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On the Celestial Harmony: the 4 Elements

During the 2022 AstroMagia conference, I was struck by the ideas in the talks by Kadmus Herschel on Orpheus as a model for magical practice, as well as the talk by Cory C Childs on the musical correspondences of the planets. In his talk on Orpheus, Kadmus made the point that spheres of the planets were thought of as the strings of the lyre, and he referenced a claim made by 3rd century BCE music theorist Aristides Quintillianus that by changing the structure of music one could change the form of fate. The same way an astral magician draws down an auspicious moment from the stars and ensouls it into a talisman, or a witch uses the principles of sympathy in herbs and stones to cast a spell, by skillfully manipulating the forms and rules of music, the musician is literally able to shift the course of fate, And because the planets are so often equated to music and harmony, music might be particularly efficacious, or have a particular power to shift fate. And since astrology and music theory are each a sort of language with its own grammar and logic, they should be able to talk to each other in some ways, and give the musical mage a potent language for creating change. A note about theory— I think it's important to note that the connections I’m drawing are not necessarily universal, they are specific to the jazz tradition and its related currents of pop, rock, blues, ect. They might be useful for other forms of music, but this is the specific language of music I’m working in. It’s also worth noting that at this point theoretical, armchair magicianing. I’m probably going to do a few different posts in this series (I haven’t even touched on the planets, after all) so hopefully by the next post I will have something to say about how it works in practice.

Because I’ve been reading my Agrippa, I’ll start this series off with the four qualities of hot/cold and wet/dry, the building blocks of the four elements elements. The primary qualities are hot and cold as they are said to drive all changes, while the secondary qualities are dry and wet, said to be mostly caused by or derived from hot and cold. Hot and cold then, as the fundamental division of the qualities, correspond to the fundamental division of harmony: the major and minor triads. The major triads have an association with happiness, warmth and action. They are upwards rising, evoking simplicity and light, and so are hot. Minor triads on the other hand have a more mysterious, darker quality. They evoke somberness, coolness, and melancholy. As a result, they are cold. The secondary qualities are a little more complicated. Think about the difference between a rainforest and a desert— a rainforest is full of life, crowded, teeming with all kinds of animals, plants, insects. There is a diversity of life and stuff going on. Whereas a desert is mostly devoid of life, it is relatively empty and homogenous. Wetness is the complication, the added life and texture, the fluid boundaries and variable shapes. Whereas dryness is discrete, it is one-thingness, separation. In terms of chords, the basic triads are characteristic of dryness. They are discrete, they have one interval that defines their major or minor quality (the major 3rd and minor 3rd, respectively), and they are uncomplicated. In contrast, wetness is ambiguous, it adds life and complication, it makes things more fluid. Harmonically, this is achieved by adding the major or minor 7th interval to a basic major or minor triad, respectively. The 7th interval adds more color and ambiguity— the major 7th interval adds an element of darkness to an otherwise bright major triad, and the minor 7th interval adds some levity to an otherwise darker minor triad. It also adds more fluidity to their structure— the major 7th chord literally contains a minor triad (the 3rd, 5th, and 7th), and the minor 7th chord contains a major triad (3rd, 5th and 7th).

So, we have the four qualities, but we still have some chords left over, namely the dominant 7th and the half-diminished 7th. These are both dissonant, grating, tense chords that pull strongly towards resolution. They are defined by their instability and unpleasantness. The dominant 7th can be thought of as a dissonant major chord, and so gets the quality of heat, while the half-diminished 7th can be thought of as a dissonant minor, so it gets the quality of cold. And since these are both unstable, they represent the extremes, either extreme heat or extreme cold, with their secondary qualities of wet and dry being less apparent. You could make the argument for either one, but I would suggest both are dry, because- especially in astrological thinking- dryness is related to the malefics, and so represents the extremes, that which is not conducive to life.

If you follow me so far, we now have fire (major triad, hot/dry), air (major 7th chord, hot/wet), earth (minor triad, cold/dry), water (minor 7th chord, cold/wet), and extreme heat (dominant 7th) and extreme cold (half-dimished 7th). Now, how are these useful? Up to you, but there are a few things that come to mind. You could use these chords energetically to shift an imbalance or protect from a hard transit. Say you have a problematic Saturn activation coming up— since Saturn is cold and dry, you could regularly play the airy, sanguine major 7th chord (hot and wet) in order to balance things out. Or say you are constitutionally prone to phlegmatic stagnation— you have a lot of sadness, tiredness, stuck in your own feelings, ect. You could play songs with major triads to try to bring heat in order to make those waters flow better. Or say you wanted to do a hot spell to get money quickly, you could write a blues song about needing money and make frequent use of the very hot dominant 7th chord. There are lots of different applications, and since music has such an ability to affect the emotions and the psyche, I suspect that this could be a very fruitful space for experimentation.


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