The Harmonics of Music and Meaning

A sermon preached by Galen Guengerich

With musical illustrations by Walter Klauss

The Unitarian Church of All Souls, NYC

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork

July 17, 2005

My favorite universal law posted on was originated by Ernst Poppel, a brain researcher at the University of Munich. Dubbed Poppel’s Universal, it asserts that “We take life three seconds at a time.” Poppel illustrates his law by pointing out that a handshake lasts about three seconds. So does the preparation for a golf swing, short-term memory, a phrase in spontaneous speech, and the pause when channel surfing for a television program to watch.

Poppel’s Universal prompted me to formulate a universal law of my own. Like all such laws, it is based on my observation of the natural world, yet it applies directly to our experience as human beings. I call it Galen’s Law of Diminutives, or more informally, The Law of the Small. The law is this: “Small adjustments result in big changes.”

Reading: Psalm 19 (from the Hebrew Bible)

The heavens are telling the glory of God;

the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.

Day after day the heavens pour forth speech,

and night after night the firmament displays knowledge.

There is no speech, nor are there words;

their language is not heard;

yet their voice goes out through all the earth,

and their words to the end of the world….

The divine law is perfect, reviving the soul:

the divine testimony is sure, making wise the simple.

The divine statutes are right, giving joy to the heart:

the divine commandments are radiant, giving light to the eyes.

The fear of the divine is pure, enduring for ever:

the judgments of the divine are true and righteous altogether.

More to be desired are they than gold, even than much fine gold:

sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb.

Moreover by them is thy servant warned:

and in keeping them there is great reward.


John Brockman is a literary agent who maintains the scientific web site According to The New York Times, Brockman poses a question each year to a distinguished roster of authors and other notable public figures. The question for 2004 was “What’s your law?” In other words, what bit of wisdom or pattern in nature, either grand or small, have you noticed that could be named after you? Here are a few of the responses. Paul Steinhardt, an astrophysicist at Princeton University, offers Steinhardt’s Law: “Good science creates two challenging puzzles for each puzzle it solves.” Computer scientist David Gelertner responds with Gelertner’s Third Law: “Scientists know all the right answers and none of the right questions.” John Barrow, a mathematical physicist, could hear it, would sound a B-flat that is 57 octaves below middle C. This universe of ours is an awe-inspiring place.

But it is more than just awe-inspiring. It is also a source of revelation. The psalmist proclaims that the natural world is the voice of the divine: “The heavens declare God’s glory, and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork. The heavens pour forth speech, and the firmament displays knowledge. There is no language, nor are there words; yet their voice goes out through all the earth and their words to the end of the world.” In other words, the Book of Nature reveals the divine. Our experience of the natural world is a direct and reliable source of divine revelation. The Law of the Small is altogether dependable, for it comes to us through the handiwork of the divine. In practical terms, the Law of the Small means that small adjustments can create large changes in our world and in our lives. More to the point, the path from the life you now have to the life you want may be shorter than you think, just like the genetic path from a mouse to a human, or the harmonic path from a melody to a symphony. For example, the difference between being physically fit and being a couch potato comes down to how we spend less than two percent of our time: whether we exercise several hours a week or do something else. In the same way, the difference between people who are confident and focused rather than reactive and unproductive may come down to spending fifteen minutes each morning thinking about, and writing down, the specific goals they intend to achieve that day. Those fifteen minutes represent one percent of the day’s time, but they can easily make a ten-fold difference in outcome.

Here is one more example. The average high school graduate has a speaking vocabulary of between two and three thousand words. The Law of the Small suggests that the difference between people who are sought after as friends or colleagues and those who are merely tolerated or even avoided comes down to how they use a dozen of their vocabulary words. How frequently and how sincerely do they say the following words?

“Please. Thank you. I am sorry. I was wrong. I love you. I need help. That was terrific.” Even if your speaking vocabulary is middling-sized, these twelve decisive words make up less than one-half of one percent of the total. Small adjustments in what we say can create big changes in how we live.

Perhaps, in the spirit of Ernst Poppel’s Universal, The Law of the Small should be renamed The Law of Three: three notes, three words, and three seconds. It is long enough and words enough to say “I love you,” “I am sorry,” or “That was terrific.” It gives time enough to think twice before speaking harshly or to choose to make the extra effort. It provides notes enough to make a tune into a fugue or even a sonata. The key is to pay attention to the small adjustments you can make in your life, the little details, and the diminutive differences. The payoff can be huge.

As the 19th Psalm testifies, the laws that are written in the heavens will revive our souls and give joy to our hearts. Heeding them will give light to our eyes and make us wise. When we who dwell on earth live in harmony with the laws that order the universe,

our lives will be fine and sweet indeed—finer than gold and sweeter even than honey.

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