One simple and interesting way to understand the astrological four elements is to see their parallels in an orchestra. As the twelve zodiacal signs are divided into four elements, the orchestra is divided into four sections. Each of these sections is distinct in the kinds of sounds produced and the way they are produced, evoking distinct responses in the listener. In a similar way, the elements evoke distinct realms of experience: emotional, physical, intellectual, vital/spirited. The four elements act as a team and to live a full life, it’s important to be able to draw on all of them as needed: to think when that is called for, to feel when that is called for, and so on. The sections of an orchestra also act as a team: a truly rich and emotionally full symphony will draw on each of the sections in turn or in combination, weaving a rich tapestry of sound that is satisfying to hear. A truly rich life will draw on the four elements in turn, weaving a rich tapestry of experience that is satisfying to live.
The Elements: A Quick Tour
Fire is forceful, direct, energetic and enthusiastic. People with a lot of fire in their charts tend to radiate a certain optimism and charisma which helps them barrel through life at warp-speed. Aries in particular has a rocket-like quality. Leo is more relaxed and chilled out—but Leo is highly charismatic and has great force of personality. Sagittarius people’s energy is not as focused, but they are easygoing and brimming with geniality.
(Remember please, as I release these gross generalities into your ear, that a person is not just her sun sign. A person can have the sun in a Water sign, but also have so much Fire elsewhere in her chart that she comes off as strongly fiery and hardly watery at all. If someone you know fits one of these elemental profiles, they probably have that element strongly present in their chart. So don’t be concerned if their sun sign does not match that element.)
Earth is, as its name suggests, just as earthy as Fire is fiery. Earth is practical, serious, grounded, sometimes cynical. Taurus people love the comforts of life and are very physical people. Virgo is pragmatic, analytical and organized, sometimes to the point of being considered anal-retentive. Capricorn is ambitious, a lover of structure and a builder. All the Earth signs value tangible proofs of things and are not interested in pie-in-the-sky promises.
The Air signs love ideas as things in themselves. They enjoy abstract thought and are never so happy as when unraveling a complex problem or solving a puzzle. They are communicative and social. Gemini loves communicating with others and sharing ideas. Libra is focused on one-on-one relationship and social interaction in general, and values beauty and symmetry of thought. Aquarius loves the pure crystalline idea and is a mad networker. All the air signs would rather talk, intellectualize and discuss theories than take action.
So far it should be pretty clear that Fire represents human spirit, Earth represents our physical being, while Air represents the mind. Water then, is keeper of our emotions.
Water signs are all about feelings, intuition, instinct. Often a Water sign feels, knows or intuits something that cannot be proven or perhaps even expressed in language. Water does not walk through life—it swims, floats, wafts. To the realm of Water is left all the inexpressible, unexplainable, not-provable knowing. Water is the element of pure mystery. Cancer is connected with the mystery of gestation and birth—Cancer is nurturing, loving, retentive. Scorpio is the mystery of sex and transformation, teaching us by example how death, experienced repeatedly, can be transcended. And Pisces is the deep, wide ocean in us that is the mystery of the oneness of all, a mystery both religious and spiritual.
And Now, the Orchestra
This article is intended as an overview of the orchestra and the elements, so if your favorite instrument is not mentioned, that’s because this description is not exhaustive.
Air is the Winds
It seems pretty obvious that wind instruments would correlate to the element of Air. A wind instrument produces sound by using the human mouth to move air across a reed or an edge. Wind instruments are all about the sounds created when air moves along a tube, and is stopped and controlled. The simplest wind instruments used by indigenous peoples around the world have literally been made from river reeds. The distinct tone of each unique instrument arises from the fact that, even though it has been carefully shaped, standardized and manufactured, most of its parts were once living, not metal, being made from wood, cane, rubber, cork, etc. The mostly-metal flute is an exception, but even the flute has a unique voice and some previously-alive parts and is subject to changes in its environment. Musical instruments are delicate and require care.
The orchestra’s wind section includes clarinets, oboes, bassoons, saxophones flutes and piccolos. Winds are often called the “woodwinds” even though not all wind instruments are made of wood.
Water is the Strings
The string section includes the violins, violas, cellos, double basses and the harp. Stringed instruments have a tremendous range of emotional expression from sadness to joy, giving the listener the feeling that the sound is tugging on their heartstrings. Historically, strings were literally made of the guts of animals so, in a way, this is the guts talking. When a stringed instrument is played, the vibration of the string resonates through a sound box. The string is typically bowed or plucked, although some are also tapped or hammered (like the dulcimer). Stringed instruments have the double benefit of being (for many people) not only the most emotionally affecting instruments but also highly portable. In their portability, strings are like winds except that strings leave the mouth free and thus can be accompanied by a human voice, adding another dimension of pathos via lyrics. Guitars of course fit into this category and are a prime example.
With all this emphasis on evoking strong feelings in the listener, it should be obvious that the string section parallels the element of Water.
Earth is the Percussion
The percussion section of the orchestra includes drums of all kinds and other oddments which are struck, such as cymbals, chimes, tambourine, xylophone and the triangle. Striking the instrument causes vibrations, which are felt in the earth and in the body. The suddenness and distinctness of the sound of percussion creates definition, separating one area of sound from another. Percussion creates the sound-structure on which the entire symphony (or other musical piece) is built. Sometimes instruments not typically thought of as percussion instruments are used percussively to create this definition, as when a guitarist strikes the guitar like a drum while playing it. The percussion’s emphasis on structure puts it firmly in the realm of Earth.
Fire is the Brass
The brass section includes trumpets, trombones, tubas and French horns. These instruments are called brass even though some are made of wood, and the thing they all have in common is the use the human lips to send a vibration into an essentially tubular instrument, controlling the tone by use of the valves. Brass differs from woodwinds in that brass instruments have no reed, whereas (most) woodwinds do.
Brass is an appropriate word for a section that parallels Fire, because both the element and the sound are the very definition of brassy. Brass is used in symphonic music when a heroic sound is wanted; brass is the heart of a marching band. Horns have historically been used at the hunt to generate a sound that resonates loudly, enabling groups of hunters to find each other and to communicate. Horns have been used on the battlefield to sound a cry of victory to arouse courage in the hearts of the troops and to strike fear into the hearts of the enemy (imagine trying to intimidate the enemy using a violin!). Today brass is commonly used this way at school sporting events, to raise courage and team spirit.
The Piano Stands Alone
The piano, or pianoforte, is an odd fit into the organization of an orchestra, because it is essentially a harp turned on its side, so it is a stringed instrument, however it is played by percussion, as the strings are struck and not plucked or bowed. Though the piano is technically classified as a percussion instrument, conceptually it stands alone, having a sound quality unique to itself and a tremendous emotional range whether played alone or with other instruments or with a full orchestra. It has an equal capacity to command attention by itself or to fade gracefully into the background while accompanying other instruments or the human voice. It has come to be classified as a “keyboard” instrument, along with organ and harpsichord. Because it doesn’t have a clear categorical fit, I’m not classifying it with an element.
Some Differences Between Instruments and Elements
Brass instruments differ from winds in that sound comes out of a brass instrument in one direction, whereas sound comes out of a wind instrument in every direction. This is an apt parallel to the tendency of Fire to barrel forward with great force while Air meanders, sometimes without apparent aim. Air’s wind instruments have a light, cool and intellectual sound, differing from the pathos and intensity inherent in the watery strings. The strings, while they are capable of percussion, have much more emotional range than the percussion, linking them to Water instead of Earth.
Symphonic Synergy and Elemental Excellence
Notice how each section, like each element, contains great range of tonal expression. High notes and low are available, so that any section or any instrument on its own can play a rich, stirring piece that has depth and substance (although some instruments, like the tuba and piccolo, usually take supporting roles and don’t stand alone much). The elements are this way too, each providing tremendous breadth of experience inside its own realm. But the real beauty occurs when they are combined. The elements have “chemistry,” not unlike an orchestra’s chemistry. Much of the richness comes from the ineffable qualities that arise when two or more very different elements are combined.
All four elements are present in some form in every human birth chart, but some will be weaker and some stronger. Thus each person’s elemental “chemistry” is unique. Your chart does not need to feature all four elements in balance for you to learn to “play” all the instruments in your “orchestra.” With practice, even the most emotional (watery) person can balance himself with clear thinking (air) and even the most stolid and practical (earthy) person can learn to rouse enthusiasm (fire) when it’s needed. The person that goes to the effort to learn how to draw on all four elements—mind, body, spirit, emotions—and how to blend them in ways right for the moment, lives a very complex and worthwhile life, whether they know anything about astrology or not. The parts of such a person will make beautiful music together.