Music, Mathematics and the Harmony of the Spheres by Hugh Peters


Title of talk:

Music, mathematics and the harmony of the spheres


Hugh Peters
Hugh Peters

Bullet points of what you would like to talk about:

  • The transition from ‘magical thinking’ to ‘empirical science’ 16th to 18th centuries.
  • The role of ‘harmonic theory’ in stimulating scientific practice and theory.
  • How innovation in music paralleled scientific developments.
  • How tuning and temperament, harmony and dissonance work.
  • Major scientists like Newton and Hooke dallied with music, and magical thinking informed Newton’s magnum opus, the Principia Mathematica.


A few paragraphs on your subject:

The Scientific Revolution, occurring in very broad terms between 1550 and 1750, is generally regarded as leading to the replacement of ‘magical thinking’ by the ‘scientific method’. This can however be seen as a much more ambivalent process, in which beliefs fluctuated and co-existed with each other, even in the minds of major scientists such as Newton and Hooke. Both these thinkers were profoundly influenced by the traditions of alchemy, astrology and the idea of sympathetic resonances throughout nature.
While mathematics certainly came to the fore in this period as the ‘language’ of science, this happened partly because of the ‘mystical’ belief persisting from the time of Pythagoras that numbers underlay the structure of everything in the cosmos. Further, music, in the form of ‘harmonic theory’, was a major factor in both practical investigations of and theorising about matter and material phenomena.
In this entertaining and non-technical talk, Hugh Peters explores 16th and 17th century thought, drawing on the work of Newton, Hooke and others and addresses the subjects of the ‘music of the spheres’ and the origins of Newton’s Principia. The speaker is an accomplished musician and will illustrate some of the concepts on the classical guitar.

A few paragraphs about you:

I am a musician and mathematician who has worked for some time in community arts, further and higher education and as a gigging musician in the northwest of England. I am based in Manchester. I have performed with my own projects at the Manchester Jazz Festival in 2010 and 2016, the latter project being called Zamani. I currently work as an academic support tutor in the school of computing and engineering at the University of Huddersfield.
My interests include many kinds of music, the arts in general and science past, present and future. I am very interested in the common ground between artists and scientists in terms of observing nature accurately and applying creativity to what we observe. I am interested in promoting better public understanding of science in general and awareness of climate change in particular.
I am an experienced guitarist in various styles, especially classical guitar and jazz. Favourite guitarists include Julian Bream, George Benson, Pat Metheny and Jonathan Butler. I also play electric bass and piano. I compose music which combines elements of jazz, contemporary African influences and orchestral music.
I am a fan of Bach, Stravinsky, Debussy, English 20th century music, Miles Davis, Abdullah Ibrahim among many others. I believe that music, along with dance, poetry and other art forms, are among the oldest aspects of human culture. These arts are therefore significant across all cultures and across history. While science gives us powers and insights of one kind, human aesthetic and spiritual faculties are also of value and have their own kind of associated powers and insights.
I am interested in the history and philosophy of science and the relationship of science to other areas of human endeavour such as the arts, the human sciences and human spirituality. I have particular interest in human evolution and earth sciences. The current area of earth systems science encompasses physics, chemistry, geology, ecology, oceanography, meteorology and astronomy. In order to understand processes occurring over both very short and very long timescales, it is necessary to combine approaches from a wide range of fields.
This approach echoes more holistic approaches to nature found in pre-industrial societies, but reaches a stage of great technical accomplishment with the advent of sophisticated scientific techniques and instruments. Modern earth systems science is prefigured in the works of von Humboldt for example, who was one of the first people to write about environmental degradation associated with human activity.
The use of powerful computer techniques to analyse big data sets is a significant development in this area, leading to the urgent message about climate change which science brings us. Neither nostalgia, superstition nor irrational denial will help in the face of this threat. I therefore wish to promote awareness of science which is politically progressive and leads to meaningful debate on issues connected to climate change and other important contemporary issues.

What free internet knowledge resources would you recommend to others if they wish to explore your chosen theme further?


The link above is to a review of a book with lots of interesting stuff in it aimed at the general reader. It might be a starting point for someone who was interested. There is absolutely loads of stuff on t’internet, but it is not necessarily easy to navigate for someone who is curious but doesn’t know what to look for.
Quite a lot of it is very technical, being written by mathematicians, but even worse, there is also a fair amount of what I regard as dodgy new-age stuff. You know – the ancient Egyptians built music into the pyramids in order to communicate with their intergalactic relatives from the planet Zarg.
Being from the planet Zarg myself, I will be happy to kill this myth if necessary. There is also stuff by guitar enthusiasts about guitars and guitar making which may be accessible for some people.

I am happy to provide more information if required.

What are your weblinks?

Website –
Public Email – [email protected]
Any others….

On 5th June 2018 this event took place at The Castle Hotel  (66 Oldham St, Manchester, M4 1LE)