Astrology For Guitar

 

One day in Los Angeles (February 3rd 2014 from the looks of things) it occurred to me to assign a note to each of the 12 Western astrological signs.

This is not a new idea, I have definitely seen notes associated with the signs before. But I have issues with the 12 notes themselves. & also with the way many people think about astrology.⁠1 So I always filed note/sign associations under “Well, maybe…” Like, is there a logical &/or scientific basis for assigning a given note to a given sign? (Not that I require logic or science to justify a ‘basis’.) & if there’s a traditional basis for such a correspondence, how far back in time does it go & to where?

Never got around to finding out.⁠2 (Would love to know! Fill me in if you’re up on this?)

But since there are 12 Western astrological signs & 12 Western notes, the other might serve as a useful model of the one, a sonic metaphor. & for simplicity’s sake we might as well correlate the first sign, Aries, with the first note, A. (& hey Aries even starts with A how about that.)

In relating a note to each sign, I am not trying to draw a concrete physical connection between that pitch—Concert A 440hz for example—& the characteristics of a given sign like Aries.

Rather I am taking one possibly arbitrary set of twelve interacting symbols corresponding to related vibrations (A B C D E F G etc) & superimposing it on another such system (Aries Taurus Gemini Cancer Leo Virgo Libra Scorpio Sagittarius Capricorn Aquarius Pisces). Then I go looking for interesting correspondences. Pleasing aesthetic results are a bonus.

 

I do not tend to feel that the stars “rule one’s life” in the sense of predestination (my thoughts on which are complicated?). I see an astrology chart more as supplying a picture, at a particular resolution, of the universe at the moment of one’s birth.

& we ourselves also can be said to represent a photograph of the universe, at a different resolution, with the moment of our birth being, for most of us, a significant part of the image.

As the human whose moment of birth corresponds with a particular astrological chart, that chart & one’s life may be thought of as holographically correlated. It may be deduced from us, & we may be deduced from it. This deduction of us—of the shape of our character, at this moment or overall—from the shape of this particular arrangement of stars, takes the form of a “horoscope”.

We don’t even have to reach for quantum entanglement to make it work (as we may with divination).

 

My bass-player friend Evan suggests: “Individual notes [may not] necessarily have inherent meaning. And the signs might not either. But symmetry does. And so does asymmetry. And all the spaces between the two. And how nice that the twelve note scale (which is derivative of a natural phenomenon) can be reflected so simply” by the 12 signs of Western astrology.⁠3

Notes & signs can be thought of as symbols representing sets of vibrations—the “larger” vibration of the galaxy, the “smaller” or perhaps higher-pitched vibration of an audible sine wave or an individual human life—& thus they might serve as useful metaphors for each other. The translation of one into the other might result in a unison or a parallel harmony of some sort. That resulting harmony or unison would have a holographic relation to the individual, similar to that of the individual to the astrological chart.

Except, we can listen to this one. For those of us who think & feel in sound, this is appealing.

 

I tend to think of each human being as a vibration. Our birthdate is a reasonable place to call the beginning of that vibration as we can be consistent about it with (most) everyone we look at.⁠4 In this sense it’s acceptable as a measuring point for an individual life vibration.

So if you’re studying a musician (or writer or activist or space bear or carnivorous plant) born in the month of January, you are most likely looking at a Capricorn, corresponding to the note we call “F#”.

Jimi Hendrix made extensive use of this uncommon key (for rock&roll, anyway, but I believe it is unusual in other genres as well) but he was not a Capricorn. He was a Sagittarius, which is the sign immediately before Capricorn, & which corresponds to the key of “F”. Maybe worth noting, Jimi tuned his guitar one step lower than is considered normal, so his “F#” was sonically equivalent to everyone else’s “F”. That might qualify as an ‘interesting correspondence’.

Jimi also had a Sagittarius “rising”, or “ascendant”, (which is another F), & a Cancer moon. Cancer = C. F & C relate to each other in what is considered to be the most objectively harmonious way possible, the perfect 5th (or a 4th, depending on your perspective). It makes sense to think of Jimi in the key of F, to which C is the perfect 5th.⁠5

This combination of notes spells out what is sometimes called a ‘power chord,’ a two-note chord that is neither major or minor, common in punk/pop, metal, ‘indie rock’ & other places. Among other sonic innovations, Jimi was known for frequently using chords that were neither major or minor (intro to ‘Castles Made Of Sand’, several wonderful bits of ‘Little Wing’). This could also be called an ‘interesting correspondence’.

(February 3rd 2014: I’d like to say, I’ve never thought this through in regards to Jimi before and I’m a little bit surprised at the results.)

So in some sense, a power chord consisting of a low F plus the C above it can be seen as a musical gesture with a fractal-similarity relation to Jimi’s life & personality—to his predilection specifically for the key of F (expressed as detuned guitar played in perceived key of “F#” sounding as F), & to his interest in ambiguous chord voicings.6 I have to wonder if pursuing this line of thought deeper into his chart (cos there’s WAY more than just sun, moon, rising sign) would yield more of interest.

 

Kurt Cobain, to choose at random another well-known left-handed guitar innovator from Washington State but born roughly 25 years later, was a Pisces (G#) with a rising Virgo (D) & like Jimi, a Cancer moon (C). That puts Kurt most likely in the key of G#, another unusual key—& another player known for the use of unusual keys & tunings & for the ability to make those odd choices of notes & chords resonate in some very deep way.

Kurt’s Cancerian C, the major 3rd to G#, makes him a major chord (which perhaps seems odd given the public assessment of his personality & life, but fits with his affinity for sunny pop structures & melodies). But his Virgo D throws in a wild card, a monkey wrench, the flatted 5th, once known as the diabolus in musica, the dreaded tritone, whose sounding is reputed to have been punishable by death in less enlightened times (this could be where those sunny melodies get twisted). Additionally, as if that weren’t enough, D is only one whole step above C, not far enough to guarantee consonance (read: harmonious listenability by most popular music standards).

So in Kurt’s astrological triad we have a great deal of dissonance but also an ultimately positive face on the whole thing; or we could call it a great deal of positive harmony with a dark twist—major third with flatted fifth. It does seem like he could take any bunch of weirdly dissonant notes and chords & write a catchy piece of music with it.

 

The most excellent musician Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda’s sun sign, moon sign, & rising sign, spell out an augmented triad in D (D, F#, A#). If you know any details about her & her husband’s musical/geometrical interests, this may strike you as incredible.

I would love to see a chart for John Coltrane’s first wife Naima, but the internet doesn’t seem to know much about her. Disappointing. Anyone knows her birthdate + time & location of her birth, I’d love to hear about it.

John himself had his sun in Libra (C#), moon in Aries (A, the minor 6 to Db), & Pisces rising (G#, a fourth below or fifth above C#). If you are familiar with pieces like “Spiritual” or “Resolution” (A Love Supreme pt2), this set of tones may resonate for you.

& if you put John & Alice together, you get low C#, G#, A, & up a bit higher (she was born 11 years later) D, F#, A#. One way to do this on guitar is to play the 9th fret on the low E string, 11th on the A string, 7th fret harmonics on the D G  & B strings, & the 6th fret on the high E string. Go easy on your wrist as you do so!

 

Go ahead & figure out your own astrological triad—sun sign, moon sign, rising sign (aka ‘ascendant’). If you don’t know your signs already, there are a number of websites which will do your chart for free if you tell them when & where you were born (to the minute pretty much), or you could talk to an astrologer. & keep in mind that besides sun sign, rising sign (ascendant), & moon sign, there’s a whole bunch of others you could include. Study of their relative significances could be useful in that case. I may get to this in the future.

Then consult the diagram (above) & find the notes that correspond. Piano is probably the easiest place to play them, tho there’s no reason not to use guitar. Monophonic instruments may be less ideal as you will most likely only be able to hear the notes in sequence, rather than simultaneously as a chord. Both the melodic & chordal aspects are worth exploring.

Remember that each note in your chord can be treated as the tonic or root. If your chart gives you a C, E, & G, that could read as a C major chord, a E with a minor 6 in the bass & a minor third on top, or a G with a major 6 in the bass & a 4th on top. C major is as open & positive as you could hope; E with the flat 6 & the minor 3 is both spookier & more ambiguous; G with major 6 & upper 4 is both ambiguous & open, positive on the whole. If that’s your sun sign—then hey, that’s you! If it’s your moon sign—& if open, ambiguous, positivity is something you wish to cultivate in yourself—you might think about exploring, or living in, the key of your moon sign :)

Note—I have read that the rising sign or ascendant is more important to a sense of one’s personality than the sun sign. I haven’t investigated this in any detail yet, but you may want to consider ascribing tonal center importance to the key of your rising sign. Referring to examples given above: for Jimi this would still mean F, as his rising & sun signs are both Sagittarius; Kurt would find himself in the key of D (Virgo), with a dominant 7 & a flatted 5; John Coltrane would be in the key of Pisces (G#) with a 4th & a flat 2nd (also not uncharacteristic of his note choices); & Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda would be in the key of F# (Capricorn), although her additional notes A# & D lead to the melodically ambiguous augmented scale which consists entirely of major 3rds. The notes are equidistant from each other, their relations in stasis or perhaps in a state of constant dynamic interplay… or both. This scale is more in the category of geometry than melody per se tho both Alice & John made wonderful uses of it in both melodic & geometric settings.

 

Another thing I’ve had interesting luck with is comparing several people’s notes or chords (see Coltranes, above!). The resulting music is often an accurate descriptor of how individuals relate to each other.

Beginning simply with sun sign, suppose you are a Taurus (A#) & your friend is a Virgo (D). You’re a flatted fifth to each other, which is considered dissonant but is also popular in heavy rock—the intro to “Purple Haze”, Black Sabbath’s “Black Sabbath” from their first album, many many many others. I would think in any case that such a relationship would be very energetic, for good or ill.

On the other hand, if you’re an Aries (A), your relationship to Virgo (D) is a fourth or a fifth, depending on who’s older. (Either way, this is as harmonious as you could ask for.) If you’re older, you’re the lower tone⁠7 which is most likely the root note, the tonic, the key center, & your friend is your fifth—a power chord, for example. If your friend is older, then you are their fourth—a bit unresolved, possibly some tension over who sets the tone for the relationship. Could be read as a country bassline in your key, or in your friend’s key with them as the 1st & you cast as the 2nd chord in “Season Of The Witch”, “Down By The River”, “Wild Thing”, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”…

 

Throw in moon signs & rising signs & you find yourself with a lot of notes & a more detailed picture. My wife & I, for example, are 5/6 of a whole tone scale. This can be tense, but also has a solid geometrical foundation, a dose of arbitrariness, & possibly is missing half the picture entirely (the other whole tone scale! … Our sixth sixth is implied by omission).

Remember—whoever’s older gets the lower notes. If you were born close to each other, you can treat each year as an octave. Someone born in 1982 might get all their notes clustered around the A (440 hz) above middle C, whereas someone born in 1981 might have their notes clustered around the A below middle C. Understanding who is the bass note is important in any relationship, as well as understanding how other individuals might feel about that. (I assume all readers are sensible enough to understand that dominating the scene is not in every case desirable.)

But the bass note is not always the dominant note or the key center. As with the Virgo-Aries 4th above, chords can be interpreted a few ways. A lowish A with an F under it can be heard as being a major 3rd in F or, quite easily, an A with a minor-6 bass note.

In my own astrological chord, I tend to interpret my moon sign as the root note, which puts my whole life in a key other than the apparent tonic (I tend to treat sun sign as tonic, but a case could be made for the ascendant or, likely, for others. Or if you’re say a water sign with an earth sign rising, you could think of it sorta qabala-style & call it “Earth in the world of Water”. Or vice versa.). But when I think melodically rather than chordally, it all works nicely (if a bit strangely) in the key of my sun sign.

 

Note that I am not at this time including the standard interpretations of Aries, Pisces, Leo, etc, in this structure. This is more about a way in which individual human vibrations & their relationships may be usefully observed.

I feel OK disregarding the meat of astrology in this case as a) I don’t know enough about it to talk intelligently & b) I often feel that the role of the signs is less to tell you about your self & your life than to simply indicate where in the sky the stars were when you were born. From that information certain conclusions may be drawn, in more or less the way that if it’s 2 in the afternoon you know the sun is probably up (tho the moon may or may not be). Or, it’s a bit like saying I was born in Vermont—you could make a few generalizations about me based on that information, & some of them might be right on & some of them might be way off (like my sister-in-law told me: “wears flannel & eats maple syrup on everything”…)

We are part of the weather, & the stars are another part, & observing the position of the stars at the time of our birth is one way of observing ourselves.

 

PS it is sometimes interesting to think of the Chinese zodiac (another set of 12 signs but in this case corresponding to years rather than months) as designating the “octave”—Rooster, Dog, Snake, etc. Or, one could use it to loosely examine relationships between people born in different years. I haven’t tried this yet, tho I have a few theories—for example, if the ‘octave’ between two Dragons or two Snakes or whatnot would manifest as harmony or as conflict, a fight for dominance or a perfect resonance or both or what.

 

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NOTES

Text composed 2014-02-03. Edits 2018-06-26 & 2018-07-07

1 Tho Rob Brezsny seems to nail it more often than not.

2 Yet.

3 We could discuss the nature of that derivation, whether twelve notes in particular are an inevitable result or simply a convenient degree of resolution… Does 19 work better? or 43? … Or hey, 12, we could just run with it.

Some of us do not know when exactly we were born, or where; others of us were not ‘born’ in what is thought of as the usual sense.

Taking into account the downtuning… Did Jimi play much in C#? I can’t think of an example offhand but I know his work in F# inspired me to explore C# on the guitar, particularly in regards the open strings, for which I am grateful.

Since the notes were assigned to the signs arbitrarily, the appearance of musical correspondences is a surprise.

Age is a kind of size. Larger things have bigger wavelengths, ie lower-pitched tones.

 

Photo by Joe Mabel

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Urban legend 5-Track is currently singing songs & cooking dinner in Tangletown, Seattle, when not playing bass for PEG and BEYOND CAPTAIN ORCA! and MKB ULTRA and all, guitar for ARGAN BAND and WALKING FACES and ASTROL WATERS and whatnot, broadcasting reiki-like vibrations by way of strings, & wood & mostly tube-driven amplification, making musick to sleep to (SLEARP), telling fortunes by guitar & aspiring to do all the above with love or at least compassion. Non-dude. Anything he says is just, like, his opinion. http://cosmicprimitive.com