Hans Boersma: The Metaphysics of Music

A Harmonious Reading of the Psalms

The church fathers saw a direct, almost physical analogy between the harmony of music, which represented an almost mathematical metaphysics, and the harmony of the Psalms. As Boersma notes, “Music, therefore, has the ability to make one grow in virtue and heal the emotions; music tunes people and makes them more harmonious” (132).

Ancient man knew that music was based on objective laws. Musical pitches are related by simple mathematical ratios of whole numbers (136). Plato noted “that God created the intellectual reality of the world soul with proportions of double intervals (1, 2, 4, 8) and of triple intervals (1, 3, 9, 27)….separating a portion of the whole and then doubling and tripling it, so as to arrive at a series of seven terms (1, 2, 3, 4, 8, 9, 27)” (136). This means the cosmos was created at harmonious intervals.

Music, therefore, participates in this cosmic order. The church fathers were keen on this. The Word of God even recapitulated the great musician himself: “The Word of God introduces something altogether new; he is the New Song, whose music, like that of David, chases the demons and heals us of our wickedness” (140).

If the Psalms are true music, and if music represents a rational cosmic order, then singing (chanting) and living these psalms puts us “in line with the order of the universe” (142).

Gregory of Nyssa and the Skopos of the Psalter

The aim of the Psalter is the blessedness of the virtuous life (154).  From here Gregory traces an ascent (anabasis) to that goal.  This blessedness will imitate the harmony of the universe. Psalm 42:1 forms the second part of the Psalter and it mentions the soul that thirsts for God.  Psalm 73 describes the one who is now able to discern justice and “participate in divine judgment” (155). In Psalm 90 we approach the boundary between divine and human natures. The climax arrives on a mountain peak in Psalm 107.  It is the recapitulation of human salvation.

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