The Nature of Music and the Soul

by Matthew Cole Austin and Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg

“…when lawlessness has established itself there [in music and poetry], it flows over little by little into character and ways of life.” Plato, Republic 424d

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The world is changing and we have become progressively desensitized to the increasing temptations available to us through our five senses. As Catholics we might think of the deadly sin of gluttony as merely the temptation to indulge in too much of the food and drink we desire. However, we have come to cultivate a culture of consumption that extends far beyond edible goods. We now consume gigabytes of data by those extensions of ourselves, our mobile devices. We consume endless television and consumer catalogues with our eyes. We increasingly consume spa-like services with our sense of touch. And now we even gluttonously consume with our ears.

By the nearly miraculous technological advancements of the modern age, an unimaginable volume and variety of music is available to nearly all of us and at all times. As Plato notes in the Republic, when lawlessness establishes itself in music, the lawlessness manifests itself into the polis. Disturbingly, the objective quality of modern music seems to degrade into further lawlessness in converse proportion to its proliferating availability.  Unfortunately, we might conclude that much of the music we listen to in the twenty-first century has harmful effects on us and on our culture at large. If this is true, and we assert that it is, than it is vital that we examine the constituent parts of modern music and how they correspond to the human person so that we might recognize potential danger and recover properly ordered sensibilities concerning this most delightful art.

Music is an ancient art form with many philosophical presuppositions. It was once known to adhere to the highest universal principles of artistic expression.  The universal and beautiful form of music can be heard in the polyphonic genius of the middle ages. The baroque masters soared to new heights of glory followed by the classical virtuosi who continue to impress in some small circles even today. Modern music in general however has now come to be a matter of subjective taste. We seem to have lost sight of what Dante Alighieri put so eloquently, “Art is the grandchild of God.” If Dante’s truthful expression holds, then there is in fact a morality that must accompany art; visual art, music, drama, ballet, and the like (Inferno, Canto XI).

Dante’s words draw us to one of the most obvious parallels between us and God, our participation in His creation. Just as God created the universe, along with those who live in it, we in turn sub-create orchestrations of music, and since this connection is true, music has an inherent tie to the three transcendentals of nature (truth, goodness, and beauty). There is an analogous tie between these transcendentals, the music we orchestrate and God’s creation of the human soul and its constituent parts of the intellect, will and the appetites.

The three correlative components of music, without which, music would no longer be… well, music, are melody, harmony and rhythm. The most important of these components is melody. This serves as the “truth” of a piece if you will which corresponds to the intellect since the object of the intellect is truth. It is what the composer first thinks of in his head and first notates, thus, without a melody, there would be nothing for a harmony to conform to. A song or piece of music would not simply have chords put together in succession without that “truth” to accompany them. Likewise, if there was no melody, there would be no point of a rhythm, the musical operative of time. The relation is simply this: without truth, there is no goodness or beauty; without melody, there is no harmony or rhythm.

Consequently, melody has numerous effects on the intellect of the human soul. Intellect is the faculty that allows one to know truth, and since melody is analogous to truth, a melody should be true itself, that is, it should express a balance of the virtues as it pleases the ear and delights the sou. If the melody is not well formed and correspondent to the beauty of creation, then the intellect perceives the defect as the ear hears the lie, albeit perhaps unconsciously when an untrue melody is heard. As with the eyes, there is no vigilant guard standing at the entrance to our souls to protect us from unsightly images, just so there is no protection against sound waves of music which inevitably makes a sense impression upon hearing.

In following the right order of things, the second most essential component of music is harmony. Harmony is the accompanying pitches of a melody that produce the mode of music, that is, whether it is major or minor (in grade school, we were probably taught that minor gives the impression of sadness, and major, the impression of happiness). In music, these pitches are either harmonious, or inharmonious. If they are the latter, they are dissonant; dissonance produces a sound that is naturally unpleasing to the ear, and as a result, needs to be resolved into some kind of harmony.

If this is true, harmony has a direct correlation to goodness. You could say that goodness is the equivalent to harmony in music, and evil (the absence of goodness), the equivalent of dissonance. Evil is, and should be displeasing to the human person, while goodness should be pleasing, for as Aristotle writes, “He is happy who lives in accordance with complete virtue and is sufficiently equipped with external goods, not for some chance period but throughout a complete life (Nicomachean Ethics, 1101a10).” Herein lies the connection to the will of the human person. This faculty of the soul enables one to choose goodness over evil freely, to avoid sin and pursue virtue. As dissonance relates to the absence of goodness, the will should choose harmony which conforms to the melody of truth.

The lowest of the components of music lies within its most physical component: rhythm; the arrangement of sounds in music such that they endure a particular length of time and stress is put on certain beats.  This is the aspect of music that allows it to operate within the confines of time, signifying that it has its relation in nature with beauty. As rhythm is perceptible only with time, beauty is only perceptible with time. Yes, there is a transcendental aspect of beauty, that which is the standard for all beauty, but we can’t perceive this standard on Earth, only its subjects. In regard to rhythm’s effects on the soul, music in the modern era has been reduced to its “feel.” What people mean by this is its beat or rhythm. The rhythms of modern music (not all, but most) are inordinate inasmuch that they appeal to the disordered appetites as well perpetuate disorder of the appetites in the human soul.

Music has a more formative power over the human soul than most would think, to illustrate, Dr. John A. Cuddeback, Professor of Philosophy at Christendom College, provides a thought experiment. It follows as such: Imagine yourself walking into a discotheque nightclub of sorts. You walk into the doors and what do your senses perceive? More importantly, what kind of music do you hear? Is it soft or loud? Is there a melody? Harmony? Probably not. Now imagine yourself walking into the same kind of club for a second time; however, instead of the music you heard before, you hear Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major. What is your reaction?

I would hope that your initial reaction would be one of surprise, a feeling of unnaturalness if you will. It is true that if Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto was indeed playing in such a club, the music itself would stand in profound and obvious contradiction to what was happening at the establishment. Take it a little further and compare the type of activity you might witness at a pulsating night club with flashing light and a sea of bodies gyrating and convulsing to the rhythm. Now flash over to the same setting without electronic music, but Mozart’s concerto. Would bodies be gyrating and convulsing?

The lesson here is this: we ought to be wary of the kind of music we listen to because surely it has a powerful formative influence on our intellects and wills. As it is posited by many fine thinkers including Plato, music has the power to influence even our conventional laws, how much more so can it shape our personal ethics and moral positions? Listen to popular music today and look around, the correlation is quite apparent with even a cursory glance at recent history.

Bad music should be treated as a temptation and as faithful Catholics we should avoid glutting ourselves by consuming too much music. Undoubtedly this comes to the light of our awareness in no easy manner, for a lot of us grow up in cultures surrounded by music of different sorts and we have come to enjoy it in such a way that we can become accustom to a declining standard of the good the true and the beautiful. But to answer the question of what music is good to listen to, a safe start would be classical music, folk music, and music before the 1900s. After our ears become accustomed to these genres, we will be more able to naturally judge the moral quality of music and the relationship between melody, harmony and rhythm and how this relates to the tri-part human soul and its intellect, will and appetites. Let us begin an honest dialogue about the dangers of glutting our ears on bad music.

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“As Damon says, and I am convinced, the musical modes are never changed without change in the most important of a city’s laws.” Republic 424c (Trans. Grube. Hackett Publishing, 1992)


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Transcendental Truth Goodness Beauty
Musical Component Melody Harmony Rhythm
Part of the Human Soul Intellect Will Appetites

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