How powerful is music? How influential is music on culture? Does it matter? Isn’t it all subjective, up to individual taste? To start off this reflection, read this passage on harmful music by Renaissance humanist Jacopo Sadoleto’s 1477 letter, On the Education of Boys.

What correctness or beauty can the music which is now in vogue possess? It has scarcely any real and stable foundation in word or thought. If it should have for its subject a maxim or proverb, it would obscure and hamper the sense and meaning by abruptly cutting and jerking sounds in the throat–as though music were designated not to soothe and control the spirit, but merely to afford a base pleasure to the ears, mimicking the cries of birds and beasts, which we should be sorry to resemble. This is to turn soul into body and weaken self-control. From this Plato most properly shrank in horror, and refused a place in his ideal state for such music as this. For when flaccid, feeble, sensual ideas are rendered in similar music, in kindred modulation of the voice, weakly yielding to lust, languishing in grief, or rushing in frenzied agitation toward the sudden passion of a disordered mind, what ruin to virtue, what wreckage of character do you suppose, must ensue?

Achieving a renewed appreciation for uplifting, ordered music in our lives is one of today’s great obstacles. How often do “catchy” songs with utterly mindless or even destructive and offensive lyrics embed themselves deep into our culture! The deleterious consequences of disordered music cannot be underestimated. Aristotle knew this.

Music directly imitates the passions or states of the soul… when one listens to music that imitates a certain passion, he becomes imbued with the same passion; and if over a long time he habitually listens to music that rouses ignoble passions his whole character will be shaped to an ignoble form.*

This is a powerful statement that calls for heightened levels of discretion when it comes to what we allow into our ears and minds. Are passions bad? No. Passions are totally healthy and necessary. Repressing them is dangerous. Perhaps, in their stoicism, some Greek philosophers were a bit too severe in their negative assessment of the role that passions play in our lives. But it is true that when passions become detached from reason’s influence they can easily lead us to destructive places. The aim of music should be to reinforce reason and the passions, and not cloud them. The ancients understood very well that music gets to the soul itself, for better or worse. We’ve forgotten that. Bad music is spiritual poison, even if it’s catchy and fast. Beautiful music is spiritual balsam, even if it requires patience and stillness. Depending on what music you’re listening to, your soul will either be edified or polluted. It’s tempting to shrug off the assertion that something as (seemingly) insignificant as music could have such lasting and powerful consequences on our culture. But it does.

In our post-Christian era, the music and pornography industries have merged. Look around. (Or don’t.) Superbowl Halftime Shows, the Grammy Awards and American Music Awards are glittering, multi-billion dollar spectacles in lowest common denominator entertainment. There was the (at the time) shocking “wardrobe malfunction” of some years past. Outrage ensued, which lasted for approximately .023 seconds. Now, no one is shocked. Everyone and everything is hyper-sexualized, and we just expect it and yawn. The degree of predictability in music today is uncanny. The music, such as it is, is unbearably cacophonous and dumb, while actual talent is tissue paper thin. “Singers” warbling out rambling, nihilistic lyrics are simultaneously engaged in a race to outdo each other in gross stripteases that, sadly, make headlines the next morning. This is what passes for music? For news? We should be embarrassed.

But for all their decadence and audacity, in one sense, they’re not stupid. Entertainers know what sells, and they respond accordingly and cash in. A high culture, i.e., one that understands how to recognize and produce music that is beautiful, does not tolerate this kind of garbage. In the past, those who did lowbrow things for cash were called rather unflattering names. Now, uber-rich philistines doing the same outlandish things are held up as “artists” and even as role models for children. Yeah, it’s bad.

When it comes to music, we tolerate a lot of garbage because it’s “catchy.” Canvasing the state of the world, perhaps we should be more discerning in what we allow to flood through our earbuds. Rates of depression, suicide, various forms of drug addiction, sexual abuse, crime in our cities (as we’ve recently seen in Milwaukee) are at all-time highs. Is it all the fault of disordered music? No. But music that elevates aggression, drugs, violence and “anything goes” when it comes to sex is certainly a clear symptom of a culture that’s gone south. And it keeps culture way off kilter on the road to self-destruction and utter exhaustion.

Benedict-pianoBut what is “ordered music”? How do we identify order when it comes to music? For this, we can look to the writings of Benedict XVI, a great student of classical music and pianist in his own right. Drawing on the wisdom of thinkers like Pythagoras and Goethe, Benedict observes,

Beauty comes from meaningful inner order. Goethe alludes to this idea when he speaks of the singing contest of the fraternity of the spheres: the mathematical order of the planets and their revolutions contains a secret timbre, which is the primal force of music. The course of the revolving planets are like melodies, the numerical order is the rhythm, and the concurrence of the individual courses is the harmony.  . . . The beauty of music depends on its conformity to the rhythmic and harmonic laws of the universe.  . . . The more that human music adapts itself to the musical laws of the universe, the more beautiful it will be. **

Benedict injects refreshing Trinitarian theology into this view of order by saying that all order that is found in the universe is ultimately rooted in the “mind of the Creator,” the Logos, “the art of God.” I have to say, there’s something intuitive about recognizing order in music. You know it when you hear it. The first time I heard Mozart’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra no. 5 at the Kennedy Center in DC years ago, I realized I had hit pay dirt in terms of a true encounter with order and Logos. The beautiful sounds certainly touched my passions, my emotions, but it was gentle and raw at the same time. I was only 17 or so, but sitting in that chair was heaven, and I knew that such music had to issue forth from an ultimate Source. I bought the CD and have since listened to it hundreds of times. (To this day, it’s at the very top of my Top 25 Most Played songs in itunes.)

Let’s follow the advice of Socrates and insist on high standards when it comes to the music we love and the music we don’t think twice about rejecting.

Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated ungraceful.***

* Donald Grout, A History of Western Music (Norton, 1988): 7-8.

** John F. Thorton, Susan B. Varenne The Essential Pope Benedict XVI (HarperOne 2007): 190-191.

*** Plato Laws III 700-701, from Great Books volume 7: 675-676.

For a sublime taste of musical beauty, listen Victoria’s O Magnum Mysterium, performed by The Sixteen.