The Mystic Chord

The Mystic Chord

The Physical Laws of Acoustics follow principles
that are obviously grounded in our physical reality. For instance, when talking about sound waves
traveling through the air, we need to take into account the composition of the air, its
temperature, its density, etc. And since music is an acoustic art, it follows
Laws of Physics. But what happens when a composer decides to
bend these rules… One such composer was Alexander Scriabin. He was born in Russia in 1872 and died in
1915. In the later part of his life, he went on
a quest to translate his spiritual beliefs through his musical
works. He adhered to a doctrine called “Theosophy”,
whose core principle is that any human being can
transcend his physical limitations through wisdom and meditation. The culmination of this doctrine is to reach
an understanding of the “Pleroma”. The Pleroma is the all-encopassing knowlege
behind everything that exists in our physical reality and beyond. This is where Scriabin devised a clever compositional
device that he called the “Chord of the Pleroma”, or more commonly known today as the “Mystic
Chord”.Let’s take a moment and step back into reality. According to the Laws of Acoustics, when you
strike a note, say on a piano, the sound we hear starts off as a basic pitch, called the
fundamental. This basic pitch quickly sets off a chain
reaction of reverberations. The sound goes from the string itself, to
the body of the instrument, through the air, and inside our ears. These reverberations generate some weaker
secondary pitches called “harmonics”. Let’s play a low C on a piano as the fundamental
pitch. Here are roughly the harmonics above it which
are more easily perceived by the human ear. If we replace these four harmonics with the
Mystic Chord, here’s what we get. The C keeps the chord grounded to the fundamental
pitch, and the thinnest of the perceived harmonics,
the E, is equally maintained. What was once a G above the C is now an F#,
and what was a C below the E is now a Bb. This alteration of pitches creates two pairs
of notes called “tritones”. Because of its relatively harsh sound,
the tritone is traditionally associated with death. The two added pitches above the E,
create what are called Perfect Fourths. Melodies in the Middle Ages
which featured extensive use of the Perfect Fourth were deemed heavenly. Did Scriabin really think of all this when
he created his chord? Probably not, but the justifications I brought
up do have some relevance, in that a larger musical structure can be
broken down in smaller elements in order to reveal hidden secrets behind the
way it sounds to us. Like this video if you found it interesting,
and click on “subscribe” to show your support for this channel. This has been only one example of a composer
who manipulated the traditional structure of music in order to serve his expressive
needs. Many other composers have had their own take
on this idea. But each one of those will be the topic of
other videos to come. So, until then: When you open your ears, you
open your mind. See you later!


  1. A close friend of Scriabin claimed that the mystic chord was an approximation of the overtones through to the 13th…

  2. Great stuff! I think you will like Rick Beato's YouTube channel too. He talks about, pitch, notes, dissonance, He can dissect all kinds of complex chords. Rick is another great mind.

  3. To me, an overtone based deconstruction of the chord makes more sense if D was thought of as the root rather than C. That would make C the 7th overtone (a slim minor 7th), F# the 5th (major 3rd), Bb the 13th (a wide minor 6th), E the 9th, and A the 3rd (perfect fifth). The 11th overtone, which would fall in the cracks between G and G sharp, ends up getting omitted. With C as the tonic, the overtones don't really line up right?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *