I just got done watching ancient apocalypse on Netflix where Graham Hancock explains how important astronomy was to ancient civilizations. The sky was basically their culture. In the modern day we have so much light pollution and now we have other entertainment like tiktok and Netflix. But that thousands of years ago people would look at the sky as their shared culture.

At some point he started talking about Phrygians. And my mind ofcourse went to the phrygian scale on the guitar. I then remembered that I somewhere heard a guitar student of Pat Martino explaining that when he went to Pat, he would see Pat mapping out star-constellations on sheets of music, connecting notes to eachother and forming geometric shapes and star-constellations. Pat also would make many connections between theory and time, comparing a chromatic circle as a clock etc.

I googled to find this but I could not find it again. I only found a picture that remotely reminded me of it.

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I think the idea is very compelling to wonder if Pythagoras, Phrygian’s, and the ancient people who invented the guitar, if they used the sky and star constellations to design the guitar.

I’m wondering if there is basically any relationship between music theory and perhaps solstices, constellations, time, or anything beyond that and if so how that could be used.

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    A good reference might be Brian May.
    – Tim
    Commented Nov 27, 2022 at 14:51
  • I’m not sure this question is on topic here. That said, the Greeks believed that the motions of the heavens created or were related to music. The distinction between science and the arts that we have today was either nonexistent or very different back then. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Musica_universalis Commented Nov 27, 2022 at 18:13
  • I’m wondering if there is basically any relationship between music theory and (...) anything. This question seems a bit too broad. Commented Nov 27, 2022 at 20:19
  • Perhaps you should clarify what you mean by "invented the guitar." Judging from the (sadly very poorly written) Wikipedia article on frets, there doesn't seem to be any evidence for them before around 1800 years ago (in China and long before the guitar was invented). And of course fretless instruments don't tell you much about tuning; our knowledge in that sphere comes from theoretical treatises about tuning rather than evidence related to specific classes of instruments.
    – phoog
    Commented Nov 28, 2022 at 9:29
  • See this previous answer: music.stackexchange.com/a/16663/9426 Commented Nov 28, 2022 at 17:12

4 Answers 4


While modern music theory doesn't currently have any obvious relation to astronomy, it certainly did historically.

The Pythagoreans were very interested in the relationships between ratios and the natural world, including the orbits of the planets. Their early work on music as being based on harmony and proportions framed how the West approached music for over two thousand years.

The 6th-century Roman Philosopher Boethius declared in the De Musica that anyone schooled in music understood there was three kinds of music: cosmic (aka astronomy), the human (not merely singing but also describing how the body worked) and music "resting in the instruments". He relayed stories and accounts of how certain modes and scales of music would affect mood and could even heal people.

The De Musica was a very important musical text in the West all the way through the medieval era up through the early modern period. The reason that music seemed to have this broad application from astronomy through to medicine was likely because ratios and geometry were the most sophisticated mathematical tools to understand and think about the natural world.

As the medieval period ended, advances in arithmetic techniques (such as Arabic numerals) plus technology such as telescopes enabled astronomers to describe astronomical phenomena more accurately. A huge shift occurred in the way people understood the world as we (humanity) slowly moved from relative geometric measuring to Cartesian-based standardized measurement.

Many instruments we have inherited are from the time when ratio-thinking was dominant with an excellent example of this transition is the violin. The earliest recognizable modern violin shapes were compass and straight-edge constructions, but Stradivarius shapes which are popular nowadays are slightly modified from these more pure geometric constructions (similar to how planet orbits are not actually circles). Even our 12TET scale is a compromise based on–you guessed it–ratios.

Numbers such as seven and twelve show up from this history of ratios to construct scales and dealing with how ratio-based tunings become out of tune as tones are added. Seven tones constructed from simple ratios work well together as a scale: western note-naming is based on this seven notes in a scale system. Most approaches for constructing notes based on simple ratios start to nearly overlap after generating twelve notes, and the latter notes don't play well together without compromising the simple ratios used to construct them.

I can't necessarily explain why there are 12 hours in a day and 12 semitones in a modern western scale (and also 12 inches in a foot). Twelve is a very interesting number as far as factors go. Why the ancient Greeks decided to divide the daylight into 12 hours (from whom we inherited it) doesn't seem overly connected, although there are 12 months in a year and the Horae (goddesses of the hours) were associated with the seasons (Horae means Seasons).

Rather than thinking about how astronomy and music are related, it's better to consider that when geometry was the dominant form of mathematics as it was in the ancient world, applications which fitted geometry really well (astronomy and music) would lend themselves to describing each other and thinkers pondering how they were connected. Similar to how you're pondering that very question now. As for how such relationships could be used, maybe investigate the 16th-century astronomer Johannes Kepler's Music of the Spheres. Better yet, find a copy of De Musica and read it.

  • idk why 12 notes works so well, but 12 works for many things because it factors in so many ways. 2, 3, 4, 6... 1/4 or 1/3 of 10 starts to get iffy to calculate on your fingers, 1/4 or 1/3 of 12 is easy. By the same reasoning we use 60 minute & 360 degrees. They divide well [they're also multiples of 12]. (I also think the Greeks & Romans got the 12-hour day from the Babylonians & Egyptians; they didn't invent it.)
    – Tetsujin
    Commented Nov 28, 2022 at 12:40
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    @Tetsujin I agree that the Greeks likely didn't invent 12 hour divisions, but the Horae page on Wikipedia showed an evolution from 9 to 12 suggesting some development on their part. Babylonians and Egyptians absolutely contributed plenty: geometry itself was the means by which the Egyptians re-established the boundaries of fields after the Nile flooded, geometry coming to us from the Greek for earth (geo-) measure (-metry).
    – teletypist
    Commented Nov 28, 2022 at 22:19

This is not really an answer, but it's too long for a comment.

The question may contain a bit of a misconception of music theory. Music theory is not a law of nature that's "behind" all music in a way that would be independent of human actions, like the forces of nature cannot be changed, they can only be observed. Music theories are descriptions of musical practices, i.e. descriptions of human cultures, ways of living. These cultures change and evolve all the time. You can even decide to create a new kind of a musical culture. Just start doing something ver differently. Probably your new kind of musical practice will need at least some new theory as well.

If you make music by somehow mapping things from somewhere, for example astronomy, astrology, biology, history, politics, economics, or whatever you want, into your music-making, so that there is some kind of a correlation between the source of inspiration and things you do in your music, then the source of inspiration can and should be a part of a theoretical analysis of your music. Like if a piece of music was structured around a historical event, then that bit of history has to be mentioned when describing the piece.

If you mean to ask, did people in the past use astronomical observations and theories as a source of inspiration for music-making, and if something that's used in existing musical cultures today could be said to have evolved from it? I'd say, most probably, because people have been fascinated by the stars for a long time. Or are you asking for a list of things that originally came to be when someone drew inspiration from astronomical things?

  • I think your description of music theory seems very modern. Boethius' De Musica (6th century CE), was a – if not the – principal text of music theory for most of the medieval period in the West up until the early modern period. He begins by declaring three kinds of music: the cosmic (ie the universe/astronomy/planets), the human, and the instrumental. The Astronomer Johannes Kepler (16th century CE) also develops this idea of universal cosmic music in the orbits of the planets. The connection of astronomy with music definitely has a long precedence.
    – teletypist
    Commented Nov 28, 2022 at 10:22
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    @teletypist I assume that you mean "music" = Western music culture and its history? And not music as a phenomenon. If that's the case, then that narrower definition already excludes the misconceptions I am trying to debunk, but without clearly explicating it. In the present times this is not self-evident, and it should be explicitly specified, which sub-culture, region, time-period we're talking about. Commented Nov 28, 2022 at 13:05
  • I understand that what is understood as music theory has changed in recent times to describe practice, but the original question made references to the Phrygians (related to the Greeks), geometric relationships, astronomy, and instrument development. Historically these were absolutely and explicitly understood as being related, even as "a law of nature that cannot be changed". I'm not suggesting that the guitar is based on the stars, just the people who built instruments had a common mathematical language for both and hence saw them as related even if we don't.
    – teletypist
    Commented Nov 28, 2022 at 22:32

The guitar was not invented by Pythagoras or Phrygians or anyone at the same period, but in late medieval period in Spain. It is of course base on earlier forms, such as the arabic al-oud. And lute-like instruments have been around an awfully long time. Also what the names of medieval church modes are based on ancient greek music theory, but they messed up a bit. For one thing the ancient greek scales were considered as falling insted of rising, but also what we call phrygian is actually the most regular and thus the "main scale" of greek music theory (not ancient greek music, but music theory!), and was called "doric". On the other hand what we call doric would be phrygian in ancient greek music theory.

Next: Any association between sky and stars and music is either romanticism, uninformedness or esoteric bs. There are always people who do believe in such stuff (even in modern days!), and since of course until a few hundred years back people had quite little understanding of why things behave as they behave it is natural to come to conclusions of such kind.

It is nevertheless quite unlikely that instruments were invented with such intentions or even improved with such inventions. The first people who created pluckable instruments probably did not think about pseudoastrological laws, and improvement of instruments was mostly a thing of experience and luck.

Ancient greek schools such as the pythagorean one liked to think in ratios of numbers. Ancient greek music theory takes much from the subdivision of a string in parts. Similar concepts were also applied to the understanding of cosmos, leading to this idea of music of the spheres, the basic idea of which is that movement of cosmic objects would create notes, and with the cosmos being perfectly ordered they would underlie the same principles as music theory.

  • Even though the guitar was not invented in Ancient Greece, the kithara was, and it was also a stringed instrument and it had a kind of whammy bar, and that’s where the word “guitar” comes from. Commented Nov 27, 2022 at 18:18
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    @ToddWilcox Yes, that is true, but you should also know that the greek kithára had pretty much nothing else in common with a lute like instrument such as the guitar. The tuba was also not invented by the romans, even if the word came from them ...
    – Lazy
    Commented Nov 27, 2022 at 19:47
  • @ToddWilcox Also still in that case, the kithára itself was much less invented but rather derived from different types of lyres such as the phórminx, some 200-300 years before Pythagoras was born, so even in this case I think it would be reasonable to point this out.
    – Lazy
    Commented Nov 27, 2022 at 19:56
  • @Lazy I did not ask for astrology. I knew I might get comments like this so I clearly and specifically wrote “astronomy” and not “astrology”. I’m not trying to figure out if the guitar can determine if I’m a virgo. I simply want to know if ancient cultures who invented the guitar drew inspiration from the stars, since the sky was such a big part of their life.
    – j a
    Commented Nov 27, 2022 at 21:43

As a physicist let me assure you: besides the fun factor you are wasting your time.

From a musical perspective, the way we tune today differs from the past (the tempered scale is a compromise which overcomes theoretical and practical problems from ancient and other ways to establish "natural" scales).

Many cultures long before us were excellent astronomical observers of the sky. However, impressive as many of their findings are, they won't hold up against modern astronomy, which e.g. takes into account both relativistic and quantum-mechancial effects.

One way to recall and communicate their findings over generations, some astronomic cycles took and take that long, was to present them as stories. Certainly these were proliferated into non-astronomical applications, be it intentionally or by chance.

Finally, a film is just a film, intended to entertain todays audiences.

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