Sound has been a source of divine inspiration since the beginning of time and has been regarded as the very foundation of creation by many traditions. Archeological records indicate that all ancient cultures developed orthodox musical systems based on a pentatonic scale. While there might be a supernatural or metaphysical connection to account for how so many far-flung cultures came to this same conclusion, there is a very simple and down to earth explanation for it as well. The notes were derived from the naturally occurring harmonics inherent to sound itself.
Pythagoras was among the first recorded in the Western world to have established a mathematical basis for the natural harmonic series. He was also the first to tweak the tuning of an instrument in such a way that eventually led to the divorce of Western music tunings from these harmonics. By contrast, ancient Eastern culture adhered to the natural harmonics and chose to remain true to the Kung, or cosmic tone of the universe.
The ancient Chinese were meticulous in recording their astronomical observations. Like Pythagoras, they also found the mathematical underpinnings of music. But, unlike Pythagoras, they correlated these musical patterns to those they found in the cosmos, which were slightly irregular in their repetition. This is an important point because it exemplifies one of the main philosophical differences in Eastern and Western thought.
Pythagoras preferred a two-thirds division on a string to show an orderly, mathematical progression of the harmonic series. After seven such divisions, twelve distinct notes were produced. This was akin to the seven known planets traveling through the twelve zodiacs. He displayed these ratios geometrically in a circle. Upon the thirteenth division, the cycle was supposed to repeat, but it didn’t. That next note is actually just a little sharp, or higher in pitch, than the original note. This became known as the “comma of Pythagoras”. Because of his preference for symmetry, Pythagoras chose to de-tune the scale a bit so that all twelve notes would fit into one octave and the entire progression would fit perfectly into a circle. This became known as the Circle of Fifths.
The ancient Chinese also discovered this problem, but they chose to deal with it quite differently. In keeping with their belief that everything follows its own Tao, they elected not to confine the pattern to a perfect circle. Instead, they displayed it as an expanding spiral. This was also in accordance with their observations of the planets, which did not orbit in perfect circles either.
Because their tunings stayed true to the natural harmonic series, the Chinese developed linear styles of play in which one note was followed by another in serial fashion and the chord progression was built-up in the memory of the listener. So, in Eastern music, listening is not a passive act. It requires focus and paying attention to detail.
In stark contrast to these ideas, Western music became vertical with many notes stacked on top of one another and played simultaneously. The chords allowed the music to be delivered all at once so, the listener had little responsibility to pay attention or be patient for the whole of the sound to be delivered. This basic difference in philosophy can also be seen in the contrasting ways the East and West developed medicine and science in general.
Dividing a string is not the only way to experience the harmonic series. Let’s take a mythical journey back to a time when humans lived in caves and imagine how sound might have become sacred music in the first place. Caves are reverberant spaces. The hard, smooth rock walls would reflect or echo any sound produced inside the cave. Never having heard an echo, Bruno, our first-time cave dweller, was disconcerted by this phenomenon every time he made a sound and thought perhaps other people or creatures in the cave had created them. He eventually determined it was the sound of his own voice. As part of a ritual blessing, he made sounds and gestures to ward off any harmful spirits in his new home. Then, to encourage beneficial spirits to protect him, he made one long sustained sound. Suddenly the faint echo of women’s voices began to emerge from the cave. This startled Bruno, but he accepted it as the voices of the spirits who had answered him. What our mythical Bruno experienced might well have been the beginnings of musical harmony.
Sounds of a certain pitch correspond to waves of a certain length. If the wavelength of the sound Bruno created was the same as the distance between two walls of the cave, a standing wave would have been created. If sufficiently energized, the second harmonic of that wave would have been produced, which was the octave. Because it was higher than his own voice, Bruno may have thought it to be a woman or a spirit.
Other harmonics can be produced in this manner. In fact, the interiors of several gothic cathedrals and other temple structures are designed specifically to enhance the production of harmonics and simulate the ethereal sounds of angels or other heavenly beings. This type of rich harmonic environment is also why it just feels good to sing in the shower.