Music Sympathy and Occult Knowledge

The Pythagorean belief that all parts of the universe are sympathetically interrelated had always interested philosophers. This concept of sympathy seemed self-evident in the way a string plucked on one instrument can set in vibration a string tuned to the same pitch on another. In the theology of Queens’ member John Smith, musical sympathy was widely invoked as a means to conceive reciprocal operations of the mind and soul. Some of the books Smith bequeathed to Queens’ on his death in 1652 also explore the role of sympathy in relation to the effects of music on the mind and body. Long associated with magic and the occult, these phenomena had been the subject of renewed interest in the seventeenth-century age of experimentation. A series of vividly illustrated publications used the latest printing technology to breathe new life into ancient magical traditions that used alchemy, astrology, and other occult arts as the means to further understanding of sympathy in relation to the harmonic universe. Common to all was a conception of audible music as a concrete manifestation of forces otherwise hidden in nature. The apparent archaism of such discourse belies the extent to which some of it became absorbed into mainstream natural philosophy, not least in the physics of Isaac Newton for whom it served as a model for other hidden forces in nature, most notably gravity and magnetism.

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