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The Music of the Spheres

Leila Johnston


The ultimate end of all education is insight into
the harmonious order (cosmos) of the whole world.1


The Coptic Connection

A valuable contribution to music heritage was made by the Egyptian musicologist Ragheb Moftah. Up to the end of his long life, Moftah, who recently died at the age of 103, worked to preserve, document and record the ancient ritual and liturgy of the Coptic (Egyptian) Orthodox Church. No one can better describe this music than Moftah himself. In his introduction to a cassette recording of music for Holy Week, he says:

"The service of this ritual is interspersed with a number of hymns of great antiquity and of great magnificence in which vocal music reaches the heights of pathos in its spiritual effect. Other parts of the Holy Week service are set to plain tunes, simple in their structure but matchless in their penetration and their power to bring man into the depth of devotion, thereby filling him with celestial ecstasy."

The Coptic Church calendar, as well as commemorating all the religious events, occasions and saints' days, follows the seasons and the farming activities of the Nile Valley inhabitants, who worked to the same rhythms, using the same farming methods for millennia. Despite the ecologically damaging High Dam built last century, which prevents the life-giving Nile flood, Copts still chant seasonal prayers asking God to bless the annual flood, the seed-scattering winds, and the harvest; echoing the supplications of the ancients. It came as no surprise then, when Moftah expressed his conviction that the Church's liturgical music, hymns and prayers had originated in the temples of ancient Egypt.

Coptic music is characterized by its vocal extensions and improvised embellishments. Two hallelujahs, for example, can take half an hour to sing. As the music was not written down until the 20th century2 but passed on aurally from one cantor to the next from the fourth century onwards, it may be assumed that the singers added their own improvisations. The English composer and professor in London’s Royal Music Academy, Ernest Newlandsmith, following years of research in collaboration with Moftah, presented his conclusion in 1931. In a published lecture he confirms that beneath the “debris of Arabic ornamentation…. the true Egyptian idiom has emerged.” He adds, “The music is not Arabic; it is not Turkish; and it is not Greek - often as these elements appear. It seems indeed impossible to doubt but that it is ancient Egyptian. Moreover, it is great music; grand, pathetic, noble and deeply spiritual.” 3

Another indication comes from the Egyptian languages. Moftah, proud of his Pharaonic as well as his Coptic heritage, insisted that the liturgy should always be sung in the Coptic language, which stems from the late Pharaonic demotic. He derided the recent practice of substituting Arabic - now the mother tongue of Egypt's Copt minority. Arabic, he said, lacks some of the letters and phonetics essential to the music, whereas Coptic complements it perfectly. Moftah had good reason for his purist attitude. According to the Alexandrian philosopher Philo (1st century), the early Christians had borrowed Ancient Egyptian music. The ancient Egyptian priests prayed using the seven vowels, which were retained in the Greek and Coptic languages. The priests venerated these vowels, believing them to have been derived from the sounds of the seven sacred planets in distant antiquity. For them, the hieroglyphics were 'divine words'. As the language of the ordinary people declined, it was the responsibility of the priests to preserve the original phonetic sounds of the words.

"[The language] always remained for them [the priests] a sonorous echo of the basic energy which sustains the universe, a cosmic force."4

The priests guarded all such esoteric knowledge with secrecy and it was mainly the Greeks who recorded certain aspects of the priestly science on the occasions that elements of it were divulged. In Hellenistic philosophy, the seven strings of the lyre were thought to relate to the planets of the ancient cosmic system: the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. It is worth noting here the remark of the theosophist H P Blavatsky: “The seven planets were not limited to this number because the ancients knew of no others, but simply because they were the primitive or primordial houses of the seven Logoi (the Divine, Creative words).”5 An ancient Egyptian hymn, moreover, contains the following invocation:

"The seven sounding tones praise Thee, the Great God, the ceaseless working Father of the whole universe."6

In another hymn, the Deity describes Himself thus: "I am the great indestructible lyre of the whole world, attuning the songs of the heavens”.7

The lyre, at the same time, represented Man in both his physical and psychical aspects.

Tuning in to the Planets

Pythagoras, the Greek philosopher of the 6th century BC, was one of the Greeks admitted into the inner priestly circles of Egypt. Following 22 years of study in Egypt,8 Pythagoras founded a school in Croton, Magna Graecia, where he taught his students that the seven notes of the musical scale came from the sounds of the planets. The Pythagoreans believed that the motions of the seven planets produced the sounds and harmonies known as 'the music of the spheres'. Generally speaking, however, as Manly P Hall writes, Man fails to hear these divine melodies because he is unregenerate, bound up in the illusion of material existence, of temporality. “When he liberates himself from the bondage of the lower world with its sense limitations, the music of the spheres will again be audible as it was in the Golden Age.”9

Knowledge of ‘the seven heavens’ and their harmonies was retained in the sacred science of the hermetic tradition, to which the Pythagoreans clearly belonged. The messenger of the gods Hermes Trismegistus was the Greek equivalent of the older Egyptian deity Thoth; and it is said of Hermes that, “he bequeathed to posterity numbers, astronomy, astrology and music”10 among many other accomplishments. Adherence to this tradition continued in early Christianity. Irenaeus in particular is noteworthy for his outline of the body of ancient knowledge, fearful of its distortion and subsequent loss, despite the fact that the new religion, where Christ replaced Horus and Dionysius, was founded upon it. Irenaeus describes how the heavenly spheres, each assigned a Greek vowel from Alpha to Omega, produce a perfect harmony that ascends in praise to the throne of the Creator.11

Furthermore, 20th century space research indicates that the ancients were not mistaken. The sun continuously generates charged particles that form 'solar winds', which flow out and are modified as they come into contact with the planets. As there is no sound in space, the winds only become potentially audible when they meet the earth's magnetic field, which moves outward in circular movements, and again modifies the flow of this energy. The vibrations, or frequencies of the solar winds arriving from each planet, or directly from the Sun, vary according to the size and characteristics of the planet and its distance from the earth. Each planet, therefore, produces a different sound.

The twin spacecraft Voyager 1 and 2, launched by NASA in 1977, charted these solar winds as they passed by Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune (of which only Jupiter and Saturn formed part of the ancient solar system, however). A computerized synthesizer transformed these space pictures into sound. The listener hears and feels the distinctive sounds of these planets as the ebb and flow of tremendous forces; awe-inspiring, overwhelming, soaring and surging like the waves of a vast ocean, each with its own tone.

In addition, the rhythmic ebb and flow of such cosmic forces appears to have been the inspiration behind one of the world's first literary forms, the poetic couplets known as the 'parallelism of members'.12 This literary style is first seen in the Great Pyramid Texts in the fourth millenium BC “The sky weeps for thee, the earth trembles for thee” is an example of one such couplet, referring to the death of Osiris. The parallelism style displays the symmetry typical of pharaonic art and architecture as well as in the pairing of opposites evident, for example, in groupings of deities. This parallelism is seen throughout ancient Egyptian literature and reappears in the Old Testament Psalms. More recently, the English author Virginia Woolf adopted the form in her sublime novel entitled, appropriately, The Waves. Parallelism meets its musical counterpart in the antiphonal (call and response) manner of singing that also began in the sacred music of antiquity. Today, the Orthodox priests still chant in the antiphonal style.


Music for a Harmonious Life

“It was the Egyptians too who originated and taught the Greeks to use ceremonial meetings, processions and liturgies.”13

Pythagoras, by applying mathematics to music, sought to create perfect harmonies that echoed the orchestrations of the heavens. These harmonies were the fixed proportions of the diatonic scale, which reflected the ratios and proportions that Pythagoras observed in the seven planets.14 The contemplation of such compositions, according to the Pythagoreans, enabled individuals to live harmoniously within themselves and in unison with their communities. This concept was already apparent in ancient Egypt where music played an integral role in daily life as well as in the temples. The ancient Egyptians and Greeks alike taught their children through song. In addition, there were songs for battle and songs for work.

Ancient Egyptian culture and religion continually strived to retain its connection with the Divine order and harmony seen in the goddess Maat, who personified this principle.15 The composition of songs, both sacred and secular, if such a distinction existed, was always the preserve of the priests. The words and rhythms were as carefully chosen as the melodies (musical modes) and no deviation from the prescribed rules was allowed. Rhythms close to the heartbeat were thought to be the most beneficial, reflecting simple geometric forms like the cross. In fact, it is known today that rhythms counter to the heartbeat cause palpitations.

Plato, who according to Strabo, spent 13 years under the tutorship of Egyptian priests, culminating in his initiation into the Greater Mysteries inside the Great Pyramid,16 advocated the censorship of music in Greece, to allow only the most ennobling words, musical modes and rhythms, “for the whole life of man stands in need of harmony.”17

In the sixth century AD, Pope Gregory introduced Gregorian chant into the Roman Catholic Church, borrowing four musical modes from ancient Greece. Gregory's polyphonic plainsong retained the antiphonal style of the Greek modes together with the fixed harmonic proportions. The structure of the chants is symmetrical, each one beginning and ending on the same note. The symmetry, metre, and antiphonal style are all indications of a source of greater antiquity than the Greek musical modes.

Later, the 16th century Italian composer Palestrina brought the style to his own model of crisp perfection, and the German Henrick Shutz (1585-1672) enriched the ecclesiastical music of his own Church tradition with the Italian choral style. Shutz, thereby, paved the way for Bach, who discovered new harmonic possibilities within the ancient modes. Bach's magnificent oeuvre owes its glints of gold, it seems, as much to the patterns of the universe as to his own original genius. Gregorian chant influenced the classical music of all Europe to a greater or lesser degree. The metrical psalms, moreover, which were composed in metre for public worship and are still sung in Scotland today, owe something to the ancient modes.


The Art of Healing

Ancient Egyptian priests also utilised the creative quality of sound in healing, a practice they shared with physicians. The Greeks, including Asclepius and Pythagoras18, later adopted this practice. Before treatment, the physician or an assistant would shake the sistrum (a type of metal rattle originating in ancient Egypt) to a specific rhythm around the patient's body in order to release the negative forces, which were often understood as ‘evil spirits’. Having cleared the field, so to speak, the physician or priest would then observe the patient's aura. This ability to see the aura is not surprising when it is considered that both priests and physicians were renowned for their asceticism and wisdom. The definition of a true physician, given by the 16th century German physician Paracelsus, as a philosopher, astronomer, astrologer and alchemist combined, applied originally to the classical era. Man was seen as a microcosm or miniature, of the macrocosm, the cosmos.


By scrutinizing the seven layers of the aura, the physician was able to identify the part of the body that was malfunctioning, as each layer of the aura corresponds to one of the seven chakras, a term used in India. According to yoga philosophy, which has preserved such ancient Vedic tradition, the chakras are subtle force centres that control and vitalize the human body, and are thought to directly affect the endocrine system, which regulates the hormone secreting glands, as well as the blood and nervous system. Like the strings of the lyre, each chakra vibrates with its own particular 'sound', as the Pythagoreans noted when they compared the body to a musical instrument, strung to a certain pitch. When functioning normally, each of the seven chakras should resonate with the same frequency as the musical note and vowel sound associated with it. The root chakra, situated near the base of the spine, vibrates to the first note of the scale ‘do’ and the vowel oo; up through the next five chakras to the seventh one at the crown of the head, which vibrates to the musical note 'ti' and the vowel ee. Each chakra also corresponds to a planet and colour. The physician sang the appropriate note and vowel for the malfunctioning chakra, or alternatively plucked the strings of the lyre, so that the vibratory waves passed through the air and adjusted the chakra to its correct resonance, in much the same way as a musician tunes his instrument. Here again, we see evidence of the statement “as it is below, so it is above.”

1 Plato The Republic (Cornford translation)

2 The Coptic Orthodox Liturgy of St. Basil with Complete Musical Transcription (American University in Cairo Press (1998)

3 The Ancient Music of the Coptic Church, Ernest Newlandsmith (A published lecture delivered at the University of Oxford with transcribed samples of original melodies on May 21, 1931). Newlandsmith also transcribed the church music in seven unpublished volumes.

4 The Priests of Ancient Egypt Serge Sauneron (1960)

5 The Secret Doctrine H P Blavatsky (1888)

6,7 Both hymn extracts are quoted from Nauman's History of Music (1886)

8 Iamblicus Life of Pythagoras

9 The Secret Teachings of All Ages by Manly P Hall (founder of the Philosophical Research Society in Los Angeles, California (1928)

10 Cyril of Alexandria, quoted in Thrice-Greatest Hermes, G R S. Mead (1906)

11 Irenaeus Against Heresies

12 The Dawn of Conscience J H Breasted (1933)

13 Herodotus The Histories Book II

14 Censorius De die natali

15 The Egyptian Mysteries Arthur Versluis (1988)

16 The Secret Teachings of All Ages by Manly P Hall (1928) contains the following paragraph from a manuscript by Thomas Taylor: "Plato was initiated into the 'Greater Mysteries' at the age of 49. The initiation took place in one of the subterranean halls of the Great Pyramid in Egypt. The ISIAC TABLE formed the altar, before which the Divine Plato stood and received that which was always his, but which the ceremony of the Mysteries enkindled and brought from its dormant state. With this ascent, after three days in the Great Hall, he was received by the Hierophant of the Pyramid (the Hierophant was seen only by those who had passed the three days, the three degrees, the three dimensions) and given verbally the Highest Esoteric Teachings, each accompanied with its appropriate Symbol. After a further three months' sojourn in the halls of the Pyramid, the Initiate Plato was sent out into the world to do the work of the Great Order, as Pythagoras and Orpheus had been before him." Editor’s Note: This is an oft-repeated quote in esoteric publications - however this passage does not appear in any of Taylor’s published works, and while ancient sources certainly assert that Plato visited (and studied in) Egypt there is, as far as we know, no record of such precise details of Plato’s dealings with Egyptian initiations. Had there been reliable information about this Taylor would certainly have published it, but readers should treat this claim of a “Taylor manuscript” with caution.

 17 Plato’s Protagoras

18 see 8

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