Ancient Inspirations: Pythagoras, Philosopher, Holistic Practitioner & Music Therapist

In popular culture, the name Pythagoras typically draws to mind mathematical associations, most notably the famous theorem still used in schools today for calculating right triangles a2+b2=c2 (Fig. 3) that carries his namesake (although scholars note that this formula had already been in use in Babylon prior to the time of Pythagoras). Rooted in the philosophical principles of number, the tradition of Pythagorean thought is a primary contributor to ancient Greek holistic ideology.

Island of Samos Image from

Fig. 1, Island of Samos birthplace of Pythagoras
Image from

Yet many are unaware that Pythagoras (ca. 6th century BCE)  is reputed to be the first to use the term kosmos signifying “a beautifully ordered whole”. It is also said that he was the first to coin the term ‘philosopher’, as he declined the appellate ‘sage’ or wise man, declaring he was rather a ‘lover of wisdom’. From the island of Samos (Fig. 1) off the coast of modern Turkey, he was a polymath and studied many branches of knowledge, both in ancient Greece as well as traveling abroad, including living in Egypt for many years.

Philosophia in the ancient sense was not mere armchair intellectual speculation, but incorporated both theory (theoria) about the kosmos, as well as the practical applications (praxis) of such theory. In the case of Pythagorean ideology, the principles and manifestations of number throughout the kosmos were studied across the interconnected fields of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy.

In addition to mathematics, another example of the practical applications of Pythagorean philosophy is the early use of music therapy. The Pythagorean school of thought provides an ancient historic context from which to approach and study music as a therapeutic agent, that is, an effective means of balancing and harmonizing various states in the psuche (soul). As an early psychological model, the basic theoretical context was one of balancing extreme states in the psyche (which addressed bodily, mental and emotional conditions). Toward this end, therapeutic treatments for effecting the beneficial change of extremes included conscious applications of music, dance and movement as well as other arts such as poetry or song, as determined by one’s current condition. For instance, if a person was over stimulated or agitated, then calming soothing repertoires, a walk in nature, or silence could be employed. In contrast, if a person’s condition were lethargic, sleepy or depressed, an invigorating regimen of therapeia would be better suited to treat such excess. In modern terms, such an approach would fall within the general rubric of holistic approaches to wellness.

Ancient Greek Musicians

Ancient Greek Musicians, musical competition with lyre and double flute
Fig 2, From red-figure Greek vase,
engraving by Alexandre de la Borde, 1813
Image from

Even today, alternative holistic approaches to cultivating well-being do regularly use music as an adjunct to therapeutic treatments or practices. For example, massage therapists and spas typically play soothing, ambient music to assist with facilitating a state of relaxation in their clients. Whether drawn from the genre labeled ‘new age’ sounds, such as nature e.g., ocean waves, bird’s chirping, or harp, etc. the intent is the same. Having eclectic musical tastes, in my own holistic practice I also drew from instrumental jazz ballads such as Coltrane or Miles Davis, or alternately Bossa Nova, classical music from various cultures including european standards, Middle Eastern instrumentals such as use of the oud (whether Persian, Egyptian, etc.), classical Indian ragas, chanting, or artists such as Stellamara to create an ancient, ambient setting.

Likewise during stress management or meditation classes, instructors may choose to actively employ music or sound to positive effect. For instance a class might begin with soothing music during a stretching routine. Or, a single note struck on a tuning or ‘singing bowl’ could also be used ritually to signal the beginning of a period of meditation and withdrawal from ‘worldly’ or outside concerns during such practice. Mantras used to help focus the mind in which a primal sound such as ‘Om‘ or series of words/sounds are repeatedly chanted, utilize both ideas and the power of sound/vibration to engender a meditative state of mind (although mantras may be uttered orally or within the faculty of thought alone). Over time such ritual use of sound can also function as a psychological trigger for the mind to shift its awareness from without to within.

While not generally labeled ‘therapeutic’, even in popular culture the practical use of music to directly influence one’s mood is recognized today. Examples include radio stations such as KJAZ touting the beneficial effects of listening to programming such as the ‘jazz oasis’ or ‘dinner jazz’ as a way to relax, wind down and refresh one’s state of mind after a stressful workday. In the classical musical tradition of the West, one popularized study done on the use of music to stimulate certain kinds of brain activity, which included the orderly uplifting melodies of Mozart, was dubbed the ‘Mozart effect’ (although other kinds of music and activities can also stimulate specific cerebral functions). Making use of such ideas, a Bay Area music station KDFC featured an a.m. program called ‘Mozart in the Morning’ that drew upon this popularized phenomenon. At the other extreme to promote vigorous activity and stimulate excitement, personal preference may attract us to upbeat music from a variety of genres, whether hip-hop, rock, salsa, samba, reggae, flamenco, other ethnic rhythms, or even jazz or classical of a more vigorous tempo – depending on what you like or are in the mood for. Similarly, marching bands play motivating drum beats and melodies for a variety of purposes, both to keep the players walking in rhythmic time as well as inspiring college sport teams, accompanying a parade, or motivating military troops.

In the various cases described above, the use of music or sound is integrated as an effective tool, acknowledged as influencing body, mind and emotional states in particular ways.  Still more specialized applications lie within the fields of contemporary music or dance therapy, in which licensed therapists trained in these respective disciplines engage cutting edge research toward healing ends.

The beautifully ordered whole (kosmos) of Pythagoras, rooted in a deeper understanding of number offers another ancient philosophical paradigm that modern humankind can learn from as it rediscovers the holistic wisdom of the interrelatedness of all things. And within the context of Holism in Ancient Egypt & Greece which includes both traditional & eclectic schools of thought, the Pythagorean framework which relies heavily on symbolism to convey ideas serves as a vital conceptual link between Egyptian & Platonic philosophies.

If you enjoyed reading click ‘like’ below, and to learn more about what’s offered here explore the website. You can also sign up for the newsletter to stay abreast of when the upcoming book, online classes and workshops are available.

For information on ancient Greek musical instruments click the links below. (provides a sound sample of an ancient Greek harp-like instrument called the epigonion)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s