The Spiritual Meaning of Music, From Ancient Greece to Today

In Ancient Greece, music was the gift of the Muses to man. The Muses were the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, and all knowledge and art were under their dominion. They were the sponsors and protectors of mousikai, an integral part of the fabric of everyday life, which was comprised of singing and lyrics, and the Όρχισης (Orchisis)—an organized group of dancers. The term mousikai is used in order to distinguish from what today we call “music” – the science and art of organized sound.

Besides a cultural practice, mousikai was also a means to higher levels of consciousness through the art of sacred geometry, placing it in the sphere of the divine. In Greek antiquity, the Olympian god Apollo is directly connected with the Muses and with mousikai as a divine art. He is represented as their leader in dance and song, and given the epithet mousagetes (leader of the muses), as the historian Pausanias informs us in his “Description of Greece.”

In the Homeric hymn to Hermes, we learn that Apollo’s brother, god Hermes, was the inventor of the first lyre (stringed instrument) and one that he later gave to him in exchange for his heraldic staff (the Caduceus). Within the Greek tradition, the succession of the passing of the lyre does not end here. It continues with god Apollo giving his lyre to the great theologian, musician, and mystic Orpheus, who was the son of the Thracian king Oeagros (alternate versions give Apollo) and the muse Calliope.

The message of this succession of the instrument from the god Hermes to Apollo and later to Orpheus is clear: music is a divine gift from the gods to men. The significance of this event is enormous: we can now place music in the terrestrial plane, our earthly world. Evidence of this can be found in four separate stories surrounding Orpheus, who, as the son of Apollo and a Muse, is portrayed with musical powers that one might call almost shamanistic. As the scholar M.L. West summarizes:

  1. Birds and animals came to hear him perform, rivers stayed in their courses, even the rocks and trees came sidling down the mountain.
  2. He took part in the Argonautic expedition and saved the Argonauts from the seductions of the Sirens by outsinging them.
  3. He prevailed upon the infernal powers of Hades.
  4. He was assassinated by a party of Thracian women (apparently as the men sat entranced by his music). They cut off his head, but it continued to sing.

From the above narrative, the connection between music and nature becomes visibly evident. In these themes, music is not only part of, but also exercises a “direct influence on nature or the spirits that govern natural phenomena.” It should be clear by now that music has transformed, through mythology and tradition, from a mere cultural practice to an avenue of communication between deity, man, and nature.

In the mystical tradition of ancient Greece, it is the “eleusis” (coming) of the soul that gives life to the mortal body upon the sacred union of the two. That bond is broken only when the life cycle is fulfilled either by natural causes or otherwise. According to the same tradition, seven energy centers are embedded within the soul and are very similar to the Hindu Chakras. These centers are connected with the ethereal body, as well as with the physical body. In iconography, they can be identified as the seven strings of the lyre of Apollo, which when he strums them, causes them to vibrate thus creating divine harmony on a cosmic scale, as well as within the mind-body-soul relationship. It is through that harmonious relationship (equilibrium) and deeply within the three-fold human condition described above, that the soul is able to progress and finally achieves deification.

Ideas such as these were held in high regard by the great philosophers Pythagoras and Plato, and in their hands became powerful agents of the art of sacred geometry. While Pythagoras of Samos is known as the father of mathematics, he was also a propagator of musikai, and his influence extends to religion and music theory. Pythagoras approached music from three different angles: the skill displayed on an instrument by a performer, the harmonic or non-harmonic relationship between the soul and the body, and his cosmic concept, what he called “the Music of the Spheres.”

For those not familiar with the term, “Music of the Spheres” is a concept based on the fusion of harmonic ratios and metaphysics. To put it plainly, Pythagoras equated musical harmony with cosmic harmony. He believed the earth to be the symbolic center in a sphere with fixed stars, with the sun, moon, and planets revolving around and producing musical tones due to their revolution. In addition, the distances between the heavenly bodies were associated with harmonic ratios producing harmony on a cosmic scale.

In his Republic, Plato calls attention to the inherent ethos of musical modes and rhythms, and how they relate to human behavior and virtue. In the dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon, Socrates makes a point that out of all the musical modes there are only two that are of value to us, the Dorian and the Phrygian:

One violent and one free, so they will imitate as much as possible the sound of those who act with decency and bravery and in their misery or happiness, you should allow only those to be.

Here, Socrates makes very clear the ethical implications concerning the musical modes, and this should not be taken lightly. He was not known to be a person of superstition, but a person of logic, honesty, and clarity of thought.

Even though it is my personal belief that there is, to a large degree, discontinuity with our ancestors and their many approaches to music (at least in the West), I also believe that there is much hope for improvement and adaptation. In a technologically driven world such as the one we live in, technical perfection is not enough for our soul’s progress. We need to truly utilize the aesthetic beauty of music to adorn that temple not made by hands. The higher and more esoteric associations of mousikai with the world above allude to more than just a romantic trip through mythological themes and traditions. While they are surely meant to keep the profane out, to the worthy seeker, they are also meant to initiate admiration, contemplation, and hard work. There is much to be gained here below, if we can regain our cultural memory loss.

Music should not be reduced to a tool for commercial use, neither a platform for politics, competition, nor recognition of the “ego” in our society. The main purpose and essential value of music in our time has not changed since classical Greece, despite the various technical, philosophical, and educational approaches that have emerged over the ages. It remains a vessel of myriad cultural practices and traditions inherited from our ancestors.

As it does not rely on ideology, music is imbued with ethos, strong aesthetics, and universality. When used appropriately, music becomes a tool for the harmonization of all parts that comprise the soul, and as such adorns it like a beautiful garment. Across the ages, it has proven to be an undisputed agent of personal and socio-cultural change, shaping entire eras. A source of mathematical intelligence, internal healing, and a divine art by tradition, music is given to us from above here below, so we can find the strength to look above again and thank thee for their divine gift.

Tony Crisos is a guitarist, educator, philosopher, and esoteric arts practitioner, born in Greece and now living in the USA.
Tony Crisos is a guitarist, educator, philosopher, and esoteric arts practitioner, born in Greece and now living in the USA.

3 thoughts on “The Spiritual Meaning of Music, From Ancient Greece to Today

  1. Versions of the myths I’ve read say the Thracian women who killed Orpheus were Maenads at the height of their frenzy in the Dionysian rites…yet his head continues to sing. Could this say something about the mix of both the Apollonian and Dionysian elements found in truly good and moving music?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Jenny, this is a great question which I will try to answer to the best of my ability. From a historical perspective, it’s an allusion to the story of Greek colonization and the building of sanctuaries, and oracles in the region. It also implies the spreading of the mystical rites of the Orphic tradition to various places. In relationship to music, it denotes how sacred and central music was to the Orphic rites, especially the Dionysian dithyramb and the Apollonian paean. Beyond that, the Greeks allowed a lot of room for interpretation in their rites and mythology. Every region had their own variation of the myth, and they were all valid since they were tied to local traditions across different eras. So by all means, the answer to your question is yes, if this is how you interpret it.

      Liked by 1 person

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