Sound Vibrations & The Brain: New Connections & Paradigms

Pythagoras and the “Great Mutation”

“[Pythagoras] extended his ears and fixed his intellect in the sublime symphonies of the world, he alone hearing and understanding, as it appears, the universal harmony and consonance of the spheres and the stars that are moved through them and which produce a fuller and more intense melody than anything effected by mortal sounds.” (Iamblichus)

If this passage is true, it seems likely that Pythagoras was aware of supra-rational vibrational hearing. Paradoxically, he was also the first music theorist. In attempting to rationalize and codify into a theoretical framework, the teachings of various mystery schools of which he was an initiate, and correlate numerical and formal principles to those teachings, he set off a chain of events that lead directly to advent of polyphony, equal temperament, and the harmonic principles which constitute current western music tradition. The attempted demystification of music by Pythagoras, and its consequent misinterpretation by Greek physicists severed the link between supra-rational vibrational hearing and intellectual, or rational hearing.

The “Great Mutation” was, according to composer Dane Rudhyar, a “planet-wide endeavor to introduce a new type of mentality during the period beginning with 600 B.C….brought about by the disintegration of tribal social organizations. “ (Rudhyar p.117) The restructuring of social and political systems focused on individualistic and objective modes of thinking, and were thus more intellectual and abstract. The “Great Mutation” originated in Classical Greece, where rationalism gradually replaced mysticism. According to Rudhyar, the “deeper layers of meaning” preserved in mystery schools of Egypt and the Near-East were lost in this mutation. Essentially, the “Great Mutation” severed the “supra-rational” mind from the rational mind. A corresponding chasm was ripped between the supra-rational receptor for vibration, and the rational faculties of hearing. The “Great Mutation” then represents a fork in the path of Oriental(non-western) and Occidental (western) music theories.

“[For Pythagoras,] numbers and Forms referred to archetypal realities and universal principles on which the structures of all existential wholes were built. From these Numbers were derived musical proportions and essential relationships between tones. Pythagoras was undoubtedly able to use such tones and melodic sequences for healing of body and soul, and for the harmonizing of irrational and discordant emotions. “ (Rudhyar, P 129)

Pythagoras wanted to define the musical cosmos in one neat little package we now call a scale, and base it on mathematical proportions derived from an ascending perfect 5th progression, but limited for metaphysical reasons to 2 octaves. At this time, music was based on melody which was essentially vocal, and intuitive, but the subject of how to build scales was a huge topic of scientific and metaphysical inquiry. (For an indepth explanation of scales and intervals, see Daniélou)

“The Greeks received all the elements of their musical system from Egypt and the Near-East, a fact that they never attempted to conceal. Where they really showed their originality was in their physicists attempt to explain the laws of that music with the help of a theory they had received from another source, and in reality was applicable to another system. Since the physicists’ theory could never coincide with the system as used by the musicians, many compromises had to be invented. This explains the multiplicity of combinations and ratios proposed for each mode according to the inventiveness of the physicists.” (Daneliou p 94)

Living at a time when individuals were struggling to reconcile their mystical roots with the new systems of rationality, what emerges is the confused and chaotic system of music attributed to the Greeks. Rudhyar illustrates the genealogy of these ideas into the middle ages:

“Pythagoras appears to have been a link between the archaic traditions of Greek mysticism ( the most well-known expression of which were the Eleusinian Mysteries which persisted throughout the history of Greek culture) and the type of rationalistic thinking we find in Plato – a thinking which was brought to a far more intellectualistic and analytical level by Aristotle, who in turn deeply influenced the basic character of the most official type of European mentality during and after the Middle Ages.” (Rudhyar p 121)

Temporal Perception

The tonal system surely has its roots in Greece, but it grew up in Europe and was molded by parallels in socio-political events. Rudhyar goes as far as stating:

“In developing the tonal system and pushing it to its inevitable conclusion– the practice of “transposing” themes, chords and developments from one “key” to another, the complex rules of “modulation” and the problem of “temperament”– European music has encountered problems which parallel most significantly those experienced by European society at the level, first, of interpersonal relationships within the small family unit, then, of political and social organization within the “sovereign State.” (Rudhyar p112)

If we are to accept the possibility that sonic phenomena can stimulate centers in the mind, it follows that artificial systems of temperament may have unpredictable effects on individuals and ultimately societies. Furthermore, there are other consequences of equal temperament that are easier to define. The composer Iannis Xenakis describes it thus:

“Ancient music relies on pitch scales and tetrachords which are free of temporal ordering [and] is Outside-Time; Western music based on tonality is subjected to a system of temporal durations, intervals, successions, and is therefore classed In-time. The development of polyphony with its reliance on temporal parameters is seen as regressive and impoverished in respect to scales.” (Matossian p. 172)

It has been said that listening to certain classical music before taking a math test can help you do better. This must be partially attributed to its being “In-Time” and the fact that the rhythmic organization into Meter creates a “patterned succession of accented timepoints.” (Kramer, p 83) The varying stresses of these timepoints create a hierarchical geometric graph along the temporal continuum. Perception of the different layers of meter tap into and excite the intellectual and rational mind.


Vibration and music were inseparable to the ancients, and are inseparable in most non-western music forms. In this century in the West there have been composers who sought to bridge the chasm. Harry Partch, and Dean Drummond have invented instruments to carry out their musio-vibrational aspirations while others such as Lou Harrison, LaMonte Young, and Giacinto Scelsi extended the techniques used on existing instruments to create immensely powerful, original and effective music.

Microtonal music, or music that rejects the tempered scale used in western music is gaining popularity and acceptance in concert halls and universities, and is being used in rock, jazz, folk and experimental music. This new acceptance shows an increased awareness and sensitivity to intervals, and is the first step in reuniting vibration and music in the West. These developments may illumine the “connection between physical reality and metaphysical principles [which] can be felt in music as nowhere else, and [why music was] was therefore justly considered by the ancients as the key to all sciences and arts–the link between metaphysics and physics through which the universal laws and their multiple applications could be understood. “(Daniélou p1.)

Next: Notes, Credits & Resources »

  1. Sound Vibrations & The Brain: New Connections & Paradigms
  2. Chakras
  3. Pythagoras and the “Great Mutation”
  4. Notes, Credits & Resources