter-
ally drawn from the body through the ear. “Heavenly
sounds,... with Division (of a choice device),/ The
Hearers soules out at their ears intice,” Sylvester trans-
lated from Du Bartas' Divine Weekes and Workes
(1621, p. 25). Crashaw's lutenist, in “Musick's Duell”
(1646, lines 145-50), is ravished by the music he makes,
his soul “snatcht out at his Eares/ By a strong Extasy”
to ascend “through all the sphaeares of Musicks
heaven” to the “Empyraeum of pure Harmony.”
Shakespeare transformed oddity to magic in The Mer-
chant of Venice
(V. i. 67-68), when musicians are told
to “pierce your mistress' ear/ And draw her home with
music,” or to humor in Much Ado About Nothing (II.
iii. 60-63), when Benedick remarks on the strangeness
of the fact that “sheeps' guts should hale souls out of
men's bodies.”

Poets described, also, a less passive inner rapture or
ecstasy in which soul did not leave the body com-
pletely, but in which, through contemplation of the
universal in the particular, of World Harmony revealed
in audible sounds, mind could separate itself from sense
and rise even above reason to an understanding or
vision of the divine—an idea that has deep roots in
philosophies of love as they had come down from Plato
through Plotinus to Renaissance Neo-Platonists. This
is the ecstasy desired by the contemplative man of
Milton's “Il Penseroso” (lines 161-66), where “pealing
Organ” and “full voic'd Quire.../ In Service high,
and Anthems cleer,” dissolve the listener “into ex-
tasies,/ And bring all Heav'n before... [his] eyes.”


In “At a Solemn Musick,” “divine sounds” of “Voice,
and Vers” present to the “high-rais'd phantasie” a
vision (not here called ecstasy) of heavenly singing,
from which phantasy rises still higher to understanding
of inaudible music made by God among men, which
sounded “In perfect Diapason” until broken by “dis-
proportion'd sin.”

These ideas of the power of music to draw soul from
body or to free it from earthly ties merged in an
unexpected context. They became basic argument for
defenders of church music, who, in answer to the
opposition's denial of music's power to touch the soul,
stated their belief that there is a virtue naturally in
music to give spiritual joy and to elevate the soul to
oneness with heaven, a power that can “knit & joyne
us unto God.” These men avoided outright commit-
ment to the “fancie” that the soul is, or possesses,
harmony; claims that music could create ecstasy were
qualified. But no better image could be found, ap-
parently, hyperbolic as it was, to explain the efficacy
of music to move affections of the soul and to lift man's
“cogitations above himself.” “So pleasing” are the
effects of musical harmony, wrote Richard Hooker, in
Of the Laws... (op. cit.), “that some have been in-
duced to think that the soul itself by nature is or hath
in it harmony... there is also that carrieth as it were
into ecstasies, filling the mind with an heavenly joy
and for the time in a manner severing it from the
body.” George Wither emphasized, more than had
Hooker, the soul's ascent through contemplation, when
he wrote, in A Preparation to the Psalter (1619, p. 83),
of the “divine raptures” of church music “that allure
and dispose the soule unto heavenly meditations, and
to the high supernaturall apprehension of spiritual
things.” “Spiritual song,” agreed Charles Butler, in his
Principles of Musik (1636, p. 1), “ravisheth the minde
with a kinde of ecstasi, lifting it up from the regarde
of earthly things, unto the desire of celestiall joyz.”
Champions of music in divine service returned,
throughout the century, to these notions of a universal
harmony in music and its power to elevate the soul.

3. Music and Spirit. Speculative ideas of music in
the Renaissance also had intricate relationships with
Spirit. The harmony of the universe was sometimes
attributed not to World Soul but to World Spirit. By
association with Spirit, it was said, music has its effects,
not on the soul of man, but on his spirits.

No greater muddle faces the modern reader than
the many older meanings of “Spirit” and “spirits,” all
of which were involved in theories of the nature and
effects of music. From the early Greeks came the idea
of World Spirit, a unifying element in the universe,
sometimes equivalent to World Soul, sometimes an
intermediary between Soul and matter. This concept
is related to Aristotle's postulation in De caelo (269a
30-270b 20) of a fifth element (which came to be called
the quintessence), an aether, more subtle than fire or
air, a substance similar to that of the stars, immortal
and eternal, which pervades all things (as in the Stoic
World Soul—anima mundi). It exists in its purest state
outside of the spheres, Aristotle theorized, but with
increasing impurity it spreads down through spheres
and elements to lowest earthly matter. Every form or
body depends on the nature of its spirit: in ascending
scale, body becomes more pure and aethereal; celestial
Intelligences have no material body at all but are souls
clothed in pure spirit. (This pervasive fifth element
explained for astrologers the pathway by which stars
and planets transmit their influence. Alchemists hoped,
by infusing superior spirit into lower forms, to convert
base metals to gold.) Spirit might indicate, also, an
astral or sidereal vehicle given to souls by the stars.
Hebrew theology introduced, further, the transcendent
Spirit of God, which brought order out of Chaos and
breathed life into man. Spirits in the form of angels
or demons, good or bad—souls with spiritual bodies—
inhabited the empyreal heavens, planets, or elements.

There were also the aerial but corporeal spirits of
man—natural, vital, and animal—which were ex-
pressed from the blood, refined in the heart, further
subtilized in the brain, each serving a function of the
tripartite soul, and linking soul to body as World Spirit
mediated between World Soul and matter. They were
usually discussed in a purely medical sense, but they
were, even so, related to the quintessence, by which
they were nourished, and occasionally to astral Spirit,
whose nature they shared. However described, they
were considered quite distinct from the Spirit of God,
a spark of which resided only in the rational soul.

Pagan and Christian, materialistic and occult ideas,
were confused or interrelated so as to baffle the most
earnest scholar then as now. Every writer made his
own interpretations, which varied in different works,
or even in the same work. Sometimes “soul” and
“spirit” were used synonymously. Any brief review,
then, of the relation of music to spirit must be simpli-
fied, ignoring, as it must, historical evolution of ideas,
variation in individual philosophies, and specific theo-
logical controversy.

In writing influenced by Platonic tradition, however,
one view remains constant: spirit is musical. World
Spirit is the harmony of the universe and shares that
of the planets. “Th'all-quickning Spirit of God,” in the
imagery of Du Bartas, in Divine Weekes and Workes
(1621, p. 301), turns the “whirling wheels” of the
universe to make a music like that made by a blast
of air in a great organ. In George Herbert's “Easter,”
the “blessèd Spirit” of God is called to “bear a part”


in the music of “heart and lute.” Angelic Spirits sing
in heaven; “Millions of spiritual Creatures,” described
by Milton in Paradise Lost (IV. 677-82), “walk the
Earth/ Unseen,” raising “Celestial voices to the mid-
night air.” Spirits in man, moving harmoniously, make
a harmony of soul and body. Music itself has and
breathes spirit (Finney, p. 106), which affects other

Everyone agreed that music moves human spirits.
The most common explications, being basically physi-
ological, are only indirectly related to ideas discussed
in this article and need be reviewed only briefly. Since
the species or forms of sense impressions were thought
to be carried to the soul by spirits, and all psychological
or emotional response to be reflected in predictable
motion of spirits in the body—especially in the heart,
the center of emotion—it could be assumed that per-
ception of musical sound inevitably alters the spirits.
Music can move spirits, also, it was believed, by physi-
cal contact. Hearing, more than any other sense, wrote
Ficino (Walker [1958], pp. 7-10), has immediate effect
on the spirits, because moving air, the vehicle of sound,
strikes directly the innate air in the ear, which is or
has in it aerial spirit, and sets up a motion that pene-
trates to the innermost parts. The effect of music is
thus corporeal, but it is psychological, too, for harmony
shapes the spirits to its own motions and moods. Francis
Bacon having explained, in his Sylva sylvarm (Cen-
tury II, exp. 114) that “the sense of hearing striketh
the spirits more immediately than any other senses,”
continued to an accepted analysis of musical effects:
“Harmony, entering easily, and mingling not at all, and
coming with a manifest motion, doth by custom of
often affecting the spirits and putting them into one
kind of posture, alter not a little the nature of the
spirits,” and thus communicates the feelings of gaiety
or sadness of “musical tunes and airs.” Even without
perception, argued Thomas Wright, in The Passions
of the Minde
(1604, p. 170), motion can be transmitted
from the ear to spirits in the heart to induce a “pos-
ture” of the spirits there that produces a “semblance”
of passions in the mind.

According to still another theory popularized by
Neo-Platonic philosophers of love, air entering the ear
carries with it not only harmonious sound or moving
air, but also the spirits of the singer. That voice is
caused by breath and spirit striking the windpipe, and
that living spirit issues with breath, were established
beliefs in the inherited physiology of the Renaissance.
Song, then, is animated breath carrying with it the
feelings and temperament of the singer, which are
communicated to spirits of the listener, just as spirits
from the eye of a beloved alter those of the lover, or
as spirits from an “evil eye” infect with disease.

Occult philosophers, however, believed that music
could also transmit World Spirit and thus alter the
“quintessential” or astral spirits of man. As a man's
spirits could be fed by those in plants or wine, or
altered by spirits of the singer, so they could be affected
by celestial Spirit, which carries influences of the stars
and planets. From Hermetic works, early Neo-Platonic
texts, and medieval writings on magic, came belief in
the use of talismans, odors, lights, and music to invoke
this influence—ideas especially related to music by
Ficino and by the chief disseminator of his ideas, the
peripatetic German philosopher, Cornelius Agrippa.
Because music has the same numerical proportions as
the heavenly bodies, Ficino argued, it has power to
make the spirits of man similarly proportioned, so that
they vibrate in sympathy with the planets and are able
to breathe in more copiously the heavenly Spirit and
influence (Walker [1958], p. 14). Music could, in this
way, alter dispositions and manners; it was a kind of
Philosopher's Stone by which the spirits of man, by
spiritual alchemy, could become angelic. Music “doth
wonderfully allure the Celestial influence,” wrote
Agrippa, in his Occult Philosophy (trans. 1651, p. 255),
so as to “change the affections, intentions, gestures,
motions, actions and dispositions of all the hearers.”
And again (p. 278): “Wise ancients... did not in vain
use Musical sounds and singings, as to... make a man
sutable [sic] to the Celestial Harmony, and make him
wholly Celestial.” Ficino himself, in a rare union of
speculative and practical music, composed songs,
adapted to the aspects of the stars and to the tempera-
ment of the person to be affected, which he supposed
to resemble the Orphic Hymns, and by which he hoped
to approach the magic of Orpheus, who had moved
trees and stones and charmed Pluto by his singing
(Walker, pp. 19-24).

The power of music to attract or infuse World Spirit,
implicit in Ficino's theory, was further emphasized in
his interpretation of a passage in the Asclepius, attrib-
uted to the ancient Egyptian theologian, Hermes Tris-
megistus, a work that Ficino had translated. There he
found an account of the art of making gods by infusing
into idols or statues the souls of demons and angels
with the aid of talismans, odors, and music. This pas-
sage he assumed to be the source of one in the Enneads
of Plotinus (IV. 3. 11), which he interpreted to mean
that by music “one can attract into and retain in a
material object 'something vital from the soul of the
world and the souls of the spheres and stars'” (Walker,
pp. 40-41). Life could be given to inanimate matter.
Ficino did not envisage the invoking of Spirit in the
form of demons and angels, who presumably had souls.
He disclaimed use of any such “demonic magic”—
“black magic”—a practice condemned by the Church.


He was firm in insisting that talismans and music infuse
only impersonal World Spirit and that they affect only
the spirits and not the soul of man (ibid., p. 45). Certain
of his followers, however, were less cautious. His pupil,
Francesco da Diacetto, gave serious consideration to
attracting planetary demons or gods by music, as did
Agrippa, more influentially, in his Occult Philosophy
(ibid., pp. 30-35, 94-96). Through Agrippa's writing,
especially, Ficino's theories were carried into the realm
of forbidden magic and brought into disrepute.

Invocation of planetary gods and demons was clearly
heretical, a return, contended orthodox Catholics
throughout the sixteenth century, to Egyptian myster-
ies and medieval magic. This practice was thought to
disregard the supreme power of God, who alone con-
trolled Heavenly Spirits and alone gave life. English
Protestants found even more to condemn in the use
of ritualistic scents, images, or music to attract Divine
Spirit. That the mind might be directed to God by
contemplation of universal harmony imaged in music
had defense; that the Spirit of God could be attracted
by earthly music rarely did. Even the biblical parallel
to be found in the account of God's Spirit descending
to the accompaniment of psaltery and pipe, to inspire
Elisha to prophecy (II Kings 3:51), noted by Wither
in his Preparation to the Psalter (1619, p. 83) and by
Charles Butler in The Principles of Musik (1636, p. 115),
as proof of music's force, was usually interpreted as
a miracle attributable not to music but to the “extraor-
dinary Interposition” of God Himself.

Yet all of these esoteric Ficinian ideas contributed
to English thought. Belief in the power of music to
attract stellar influence and even to call down demons
and angels enjoyed a vogue in occult writing, especially
in the 1650's, following the translation of Agrippa's
Occult Philosophy in 1651, but earlier, too—in writings
consistently attacked as religiously unorthodox.
William Ingpen, in The Secrets of Numbers (1624, pp.
94-95), repeated Agrippa's enthusiastic account of the
force of music: “Musical harmony” has such “power
and vertues... that shee is called the Imatatrix of
the starres,... And when she followeth celestiall
bodies so exquisitely, it is incredible to think, how shee
provoketh those heavenly influxes.” By means of har-
monious and pervasive World Spirit, wrote the Rosi-
crucian, John Heydon, in The Harmony of the World
(1662, p. 115), “man is made subject to the influence
of the Stars.” Through this medium, lights and sounds—
which share the same “Harmonicall proportions” as
the planets—can draw down souls from the moon to
be “effectual in the operations of nature” (p. 75). These
notions explain the imagery of Edward Benlowes'
poem, “A Poetic Descant upon a Private Musick-
Meeting” (1652), in which he describes each musical
instrument as a planet, possessing the same capacity
to move emotions or to “Re-inspire our lumpish clay.”

Occult ideas of the power of music to control Spirit
or to infuse life found most subtle expression, however,
in the charming imagery of earlier verse. Freed of
specific explication and theological association, poetic
elements remained, to add incalculable richness to the
verse of Shakespeare, Milton, and many lesser men.
The “Sphear-born harmonious Sisters, Voice, and Vers,”
of Milton's “At a Solemn Musick,” “Wed... divine
sounds” to pierce “Dead things with inbreath'd sense.”
Sabrina, the water spirit in Comus (lines 817-920),
invoked by song, by song gives life to the Lady “in
stony fetters fixt.” Hermione, in Shakespeare's The
Winter's Tale
(V. iii. 98-111), who seems turned to a
statue, is given life, as were the statues in the Asclepius,
by music. By her voice, Chapman's Corynna, in Ovids
Banquet of Sence
(1595, stanza xi), as she bathes near
statues of Niobe and her children, woos the gods to
add their power to hers to “try if with her voyces vitall
sounde/ She could warme life through those cold
statues spread.” Later poets, as did Thomas Stanley,
in “Celia Singing” (1651), imagined the beloved pos-
sessed by an angel who disposed her breath to harmony
that could not only draw soul from body but also infuse
into “Plants and Stones,” a new life “that Cherubins
would choose;... Kill those that live, and dead things

By mid-seventeenth century, however, ideas of world
harmony imaged in music, and of the power of music
to exert divine influence, long under attack, had, with
rare exception, lost both actual and symbolic signifi-
cance. With the sun made the center of the universe,
with planets moving in what seemed to many, as to
John Donne, a “various and perplexed course,” man
found himself bewildered and alone in a fragmented
universe, no “commerce” left between his world and
heaven. Music itself came to be judged as acoustically
measured sound, its universal mathematics reduced to
physics or technical practice, with no direct rela-
tionship to world harmony and no hidden power to
move the soul of man. There were those, late in the
century, who stood against the flood of scientific
change, and who claimed still, as did Thomas Mace,
in Musick's Monument (1676, p. 3), that music has
“wonderful-powerful-efficacious Virtues and Opera-
tions... upon the Souls and Spirits of Men Divinely-
bent,” or as did Charles Hickman, in a sermon
preached on St. Cecilia's Day, 1695 (1696, pp. 16-17),
that musical sound “is an Inlet... to Divine Visions
and Revelations,” that it “carries such extasies, and
Raptures,... as to elevate the Soul of man into a
higher Region.” But, in the main, imagery inspired by
old ideas had fallen to the level of poetical conceit


or subject of jest. For many years, however, it provided
men with words and symbols by which to express
their belief in universal harmony, order, and unity.


For early ideas of music see Warren D. Anderson, Ethos
and Education in Greek Music
(Cambridge, Mass., 1966);
Edward A. Lippman, Musical Thought in Ancient Greece
(New York, 1964); Leo Spitzer, “Classical and Christian
Ideas of World Harmony,” Traditio, 2 (1944), 409-64 and
3 (1945), 307-64; Eric Werner and Isaiah Sonne, “The
Philosophy and Theory of Music in Judaeo-Arabic Litera-
ture,” Hebrew Union College Annual, 16 (1941), 251-319
and 17 (1942-43), 511-72. On Ficino and music see D. P.
Walker, Spiritual and Demonic Magic from Ficino to Cam-
(London, 1958). For reflection of philosophical ideas
of music in Renaissance verse see Gretchen Ludke Finney,
Musical Backgrounds for English Literature 1580-1650 (New
Brunswick, N.J., 1962); John Hollander, The Untuning of
the Sky
(Princeton, 1961); James Hutton, “Some English
Poems in Praise of Music,” English Miscellany, 2 (1951).
Humanistic trends in music, especially on the Continent,
are discussed by Edward Lowinsky, “Music in the Culture
of the Renaissance,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 15
(1954), 509-53; D. P. Walker, “Musical Humanism in the
Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries,” The Music
2 (1941), 1-13, 111-21, 220-27, 288-308 and 3
(1942), 55-71. For music in England consult Morrison
Comegys Boyd, Elizabethan Music and Musical Criticism
(Philadelphia, 1940); Gustave Reese, Music in the Renais-
(New York, 1954), pp. 763-883; Walter L. Woodfill,
Musicians in English Society (Princeton, N.J., 1953). Primary
sources not completed in the text include: Heinrich
Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, De occulta philosophia
(1631), trans. as Three Books of Occult Philosophy (London,
1651); Francis Bacon, Sylva sylvarum in Works, ed. James
Spedding, Robert Leslie Ellis, Douglas Denon Heath (New
York, 1864), IV, 231; Stephen Batman, Batman uppon
(London, 1582), Addition to Book XIX, fol. 424
verso; Edward Benlowes, “Poetic Descant,” in Minor Poets
of the Caroline Period,
ed. George Saintsbury (Oxford, 1921),
I, 483; Jean Bodin, Les six livres de la République (1576),
trans. Richard Knolles as The Six Books of a Commonweale
(London, 1606); Richard Crashaw, “Musick's Duell,” The
Delights of the Muses,
in The Poems, ed. L. C. Martin
(Oxford, 1927), pp. 149-53; Guillaume du Bartas de Salluste,
la Sepmaine; ou Création du monde (1578), trans. Joshua
Sylvester as Du Bartas, his Divine Weekes and Workes
(London, 1621), “The columnes. The IIII. Part of the Sec-
ond Day of the II. Week”; Macrobius, Commentary on the
Dream of Scipio,
Book II, Chs. 1-5, trans. William Harris
Stahl (New York, 1952), pp. 185-200; Philip Stubbes, The
Anatomie of Abuses
(London, 1583), “Of Musick.”


[See also Alchemy; Chain of Being; Demonology; Love;
Macrocosm and Microcosm; Music as Divine Art; Nature;
Neo-Platonism; Platonism; Pythagorean Harmony.]