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Pythagoras’ Nightmare: Reincarnation, Coldplay and the Music of the Spheres

Flynn Hallman's Pythagorean take on Coldplay's latest album.

“The static’s nice. I could do without the screeching.”                                                                                                                
“Are you kidding? That’s the music of the spheres, commissar. It’s beautiful. Like old jazz.”                                                            
 (Peter Watts, Blindsight)  

In around 600 BC, the Ionian philosopher Pythagoras is said to have originated the idea of the music of the spheres. This was the geocentric belief that the earth is surrounded by eight crystalline, transparent ’spheres,’ concentrically carrying the sun, moon, planets and stars in their daily earthly orbit. The movement of each sphere was understood to produce a certain tone, which, when taken together, formed the octave of a celestial harmony where the stars (farthest away and so considered to orbit fastest) produced the highest pitch and the moon the lowest.

The association Pythagoras drew between mathematical and musical ratios remains enduringly influential, but his cosmic theory of consonance has long since been dismissed by astronomers as little more than a metaphoric expression for the harmony of the universe. A similar thing can be said for his concept of reincarnation, called ‘metempsychosis,’ in which the soul was believed to transmigrate to another body after death. Unfortunately this too hasn’t quite caught on with the modern masses as much as his other big hitters: calculating the sides of right-angle triangles in GCSE maths, and vegetarianism, to name some familiar favourites.

For the sake of argument though, let’s take Pythagoras’ slightly more wacky theories at face value. Let’s say that his soul’s still knocking about on earth listening out for the planetary orchestra’s interminable tune. This would mean that, over the course of the last two and a half millennia, he would have watched on as Copernicus, Galileo and Newton gradually dismantled his beloved musical concept. Perhaps by this point he would have been in and out of counselling, or metempsychotic’s anonymous, or taken to asphyxiating a stress ball every time he hears about Elon Musk. What with all the dying, being reincarnated, and the cynics, I’m sure he would have had his fair share of highs and lows. But I doubt anything could have prepared him for the 15th of October 2021. It was on this day that Coldplay released their ninth studio album, Music of the Spheres, and I fear it might well have proved his fatal blow.

Don’t get me wrong. The album is upbeat, cheerful, maddeningly optimistic and, at least intermittently, catchy for most of us mortals. But something tells me it’s not quite the empyreal sound Pythagoras would have had in mind. From the soul destroying synth repetitions of the opening song, ‘Higher Power,’ to the screechy serenade of ‘Biutyful,’ (where the lead singer duets with something stuck in an air vent), the album seems to somewhat miss the celestial mark.

Chris Martin, the frontman has spoken of Music of the Spheres as first being influenced by watching the Cantina Band from the original Star Wars and wondering what other musicians in the cosmos would sound like. This produced the concept of it being set in a fictional planetary system, entitled The Spheres, which contains nine planets, three natural satellites, a star and a nebula. The essential Pythagorean parallel lies in the fact that each of these cosmic entities corresponds to a particular song on the album. But while the concept is artistically ambitious, its application feels more orientated towards commercial success.

This might have something to do with Music of the Spheres being Coldplay’s first project produced by the middle-aged Swedish hit-machine, Max Martin. Having collaborated with everyone from Britney Spears and the Beastie Boys in the 90s, to Taylor Swift and the Weeknd today, Martin has just earned the twenty-second No. 1 Billboard hit of his career with the album’s second single, ‘My Universe,’ featuring BTS. Max Martin is known in the music industry as an advocate of what he calls “melodic math,” a songwriting style which aims at fitting the syllables of each line to the sounds of the track, without much regard for whether the lines themselves make sense.

In the past Chris Martin has admitted to his own relaxed approach to the semantics of songwriting. He’s cited a tendency to prioritise emotions over lyrical coherence. The result is that, together, Martin² have produced an album with a formidably marketable recipe for upbeat unintelligibility. To top it all off, they’ve even managed to cut down the word count of the tracklist, choosing to name certain songs using emojis instead. In all, Martin actually describes the entire album pretty neatly in just its second verse, singing “I’m like a broken record, I’m like a broken record and I’m not playing right.”

Music of the Spheres joins a long list of musical endeavours influenced by Pythagoras’ concept. Holst is a major name which comes to mind. There’s also the experimental technicality of Rued Langgaard’s orchestral score of the same name, written in 1916-18. More recent honourable mentions include the minimalist rock approach of Ian Brown’s third solo studio album, released in 2001, and Bjork’s swirling, philosophical The Crystalline Series (2011). Of all these variations on the music of the spheres, though, I honestly think that Pythagoras would have preferred Coldplay’s to remain inaudible.

I can picture him, unconsolable, on the 15th of October last year, reincarnated as a pet gerbil, or a spoon, or a slightly chubby toddler from Amsterdam called Lars, crying into his cornflakes with Chris Martin and BTS echoing in his ears…“you (you), you are (you are) my universe”. His idea for a grand, mathematical approach to music reduced to the “melodic math” of efficiently turning a song into a commercial success. Either way, if he is still with us, I have no doubt he’s wishing he hadn’t been right all along. That he’d binned all this metempsychosis business, and his soul had kicked it along with his body in pastoral Ionian peacefulness, millennia before Musk and the two Martins changed his tune.

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