The moral power of musicREV. BASIL NORTZ, O.R.C.
Some Greek thinkers and past civilizations in general have held that good music disposes man to virtue whereas bad music disposes man to vice.
In more recent years the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau wrote "Music can be intoxicating. Such apparently slight causes destroyed Greece and Rome, and will destroy England and America."3 Cyril Scott, an eminent 20th Century composer wrote: "the prevalent notion holds that styles of music are merely the outcome and expression of civilizations and national feelings-that is to say that the civilization comes first, and its characteristic species of music afterwards. But an examination of history proves the truth to be exactly the reverse: an innovation in musical style has invariably been followed by an innovation in politics and morals. And what is more . . . the decline of music in [Egypt and Greece] was followed by the complete decline of the Egyptian and Grecian civilizations themselves."4
These men are cited in order to convey a sense of the gravity of this topic. It concerns not only our own personal human growth and progress towards holiness but also the very survival of our civilization. Inasmuch as the civilized public order of men depends upon a culture which seeks to perfect the private order of individuals, there is scarcely any more effective means for disrupting civilization than through a degenerate music, which inordinately stimulates the passions giving them free dominion, a veritable tyranny of avarice and sensuality. The thinkers mentioned and past civilizations in general have held that good music disposes man to virtue whereas bad music disposes man to vice. The music generally accepted by a civilization will profoundly determine its moral health, and ultimately its growth or demise.
It is important to note that philosophers do not say that music produces virtue or vice, but rather disposes one for the acquisition of one or the other. As one writer puts it: "Music can only suggest, encourage with its delights, not force anyone to act contrary to their best convictions, yet, many suggestions can undermine felt and reasoned convictions over a prolonged period of time."5 Moreover, the free choice to expose oneself to one form of music or another, especially repeatedly and over a prolonged period of time, is a moral choice itself, that is, this very choice is either virtuous or vicious.
But the question is: why does music have such a strong influence in disposing man to virtue or vice? To put it briefly, music as an art form is unique with regard to the object that it imitates. The philosophical axiom states: art imitates nature. Every form of human art must take from the created order elements that it imitates and arranges so as to articulate a feeling or conviction which the artist wishes to express to his fellow man. As such they have an effect on man.
What does music imitate? It is capable of imitating various things in our experience such as the sound of a blustery storm, the rushing of troops into battle, or the hectic bedlam of rush hour traffic. But the motion of musical sounds, expressed in various types of melody, harmony, rhythm, timbre and tonal texture, most importantly are capable of imitating man's own inner passions or emotions. There are certain natural bodily motions which commonly accompany man's feelings of joy, anger, hope, sorrow, fear, despair, love, hate and courage. Music is capable of imitating these same movements, and so evoke these feelings in the soul. In this way, music is a natural and universal language which is not learned, but immediately and connaturally felt. It is true that we can learn to associate certain memories and feelings with certain kinds of music due to repeated experiences. Nevertheless, for the most part, music, by its very melody, harmony, rhythm, etc., expresses specific emotions. There is no need to teach a child "this is happy music," or "this is sad music." As soon as happy music is played the child begins to dance. Whereas, when sad music is played a different reaction occurs.
The fact that music intensifies our emotional experience is obvious from sound-tracks that accompany movies. For example, imagine you are watching a horror-suspense movie. You know that there is a vampire waiting behind a door ready to spring out and attack. But the hero does not realize this, and he is about to open the door. There is a certain kind of music of suspense which sharpens the sense of impending danger. If the director chooses to put in such a scene circus music it would destroy the effect, because the emotion imitated and aroused would not match the emotional impact of the scene.
It is true that the other arts also work upon man's emotions. Take for example a statue, such as Michaelangelo's Pietá, which imitates the scene of Mary holding her dead Son Jesus. This statute arouses pity, compassion, and sadness because it depicts the Blessed Mother in the state of these emotions. Hence, those devoted to the Blessed Mother are easily moved whereas the impious may remain untouched. Music is different, because it does not portray others experiencing the emotion, but rather it directly imitates and so stimulates the emotions themselves. That is why music can be categorized according to the passion it imitates and arouses. There is joyful music, sad music, suspenseful music, romantic music, rebellious music, etc. A person would not usually confuse romantic music with a marching song, nor would they mistake music to celebrate victory with a funeral dirge. This is because even without there being lyrics to identify the feeling the composer wishes to arouse, the feeling is aroused. This point is of the utmost importance. Music consists neither essentially nor primarily in the lyrics. Whether a piece of music has words or not is accidental to the music itself insofar as it imitates and affects the passions. You do not need to understand German to know that the fourth movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is an Ode to Joy. The joy is felt, not intellectualized.
But what does all this have to do with disposing man to virtue or vice? The connection between music and the formation of virtue becomes clear when we realize that the two cardinal virtues of fortitude and temperance and the many other related virtues are primarily concerned with the ordering of our passions or emotions according to right reason. These virtues perfect our emotions so that we take delight in what is truly good and avoid what is truly evil. They increase our capacity to love truly and well, and unify our strength to oppose and overcome evil; they are the strongholds of man's character. We are talking about virtues like chastity, sobriety, meekness, patience, clemency, courage, humility and many others. On the opposite side there are the vices of drunkenness, lust, infidelity, harshness, cruelty, racism, jealousy and many other ugly beasts. The passions of our soul, which are love and hate, desire and aversion, joy and sadness, hope and fear, audacity and anger and despair will all be formed, either by virtue, in accord with right reason or by brute passion in vice. In order to acquire these moral virtues which beautify the soul by ordering the passions, man must habituate his emotions to act in accord with right reason.6 This is what the ancients meant when they said that good music fosters virtue, while bad music fosters vice.
Music can imitate a reasonable, ordered, honorable, virtuous emotion, in which case music helps dispose man to the virtuous and honorable ordering of his life. However, music can also imitate an unreasonable, disordered, dishonorable, vicious emotion. The old saying that music calms the savage beast may be true of old music, but it would hardly hold true for many forms of modern music, whose purpose often is to release the beast. In the Old Testament, when King Saul was troubled by an evil spirit he was calmed and delivered by David's harp playing. Should David have played upon the war drums or had he sounded the battle horns for attack, one could hardly expect Saul to have been calmed and brought back to his senses by such music. Is there any serious doubt in the mind concerning the category into which the modern electrified instruments would fall?
Many people think that the goodness or badness of music can be judged simply by its lyrics. It cannot be doubted that the lyrics themselves may be good or bad. Bad lyrics certainly magnify the depravity of bad music, and also vitiate otherwise good music. For example, if a composer writes a very solemn, beautiful hymn, and puts blasphemous words to it, great would be the perversion. So also if a composer wrote a piece of music which inspired great fortitude, and accompanied it with a lyric which called for the annihilation of a particular race or class of people, this obviously would be an evil song. For this reason, if the words are bad, then the music is especially to be avoided regardless of whether a person listens or pays active attention to the words, because the human mind is influenced nevertheless.
But the point of our present argument is, as Marshall McCluhan observed: "The medium is the message." That is to say, the music: its melody, harmony and rhythm, all by itself disposes man to virtue or vice by moving the emotions. Therefore, the way in which they move the passions should serve as a principle basis for judgment on whether any given piece of music is good or bad.
It is an unfortunate mistake to think that moral formation consists simply in teaching children the Ten Commandments. Such instruction provides good and important intellectual formation, but it is not moral formation. Moral formation is the formation of the will and the emotions, accustoming them to delight in their proper objects. How can we teach our passions to rejoice in accord with right reason? Music is one of the most powerful means. This is what Plato meant when he wrote in the Republic, "Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul."8
There exists a large assortment of good music. No particular style or period of music has a monopoly on that claim. Each person will find some types more to his taste than others. Nevertheless, the principles of judgment concerning good and bad music can not possibly be reduced to a mere matter of personal taste and preference any more than the moral virtues are a matter of personal taste.
The degree to which each individual is affected by music will certainly vary due to temperament and character. Nevertheless, just as we can indicate general norms of virtuous behavior based upon the proper ordering of the passions to right reason, so too we can indicate general norms for good music based upon whether the passions imitated are according to right reason or not. In a word, good music will stimulate the emotions in such a way that these faculties of the soul, under the guidance of reason, are made to more effectively pursue the good of the individual and his neighbor. Bad music tends to absolutize the passions, making their pleasure or hate a good in itself, such that right reason more and more loses dominion with the result that the individual falls victim to the passions. Hence, it is not perchance that disordered music naturally advocates libertinism, rebellion and chaos.
Apart from the emotional effects that the progeny of rock music has on man, there are also verifiable physiological effects, such as the increase of adrenaline in the blood stream which makes the music physically addictive.10 Also it causes the out-pouring of sexual hormones when the volume of the music is high which is practically the norm, especially in concerts and places for dancing.11 These physical repercussions also serve as indicators of the effect this music can have on the moral life. Since the moral virtues of temperance and fortitude do not reside in man's purely spiritual faculties of intellect and will, but in the passions of his soul they are more easily disturbed by such bodily changes.
By contrast, let us now consider the musical antithesis of rock music: plain chant. Here we note that the emotions are being stimulated in a very different way, not in a riot of passion, but peacefully in a way that serves reason and respects the integrity of the individual. Plain chant has been preferred for sacred worship in the Church, and even before Christ in the Jewish praying of the psalms. Such is the case not simply because it so perfectly serves to convey the meaning of the text; but because plain chant itself conveys a sense of peace, reverence, purity, and humility.
The point is not that plain chant is the only good music, nor that all good music is like chant, except in that all good music stimulates the emotions in a way consonant with reason. The Baroque period as well as the Classical or Romantic Period offer many fine pieces of such music, although to many they seem too complex and inaccessible. Beyond these there is also a wealth of traditional folk songs from America, Germany, Ireland, France, Italy, Spain, etc. which have entertained and delighted Christian peoples for centuries. These, along with many other types of good music are just waiting to be rediscovered.
Good music touches the soul delightfully and elevates it nobly; whereas bad music corrupts the soul as profoundly as error corrupts the mind, because just as the mind should not be enslaved by untruth, so too the soul should not be enslaved by tyrannous passion. It is so very important to realize that it is not simply the lyrics that will affect man, but the music itself enters into the deepest recesses of the soul to influence man even more profoundly. Words must first be understood by the mind, but music is immediately grasped by the emotions.
It seems a great paradox that this hour in history which enjoys an unprecedented
accessibility of music should suffer from a correspondingly unprecedented ignorance
or denial of the incredible power and influence that music has on the moral formation
of man. However agreement is found in this: both the producers of bad music and
the commercial empire that uses it for its purposes, both want to manipulate man
through his passions. It was to such music that Israel reveled before the golden
calf of avarice and debauchery, while Moses was on the mountain receiving the
Ten Commandments, which so perfectly articulate right reason. That he shattered
the tablets of the Law in his righteous indignation made manifest what Israel
was doing with its debauched music before the golden calf. The incident is both
historical and perennially true. As one author puts it: "Possibly the greatest
weakness of the modern materialistic outlook upon the world is its inability to
perceive the causes behind effects. If anywhere, it is here that the philosophers
of ancient China, India, Egypt and Greece deserve our fullest respect, since it
could be said that they specialized in seeing to the cause and core of things.
And they most certainly would have agreed with Thoreau, that music can destroy
civilization."12 The ancients may yet have a thing or two to teach
us which bear upon the survival of western civilization, if only we have the humility
Rev. Basil Nortz, O.R.C. "The moral power of music." The Homiletic & Pastoral Review (April 2002): 17-22.
This article is reprinted with permission from The Homiletic & Pastoral Review. All rights reserved. To subscribe phone: (800) 651-1531 or write: Homiletic & Pastoral Review PO Box 591120 San Francisco, CA 94159-1120
Copyright © 2002 Homiletic & Pastoral Review
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.