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THE MAGIC OF TONE
and the Art of Music
by Dane Rudhyar
1982






Chapter 2

Sound as Carrier-Wave for Tone

As an objective and measurable phenomenon, sound is produced and transmitted by the vibration of matter at its molecular level. For human beings as presently constituted, vibrations perceptible as sounds extend from a low frequency of about 16 vibrations per second to a high of about 25,000. These sound vibrations come from a material source which must be sufficiently elastic to vibrate to and fro, and they are transmitted by pressure waves affecting the molecules of a transmitting medium. Air is the usual medium for acoustical phenomena, but water and solid substances also can convey sound waves to the ear or to any part of an organism that can react to them and transmit them to an auditory center capable of interpreting them and, in many cases, of inferring the nature of their source. Setting in motion a source of sound requires an expenditure of energy. The release of energy is made possible by a state of tension in the producer of the sound.
      According to the most recent findings of science as well as to many of the ancient interpretations of natural phenomena, motion exists everywhere, but the speed of the movement that is, the frequency of a complete oscillation (or period) of the movement can vary immensely. Molecular motion is far slower than the motions of atoms and particles within atoms. The vibrations to which our eyes react and which the consciousness in the visual centers of the brain interprets as light are far more rapid than those interpreted by our auditory centers as sound; they extend from a low point of about 450 billion vibrations per second to a high of about 750 billion. While sound has a molecular basis, light and other types of vibrations involve the vibratory motion of atomic particles. To think of sound, radio waves, light, and x-rays as different levels (or "octaves") of frequencies adequately defined by mere numbers may be intellectually and analytically justifiable, but it makes little sense in terms of human consciousness and vital responses. Ultrasounds exist beyond the range of perception of our ears or auditory centers, but even if their frequencies were greatly increased, they would never become colors. The connection some people perceive between sounds and colors stems from their subjective psychic responses to sound and color, but it does not refer to objective periodical motions transmitted to the consciousness by two entirely different means of perception, each related to particular kinds of nerve activity and organic responses.
      In most ancient cosmologies with a metaphysical foundation that is, that speak of a transcendent, spiritual realm of being antedating material existence and becoming a release of sound is said to cause the "precipitation" of the Forms of a spiritual realm (noumena and archetypes) into the objective, perceptible, and measurable materials constituting the foundations of existential entities. Hindu metaphysics and cosmologies speak of the primordial creative Sound AUM as the power that gives birth to the many worlds of existence. (1) In Genesis, Elohim (the plural God, creator of the universe) said, "Let there be light: and there was light." The saying refers to the release of a creative power which should be thought of as Sound in its spiritual or spirit-emanated aspect. The result of the divine utterance is light. Sound therefore precedes light. (2)
      Metaphysically, Sound refers to the release of a power that, as it were, precipitates the divine Idea into material, objective manifestation. On the other hand, at the early stage of the creation process to which Genesis 1:3 refers that is, before the sun and moon appear the term light symbolizes the conscious mind operating in terms of duality: the most basic and primordial dualism a human being experiences is that of light and darkness. Thus, while light symbolizes the emergence of the objective consciousness it makes possible, Sound refers to the operation of the creative will.
      We are normally aware of light only to the extent it is reflected by some material substance, including the atmosphere. Reflected light makes us conscious in a certain manner of an external world of objects extended in space. Similarly, what we call sound (sound as vibration of molecular matter) may have to be understood as the repercussion of dynamic currents of energy upon the matter it sets vibrating. This energy is that of the creative will as it makes an essentially qualitative impact upon molecular substances like the air, which in turn transmit the impact to the resonating mechanisms of the human ear.
      In ancient India, sound was believed to exist in two forms. Physically perceptible sound vibrations were termed ahatta. An inaudible, spiritual kind of Sound, to which in special conditions the nonphysical aspects of the human consciousness could resonate, was called anahatta. Anahatta Sound should be understood as the power of the divine will, which sets in motion the proto-matter of chaos (Genesis's "dark waters of space," the medieval alchemists' prima material. This creative Sound makes matter spin into vortices of motion.
      Atoms spin and so do planets. Cosmic Sound is the power that generates the rotative motion of every globular form of existence. (3) As a creative, spirit-emanated power it should be considered a descending movement, because we instinctively consider matter heavy, inert, resistant, and the lowest aspect of being. Matter has to be moved by "higher" forces. In its primordial aspect cosmic Sound is such a force. At the biological level, Sound may refer to what powers human nerve activity as an expression of the will. It is through the use of that power that a human being's will can effect the contraction of muscles and produce physical acts. There is an organismic, biological, and unconscious will, which we call instinct, and a conscious, self-motivated, and self-directed will. Between these two levels of will are also what we call emotions (literally, a moving out). Emotions can also arouse muscular movements, although we may not be aware of many of them. Swayed by various kinds of emotions, a person makes gestures and performs instinctual or determined acts.
      The capacity of music to arouse emotions or more strictly speaking, to arouse feelings which induce emotions is quite evident, even in Western culture, which has thoroughly intellectualized music. (4) This power of music is stressed and discussed at great length in many ancient books from China, India, and Pythagorean Greece. So also is the power of sound to heal and reinvigorate an organism-by which I mean the mental and emotional components of a person as well as his or her physical body. (5)
      Will and Sound, however, have a neutral character. Traditional occultism and magic stress that behind will stands desire. Behind will is not only desire and biological and psychological needs demanding satisfaction but also ideas seeking realization. Will and Sound are vehicles for concretizing or exteriorizing needs, emotions, ideas, and subjective states of being or consciousness in general. Will and Sound are carrier-waves, bringing what is potential into a condition of actualization and effectual manifestation. Whatever will and Sound carry gives them a specific character, which involves both an implicit purpose and a latent meaning. This character imbues sounds with the quality of tone. Similarly, the activity of the will carries to the physical mechanisms of the body what we call a decision to move in a particular direction, toward or away from a particular goal.
      As Sound and will are neutral, they can be used for destructive (or catabolic) or constructive (anabolic) purposes. Sound may kill as well as heal. Some of the Japanese martial arts train one to produce a deep, very intense shout that is intended to kill one's opponent. This sound is a vocal tone. It is a tone and not merely a sound because it carries a definite intent and purpose. It projects and communicates at the physical-biological level the conscious will to kill. It is a vocal tone endowed with magical power.
      The word tone has several meanings, which should be differentiated for clarity's sake. In musical theory, the term tone defines an interval that is, the relationship between two successive steps in a kind of abstract ladder of sounds called a scale. Between the ends of the ladder are tones and semitones; quarter tones are sometimes distinguished, too. We also speak of the particular tone of a musical instrument and of low and high, loud and soft tones. In these cases, tone refers to the frequency and intensity of sounds. The word tone also has nonmusical meanings. One speaks of the tone of a person's muscles and of the tone of a particular society's morals. In pharmacy some substances are called tonics. In these cases, tone refers to the capacity of an organism, a person, or a whole society to mobilize its energy in response to challenges, or merely to maintain itself adequately in a range of circumstances. Tone then is almost synonymous with potency. A state of tension is also implied, as a violin string needs to be stretched and tensed in order to produce tones. Whatever is too relaxed lacks tone.
      Metaphysically the most fundamental tension is that between spirit and matter or in the "philosophy of Wholeness" I have developed, the tension between the Principle of Unity and the Principle of Multiplicity. (6) The universe is the product of a creative release of power this tension generates. In terms of pure energy, this creative release is Sound. Because it communicates or carries out to the inert expanse of chaos (pure matter) the compassionate quality and purpose of spirit as the expression of the Principle of Unity, which religions personify as God, Sound manifests to the consciousness of spiritually illumined beings as one Fundamental Tone. It is the Tone of the One Life that fills the entire universe One Life because it carries out the purpose of the Principle of Unity, or as mystics say, of "the One."
      This One Life has the essential characteristic of motion. It operates in terms of what we experience as change. Human consciousness in its early stages, confused by the complexity and apparent unpredictability of the happenings the senses register, interprets change as the effect of random motion, as the play of chance. Gradually, however, as the mind is able to remember, interrelate, and find order in the sequence and simultaneous occurrence of natural phenomena and repetitive events, change acquires an essentially periodic character. The mature mind, and even more the illumined mind of the sage, realizes that all life is cyclic. Motion is cyclic (or oscillatory) because it is produced by the unceasing, rhythmic interaction of two opposite and complementary principles of equal power, one of which waxes as the other wanes.
      Cyclic motion is defined by a repetitive series of fundamental relationships. Cyclic motion, especially when experienced as (or assumed to be) purposive and meaningful, operates as process. At any level of operation, a process has a beginning and an end, and between beginning and end a series of phases may be identified and defined. The more complex the process, the more numerous the phases. A repetitive series of phases constitutes the structure of the cyclic process the archetype of the process.
      In Western music such an archetypal structure is called a scale. A musical scale is a repetitive series of notes contained within the boundaries of an octave. Two sounds are in octave relationship when the frequency (number of vibrations per second) of one of them is twice that of the other. These two sounds are considered identical in terms of the structure of the scale; they are both the beginning of a series, and they are both given the same name. Thus the musician considers the two sounds to be the same note, but at two octave-levels. Between them are other notes, each representing a particular phase of a cyclic process of change, and the relationships between all these notes maintain the same structural character, octave-level after octave-level.
      Systems of scalar organization may be similar in the various musical cultures still in existence today, but similar does not mean identical. Subsequent chapters will examine the scales of our Western music and similar types of musical organization in non-European cultures, especially in Asia. Basic differences exist not merely in the form of such repetitive series, but in the spirit in which they are considered and used as the foundation of music and above all there are differences in the quality and essential character of the sounds they organize.
      There is a fundamental difference between a tone (in the dynamic, vital, magical, and/or sacred sense of the word) and a musical note as part of a scale (thus in relation to other notes). Unfortunately musicians use the words tone and note interchangeably, because they are not aware of the difference between them, and traditional Western composers, music schools, and universities have given only minimal attention to it. It is therefore essential to define these terms clearly. Sound, tone, and note each have a specific meaning, even though they may refer to the same auditory phenomenon. Each represents a different response to a musical event a different way of feeling and thinking about what has been heard.
      Sound (in the non-metaphysical sense) simply refers to the transmission of vibratory motion and its perception by the auditory center in the brain after the various parts of the ears have resonated to it. A tone is a sound that has conveyed (or can convey) significant information to the consciousness of the hearer because it is charged with and transmits (or can transmit) the special nature and character of the source of the sound. Thus a tone is a meaning-carrying sound. A tone has meaning in itself, as a single phenomenon experienceable by a living being endowed with some degree of consciousness. A musical note, on the other hand, has no meaning in itself. It has meaning only in relation to other notes. The same note may be played by several instruments producing very different actual sounds. A note's meaning is abstract, because it is not essentially attached to any particular pitch, timbre (quality of sound), intensity, or mode of production. A note may be transposed (that is, its frequency can be altered) to another level of vibration without its musical meaning being greatly changed, if its relationship to all other notes remains the same. A note is even more abstract if it is considered one of a myriad of elements in a written musical score a score which may never be performed (that is, actualized by sounds the ear can perceive), yet which, at least for trained musicians, in fact is the music.
      Since the sixteenth century Western music has resulted from applying the system of organization of notes we call tonality. Archaic music and certain types of pre-modern, non-European music with a sacromagical character and purpose were, by contrast, originally based on the organization of tones which, singly as well as in their cyclic, collective grouping, conveyed vital meaning or acted as transformative agents.
      When music is considered an art and experienced in terms of esthetical values that is, in terms of form, balance, rational proportion, and sense-satisfying pleasure it is essentially the organization of notes. The principle of organization is concretized as the prototypal series of notes or rather of intervals between notes we today call musical scales. A scale is a series of relationships between abstract points (the notes of the scale), the interval between two notes being the result of the ratio between their frequencies.
      The tones of archaic music were not, however, the results of mathematical ratios; they were intimately and indissolubly associated with gods, nature spirits, cosmic elements, biopsychic states in animals and human beings, and very often a particular season or time of the day. Such a mythological and vitalistic association gave each tone a communicable meaning, and made of the tone an entity with a specific character or quality of being. In addition to their specific natures and individual qualities, the tones were given a functional character as participants in an organism of sounds, called grama in Sanskrit.
      Grama originally meant a village; the whole of the ancient life and culture of India was based on the village community, the basic unit of social organization. Within the village community each human being and family performed a definite function. There were castes and sub-castes (originally or theoretically nonhereditary), each representing a biopsychic function reflecting a basic aspect of the order of the cosmos. Similarly, every tone of the grama probably at first five, then seven fulfilled a specific function in this prototypal musical whole, a microcosm of the universe. But and this is an essential point these tones were all linked by what one might symbolize as connective tissue. The grama was a whole of vibratory energies, just as the village was a whole of homes and families. Among both a circulation of effective activities was always operating.
      The performers of these primordial, magical, and (later) sacred chants paid as much attention to the way tone was reached as to the tone itself just as a true lover considers the way he or she approaches the beloved as important as the act of love itself. To fully understand how different from our Western tradition this approach to music was, we have to consider the original and philosophical meaning of the words magical and sacred. Unfortunately, when they are used today their meanings are often materialized. We have to see how the magical and the esthetic fundamentally differ and how to avoid confusing the religious with the sacred. These differences are more important to understand today than at any other time during the last thousand years, because the "revolution in consciousness" hoped for in avant-garde music can be constructively evaluated only if one realizes that it represents an attempt, however inchoate, to revive the feelings human beings once had for the magical and the sacred.


1. When speaking of its cosmic, spiritual, or metaphysical aspect, I shall capitalize the word Sound. To refer to what the vibration of molecular matter produces I shall use the word uncapitalized. Return

2. A human being can utter sounds through his or her voice but cannot generate light; this may be the reason sound is considered the primary type of wave-transmitted vibration. A less anthropomorphic picture is presented by the contemporary yogi Baba Hari Dass, who has said, "First it is a point; then it changes to sound; sound changes into light." A Sufi saying also states, "Creation comes into being from saut [sound), and from saut spreads all light." Both quotations are from The Rainbow Book (San Francisco: The Fine Arts Museum, 1975) p. 134. Return

3. If there are periodical changes in the rotation of the earth as advocates of various pole shift theories claim (cf. Pole Shift by John White [New York: Anchor Books, 1983]) the rationale for these changes may have to be found in the periodic action of some central galactic Sound (for the earth moves in galactic space as well as around the sun), rather than in millennial modifications of some external features of the earth's surface (for instance, Antarctica's enormous ice cap) or in the movement of continental plates.
      Changes in atomic structures may also normally result from the activity of an intra-atomic power, of which modern science still knows nothing, while references to it are made in many ancient books, for example, in the great Hindu epic, the Ramayana, where mysterious rays that destroy a whole army rays sent from flying vehicles are clearly described. In H. P. Blavatsky's Secret Doctrine, the mysterious force which an American inventor, J. W. Keely, seems to have discovered just a century ago is discussed at some length. One of Keely's supporters, a Mrs. Bloomfield-Moore, wrote most interestingly about some of Keely's discoveries and theories. As Blavatsky suggested, the use of such a force in the hands of present-day scientists, technologists and military establishments could have been utterly disastrous and leading to results even more destructive than the global nuclear war everyone dreads but which no one so far seems able to exorcise from the human mentality. Return

4. We should distinguish emotions from feelings. Feelings refer to the reactions of the organism-as-a-whole (in some cases of only the body or the psyche but most often both are involved) to a life situation; one feels tired, sad, insecure, depressed or ebullient, joyful and confident. Emotions are waves of outflowing energy, directed toward some person, object or situation. Thus desire, love, anger, jealousy, resentment, fear are emotions. Emotions imply physical or psychic movement. Return

5. See Chapter 4 regarding Pythagoras's use of tones, and Appendices I and III on Chinese music and the origin of European music. Return

6. See my book, The Rhythm of Wholeness. Return







By permission of Leyla Rudhyar Hill
Copyright © 1982; by Dane Rudhyar
All Rights Reserved.



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