Sunday, 30 May 2021

Connecting the cosmos, earth, body and soul through the music theories of Boethius SUSAN FRYKBERG

Here is presenter Susan Frykberg’s handout and paper for the first Spiritual Reading Group of 2021, held via Zoom on Wednesday the 17th of February, 10.30am to 12 midday.

Illustration from a 12th-century copy of Boethius’ De musica. Boethius is depicted on the top left, experimenting with a monochord. Pythagoras is depicted on top right, experimenting with bell vibrations. Lower left is the philosopher Plato, and lower right, the mathematician Nicomachus. 


Susan writes:

 What I want to introduce you to today is a wholistic system of thought that has music at its core. This system of thought begins with the ear, for as Boethius says: ‘the senses are necessary in music, for if it were not for the senses, no sounds whatsoever would have been heard. They are therefore the "first principle" in music, but a first principle in the manner of an "exhortation," exhorting the student to make a reasoned investigation into what is pleasing to the ears. ‘ 

He goes on to say that: there are three types of music in which the power of music is manifested…the first is indeed cosmic, the second human, the third is that which is produced by means of instruments. For Boethius, everything from the universe to the human soul is connected through music: God, the cosmos, the elements (air, water, fire, earth), the seasons, humans and the human soul. Ratio, proportion, harmony, number, all present in music, are also present in all things. The cosmos sings, the eternal soul of the human is knitted together with its impermanent corporeal part through music; even the powers within the soul are kept in balance by music. 

Further, good music can make us better people. Boethius is of course a late antiquity writer and the theories he presents come from Ancient Greek thinking - Pythgoras and Plato, as well as some Roman thinking (Cicero and Augustine) and the later Greek Nichomachus, (60-120 BCE), a mathematician who wrote the (lost) Manual of Harmonics. Boethius’ work De Institutione Musica was originally written in the 6th century, first copied in the 9th and is one of the first music books to be printed in Venice in 1491/2. It became intimately intertwined with Christian thinking and held sway for almost a millennia. We are discussing a kind of thinking that flourished in medieval times, a time very different from our own. There is the famous quote ‘the past is another country, they do things differently there’, so we need to keep that in mind while at the same time being open to the conceptual possibilities such wholistic thinking may offer us today. 

During this presentation, I’d like you to keep in mind the following questions: 1. Can this style of thinking, a style of thought that is rooted in sound, have meaning today? 2. However we choose to think about the nature of the soul today, may there be a role for sound and music? 3. Do you think there are links between reason and the divine? 4. Do you think music has a role in formation of good character? 5. How can sound and listening link to the divine? 


 Susan writes: 


 'Music is such a natural part of us that we cannot be without it, even if we wished.' 1

 I want to introduce to you today a holistic system of thought that has music at its core. This thinking begins with the text De Institutione Musica written by Severinus Boethius 477–524 CE, who translated Greek thought about music and sound into Latin, but also added some of his own ideas. For Boethius, everything, from the universe to the human soul is connected through number - and music is number made audible. For Greek thinkers, inspired by Pythagoras, number is truth, and number can be found in all things, in ratio, proportion, relationship and balance, all of which are most readily observed in music. All relationships – among God, the cosmos, the elements (air, water, fire, earth), the seasons, humans and the human soul - are thus essentially musical. Therefore, the cosmos sings, and the eternal soul of a human being is knitted together with its impermanent corporeal body through music. Further, the powers within the soul are also kept in balance by music, and thus music, that best observes ratio, proportion, relationship and balance, can even make us better people. For Boethius, this is a kind of philosophy, a way of thinking that begins with the ear and ends in reason and mathematics: ‘there is nothing irreconcilable between the ears and the reason. The solution to the problem of harmony according to Ptolemy is that the senses inform, and then the reason decides the proportion. Thus, lest the senses contradict reality, the application of harmony 2 joins these two faculties into a union.’ 3 

For Boethius, the musicus, or the musical thinker/philosopher who knows the why/how of music, is much more important than the performer/composer, called the Cantor, who simply ‘does’ rather than thinks. It has been often said that the past is another country, they do things differently there. 4 

Theologian Jeremy Begbie’s observation below clarifies the differences between Boethius thoughts and contemporary thinking about music: 

‘If I were to walk onto a platform to give a piano recital and introduce the evening by telling the audience that I was about to help them tune into the order of the cosmos, that some of the pieces I was about to play were more cosmically in tune, that I was helping them hear number, and that the best pieces would help them become better people and bring them that much closer to the creator, the audience might well conclude I needed therapy. Most likely I would be told to just get on and play the piano. Today we are so used to linking music to creating moods, entertainment, or immediate pleasure – In other words, we see it entirely human terms – that it is hard to think of music in any other way, let alone that it’s fabled powers might be linked to the patterns of the physical world at large and just because of that, grab some kind of access to God.’ 5 

Who was Boethius? Anicius Manilas Severinus Boethius, 477–524 was a Roman senator, consul, magister officiorum, and philosopher of the early 6th century. He was born about a year after the last Western Roman Emperor. Boethius entered public service under the Ostrogothic King Theodoric the Great, who later imprisoned and executed him in 524, on false charges of conspiracy to overthrow his king. Boethius was the author of numerous handbooks, a translator of Plato and Aristotle and became the main intermediary between the thinking of classical antiquity and thinkers in succeeding centuries. The Consolation of Philosophy, written while jailed and awaiting execution, is a fabulous read and another mainstay of medieval (and later) intellectual life. For example, Queen Elizabeth the First translated it, presumably as part of her Latin instruction. 

De Institutione de Musica, was written in the first part of the 6th Century and became an integral part of musical study in the Middle Ages. Over a dozen different kinds of compilations included it after the first copy was made in the 9th century, with at least one hundred and fifty individual copies created between the 9th and 13th century. It was one of the first music books to be printed in Venice in 1490/91. Every learned man, (person), would have a copy in their library. De Institutione de Musica was probably so important because it fitted well within the Roman Catholic theological order, in which philosophy and theology, sister disciplines, enabled the reader to have a sense of being cradled in the harmonia of God. God was at the centre of this order and influenced everything - linking music, nature, mathematics, the human soul and body and the philosophy of the ancient world. 

About music in general, Boethius said: ‘Music is of value because through it the reason comes to know essences consisting of related quantities. But this is by no means the only reason the student should study music. Through music one does come to know truth, but music - and music alone of the four disciplines - gives pleasure and pain as well as truth. One's actions can be greatly influenced by music: the calm can be enraged, the enraged can be made calm. Therefore, music is not only concerned with the investigation of truth, it is related to morality as well. Music is such an integral part of human nature that men and women of all ages and all races are affected by it.’ 6 

What are the Three Main Types of Music in De Musica? 

Boethius made popular the three-fold division of music: Musica Mundana - the music of the spheres;7 Musica Humana - the knitting together of the body and soul and Musica Instrumentalis - music made with instruments and voice. The first two kinds of music are soundless, they are not heard. Only the last one refers to what we now would think of as actual music and it itself is a kind of heard shadow of cosmic and soul-music. Music Mundana is concerned with the Macrocosm, corruptible and incorruptible (transient and eternal) simple bodies such as the heavenly bodies; the elements of all matter (air water, fire and earth) and the seasons. 

Boethius said: ‘Now the first type, that is the music of the universe, is best observed in those things which one perceives in heaven itself, or in the structure of the elements, or in the diversity of the seasons…impossible that such a fast motion should produce absolutely no sound … Thus, there must be some fixed order of musical modulation in this celestial motion. Moreover, if a certain harmony does not join together the diversities and contrary qualities of the four elements, how is it possible for them to unite in one body machine? But all this diversity produces a variety of both seasons and fruits, so that the year in the final analysis achieves a coherent unity.’ 8 

A question most often asked as far back as Aristotle was - why can human ears not hear the harmony of the cosmos if the planets indeed produce sound in their movement? To account for this human limitation, there have been many answers. Three attempts to make sense of this paradox are: the sound is not audible on account of the great distances separating the planets from earth; the sound is not actually heard; and the sound is so omnipresent that we don’t notice it. Another question about Music Mundana was – were these sounds pitches? If so which ones? There were many different theories, but usually theories feature a combination of planetary pitches or intervals that produce a well- defined musical scale, albeit one that could be configured in any of several possible ways. Musica Humana is concerned with the microcosm – humans, who are a mixture of both the eternal and the transient. The eternal, the soul, is created directly by God. The body is a function of material processes and, according to scholar Patrick Little are: “ the end of a chain of natural biological procession stretching back to Adam.” 9 Only music can mix the two to make a whole person. 

Boethius said: ‘There can be no doubt that the unity of our body and soul seems to be somehow determined by the same proportions that join together and unite the harmonious inflections of music.’ 10 Also, ‘For when we compare that which is coherently and harmoniously joined together within our own being with that which is coherently and harmoniously joined together in sound--that is, that which gives us pleasure— so we come to recognize that we ourselves are united according to this same principle of similarity.’ 11 

Of the third type of music, Musica Instrumentalis, Boethius said: ‘The third type is music which is said to depend on the various instruments. But this is produced either by tension, as is the case of strings, or by the breath, as with tibias, or by those which are moved with respect to water, or by some sort of percussion, as is the case of those in which a concave brass surface is struck by some sort of rod; and thus, are these sounds produced.’ 12 

What was the Relationship between Musica Mundana and Musica Humana? Boethius said: ‘What Plato rightfully said can likewise be understood: The soul of the universe was joined together according to musical concord. For when we hear what is properly and harmoniously united in sound in conjunction with that which is harmoniously coupled and joined together within us and are attracted to it, then we recognise that we ourselves are put together in its likeness.’ 13 

Boethius and Acoustics 

Key to Boethius’ thinking is acoustics, the how of sound. It turns out that Boethius knew almost as much about how sound works as we know now. Probably, he got most of this knowledge from Ptolemy. For example, he knew that sound was physical vibration. 14 For that reason, sound is defined as a percussion of the air, which percussion remains undissolved until it reaches the ear. 15 Boethius appears to have understood many other aspects of sound: that it is a waveform; that at higher pitches the repetition of the waveform is more rapid; that it behaves in different ways depending on whether the sound is percussive, or made through the vibration of a string, or in a column of air such as a flute. Most importantly, however, I believe Boethius knew about the harmonic series, one of the most crucial elements in the science of sound. But one should not think that every time a string is struck, only one sound is produced, …. yet each sound consists of many, the low indeed of the slower and less frequent, the high of the fast and more frequent. 16 

To link Boethian thinking with contemporary knowledge about the frequency components of all sound,17 two important facts must be remembered. First, every sound that is perceived as one sound actually contains a multiplicity of other sounds. Secondly, for those kinds of sounds which are usually thought of as musical sounds, i.e., ones with a perceived pitch, these sounds have an elegant mathematical relationship to each other. I myself assert that Boethius’ understanding of the essential nature of the harmonic series as this is understood by Pythagoras, is the basis for his cosmology as well as his understanding of what it means to be human, although at the time of writing - February 2021 - my assertion is being disputed. If you would like to know more on the nature of the harmonic series from a contemporary point of view, this video is helpful.

 The Importance of Sound in the Middle Ages 

That sound and listening is a key feature of Boethius’ philosophy makes sense, since in the Middle Ages, the importance of orality/aurality (from the mouth to the ear) is key. It is the main method of information exchange. Even though De Institutione de Musica is a written text for the intelligentsia, the zeitgeist is based on orality/aurality since only 10% of men could read and write and only 1 percent of women - if you wanted to read or write as a woman in those days, you pretty much had to join a convent! In contrast to today, the importance of the ear and hearing was paramount in all social exchange. 

Music and Character 

Boethius quoted Plato about the importance of the role of music in the development of character. He said: ‘For there is no greater path whereby instruction comes to the mind than through the ear. Therefore, when rhythms and modes enter the mind by this path, there can be no doubt that they affect and remold the mind into their own character.’18 

There has been much commentary, some of it mocking, about how Plato said certain modes of music make men brave, and others, heaven forbid, effeminate. However, in his De Republica he talks about how music can be used to balance the attributes of the soul in order for the person to be their ‘best’ self. For Plato, the ideal city-state was based on the ideal soul which is ‘just’ if its three parts (spirit, reason, appetites)19 , are balanced. 

The Continuing Influence of Boethius Today 

Boethius’s influence on thinking about music has been immense, especially his concept of Musica Mundana. Not only was De Institutione Musica still in use in a few universities up to the eighteenth century, it is doubtful whether Johannes Kepler’s famous formulation of the heliocentric universe could have been conceived without it. 

To a certain extent, some of Boethius’ ideas still have relevance today. Contemporary composers as diverse as Paul Hindemith and Mike Oldfield, (of Tubular Bells fame), have composed music of the spheres, as well as lesser-known composers such as the Big Band composer Philip Sparke, Max Richter, Christos Hatzis20 and Laurie Spiegel.21 From a theoretical perspective too, the notion of music having something to say to us about the nature of the cosmos can be found below in the thinking of Michio Kaku, the co-founder of string theory who says: We now, for the first time in history, have a candidate for the mind of God – it is cosmic music, resonating through eleven-dimensional hyperspace. 22 

Musica Humana is less well represented in modern thinking, possibly because there is less discussion about the soul in common discourse. However, Korean author Kim, Hyun-Ah discusses psalmody as a form of Musica Humana, which she asserts is central to her practice of contemplative singing.23 


Why was Boethius’ De Institutione de Musica so popular? Because it is kind of unified theory of everything, beginning with the main tool of information exchange - sound? Because it presents an ordered vison in a disordered world, a God-centred universe where the cosmos, the seasons, animals and humans are all connected? Because it connects body and soul - first through human senses and then through a grand marriage of sense and mind? Because it is consistent with the then current religious belief that all is cradled in the harmonia of God? Perhaps we still read and think about Boethius because his work is a serious validation of the total human, where body, the senses, the mind and the soul as integrated and interdependent. Though our very own bodies, we hear music, which communicates pleasure, pain, and emotions through its rhythm. Yet at the same time, at a higher level, it communicates essential truths, via the abstract mathematical proportions of musical sounds. At best, music is number made audible and through it, we come to know incorporeal essences, including that of God! 

I would like to end by quoting composer, countertenor and lutenist Mark T Rimple, who neatly summarises this discussion. 

‘To consider Boethius' musical philosophy in modern terms, he would by no means argue that music is an autonomous art expressing abstracts in sound which have no meaning besides the purely aural patterns which emerged from any given musical expression. Boethius would hold that music communicates; on the lowest level it communicates pleasure and pain, emotions, to the ears, and man is affected by pleasing or unpleasant combinations of sounds. But on the highest level music communicates truth; for the reason can abstract mathematical proportions from musical sounds and thereby come to know incorporeal essences. Moreover, the reason finds as much pleasure in contemplating these harmoniously related essences as the ears find in the fleeting experience of corporeal sound.’ 24 


1 De Institutione Musica. Bower translation and commentary p 43

2 Boethius uses the word harmony, not in the contemporary musical sense, but to mean proportion.

3 De Institutione Musica. Bower translation and commentary p 382

4 Hartley, L. P. The go-between. 2

 5 Begbie, J. S. Resounding truth: Christian wisdom in the world of music p 78

6 De Institutione Musica. Bower translation and commentary p 46 3

7 Musica Mundana had various versions beginning with Pythagoras, through Plato and Cicero.

8 De Institutione Musica. Bower translation and commentary p 375

9 Little, P.L. The Place of Music in the Medieval World System p 48

10 De Institutione Musica. Bower translation and commentary p 41 4

11 De Institutione Musica. Bower translation and commentary p 33 12 De Institutione Musica. Bower translation and commentary p 47 13 De Institutione Musica. Bower translation and commentary p 2

14 Sound, in the air, is the banging of air molecules together. These vibrations are picked up by the ear and transmitted into neural impulses.

15 De Institutione Musica. Bower translation and commentary p 48 16 De Institutione Musica. Bower translation and commentary p 49 5

17 Except for the artificially created sine tone.

18 De Institutione Musica. Bower translation and commentary p 34 19 Spirit is related to feelings; reason to truth-seeking and swayed by facts and argument; appetites drive you to eat, have sex and protect yourself.




23 Kim, H.-A. Psalms and musica humana. In (pp. 99-118).

24 Rimple, M. T. The Enduring Legacy of Boethian Harmony. In A companion to Boethius in the middle ages .pp 447-78 


Begbie, J. S. (2007). Resounding truth: Christian wisdom in the world of music. SPCK London.

Bower, Calvin, M. (1967). Boethius' the principles of music, an introduction, translation, and commentary. PhD Thesis, George Peabody College for Teachers, Music. Tennessee, USA.

Hartley, L. P. (2015). The go-between. Penguin UK.

Kim, H. A. (2015). Psalms and musica humana. In (pp. 99-118): Routledge, London.

Little, P. L. (1975). The place of music in the medieval world System. PhD Thesis. Otago, NZ.

Rimple, M. T. (2012). The Enduring Legacy of Boethian Harmony. In A companion to Boethius in the Middle Ages Brill. Leiden - Boston. 

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