The Life Force in Music

The Life-force in Music                                      – Paul Lawrence “If one should desire to know whether a kingdom is well governed, if its morals are good or bad, the quality of its music will furnish the answer.”



Turn on the radio to any station. What is the typical quality of our western music? And, using Confucius’ analogy, what does it say about the way we are governed?

Nearly 100 years ago Rudolf Steiner said, “A chaotic economic life without direction; a life of rights become a mere striving for power; a spiritual life degraded to hollow phrases: this is the threefold character of social life we have and of which we must rid ourselves.”

It seems we are not well-governed and that little has changed since Steiner said those words. Perhaps things have worsened since then.

What are some of the influences that have led to this culture’s demise in health?

There are many, of course, and they run so deep into the unconscious, that no government or health insurance slogan can ever hope to tackle them. We are, on the whole, such a ‘surface’ culture. We are not hard-wired to look deeply into problems nor to turn to religion or ideology for help. We are stuck.

This article will look at just one possible self-perpetuating part of the problem: the role of music in this culture. Music too is very sick in this culture and there is a correlation between people’s health and music’s health. If we heal the music, we heal the people. This fact alone is something we must bring into our awareness, out of the lull, the sleep or ignorance of our culture. The life-force in music does affect the life-force in people. 

Now I’ll pose a weird question: Is music good for us?  “Of course,” you say, as if programmed automatically to say so. Music must be good for us because it makes us feel good, right? But in light of the above quotes, perhaps you are having second thoughts.

Our times are filled with deception, ignorance and delusion. Sweets packed with carcinogenic chemicals make us feel good too- to start with, then comes the inevitable sickness; a binge in front of the telly makes us feel good, to start with… we switch off, enjoy the stimulation and let something else take over for a

while. Something enters our souls, and it isn’t always healthy.

How many of us are aware of what exactly is entering us when we have music on in the background, or even when we seriously/intentionally listen to it?

The fact is, most music has ceased to be an ‘alive force’, yet still gives the illusion of being so. Something enters us with the illusion of being full of life, yet, like the sweets or the TV, it’s actually deadening us. And the vicious circle begins: we want more life- so we eat more sweets, watch more TV, turn the music up louder. And so the sickness begins. An addiction to junk food, plasma tvs and loud techno music? Sounds like a typical family in your street! (but, of course, not yours!)

Acknowledging the sickness of our culture is one thing, healing it is another. How to embark on such a journey?

It is said that every journey begins with one step. Here are some steps I would take to heal our society through the medium of music, a way to halt the deadening forces and bring life back: healing sounds coursing through our body. I will look at the life force in tone colour, the life force in the performer, the life force in the tuning method, and the life force in the arrangement of the tones. Each topic will be more complex than the last, so stop where you want, or just chew off small bits at a time to slowly digest.

Life force in tone colour;

Classical musicians often speak of “tone colour” or timbre– the quality of sound, the richness or thinness, the boldness of a brass section or the mellowness of the lower string instruments, etc. You can, of course, go deeper than this. With heightened awareness, one can begin to identifying the objective feeling that each type of sound produces.

 In Goethean colour theory, we acknowledge that colour gives rise to a pure objective feeling- e.g. the boldness of red, the quick-minded curiosity of yellow. The ‘colour’ of sound affects us in a similar way. Now consider the purity of ‘visual’ colour you take in: to use the TV analogy again, are you aware that there is an extreme difference between colours produced digitally/electronically on a computer/tv screen and the ‘pure’ colour of a real sunset sky? A cheap photographic reproduction of the sunset doesn’t affect you in the same way as the real thing, but every year technology increases its art of deception, and the consumers flock to buy better cameras and bigger screens for their lounge rooms with even ‘richer’ colour. This result is a confused, unhealthy feeling life where we ask, what is real?

The same applies to electronically reproduced music. Billions of dollars are spent on the quest for perfect digital sound, but it still doesn’t compare to the resonant instrument right in front of you that you strum, strike, blow or bow: hollow chambers filled with sound; chambers of seasoned wood or polished fine metal resonate with our own inner chambers. Imagine a huge and beautiful cathedral filled with magnificent a capella singing.  We are that cathedral. Our hollow chambers (lungs, throats, sinuses) and stonework (organs, bones), resonate with something living and life-giving. An electronic signal transferred to a magnet and synthetic membrane gives us a close, but unfortunately dead illusion.

 One particular exercise Steiner recommended was to meditate on two plants: one dead, one alive- to gradually feel and become aware of, with new, as-yet-undeveloped organs – the life force inherent in them.  The same exercise could easily apply to two sounds- one dead (electronic/digital), one alive (acoustic); in fact, this exercise is a must for anyone wishing to embark on the musical healing journey. Learn the difference between alive and dead sound.

On another level, we can look at how real, acoustic instruments affect our life force in different ways. The sound of each instrument awakens in us something of the quality of the instrument’s material, whether wood, brass or plastic. Ancient man could strike two animal bones together and hear the deceased animal’s ‘story’ released from the physical bones into the ether through sound, but modern man is almost deaf to the subtlety of sounds. Seasoned wood on a violin sounds fuller than cheap unseasoned wood. A gold flute tingles the spine in a way that an inferior grade flute could never do.  It is as if a voice which has been stuck or enchanted in the physical world is suddenly released: gold is given a voice in the sound of a flute, a maple tree sings through a violin, and yes, the essence of ‘plastic’ is given a voice too in countless school recorders around the world! What happens if the majority of our music is from plastic instruments? We become desensitized to other sounds and to archetypal natural sounds. Each sound carries its material’s archetype to our ears, from there it enters and whispers its secrets to our souls: the secrets of gold, wood or bamboo become alive in us. We can learn the secrets of the world subtly but directly through sound, but only through real, live instruments.

 life force in the performer

So, if your local Steiner school tells you to go out and buy a hand-crafted pentatonic wooden flute for your child, lovingly made from a bio-dynamically grown pear tree in Sweden, you’ll understand why. Playing the devil’s advocate here, what would happen if the teacher of the ‘totally alive’ flute was a robot?

Have you ever been to a concert where the performers seemed disinterested, half asleep, underpaid, bored? How can anyone be enlivened by such music? (except perhaps in your imagination, but then why bother buying tickets for a concert if your imagination produces better music?!)

Truly, it is the performer’s integrity and intention as well as the instrument which the listener hears, and this comes from years of dedicated practice in mastering the instrument (and one soon learns that to master an instrument one must also master oneself). There is far too much robot music around, whether from stereos, ipods, plugged-in musical instruments or even ‘live’ performers who are just ‘making the moves’- they too are just as robotic! 

Do the live music vs. dead music meditation. Get inspired by a ‘live, unplugged’ musician who lives and breathes every phrase and nuance of his music and you should know and hear the difference.

Life force in tuning;

Even the best of intentions and the best quality instruments soon come to a crashing halt when the instrument itself is out of tune. What does it mean to tune an instrument? To make it go in tune… with what? How do you tune an instrument? What are you listening for? What are you tuning to?

I often get looks of awe from young children and even adults when I routinely tune my violin. I remind myself that it actually is a very mysterious process.

Many musicians like to use an electronic device to aid them in tuning an instrument. I prefer to use my ear. In this way, I am tuning the instrument first and foremost to myself. I am bringing the instrument into a relationship with myself. But how do I know I am in tune? How do I know my ear is right? Experience. Years of practice and ‘outer’ listening gradually form the capacity for ‘inner listening’ or ‘inner music’. It’s as if a subtle new internal organ is created- a musical organ, which would, for example, account for that mysterious ‘connection with the universe’ that musicians seem to have or the ‘synergy’ that musicians have when they play together. Musicians need to be in tune with themselves, with their instruments, indeed, with music itself.

This is essential, but the art of ‘being in tune’ goes deeper…, way deeper!

Tuning an instrument or singing ‘in tune’ can bring about a huge philosophical debate. Something like: well what exact mathematical frequencies are the ‘right’ ones to tune to anyway? Here we can say there are tuning methods which are more alive than others, depending on your point of view. Art and science meet at this point, as do mathematics and aesthetics.

There was a time when all of this was in balance and synthesis: the ancient Greeks, in fact, helped bring about this balance and introduced theories of tuning. They turned to mathematics and nature and found that their aesthetic sense of beauty could be reduced into simple, beautiful numbers and ratios.

Using a simple stringed instrument, Pythagoras measured the distance between two notes that sounded in harmony with one another. Invariably, when two notes sounded in harmony, their string lengths would form a simple ‘harmonious’ mathematical ratio. For example, if a string is stopped with a finger exactly half way along its length, the resulting sound will be one octave higher than the original full-length note. Musicians acknowledge this octave as the purest sounding of all intervals. It is produced using the simplest of all mathematical ratios, 1:2. Similarly, the ratio 2:3 produces

 the next purest harmony (a ‘fifth’), 2:4 produces an octave again, 4:

5 also sounds pure and pleasing, as does 2:3, 3:4, and so on. Intervals that are dissonant have complex ratios, for example the tritone, c – f sharp commonly

uses a ratio of 512:729. This interval has been avoided throughout history at all costs.

It is awkward geometrically and acoustically.

The ancient Greeks also found these simple harmonious ratios in nature, in the geometry of a leaf or flower, in a beautifully proportioned animal and particularly in the dimensions of the human body. They were also sure that the same harmonious ratios existed in the stars and planets; this is indeed the case. For the ancient Greeks the whole cosmos was proportioned mathematically and musically in simple harmonies. In fact for Pythagoras the world was a ‘sounding composition’.

The connection between music, nature and cosmos remained in human consciousness until the seventeenth century, when a decisive and highly significant event occurred: musicians changed the tuning system from one based on nature to one which supposedly allowed more musical exploration and creativity. This was called ‘equal temperament’ and allowed a subtle but profound ‘tempering’ of the tuning from pure to impure, so that all 12 keys could be played relatively ‘in tune’. In tune with what?

Certainly not in tune with nature, but more in tune with ‘itself’.  A new musical microcosm or paradigm had been invented, arising from human intellect, in the name  of creative freedom. Man had ‘liberated himself from the laws of nature’, if that was possible. To this day, any keyed instrument, from clarinet to xylophone to piano – will take this slightly impure, unnatural tuning as its reference.

When I tell people about the ancient connection between nature, the cosmos and music, they are awed and amazed; when I tell them that we have abandoned natural tuning- that our music is no longer in tune with nature, they stare in disbelief, “Why?”

In order to understand this, its worth having a brief look at what was happening historically. Interestingly, this new musical innovation arose at a time when man firmly believed that he could conquer and control nature. Previously, during Renaissance times, a sort of precarious balance existed in the human psyche between the perfection of man and the perfection of God. With the new Baroque period however, -a period of lavish opulence, grandeur and self-importance, the balance shifted decisively towards man. The church’s importance in Europe was greatly diminished. Instead, autocratic kings such as Loius XIV built lavish monuments to themselves and then pompously declared, “I am the state”. New discoveries and inventions gave credence to the thought that man could do anything he put his mind to, from conquering every continent in the world to measuring every second of time with a mechanical clock.

The gardens of Versailles with its carefully formed hedges and topiary and abandonment of anything wild reflected the belief that nature can and must be tamed, that the glory of man now out-shines even the beauty of nature.

Since this time, man has not ceased in his quest of knowing everything, taming, controlling and even manipulating nature for his own means. He has also steadily increased the ability to isolate his thoughts from the natural world around him. In fact increasingly more modern thoughts, systems and microcosms have very little grounding in nature whatsoever. I can, for example, have a serious relationship with a computer avatar- some have even tried to marry their computer generated ‘person’. Whole scientific endeavours can be based on things we cannot see, hear or touch

How much more removed from reality can our insatiable curiosity get us? We seem to be living in a bubble of our own creation, hovering above the natural world because we no longer find it relevant.

Musically too, man has explored every conceivable emotion and paradigm in the man-made bubble of twelve tempered tones. All this has been necessary for man to explore and experience his full potential. The thinking seems to be that

 if we remove ourselves from nature we will know ourselves better. Nature, it seems, is just an irrelevant backdrop.

Yet, something is plainly wrong when we look at the man-nature relationship today. Man’s isolation from nature has come with a price: the devastation of the very thing that gives him life. We have reached the point in time where we must change tack or we will not survive. There now seems to be a global realization that if the man-nature equilibrium is not addressed we will perish. We live in a physical body on a physical planet, both governed by natural laws, but in both science and music we are forgetting our roots in nature. Indeed, we are in danger of severing those roots altogether and dying of suffocation through our own ignorance.

If a musical instrument is tuned in ignorance to unnatural laws it perpetuates the fallacy that we can live without natural laws. If we continue to tune our music in this way we must cultivate far more awareness and responsibility. There should be an internal warning sign when we tune our pianos and guitars, something like: you are now leaving the laws of nature (natural tuning) and entering the zone of creative freedom. Do this for your fulfillment but at your own peril. Do this responsibly and do not neglect the laws which sustain your body and your planet.

And if all this sounds too much, take up singing instead. You have a much better chance of staying au natural.

And what about tuning in terms of life force? It seems to me that there is much life in exploring, discovering and creating using unnatural tuning, but there is implicit danger, as described above. Tuning unnaturally in ignorance will tend towards depleting the life force in us. Done consciously, it may enhance the life force. Natural tuning is already in tune with all life, it nourishes and supports life. And if natural tuning offers too little for the modern man in terms of outward expression, perhaps we should consider going inward instead, thereby uncovering the elements of life and music which are full of secrets and mystery, understanding the big-picture archetypes, going to the source. I believe this is necessary: necessary for musical and planetary healing to take place. We can and certainly should rediscover natural tuning and what it has to offer.

arrangement of tones. 

Let’s assume we have followed all of the above steps. Let’s take one more step.

The last and most complex layer of music I will discuss is the system of arranging tones, i.e. the choice of scale, mode or interval that gives music a certain archetypal sound.

Many Anthroposophical musicians, it seems, work with the theory born out of a few enigmatic words given by Rudolf Steiner, that each great civilization or epoch had at its root a particular sound interval which characterized and embodied that civilization’s qualities. In the Atlantean and Indian epochs it was the seventh (4:7); in the Persian/Mesopotamian it was the sixth (8:13); in Ancient Egypt/China it was the fifth (2:3); in Ancient Greece the fourth (3:4 and 8:11) and in our modern epoch it is the third (4:5).

For example, if we work imaginatively/artistically with the musical interval of the seventh, we will begin to live into an Atlantean consciousness. A feeling of timelessness pervades, our feet leave the ground, we hover above the earth in a sleepy/dreamy ‘paradise’, still unaware of the difference between good and evil, illusion and reality, today and tomorrow. Working with the qualities of the sixth, we feel closer to earth, with more sense of vertical dimension, but still not grounded. It is finally with the fifth of ancient Egypt that we begin to see the world outside and develop a new capacity to breathe it in and internalize it. An awareness of our physical selves and physical world gradually arises.

The ancient Greeks, according to Heiner Ruland in his book, “Expanding Tonal Awareness”, polarized  music into two distinct kinds: the outward looking ‘Apollonian’ style responsible for scale creation and further creative exploration; and the more mysterious, secretive, inward looking ‘Dionysian’. The former (Apollonian) developed music based on the 3:4 fourth, basically an inversion of the Egyptian fifth, with similar properties: an outward/inward awareness of the world. The fourth facilitated thinking about the world, something the Greeks loved to do.

The latter (Dionysian), according to Ruland saw the secret development of mystery schools with internal focus. The ancient Greeks thus stood at the midpoint between outward focused cosmic consciousness and inward focused microcosmic consciousness. According to Ruland, the first qualities to arise from within when working with the mysterious 8:11 fourth were compassion and love. This midpoint in human evolution where inward focus was born and an awareness of the compassionate Self, paved the way for the colossal event of Jesus Christ in the latter part of the Greco-Roman epoch.

To the modern observer, however, this secret fourth remains just that- secret, silent and absent from any historical records. Post Greco-Roman music seems to be still firmly anchored in the other fourth and old fifth (2:3:4). It was not until the Renaissance period that any significant development came along to challenge the rulership of the Egyptian fifth.

In Renaissance music, one particular note of the scale began to stand out and shine in the hearts and minds of spiritually advanced composers and listeners. The new golden quality of the third (4:5) heralded the birth of the individual. The glory of God could now be felt internally through love and compassion (since Greek times- interval 8:11) and shining through as the individual itself. The individual human could be conscious of his/her own divinity.

The glorious musical third must have been wondrous to behold in those times especially in the hands of masters such as Palestrina in the Renaissance, Bach in the Baroque period and Mozart in the Classical period. But I speak in the past tense, because something has happened in modern times to confuse and disorientate our appreciation of this interval, the glorious third. Perhaps through unnatural tuning, perhaps through other forces, the glorious third of individuality now sounds to us as sentimental or nostalgic individualism or immature egoism. If the Renaissance was our individuality’s birth, then we are still children or, at the most, egotistical teenagers caught up in the chaos and confusion of the modern world, as mega-star Taylor Swift so aptly describes in her hit song, “Shake it Up”:

I stay out too late
Got nothing in my brain
That’s what people say, mmm-mmm
I go on too many dates
But I can’t make them stay
That’s what people say, mmm-mmm

This is music of the major 3rd at its most naïve.

On the bright side, we are seeing increasing numbers of awake and mature beings whose individuality shines like a beacon, beckoning us to take the next step from ‘teenager’ to ‘adult’. Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi come to mind.

Coming back to the question of life-force then, how do we work with the arrangement of tones?

A highly advanced state of listening is required. A ‘clean-slate’, unprejudiced objectivity is needed so that the above secrets become revealed. One does not normally make the effort to cultivate such listening skill without good reason. The immense amount of work required must be considered as a service to humanity. A selfless approach will open up the doors to grace and the whisperings of the wise ones of the musical stratosphere. No doubt the direction will come, when the time is right, to use this knowledge for the purpose of uplifting others.

This is the ‘golden age’ of the third, the glorious Self, in which we can become conscious of the workings of the arts. When it matures, this Self will be able to rise above the old physically burdened paradigm and work uninhibited with the life force itself. An incredible power will be unleashed: and it is this power which is said will herald the next phase of musical development: the interval of the second.

It is tantalizing to note our journey thus far. It has come down the scale from the octave (Lemurian), seventh (Atlantean), sixth (Chaldean), fifth, (Egyptian), fourth (Greek), to the third (European Renaissance). Our task now is to gather ourselves for full understanding and expression of our evolution, sure in the understanding that an enlightened future awaits us, in the interval of the second and the prime, as soon as the present is complete!

Life force in music is elusive to most people. Yet it is the key to the future evolution of this most powerful art form. Music shapes us on every level. And we have the freedom to shape music itself, and thereby, the freedom to shape our own destiny.

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