A great battle about music from history (Part 3)

This is part 3 in this series.  You can read the first two parts here:
Part 1
Part 2

For years, I have gotten annoyed when I’ve heard musicians quote ancient Greeks to try to prove their points about music theology.  Doing so may sound impressive but I don’t think it proves that someone understands music history.  Actually, it may prove just the opposite.  This series is partly my attempt to explain why I believe that.

Here is a brief summary of what we have discussed so far.  During the Enlightenment, as scientists and musicians started to propose temperament when tuning musical instruments, it caused a huge uproar.  The church saw temperament as an religious battle where God’s natural laws were under attack.  We talked about how those natural laws originated largely from Greeks and their pagan mystical philosophy.  

After the Enlightenment, the church lost most of its influence in this area and Greek mysticism gave way to rationalism.  The church has never recovered its influence since.

I am going to get back to temperament but want to take a brief detour this week to discuss a related question.  Do the ancient Greeks still have influence over parts of our religious thinking to this day?

The short answer is yes.  New Age philosophy embraces Greek mysticism (as well as other ancient mysticism).  If you can stomach it, read a New Age book or two and you will see what I mean; those guys are in love with Greek mysticism.

Few if any of you are New Age.  But you can stumble across the same philosophy in other places.  Some of them may surprise you.  For example, let’s consider conservative Christian music apologist Frank Garlock.

This series is not about Frank Garlock.  I realize that most of you don’t know who he is, and I have never met him either.  He is however fairly influential within a small niche of Christianity. I am sure he is a good man who loves God, and I am probably in sympathy with many of his viewpoints even though I would not agree with how he reaches them.

So this is not an attack on Garlock.  I would not even name him except I find some of his teaching a bit dangerous and I can’t demonstrate what I mean without you watching a few minutes of video where he is talking.

These excerpts are from a lecture he gave sometime fairly recently.  Until this year, YouTube had a 10 minute limit on videos so the lecture is broken out in seven 10-minute segments.  If you watch the videos below, you will watch about 6 minutes of the lecture that spans two of the segments.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iqY85yA-kNs  (start watching at 8:00)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q2VUkcFzDbM (watch until 4:15)
Note all the references to the type of Greek thinking that we have been discussing.  But there are numerous problems here.  For example, many of Garlock’s assertions are factually incorrect.  

1) Mr. Garlock asserts that all the planets are “exactly” in octaves (by this he means that each planet is exactly twice the distance to the sun as the planet next to it).  While Pythagoras would be proud (this is exactly the kind of relationship he looked for and taught), Garlock is dead wrong.  In fact, the distances between planets are not even close to matching the so-called “octave” ratio. The ratio between Venus and Mercury to the sun is 1.87, not 2.0.  Earth to Venus is 1.38.  Mars to Earth is 1.52.  Jupiter to Mars is 3.41. It does not get better from there either.

2) The overtones discussion is hopelessly incorrect by today’s standards though it would have been very close to what Pythagoras believed.  Pythagoras did in fact hear a few overtones (probably not the third but definitely the octave and fifth).  He also saw something very mystically significant about those overtones.  But we know today that there are numerous overtones that occur, not just the three notes of the triad as Garlock suggests. Those overtones vary based on the instrument and even the way the instrument is played.

3) This is picky, but even the ratios Garlock refers to and the frequencies on his chart are more relevant to the days of Pythagoras than today.  In fact, the piano that was played in his illustration would not have used a pure 3:2 ratio for the perfect fifth or the exact frequencies on his chart unless they went to the trouble of doing a special, old-style tuning before the lecture.

How does Garlock make mistakes like this? My guess is he got his information from the screwball New Age book he kept quoting in these clips.  If you read New Age books, you quickly realize those writers are not so big on backing up their assertions.

Besides the factual errors, there are more serious errors that arise when you try to mix Christianity with New Age mysticism (which is in turn heavily influenced by ancient mysticism).  For example:

1) Even if the planets have the distance ratios Garlock asserts, why are we to make an assumption that the distance between planets has anything to do with music?  That was the way the Greeks thought, but that kind of thinking has no Biblical merit.

2) His assertion that the ancient Chinese understood that God was a Trinity because of overtones is not just far-fetched but also theologically careless.  Where is there any Biblical basis for this kind of assertion?

3) Garlock loses credibility quickly when he quotes his New Age book in saying that voices “rich in overtones provide a benefit to those that hear them.”  That is not science and it is not theology.  It is just New Age garbage.

Is Garlock a New Age nut? Absolutely not.  Is he a theological heretic to mark and avoid? I don’t believe that either.  He is however a man who is a bit careless when he goes looking for sources to back up his assertions about music.  If the best he can come up with is books written by New Age loons, he would be better off to reexamine his assertions.

Here is my point. Yes, we are past the mysticism of the Middle Ages.  But keep your guard up.  Suspect teaching is still out there and Pythagoras lives on.  Yes there is a place for faith.  But our faith has to be based in the Bible rather than the suspect teachings of some with a voice in Christianity. 

If you are interested, here is where you can buy the New Age book Garlock references in this lecture.  He extensively quotes from another looney New Age book in his book Music in the Balance.  I own and have actually tried to read The Secret Power of Music but cannot stomach it.  It is full of ridiculous assertions that insult the intelligence of the reader. I had an overpowering conviction that I was thoroughly wasting my time.