I’m studying harmony at the moment, which is a brand new field for me. I have been listening to and playing classical music in one form or another for most of my life, but I’d never gone beyond a cursory study of ABRSM Grade 5, and I’d never seriously considered the question of how composers compose. I suppose I’d always assumed it was 99% inspiration and left it at that. But inspiration can’t speak to you unless you know its language, and I now realise that harmony is the language of musical inspiration. Obvious really. But then I’ve always found that the most important and transformative truths seem blindingly obvious once they’ve revealed themselves.

Studying harmony feels a bit like code-breaking. Previously hidden universal truths gradually reveal themselves as you learn to hear in a new way, and I’m really looking forward to finding out where this journey will take me over the next months, years and decades.

In particular, I hope I will find the beginning of an answer to a question that is conspicuously absent from the books I’ve read so far, whether written in 1932 or 2009. Namely, why is one person’s harmony everyone else’s harmony? Why do we universally agree that some chords are happy and others are sad? What makes some chord progressions resolve to a musical full stop, others ask a question, and others leave you feeling uncomfortable? So far it’s an elephant in the room, a glossed-over simply-stated fact which on the face of it really doesn’t seem to have any business being a fact at all.

Adam lay y bounden, bounden in a bond;

Four thousand winter thought he not too long

And all was for an apple, an apple that he took,

As clerkes finden written in their book.

Ne had the apple taken been, the apple taken been,

Ne had never our lady a been heavene queen,

Blessed be the time that apple taken was,

Therefore we moun singen,

Deo gracias.

Anon. 15th Century


This is from the First Sunday of Advent service, which I went to at Exeter Cathedral tonight. I’m not a regular churchgoer, and I’m often surprised by the readings and choral pieces in Anglican services because they seem to contradict what I understand to be core Anglican beliefs. This, for example, is praising the terrible sin that supposedly invoked God’s wrath and fury, and caused Adam and Eve to be cast out of paradise in shame – which in turn has of course excused the subjugation of women for two millennia. But the implied meaning here is very different, and to me much easier to understand and accept. I am no theologian, but sin, to me, is separation from God – or divergence from the Way, or deafness to the spirit world, or whatever metaphor you prefer. For this particular sin, eating of the Tree of Knowledge, to be praiseworthy, it must have had a purpose – and to me that purpose was to cast mankind adrift from the wisdom of God so that we could forge our own path – aspiring ultimately to re-gain entry into paradise, or the spirit world, by our own merit. (And why it is necessary for us to do that is perhaps the mystery of mysteries…)

So Eve started our descent into a world of darkness, confusion, abandonment and sin. And then, after “four thousand winter” of man being “bounden in a bond”, Mary gave birth to Christ, who came into the world to show us the Way – to enable us to turn our descent into ascent, our darkness into light, our abandonment into reunion, and our sinfulness into full awareness of our true selves.

Eia mater Domini, / Ah, mother of the Lord,

Quae pacen redidisti / who gave back peace

Angelis et homini, / to angels and mankind

Cum Christum genuisti: / when you bore Christ,

Tuum exora filium / pray your son

ut se nobis propitium / to be gracious to us,

Exhibeat, / and wipe away

Et deleat peccata: / our sins,

Praestans auxilium / granting us aid

Vita fui beata / to enjoy a blessed life

Post hoc exsilium. / after this exile.

Deo Gracias. / Thanks be to God.

Anon. 13th Century

How lovely. “The Lord, who gave back peace to angels and mankind.” Peace here is a possession or a power – I think perhaps even a means of contact and communication with the higher realms… “Wipe away our sins, granting us aid to enjoy a blessed life after this exile.” Reconnect us by giving peace back to us, wipe away our separation from God, end our exile.