Beauty in Music: Inspiration and Excellence

Center for Western Studies

Reprinted with gracious permission from The Society for Classical Learning, where it first appeared.

I. Beauty in Music

“[A]nd the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and he became a living soul.” Genesis 2:7

Rhythms, melodies, harmonies speak to us of immaterial things

The modern world is full of false dichotomies. There are divisions between reason and revelation, fact and value, and male and female that require careful definition so that the desired joining of the two is possible. The division between the material and the immaterial, that is, the body and the spirit, is one of these. Genesis 2:7 speaks of forming Adam from the ground, and breathing into him the breath of life, or the spirit. Two things indeed, but curiously, the result of the combination of these two is the living soul. The one thing that seems clear here is that the soul is alive, and that it somehow is the combination of the two elements of matter and spirit.

The manner in which one walks can show the point of intersection between the physical and the spiritual – that is, the interface between the sensation of literal movement in sight and sound and the conclusions drawn about the intangible personality, mood, and emotional state of the walker. When the tempo of the walk is varied, observers draw different conclusions about the walker’s state of mind. What does tempo have to do with intangibles such as intention, friendliness, or confidence?

Plato’s famous lines in the third book of The Republic speak of how the musical modes are linked directly to the various character traits he is either for or against in his ideal City.

‘And which are the harmonies expressive of sorrow? You are musical, and you can tell me.’
‘The harmonies that you mean are the mixed and tenor Lydian…and such like.’
‘These then,’ I said, ‘must be banished…’

These modes are the basis for both melody and linear harmony, and when combined with rhythm made a place for music that was far larger in scope than that we offer today. That scope is nothing short of soul-shaping. In the conclusion to the Preface of his thoughtful book on musical aesthetics, philosopher Roger Scruton sees this scope:

It came as a surprise that so dry a question as “what is a sound?” should lead at last to a philosophy of modern culture. Had I thought more about the Pythagorean cosmology, and the true meaning of harmonia I should perhaps have known beforehand, that the ordering of sound as music is an ordering of the soul.

Plato seems to be recommending nothing short of government-run musical censorship. Our present-day enlightened embrace of all musical expressions is not so much the result of a hard-fought battle for individual freedom as a belief that music has no such powers to shape and affect the soul. If we really believed that music had the effect of training the next generation to be dissolute, irresponsible, and cowardly, we might find ourselves censoring music.

Listening to music is not the same activity as listening to sounds in general. The difference between them is that we listen to sounds in order to know the thing making the sound (the sound of a car or the sound of a baby crying), but we don’t listen to the sound of music to hear an oboe playing, or a guitar strumming. Rather, we listen to hear the sound it is making. We may recognize the sound comes from an oboe, but we want to hear what the oboe is playing. There is the source, but there is meaning in the order of the sounds themselves. The goal, when we listen to music, is to hear what it is saying: the contours of the melody, the harmony, the rhythm speak to us of a musical event. These elements are the medium by which the communications come – these elements are the language of the composer/performer.

Beauty is partly the correspondence between the material and immaterial

When we do hear these elements, we verbalize the experience in terms that are similar to other aspects of life. We describe personality traits, emotions, ideas, moods. Often unconsciously our minds are looking for patterns, symmetries, orders, and expressions that will speak to us of meaning. These physical sounds correspond to these intangible aspects of human experience. If there is a shape or trajectory to the experience of hurt in a broken heart, or the experience of awe before a King, it may be that composers can capture something of it in the various elements of a composition. The beauty of the work is partly the result of this perceived correspondence. There is something fitting, right, correct, or profound in a successful work that is beautiful, but to be able to perceive this correspondence, we need another element.

The imagination exists not so much for the purpose of making things up, but for recognizing correlation, relation between things – seeing connections. It is not by accident that we agree that the rhythm discovered in a brisk walk to the podium reflects confidence, or urgency, while a broken rhythm implies indecision, distraction, anxiety. We have experienced the connection between these things so often that we have learned to become fluent in this language.

Imagination is an organ of perception with which we can make this correlation: it pairs the physicality of a perceived music with human moods, characteristics, states of mind or personality. Just as we have linguistic metaphors, we also have musical metaphors. We describe the aspects of music in non-musical terms all the time: loud sudden outbursts may imply anger; melodies can be described as languorous, angular, smooth, tender, demanding, or questioning. These are by their linguistic nature metaphoric – the sounds themselves have none of these characteristics. Music is by its nature disembodied so if we are to speak of what it expresses, we are forced to use metaphoric language. The imagination grasps these relations. Could it be that our imaginations are not “making things up,” as much as recognizing a truth in correspondence? When we find just the right metaphor, when we hit on the right combination and communicate it precisely, it is part of the experience we call the perception of beauty.

The telos of music

Music is thought to be an entertainment, a diversion, a mood-setter, or a time-filler. But for the ancient and medieval scholars, music was a window through which one could see the created order, as well as a way of training the soul toward integrity.

The beauty of music is one of the sources of Plato’s hierarchy of love in the Symposium and in The Republic:

And therefore, I said, Glaucon, 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; and also because he who has received this true education of the inner being will most shrewdly perceive omissions or faults in art and nature, and with a true taste, while he praises and rejoices over and receives into his soul the good, and becomes noble and good, he will justly blame and hate the bad, now in the days of his youth, even before he is able to know the reason why; and when reason comes he will recognize and salute the friend with whom his education has made him long familiar…
…Thus much of music, which makes a fair ending; for what should be the end of music if not the love of beauty?

Plato taught that a love of music instilled a love of beauty that spilled over into all areas of life, leading up the hierarchy to love of justice. Roger Scruton has written, “…beauty is not simply a redundant addition to the list of human appetites. It is not something that we could lack and still be fulfilled as people. It is a need arising from our metaphysical condition as free individuals, seeking our place in an objective world.”

If the telos of music is beauty, how then do we teach music? By training our students’ imaginations, starting with how to hear the elements of music. The elements of Adam were matter and spirit, fused together to make a living soul that reflects the Imago Dei. The elements of music are: rhythm, melody, harmony, form, texture, and timbre, fused together to make a composition that can reflect the ideas, experiences, the very humanity of both composer and listener. Knowing what to listen for, we begin a new way of listening for the student. The ability to discern, to distinguish, to perceive the language of music is the beginning of genuine taste about music, and taste is a facet of wisdom. So music is forming our souls; it really does matter what we listen to, and what we offer in our services, just as it matters what our churches look like, and how our liturgies are designed, not only for didactic purposes – to have our theology correct – but to link the harmony of the Trinity with our daily lives.

So where does music come from? Is there more to music than emotional expression or mood setting?

II. Inspiration

“…I have called by name Bezalel…and I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge…” Exodus 31:2

The Greek Muses

Many of the Greek writers mention the Muses. Homer, Socrates, and others speak of them, but Hesiod is the one who speaks of the specifics that are commonly held. There are nine:

Calliope – eldest, epic poetry
Clio – history
Erato – love poetry
Euterpe – music
Melpomene – singer of tragedy
Polyhymnia – sacred poetry and geometry
Terpsichore – dance
Thalia – comedy and pastoral poetry
Urania – astronomy/astrology

These nine sing their inspirations. The Muses inspired far more than the subject of music only. Their subjects include all of our human artistic and intellectual pursuits, and the inspiration for each was conveyed by way of song. The very word music is taken from Mousike Techne (“the work of the Muses”). Nearly everything that we today refer to as “the arts and sciences” were, in the Greek mind, inspired through song by the Muses, and that inspiration leads Homer to compose The Illiad, leads Thucydides to write The Peloponnesian Wars, leads Sophocles to write Oedipus Rex, and leads Pythagoras to discover musical harmony and the music of the spheres. What comes is an approach which is so inspired, that is, that resonates with the truth to such a degree, that it will feed philosophers, scientists, and artists for millennia: the prerequisite for beauty is harmonia – the fitting, right, and mathematically sound interrelations of disparate objects. These Nine Muses were the keepers of the secret knowledge of harmony, and the significance of this knowledge and its power and influence over all of life are symbolized by the fact that they are the daughters of Zeus himself.

Beauty can be reflected in painting, sculpture, photographs, but there are arts such as plays, films, and music that include another aspect of human experience: time. As soon as you introduce the element of time, one’s perception of the work requires the ability to remember what has already occurred. Memory thus becomes a significant aspect in the immediate apprehension of these arts. To lose your memory is to lose yourself. If you can’t recall your identity, every effort must be made to rectify the situation. Memory is essential to identity. It is also essential to apprehending music, for exactly the same reason.

Music traces a pattern in the mind that lingers after the music moves on. The memory holds that trace, and the composer counts on our capacity to do so in order to describe the pattern fully. Like words in a sentence, we encounter music as moments in linear succession, but musical patterns are made without words; that is, the pattern is not literal but rather more like patterns in architecture or a garden because they too are each apprehended in succession. The Greeks gave one answer for both the questions: Where does music come from, and what part does memory play in its perception? We know that the father of the Muses is Zeus himself, but we seldom hear about their mother: her name was Mnemosyne (“Memory”). So, for real inspiration, great knowledge, for our right creative gifts to be released to do their jobs, to comprehend the nature of tragedy, epic, history, science, dance, even theology, we need the authority of Zeus, but we also need the knowledge of what has gone before – we need memory. This memory is not only of the previous words and notes in the artwork to which we presently attend, but the knowledge of our own history. What have great artists of the past done? How are we inheritors of their wisdom?

How then do we teach music? History. We need to remember. But there is one more thing to consider.

III. Excellence

“Finally, brothers, whatever things are true,… honest,…just,… pure,…lovely,…of good report, if there be any virtue, and if there be anything worthy of praise, think on these things.” Philipians 4:8

Our day is as much the product of history as any other day. We are the inheritors of a relatively new field of study called aesthetics. It is a modern word, first coined in the 18th century, and discussed at length by Immanuel Kant and others until eventually the whole line of inquiry was relegated to the subjective world of values, to join her sister faith in that limbo. As a result, in the last 225 years, our culture has assumed that beauty first is only a matter of individual experience, and eventually, a matter of purely personal preference. Once the goal is mislaid, it is impossible to gauge whether a work is growing closer to it, so the loss of a telos requires the loss of a concept of excellence. Innovation and technical ability soon take the place of real imagination, correlation, and beauty.

Thus, the loss of what the ancient Greeks and Christians, as well as the Medieval Christians, thought of as excellence in art in general and music in particular is really a modern loss of confidence. The literal meaning of confidence suggests acting con fide (“with faith”). A lack of faith in God leads eventually to a lack of the ability to produce “simple predication” (as Richard Weaver would say). At first we lose the ability to say, “This is the point of art.” Then we lose the ability to say, “That is beautiful and that is not.” Then “that is art and that is not.” And eventually we find we can only say, “There is nothing more to art than the shock of the new; the expression that forces an audience to respond.” Reinstate faith, and we find ourselves led back to a definition of beauty that finds its source in the perfect character of God, and once He is our standard, “better” and “worse” are meaningful categories again. Beauty is the goal of art – I don’t say “prettiness” is the goal – I say beauty.

Then what is this beauty? How many philosophers have run aground making rules about beauty? What we need are not so much cultural standards by which to retroactively judge the beauty of an object; what we need is a useful foundational principle and definition of the word “objective.”

Objective beauty is simply that which is found in the object rather than in the response of the viewer/listener. Thomas Aquinas held that beauty was defined both by the characteristics of the object and the effect that object has on the viewer/listener. Ultimately, the Christian view of beauty will include both aspects in imitation of higher models, but when one’s day is dominated by the subjective side of the spectrum, as we are today, a reintroduction of the opposite side is welcome. We must reintroduce the study of form. When one describes the contours of the piece of music itself, the way it is composed, the way it is performed, the form it offers for contemplation, the meaning of the words chosen, one is describing the object itself, and the resulting opinion offered based on these things should be called “objective.” Don’t make the mistake of hearing “objective” as a synonym for “truth” as some will assume. The truth is far more illusive, and we have hardly scratched that surface with this approach. But what we have done is regained a category for musical discussion that requires thought. What we need is a definition of objective that leads to a fuller understanding of the work instead of considering a work based solely on whether or not we are moved by it. Teaching objectively about music means that we will address three aspects (at least):

Performance (an evaluation of the virtuosity of the performer)
Composition (an evaluation of the means of musical expression)
Content (an evaluation of the message or statement of the work)

All three of these require study, and that study will not only reveal what there is to know about the piece of music in question, but also will hone the sensibilities of the listener to be increasingly able to discern and explicate music. Over time, exposure to this sort of approach feeds our starved imaginations on excellence, and we find that instead of having to tell students not to listen to music that we might consider bad for them, they find they simply aren’t all that interested in the trivial, the base, the coarse. There would be nothing more encouraging for a music teacher than to hear a singer screaming his one-dimensional song of pain and passion, longing to be taken seriously, only then to see his student yawn and change the station.

A Theological basis for excellence

What then would be a basis for a Christian school intent on teaching excellence? We teach that taste is more than personal preference; it is a facet of wisdom. Taste is the ability to discern between what is good and what is excellent. Discernment comes more by way of regular exposure and experience (as a master trains the wine-taster’s palate or the piano tuner’s ear) than with rules and requirements. What is needed is a master teacher who can not only know music but make connections from music, by the imagination through metaphors, to the realm of human experience, and finally to real theology.

Any work of art requires an element of unity and of diversity combined. The Greeks debated about the one and the many, but great works have both elements. The reason is that the Creation itself reflects both unity and diversity in each of its categories (such as tree, fish, man), and we find we are only satisfied when the two are present. Too much unity? Tedium. Too much diversity? Chaos. Why should it surprise us that both the Creation and our tastes are created by a God who is ultimately both perfect unity and harmonious diversity in His Trinity?

The basis for the work of art-making is found in the doctrine of the Incarnation. We are taking invisible things such as ideas, experiences, feelings, and making them perceivable through the various physical media we use (clay, film, stone, paint, music).

Even the basis for an understanding of why we need musical education is theologically based. Our imaginations are damaged by the Fall as well. Through the study of music (or art in general) we grow in our abilities to see connections between things. In modern thought the damage done to our tastes is ignored by simply relegating the entire category of beauty to the dustbin of subjectivity, but a kind of human maturity can come as the result of taking the claims of beauty seriously. The reality is that we are aesthetically damaged as well as in every other way, and the only way back to fuller humanity is through prayer and a rethinking of the definition of taste for His glory.

Education is more than teaching about subjects; it is the training of the sensibilities to love that which is worth loving, attaching the heart to the good. Music has been taught in the Classical and Medieval worlds as a means of shaping the soul to live the good life. We need to rekindle an appreciation for music in that way, rather than offering either standardless popular music or esoteric academic music. I am convinced that if we were to take the connections to our theology seriously we would find we could reintroduce the general public to the concert hall again, as the music there would be relevant again.

So, how then do we teach music? We do it by way of comparison. Compare the works of our composers in the past and the present, and offer the foundation of criteria to evaluate the object, beginning with the performance, the composition and the content. Then, include the aspect of making music, by piano, orchestral and band instruments, and choral singing. The composition makes use of the form and elements of music, and that, with a sense of what the music is saying, leads the performer to his interpretation. It is what makes music meaningful to all concerned.

IV. Conclusions: a sacramental view of the world

“For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who claim to see shall become blind.” John 9:39

The Naturalism that disallows serious consideration of the supernatural has led to many unforeseen consequences, not the least of which is the loss of the spiritual purpose of material things. When Jesus calls himself the vine and us the branches, he has opened our eyes to an aspect of the Kingdom of God, but in speaking so, he has also given a great honor to vines. Without the supernatural dimension in our thinking, we may still have vines, but on closer inspection, we will find that vines have lost something in the transaction. They are somehow less grand.

In the same way, a sacramental view of music grants a special honor and significance to music – a position that allows us insight into the mind of God and his Creation by way of harmony.

The combination of a sacramental view of the world with a holy imagination can feed the soul with visions of the transcendent through the details of the world. This is beauty – the correspondence of the material object with the transcendent spirit – a resonance of harmony heard through the din of the fallen world. Please note I do not say in spite of the fallen world – although it is that at times – but even by way of the fallen world. This is the power of God: to show His harmony even through the elements of brokenness around us.

A sacramental view of the world suggests a metaphoric relationship between the physical and the spiritual, and this in turn gives rich depth to metaphors of all kinds, including musical ones. It also gives us a purpose for art and music: beauty. Beauty is at least in part the recognition of the correlation of matter and spirit, and we need to teach the next generations to unpack those metaphors – to see sacramentally. This requires the inspiration of God the Holy Spirit, the true Muse the Greeks could only guess about, and the gift God gives us of an imagination.

Beauty has lost its way in the 20th century in that we have lost our connection with the transcendent – that is, you cannot have the experience of seeing through the objects of this world into the next if you no longer believe there is a next. Naturalism, that seemed so optimistic in the 18th century, now appears a dead-end intellectually. Nature apart from her Creator becomes meaningless matter, and sadly, human enterprise can aspire to nothing higher than that same soul-less existence. The modern man (and I include the post-modern man in this) is haunted by his own humanity, seeing the ghosts of meaning, significance, ecstasy, profundity, joy, in the daily grind of his life. When he stops to reflect, he senses the musical rhythm in his breathing, his heartbeat, his walking pace; sometimes there seems to be more to eating meals than sustenance; he catches the notion of harmony in a well-run football play; perhaps a momentary glimpse of unity where he most expects diversity, say in his marriage; or diversity where he most expects unity, say in his twin children; he may even lift his head from anxiety long enough to find a certain joy in the rhythm of sleeping and working, or maybe looking back on a long life, discern even a kind of melody in his days, a certain beauty in the rise and fall of his fortunes, each connected in a line to the others in ways that couldn’t be seen while going through them.

This is what music is for. More than simply a means of distraction from the hard aspects of life – like a sort of emotional drug used to deaden us or entertain us while we rest – music has the ability to outline something of the actual experience of living. It speaks of the human condition because it is, like any metaphor, the use of the physical material of this world to draw attention to that which transcends our present moment. It has the ability to both reflect our experiences and shape the way we see them.

Music education then, has the ability to remind us of the relation of this matter and spirit, shaping our souls to love the beauty of harmony. This is why the ancients educated by way of music and gymnastics. This is why music has always held the position it does in the Quadrivium. Musical education leads to a love of harmony in all things.

How do we teach music? The elements, the history, the comparisons of excellent works, and finally the extension of this harmony – which is the beautiful relation of disparate things – to all aspects of life: to justice, to marriage, to virtuous business relations, to love of those who are different than yourself, to math, science, philosophy, and ultimately to the Triune God Himself. The beauty of harmony tunes our affections to virtue, love, and the mind of God.

Music rightly understood cannot save our souls, but what writer and critic Donald Drew has said about great literature applies to music as well, “after experiencing it, there will be more of a soul there to save.”

 

Works Cited

Plato. The Republic, Book III.
Scruton, Roger. Aesthetics of Music.
_______. “Beauty and Desecration,” City Journal, Feb. 2009.

About the Author

John Mason Hodges is a conductor, lecturer, composer, and writer. He holds degrees in music from University of Maryland and Indiana University, and worked as a professional conductor from 1983-2009. He lectures on the subjects of aesthetics, classical education, and music, and writes for various publications on the arts. He held the position of Associate Professor of the Arts and Culture at Crichton College where he taught classes on worldview, history of music and visual art, and reader’s theater; directed theater productions, and was founding director of the Institute for the Arts and Cultural Apologetics. He is founder and director of the Center for Western Studies, and serves as scholar-in-residence for the National Fellows movement.

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