Life is Music: A Vedic View of Music
Inspired by Maharishi
"What is most intimate to life is the evolutionary process, the process
of creation, the performance of creative intelligence. When we hear music,
we find that the background of sound is maintained and the foreground of
sound comes up-some sharp notes on the background of some lull-maintaining
the continuity of melody and binding together in harmony the single notes
that come up as waves on the silent bed of the ocean. This is precisely
the creative process. The wholeness of Being in its eternal silence warms
up and produces the background of the music of life, and on the foreground
of Being spring up the waves of relativity, waves of life. Each wave has
a tendency to rise and fall, and in this rise and fall is the progress of
music. The music of life is the rise and fall of the impulses of relativity
on the background and foreground of eternal silence of the Absolute. So
music reminds us of what one is; it displays the story of life. When one
finds what one actually is, one is attracted to it. Whether one is aware
of it or not, the reality of life is found in music and therefore it is
natural that music should have a universal attraction."
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi
Connectedness. These days there is a growing experience of the interconnectedness
of everything with everything else. Perhaps an exploration of the relationship
of music and consciousness can help us understand this experience of deeper
levels of reality.
According to both ancient Vedic texts and the latest superstring theories
of quantum physics, the world is sound or, in Sanskrit, Nada Brahma. Everything
is vibrating, not incoherently but in highly ordered harmonic relationships.
According to the familiar structure of the harmonic overtone series, the
periodic vibration of a medium produces a fundamental tone which contains
within it an infinite series of overtones. In addition, each overtone can
itself be considered a fundamental tone with an infinite overtone series
of its own. The picture is one of an infinite matrix of harmonic vibration.
Not only is everything in creation vibrating but every vibration contains
all others! The relationships between the overtones in the series described
above are not chaotic but are organized in a beautiful sequence of whole
number ratios; 1\:2, 2\:3,3\:4. This is because the medium, for example
a piano string, is not only vibrating as a whole but is also vibrating as
if divided into halves, thirds, fourths, etc., on to infinity. If the frequency
of the fundamental tone (called "1" in the series) is vibrating
at 100 cycles per second, then the frequency of the next overtone, "2",
would be 200cps or twice that of the fundamental; "3"= 300cps,
"4"= 400cps, etc. Since everything is vibrating and every coherently
vibrating entity has its own infinite harmonic series, there is an unlimited
range of possible relationships in creation.
Some of the relationships are numerically very complex and others remarkably
simple. From the macrocosm to the microcosm, the general tendency seems
to be towards the simpler or "consonant" low whole number relationships
and those that we would identi}
The German musicologist Wilfried Kruger discovered that the eight electrons
of the oxygen atom shell and the eight protons of the nucleus of the oxygen
atom generate a major scale with the spins of the particles delineating
the half tones and whole tones. According to the work of the famous astronomer,
Johannes Kepler, certain proportions of the elliptical orbits of the planets
correspond beautifully to the simpler relationships naturally found in the
overtone series. These same harmonic relationships are found not only throughout
nature but also at the basis of the most successful human constructs such
as classical Greek architecture.
The simplest relationship between two overtones in the series is 2\:1 or,
in musical terms, the octave. A closer look at this most fundamental tonal
relationship may shed more light on inter-connectedness. When two or more
entities are vibrating sympath etically, this is known as resonance. An
easy way to observe this phenomenon is to gently depress and hold down any
key, say C, in the upper range of the piano (without letting the hammer
actually strike the string), then forcefully strike the same note several
octaves lower and listen. As the loud sound of the lower note dies out,
the vibration of the same note value several octaves higher can easily be
heard. By gently depressing and holding down the piano key, the damper is
lifted from the string, allowing it to freely vibrate in resonance with
the lower note. All the notes with the same name within the playable range
of an instrument are related to each other using various multiples of this
2\:1 relationship and will therefore vibrate in sympathy with each other.
Through this principle of resonance, any periodic vibration creates sympathetic
responses throughout creation.
Usually we define sound as what human beings are capable of hearing, e.g.
approximately 20cps-20,000cps. Light is comprised of a much higher range
of frequencies, again defined by the limitations of human sense perception.
The reality is that the whole of the manifest creation is one infinite harmonic
overtone series. We appreciate certain segments of it with our different
senses and then give them names like sound, light, taste, touch, etc. The
aspect of interconnectedness can be found in the 2\:1 relationship which
gives rise to resonance throughout the infinite range and combinations of
vibrations of creation.
So far we've been considering the diversity of vibration of the manifest
creation. What about the non-vibrational unmanifest value of life? What
about the eternal silence of the ocean of conciousness? Just like the ocean,
life is found in layers. Even though there may be tremendous activity on
the surface with the rise and fall of huge waves, at its depth the ocean
is still, silent. The non-vibrating silence of unmanifest pure conciousness
is not a void, not a dead emptiness, however. It is pregnant with the infinite
dynamism of all possibilities. Vedic texts refer to sound as "ahata"
or "heard sound", and "anahata" or "unheard sound".
"Ahata" refers to all the manifest sounds in creation and "anahata"
refers to the lively yet still unmanifest potentiality that gives rise to
these sounds. Perhaps one way to conceive of creation is that the whole
thing is an infinite harmonic overtone (and perhaps undertone!) series based
on the "unheard" fundamental tone of unmanifest pure conciousness;
the cosmic hum of the universe itself.
Now that we've very briefly considered the apparent musical structure of
creation and suggested that this resonating structure may have something
to do with interconnectedness, let's now specifically address the role of
music in human life; past, present. In the great ancient cultures of India,
China, and Greece, the understanding of the transformational power of music
and its role in society was much more developed than it is today. The master
musicians of the Vedic civilization were also enlightened masters or rishis
whose conciousness was completely in tune with all the laws of nature that
govern the entire creation. They truly exemplified the meaning of the Sanskrit
aphorism "Aham brahmasmi"; "I am the totality". Not
only did they intellectually understand the underlying musicality of the
structure of the cosmos, they lived and breathed it, and were thereby able
to cognize and produce music of a particularly celestial nature. There are
stories in certain Vedic texts, called Puranas, that describe musicians
who could melt rocks and change water into fire; such was their mastery
of the relationship of certain musical elements with specific transformative
laws of nature. It was understood that in order to insure the harmonius
interaction and evolution of all life, certain families of pandits would
regularly and continually chant the hymns of the Veda and perform various
rituals; activities that were known to enliven and resonate with natural
Vedic musicians known as gandharvans intuitively knew which rhythms and
melodies to play at the various times of day and at seasonal junctures to
help facilitate the smooth functioning of the government of nature. Melodies
were cognized to insure rain in time, abundant crops, general prosperity
and the maintenance of peace.
In ancient China, certain sages were responsible for the cognition of a
fundamental tone called the "kung", which was considered to be
nothing less than a bridge between the celestial scales of heaven and scales
used on earth (overtones and undertones?}. So central was this concept in
the culture that the length of bamboo used to make a flute that could produce
a tone identical to the kung was also used as a standard unit of measure
(like a yardstick) and was capped and used as a unit of volume (like } As
in Vedic culture, musicians were restricted to constructing melodies using
specific tones for certain seasons and times of day because aberrant tones
were known to cause all kinds of problems in the society as a whole. It
was common for the emperor to bring his most enlightened court musicians
with him on visits to the various provinces. The first thing he would do
on arriving in a particular province would be to check the tuning of the
local court musicians with that of his own. If the provincial kung was in
tune with the royal kung then, even without further inquiry, the emperor
knew that all was well in that particular province. However, if the provincial
musicians were out of tune with the royal kung (and thereby with heaven!)
then it was certain there would be all kinds of local problems.