For all of human history, music has fascinated and shaped the human mind. Artists, philosophers and psychologists have been attempting to explain its power since Plato. Even today, the more we learn about its effect on our minds, the more amazed we are.
But some of the most mythic songs in history have never before been heard. Music has long played an integral role in literature and myth — forms that imperfectly captured the sounds described. What follows is a list of some of the most compelling songs that no living being has ever heard. These are songs that, without any music, testify to the true power of the art form:
1. The sirens' song, from the Odyssey
The sirens were a trio of nymphs that reputedly haunted the island of Anthemoessa in ancient Greece, singing seductive beautiful harmonies in an attempt to lure sailors to their deaths. Odysseus encounters them in the Odyssey. He knows their danger but is determined to hear their song anyway. He commands his men to plug their ears with beeswax and tie him to his ship's mast. If he commands them to let him go, he says, they should only bind him tighter. He hears their "honey-sweet music" and finds it irresistible. It overwhelms his reason completely for a time until his ship is out of range and he returns to his right mind.
2. Orpheus' songs
Orpheus was perhaps music's first virtuoso. He learned to play the lyre from Apollo, the god of music himself, and Orpheus was so good that he could "charm wild animals and even cause trees to uproot themselves and follow in his steps," according to MythWeb His songs drowned out the power of the sirens, while traveling with Jason and the Argonauts. And his lullabies could even lull the Cerberus, a multiheaded dog that guarded the gate to Hades, to sleep so he could slip into Hades to rescue his wife, Eurydice. He was the ancient-day Hendrix that no one has ever heard.
3. Pan and Apollo's musical duel
Where Orpheus was almost always more or less content with his masterful musicianship, Pan edged a bit more into Kanye West territory. Stubbornly proud, Pan was an amazing musical innovator and inventor of the pan flute. But he went a bit too far when he challenged Apollo to a duel to see who was a better soloist. The song Pan played shook the trees and caused the animals to dance. But Apollo's song was so powerful it was akin to "bidding farewell to one's father and mother" when he stopped, according to Old Greek Folk Stories Told Anew by Josephine Preston Peabody. As punishment for losing, Pan was flayed alive. Music was serious business in ancient Greece.
4. The Pied Piper, German legend
Numerous variations of the Pied Piper myth appear in German legend. But all involve a strange, hastily dressed musician that visits an Irish town called Hamelin, promising to rid the town of its rat infestation. The townsfolk promise him a handsome reward, doubting he'll ever succeed. The piper then plays a "shrill" tune on his pipe and the rats pour out of every nook and cranny. He leads them down the river where they all drown. When he returns, the mayor refuses to give him his promised payment. The musician storms off in anger, only to return to lead all the town's children away with a different, but similarly enticing song. What happens next depends on the version. He either drowns them, disappears with them or returns them for an even higher price. It's all proof that musicians were getting screwed out of royalties way before Spotify.
5. The "Song of Songs"
Unlike most books in the Old Testament, the "Song of Songs" (or "Song of Solomon") makes no reference to God or covenant or the law. It instead celebrates the joys of "erotic love," and the only reason it got included in the Bible was because early religious scholars reinterpreted it as an allegory about God's love for Israel. Before it was a Biblical text, it was an actual song for all celebratory and even everyday occasions. Loosely interpreted, the "Song of Songs" was essentially a mystical drinking song before it became a somber religious poem. Though the melody has been lost, it still makes for an incredibly moving text.
6. The music of the spheres
The music of the spheres (or musica universalis) is an antiquated philosophical and religious concept formulated by Pythagoras that held that celestial bodies all produce musical tones in their movement through space. Together they create a mathematically perfect harmony that's inaudible to the human ear. "The sound made by the slower bodies in their movement is lower in pitch, and that of the faster is higher, hence these separate notes, corresponding to the ratios of the distances, make the resultant sound concordant," Aristotle explained in On the Heavens. Dante claimed that he heard this celestial music while ascending to heaven in his Divine Comedy. Music all but literally held the universe together in ancient times, and did so all the way up through the Renaissance, when Johannes Kepler attempted to prove Pythagoras' theorem with scientific observations.
7. "The Music of Eric Zann" by H.P. Lovecraft
Horror storyteller H.P. Lovecraft was a master of describing the indescribable. In his short story, "The Music of Eric Zann," the narrator takes a room in a peculiar part of town. One night, he hears strange, alien music coming from the room of a man named Eric Zann. When the narrator tells Zann his music is fascinating, Zann refuses to indulge the narrator. After some insistence, Zann finally concedes to play, and he produces the most "fantastic, delirious, and hysterical" music out of his viol the narrator has ever heard. The frenzied playing causes Zann to lapse into a deep satyric trance. It summons unearthly winds and opens up a terrifying rifts in space and time, which the narrator narrowly escapes.
8. "The Lamentation of Doctor Faustus," from Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus
In 1947, Thomas Mann released a modern reimagining of the legend of Doctor Faustus. The narrative focuses on a famously progressive composer named Adrian Leverkühn, whose innovations resemble Arnold Schoenberg's 12-tone compositional system. Leverkühn inherits his genius by making what he describes as a pact with the devil. But really he just "voluntarily" contracts syphilis from a prostitute, which causes him to go partially insane. He does become the greatest composer of his day, though, and his career culminates in a final oratorio titled "The Lamentation of Doctor Faustus." Leverkühn's story is tragic and barbaric, and his composition was likely the same. And though no one will ever really hear it, it will continue to fascinate all the same.
9. "The Supremacy of Uruguay" by Armando Bronca
Music is the secret to world domination in "The Supremacy of Uruguay," a 1933 short story by Armando Bronca. The story's protagonist hears a song that's reminiscent of Bing Crosby's "Thanks." He's entranced by the way the melody portrays love, and he's struck by the thought: "If it unhinged me to hear such a soft crooning sound slightly amplified, what might it not do to me to hear a far greater sound greatlier amplified?" Returning back to his home country in Uruguay, he has the country's greatest tenor re-record the catchiest part. Then using a massively powerful amplifier attached to remote-control planes, the Uruguayan army blasts the perfectly crafted earworm, driving everyone who hears it "hopelessly mad" and ripe for conquest. Unfortunately, using music to drive listeners insane is far from an empty fiction.
10. Tom Bombadil's songs from The Lord of the Rings
Peter Jackson's choice to leave out the character Tom Bombadil from his Lord of the Rings movie was controversial and disappointing. But ultimately it helped his songs retain a little more of their magic. In Tolkien's book, Bombadil, a protector of the woods around the Shire, sings pretty much constantly. He uses songs to banish evil spirits and to revive Merry and Pippin after they're attacked by a wight in the barrow. Some audiobook narrator has surely attempted to sing it, but the real thing is trapped in fiction.
11. Fawkes' songs from Harry Potter
"Ah, music ... a magic beyond all we do here!" says Dumbledore in the first Harry Potter book. The series is filled with bewitching dirges and occult hymns. Theoretically some of the most beautiful are sung by Fawkes, Dumbledore's phoenix. At various times throughout the books, his songs inexplicably heal, soothe, console and embolden the characters to face seemingly insurmountable tasks — just as music does in the real world. That CGI bird-thing that represent Fawkes in the movies has none of the vocal chops of the "real" Fawkes.
12. "Tribute" by Tenacious D
Jack Black and Kyle Gass, the two men behind Tenacious D, wrote and played the best song in the world (according to them). It was powerful enough to banish the devil, who once mysteriously assailed them while the two were hitchhiking a "long and lonesome road." Unfortunately, they forgot it and all we got to hear is their tribute to the best song in the world. The world will never know its unparalleled beauty.
Correction: Feb. 26, 2015