When Plato set out to write the Republic, he was attempting to present a blueprint for a just society filled with just men. You might be surprised then to find several sections in which he discusses music. Plato, like many of the ancients, thought music was not invented but discovered; a sacrament that made the order and rhythm of the universe felt. “Rhythm and harmony,” he thought, “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.” In other words, music, because of its power to captivate us and bring us pleasure, also has to be evaluated morally. And in this, we moderns would think him entirely backward. Maybe the lyrics matter a little, but music itself is entirely neutral. Good music is in the ear of the listener. Plato himself would group us moderns with the fools of his day who “[I]n their mindlessness [they] involuntarily falsified music itself when they asserted that there was no such thing as correct music, and that it was quite correct to judge music by the standard of the pleasure it gives to whoever enjoys it, whether he be better or worse” (The Laws 700e).
This is not an attempt to empirically verify what Plato thought as true, but only to set the table by asking a simple question—what caused the sexual revolution? Put more precisely, why did things change so drastically in the mid-60s and 70s? It would be hard not to connect it to the revolution in music that preceded it. In fact we can do this for many periods of recent and not-so recent history; from the nihilism of the late 19th Century and its connection to the denial of tonality in music to the denial of tradition in the Romantic composers, Plato seems particular prescient—“ [A]s 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).
The Moral Aspect of Music
Although we could continue to trace the music-cultural connection, it is more instructive to examine the nature of music and its effects on morality to show why this will always be the case. What makes this particular topic difficult to discuss is that most of us have a fundamental misunderstanding regarding morality. We have come to see it mainly as following rules, that is, as a training exercise of the intellect. But the moral man is one who trains his will such that he learns to take pleasure in the right things. It is no unlike the man with a healthy diet in that he learns to like the taste of food that is healthy for him. When driven by pleasure alone he will consume only those foods that are sweet to his palate, treating health as, at best, a secondary concern. When he is concerned with his health and sees food as necessary to maintaining it, he will develop his palate such that he finds pleasure in foods that are truly good for him.
The food analogy is a helpful aid to understanding music. Music naturally has a capacity to move us and bring us pleasure. It is able to target specific emotions or evoke certain images. Military men were able to cover much greater distances when marching to music. They were able to go bravely into battle on the heels of the otherwise unarmed military drummers and buglers. Movies add to the suspense of the scenes by playing music. Try watching the shower scene in Psycho without the music and see if it elicits the same response from you. Music clearly feeds the soul and therefore we should ask how to separate the healthy music from junk food.
This inherent capacity of music to move us is where music takes on a moral component. Emotions are part of the constitution of man and are meant to be bodily responses to good and evil. They can be stirred up (or permitted to endure) interiorly through reflection or they can be stirred from contact with something exterior to us. When they are stirred up from the outside prior to any moral reflection, there is no moral aspect per se. But once we choose the particular emotion, then it becomes subject to moral evaluation. The morality of emotions is something most of us already grasp. What we may not realize however is that when we choose a thing because it will stir up an emotion, this too is subject to moral norms.
When we choose a song that we “like” what we are really saying is that “I like the emotion this music causes me to feel.” Fallen as we are, without reflection we tend towards those things that stir up base emotions. To continue to feed certain emotions develops in us a habit for those emotions to arise on their own with ever greater frequency. These unbridled emotions then dispose us towards vice, making it easier and more pleasurable. Music that is rhythm-heavy with a syncopated beat (like modern popular music and rock) for example, tends to stir up the base emotions associated with anger and lust. Train the body enough in these emotions and acts will follow. The angry teenager who only wants to listen to his music (he is addicted to the pleasure of feeling angry) and the “bumping and grinding” that sets the scene of the dance club are both caused by the accompanying music.
Because of the melody, harmony and rhythm, music has the capacity to bring us pleasure; and not just bodily pleasure. The melody and harmony can bring pleasure to our souls while the pleasure of rhythm can be felt bodily. Music that respects this ordering, placing rhythm at the service of the other two, will bring us spiritual pleasure. This gives us a way in which we might evaluate the quality of the music. Music that corresponds to the ordering of the soul, when the artistic primacy of melody and harmony above rhythm is respected, is objectively good music. Classical, folk and liturgical music are all examples of genres in which this hierarchy is respected.
Notice that I have said nothing about the lyrics. In truth, lyrics serve only, at best, a secondary role. To say “you don’t listen to the lyrics” doesn’t really change anything. Even if you don’t understand German, you know that Beethoven’s Ninth is an Ode to Joy. Much of the music in vogue today, you can’t understand the lyrics anyway. Regardless, lyrics are meant to serve the other aspects of the music. They are meant to make clearer the artist’s intent. In rhythm heavy rock and pop music, the lyrics are supporting the beat and the song would have the same effect (maybe not as deeply) without the lyrics. This is why Christian rock is an absurdity. The rhythm is saying one thing and the words another. There is no due proportion and the result is ugly in the truest sense of the word.
In a world where arguments are ignored(especially when someone might be addicted to the thing you are arguing about), there is value in personal experience. The easiest way for us to evaluate our own musical choices is to simply observe ourselves when we listen to a particular song. Where does your mind go and what emotions are stirred in you? What is it that you like specifically about the song? Conversely when you think of the “anti-one hit wonders” like Mozart, Bach, Palestrina and the like, what is it you don’t like about their music? Is it boring? That might be because you have been feeding on junk food for so long that you need to refresh your musical palate. With a steady diet of only music that uplifts your soul, you will come to draw pleasure from objectively good music. Trust me, if I, with the steady diet of crappy music I used to listen to, can do it then so can you. And you will be that much the better for it. In fact, society as a whole will be that much better for it.