Music and the Created Order

I wrote this in response to a Being Frank thread regarding loss of innocence in society and how this is reflected in music:

Yes, I don’t think people realize how powerful music is in affecting people and the society. There is a definite trend from the melodious and innocent music of the first half of the 20th century, to the much more aggressive, at times senseless (although sensuous) music of the latter half. What accompanied this trend was of course “sex, drugs” (“and rock’n’roll”).

In today’s climate of relativism, people see no problems with all and any kinds of music being presented to children and young adults. They follow what is called the “Praxial” view of music, which takes the truth that “different kinds of music have different purposes”, and take it to the extreme by saying that “therefore all music is as good as any other”. I see a huge problem in this.

The traditional view of music has been that some music is indeed better than others, and that it also plays a part in shaping people and societies for good or for ill. This is called the “Platonic” view of music, after Plato who said, “music is the movement of sound to reach the soul for the education of its virtue.”

The Platonic view of music is founded on the discovery of Pythagoras regarding the nature of sound and the ‘overtone series’. The overtones are produced on a vibrating string by dividing the string, first into a half, then a third, then a quarter and so on:

Overtone Series

These are the sounds naturally produced above the main note (or “the fundamental”), and this determines which notes produce a more consonant sound in relation to the main note. For example, if I vibrate a guitar string which plays the note A, the first overtone (produced by dividing the string into a half) is going to be an octave above. The next overtone would be a fifth above, and so on. This is how you would arrive at a chord – C, E, G – which consists of the fundamental (C), the fifth (G) and the third (E). They “fit” together because of the nature of vibration, and are thus rightly perceived to be “consonant” (the earlier in the overtone series, the more consonant the sound).

This Pythagorian discovery is also the basis of harmony in Western classical music, which works through tension and resolution created through movement from the dissonant to the consonant, masterfully crafted by composers such as J. S. Bach. Music of this kind is based on objective reality, in harmony with nature of creation. It’s no wonder then for someone like Bach to proclaim, “The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.”

Plato regarded music, more than any of the other arts, has the power to influence people and societies for good or for ill. He had this to say about musicians who disregard the created order in music:

Through foolishness they deceived themselves into thinking that there was no right or wrong way in music, that it was to be judged good or bad by the pleasure it gave. By their works and their theories they infected the masses with the presumption to think themselves adequate judges. …the criterion was not music, but a reputation for promiscuous cleverness and a spirit of law-breaking.

I think the very same injunction applies to today’s relativistic climate, where music often produces ambiguity in tonality (ie. the fundamental note in the chord is unclear) and violent harmonic dissonances and harsh sounds (ie. sounds full of dissonant overtones) are often celebrated. Is it any wonder that truth and morality are made to sound ambiguous, or claimed to be non-existent, and violent hearts, minds, actions and societal disharmony prosper in such an environment?

I, for one, think not.


4 thoughts on “Music and the Created Order”

  1. Good points. I have often thought that the general attitutude of “music is amoral” was incorrect. Sure, individual notes are amoral, as are individual letters of the alphabet. But once you string letters together into words, sentences, paragraphs…letters are no longer amoral. We all know of 4-letter words whose meaning is not good. In the same way, notes placed into sequences and groupings (melodies and chords) can carry meanings, even without words. Just listen to Yanni’s “summer nights”, and you’ll hear a demon of hopelessness speaking to you and telling you that you’re missing out on life and that there is no hope for your life – all without words.

  2. It’s not the music that’s immoral, its the lyrics and general foolhardiness of the average joe who prefers sex and violence and drugs.

    When the music stops singing, it becomes melodic and sweet to listen to.

    So long as it’s singing, it will always use words of our times. And we do live in a time where sex is the ultimate leisure, and being materially rich is something to aspire to.

    No doubt this ‘age’ will pass, but then again, even in antiquity we have seen a lot of sex and pleasure. Plato’s society was full of sexed up patrons. Lets not forget they didn’t have a problem with homosexuality.

    Sex is human nature, its our need to propagate species that we are programmed since birth to find sex a pleasurable experience.

    I for one see no issue with sex, its the violence that needs to be toned down. Music is pleasure, and humans, similar to animals and plants, LIVE for pleasure and AVOID pain wherever possible.

    Pain and pleasure principle is why music exists.

  3. Hi both,

    it seems we’re seeing representative voices from the two perspectives, “Platonic” (onthuhlist ) and “plaxial” (Chih).

    I think both points touch on aspects of the truth, although I tend to think the Platonic view does so more than the plaxial one.

    I tend to see the Platonic view as being more pragmatic. Music does affect our emotions (or passions, as oldschoolers might call it) in almost any ways conceivable. We don’t appreciate all emotions in the equal degree (an example would be a self-serving passions of a boy-racer who disturbs his neighbour and endangers his friends, as compared to self-giving passions of a soldier who sacrifices himself to save his comrades). It would seem from a very pragmatic point of view that therefore music would also have innate qualities that correspond to these. To say that all music and all emotions are on the same level and plane seems to me like believing in flat Earth.

    Having said that, though, the plaxial view does offer a further dimension into the matter. It recognizes the place each element has in reality, be it music or emotion.

    I think these perspectives can be reconciled by looking at what constitute a moral act according to natural law; namely, ‘object’, ‘end’, and ‘circumstance’, where ‘object’ is the thing or act itself, ‘end’ being the aim or intended goal (to what end the thing is done), and circumstance being the qualitative and quantitative aspects (eg. what situation, when, how, to what degree).

    Broadly speaking, the Platonic view focuses on the ‘object’, or the music itself. Plato would argue that some music is more conducive to moral behaviour than others, because the object itself contribute to forming virtue, and not all music is on the same plane according to nature in which we exist.

    The plaxial view seems to focus on the ‘circumstance’, pointing out that morality of a moral act is also determined by circumstance, and therefore music also. One would not, for example, turn up rock music on full volume in the middle of a retirement village at 2:30 in the morning, but it would be appropriate in a live concert venue in front of an audience who has come to hear it.

    Now, I believe both of these, as I said above, touch on aspects of the truth.

    For example, Chih, you presumably chose “melodic and sweet” as being ontologically good factors in music. Yet these are not necessarily intrinsic qualities in all music – music can exist without melody, and it can replace sweetness with other qualities much less conducive to goodness, such as nihilistic or violent qualities. In fact, this seems to be one of the more common accusations placed against contemporary music – that it is all about unthinking rhythm and constant beat, and that there is nothing but desolation in some forms of music so-called, where ‘sweetness’ is outlawed in the ‘music of power’. In such music, it is the elements in music, and not just lyrics, that determine its character. These cases uphold the validity of the Platonic view of music. It is the same as speech, in a way; tone matters more than the words themselves. Could this be why rock’n’roll, in its early days, frequently caused riots in its young audience, leading some states (if my memory serves me correctly) to ban such concerts?

    So I believe some forms of music intrinsically oppose formation of virtue. On the other hand, though, I believe some forms of music are not intrinsically (in its ‘object’) bad, but can be so depending on the circumstance, including the frequency and situation in which they are used. In which case, the aim would be to achieve the happy middle between excess and deficiency, as with many other moral acts. This is the call from Plaxial view of music.

    So, we see that the Platonic and Plaxial view of music are not necessarily contradictory, but complimentary in reaching the truth of the matter. It is the matter of shifting through them to identify elements of truth and rejecting the false from both, to reach the transcending truth. “There are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands”, as G. K. Chesterton would say.

  4. Hi,

    I thought I would treat the subject of sex and pleasure as a topic in itself in a new post, so here it is: Sex, Pleasure and Catholicism.

    I do agree that the “pain and pleasure principle” is behind music, although I think there’s the risk of it (and other things) being reduced to the principle alone. According to Peter Kreeft, there are two approaches to looking at the same reality; one can either limit to it (which he terms “reductionism”), or see it as a sign pointing to something greater (“sacramentalism”). It seems to me that only the latter provides ourselves and reality with any kind of dignity, since dignity itself is one of those things signed.

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