Music of the Spheres

Exhibit GuideGalileo’s World at a Glance
Gallery at the Exhibit Website
Location: Bizzell Memorial Library, 5th floor Exhibit Hall.

What would it be like to be a mathematician in an era when music and astronomy were sister sciences?

Music and astronomy are deeply interwoven. In Galileo’s world, the study of astronomy went hand-in-hand with music. Astronomy and music were sister sciences, and both were part of mathematics. The harmonious motions of the planets created the music of the spheres.

Introductory video: Letter from Galileo’s Daughter

Section 1: Dance of the Heavens

Galileo’s father penned a major contribution to music theory, and Kepler formulated the harmonic law of planetary motions. Astronomy and music were deeply related in Galileo’s world.

  1. Vincenzo Galilei, Dialogo della Musica Antica et della Moderna (Florence, 1581), “Dialogue on Ancient and Modern Music.”
  2. Johann Kepler, Harmonices mundi (Linz, 1619), “Harmony of the Universe.”

Section 2: Music and Astronomy

According to the ancient Pythagoreans and many later writers, all of nature is a musical scale. Music throws light on astronomy, and astronomy deepens understanding of music. Only through mathematics may nature be known.

  1. Martianus Capella, De nuptijs philologie et Mercurij (Verona, 1499), “The Marriage of Philology and Mercury.”
  2. Robert Fludd, Utriusque cosmi maioris scilicet et minoris (Oppenheim, 1617-21), “On the Two Worlds, namely the Major and the Minor.”
  3. Athanasius Kircher, Musurgia universalis (Rome, 1650), “Universal Music-Making.”

Section 3: Celestial Spheres

In the Earth-centered universe of the Renaissance, a spherical Earth lies in the center surrounded by the regions of earth, water, air and fire. Rotating heavenly spheres, nesting one within the other from the Moon all the way out, carry the planets and stars. As these solid celestial spheres turn in place, their harmonious motions create the music of the spheres.

  1. Hartmann Schedel, Liber chronicorum (Nuremberg, 1493), “The Nuremberg Chronicle.”
  2. Peter Apian, Cosmographia (Antwerp, 1545), “Cosmography.”
  3. Macrobius, In somnium Scipionis (Cologne, 1521), “On the Dream of Scipio.”

Section 4: The Meaning of the Planets

Galileo gave lectures on Dante. Chaucer wrote a treatise on the astrolabe. Shakespeare and Galileo shared the same birth year. Renaissance writers shared an interwoven literary and scientific heritage. Medieval and Renaissance works of literature are replete with the music of the spheres and the meaning of the planets.

  1. Dante, La Divina Commedia e le Opere Minori (Venice, 1757), “The Divine Comedy.”
  2. Chaucer, Workes (London, 1598), “Works.”
  3. Shakespeare, Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies (London, 1632), “Second Folio.”

Section 5: Landmarks in Astronomy

During the century before Galileo, the three most notable books in astronomy were the Epitome of Ptolemy’s Almagest by Regiomontanus, Copernicus’ De revolutionibus, and Kepler’s Mysterium cosmographicum, published exactly 100 years after the Epitome. These works are displayed in the Exhibit Hall in the walk-around hexagonal cases.

  1. Claudius Ptolemy, Almagest (Nuremberg, 1496), ed. Regiomontanus, “Almagest, ed. Regiomontanus.”
  2. Claudius Ptolemy, Mathematicae constructionis (Wittenberg, 1549), “Almagest, ed. Reinhold.”
  3. Claudius Ptolemy, Quadripartitum (Prague, 1610), “Four Books.”
  4. Claudius Ptolemy, Armonikon (Oxford, 1682), “Harmonics.”
  5. Nicolaus Copernicus, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (Nuremberg, 1543), “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres.”
  6. Johann Franciscus Offusius, De divina astrorum facultate (Paris, 1570), “On the Divine Faculty of Stars.”
  7. Johann Kepler, Mysterium cosmographicum (Tübingen, 1596), “Sacred Mystery of the Structure of the Cosmos.”

Section 6: Observational Astronomy

For thousands of years before the telescope, astronomers observed the stars and planets, predicting their movements and mapping locations on the surface of the Earth. The astronomer’s toolkit contained remarkably capable instruments, including the sundial, astrolabe, celestial sphere, armillary sphere, quadrant, sextant and orrery. These instruments are displayed in various places around the Exhibit Hall.

  1. Sundials: Pocket sundial, by David Beringer (Nuremberg, c. 1760); Polyhedral sundial, by David Beringer (Nuremberg, c. 1790).
  2. Regiomontanus, Calendarium (Venice, 1476), “Astronomical Calendar.”
  3. Johann Stoeffler, Calendarium (Oppenheim, 1518), “Astronomical Calendar.”
  4. Bernardino Baldi, Nova gnomonices (ca. 1592), ms, “Innovative Sundials.”
  5. Nocturnal Dial replica (Hemisferium).
  6. Complex Armillary Sphere replica (Brian Grieg).
  7. Astrolabe replica (Brian Grieg).
  8. Egnazio Danti, Dell’Uso et Fabbrica dell’Astrolabio (Florence, 1578), “On the Use and Fabrication of the Astrolabe.”
  9. Philip van Lansbergen, In astrolabium introductorio (Middelburg, 1635), “Introduction to the Astrolabe.”
  10. Philip van Lansbergen, In quadrantem (Middelburg, 1635), “On the Quadrant.”
  11. Sextant replica.
  12. Benjamin Martin, Description and Use of Both the Globes, the Armillary Sphere, and Orrery (London, 1760).
  13. Delamarche Orrery (Paris, 1847).
  14. Tellurian, Trippensee Planetarium Company (Detroit, c. 1908-1920).
  15. James Ferguson, Astronomy Explained upon Sir Isaac Newton’s Principles (London, 1809).
Further reading:
  • C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image (Cambridge, 1964)
  • Dava Sobel, The Planets (Viking, 2005).
  • Peter Pesic, Music and the Making of Modern Science (MIT, 2014).
Curators: Kerry Magruder, Jonathan Annis and Brent Purkaple.
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