Thursday, July 24, 2008

Can music save your mortal soul?

I have found, when my ears are accosted at home with unpleasant sounds purporting to be music, that Shakespeare comes in handy. “This music mads me,” I will say to my 16-year-old son, who is the most common source of the dissonance. “How irksome is this music to my heart!” I will declare to my 12-year-old, who is listening to some newly discovered band. “When such strings jar, what hope of harmony?”

They get the message.

It sometimes seems a part of the cycle of life—doesn’t it—for parents to criticize their children’s music? What to the ears of the younger generation is sweet perfume sometimes sounds to the older one more like dirges in the dark. It must just be part of parenting, this tendency to say the same thing to our children about what they listen to as our parents said to us. And as the words leave our mouths, it occurs to us that, 25 years or so down the road, their own children will be listening to something else, which our children will resist with the same protests, remembering how their own music used to make them smile.

Most people, I suspect, simply conclude from this that it’s all a matter of taste, that there really is no fixed point from which one generation’s music can be said to be better than another’s. And when we do this—relegate music to the less important category of things for which no verdict can be returned—they have taken the first step toward the modern tendency to underestimate the importance of music.

But the very fact that we think we can argue about it betrays a deep-seated understanding that there are judgments we can make about music, that some are right and some are wrong—that some music is good and some music is bad. Whatever we believe about whether a particular piece of music is good or bad, most of us would agree that music can have an exalting or degrading effect on us. But we do argue about it, and apparently think it is rather important.

Indeed, one of the salient features of modern culture is its apparent obsession with music.

“Nothing,” said Allan Bloom, in his 1987 classic The Closing of the American Mind, “is more singular about this generation than its addiction to music.” Music is what young people seem to admire the most.

Today, music is easy to acquire. But that’s not how it used to be. It wasn’t that long ago that there simply was no other way to hear music than to hear it live. Music was something you heard at social gatherings, such as dances and concerts. But then there came the phonograph record, which allowed people to hear music without being in the presence of the actual people who played it. Then there was magnetic tape, which formed the basis for later 8-track players, and then cassette tapes, and then the compact disc (the “CD”), and now the digital recordings which have overtaken them all.

I remember a few years back now, around the time we had young children, I walked into a “record store.” It had been about two years since I had bought any music. I looked around in vain for the LP albums, seeing nothing but CDs. So finally I walked up to the cashier and asked, cluelessly, “Where are the records?”

But he just smiled and turned away.

The easy availability of music certainly has something to do with why there is so much more of it now than before, but we still seem to somehow need it more than we used to. Why?

The power of music has long been acknowledged in Western thinking. Plato believed that music was “bestowed for the sake of harmony”—Music had the power to restore the soul when the soul had lost its harmony. In his Republic, musical education (which included poetry) was essential in the inculcation of virtue.

Music has not only been seen as facilitating virtue but as exciting devotion. Sir Thomas Browne, in his Religio Medici, said music could strike in him “a deep fit of devotion and a profound contemplation of the First Composer.” It was the earthly image of the divine order, “an Hierogliphical and shadowed lesson of the whole World, and creatures of God.”

More modern writers too have acknowledged the power of music. In George Orwell’s 1984, Winston Smith has had his very humanity suppressed by the “Party.” But, being essentially human, his humanity cannot be fully effaced, and he recognizes in the simple song of a prole woman, as she washes clothes, the strains of the human. Members of the Party, Smith observes, never sing.

And it is not only philosophers and novelists who appreciate the humane power of music. When the spirit of the Lord departs from Saul in the sixteenth chapter of the book of Samuel, and the Lord sends an evil spirit, Saul’s attendents advise him to hire a musician:
But the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord troubled him. And Saul’s servants said unto him, Behold now, an evil spirit from God troubleth thee. Let our lord now command thy servants, which are before thee, to seek out a man, who is a cunning player on a harp: and it shall come to pass, when the evil spirit from God is upon thee, that he shall play with his hand and all shalt be well.
That player turns out to be David. In fact, if it hadn’t been for his skill on the lyre, David would never have come to Saul’s court, and would never have become king, and a Savior could never have come from his line.

Not only can music soothe the savage beast within, but the god without. In ancient times, music—rhythm in particular—was seen as having the power to seduce even the gods. Rhythmic prayer was seen as the preferred method of gaining the ear of the divinities: it would be easier for the god to remember, and the rhythmic sound could be heard over long distances. “Thus one tried to compel the gods by using rhythm and to force their hand,” said Friedrich Nietszche. “Poetry was thrown at them like a magical snare.”

What is it about music that gives it this kind of power?

In ancient times, music was thought to reach the soul more directly than rational speech. This was Plato’s reason for carefully censoring music in his Republic. He believed, as Alan Bloom pointed out, that “music is the medium of the human soul in its most ecstatic condition of wonder and terror”:
Music is the soul’s primitive and primary speech and it is alogon, without articulate speech or reason. It is not only not reasonable, it is hostile to reason. Even when articulate speech is added, it is utterly subordinate to and determined by the music and the passions it expresses.
Music, unlike literature, bypasses the rational. This is what makes it so appealing—and so dangerous. This is how it can reach us deep inside—causing us to sing in praise or to clench our fists in rage.

“Who,” said Nietszche, “can refute a tone?”

There is an order of ontological importance in which music holds the predominant place, and it is well-stated by Peter Kreeft: “Poetry,” he says, “is fallen music, and prose is fallen poetry.” Music is the highest thing, then poetry, then prose. Poetry shares with music rhythm, and with prose words: it is musical prose, prosaic music. This is why Plato includes poetry in the musical education of the guardians in his Republic. Music is at the top and prose at the bottom. The modern view of music turns this order upside down.

We see the modern view articulated in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, when Satan leaves his new home in Hell to see what mischief he might cause on Earth. The first thing the demons do when Satan leaves (Well, actually it is the second thing. The first is to form small groups) is to begin singing together—a sort of infernal “Kumbaya.” As the flames climb high into the night, one group of devils sits together singing, and another engages in some sort of philosophical discussion: “discourse,” Milton mistakenly suggests, “more sweet.”

“For eloquence the Soul,” Milton says, “Song charms the Sense.”

Milton’s belief that rational eloquence is “more sweet” than music is a distinctly modern view of music, a mistake he compounds by having the devils sing harmoniously. But harmony is the good of the soul. Devils might sing, but they would never, in the classical view, sing in harmony. When it comes to music, Milton the Christian is wrong, and Plato the pagan is right.

There are two mistakes that can be made about music: the Rationalist Mistake and the Romantic Mistake. One we can associate with Milton, the other with Nietzsche. The Rationalist Mistake is to think that the form of the music doesn’t matter, only the lyrics. The Romantic Mistake is to think that only the music matters, but not the words.

In the popular music of my generation, the primary themes were sexual. It followed the music of the 1960s which at least had some idealism, however misguided. The 70s was the era of disco. People were too busy shaking their booty or getting down to worry too much about the social concerns of their forbears in the previous decade. Their concerns were also in stark contrast to the dark nihilism of the generation that came after—and that still seems to be with us.

But, whether the music contains sexual themes or themes of suicide and depression, the response of children when their parents ask them about the lyrics of the music they listen to is invariable. In fact, their answer is almost always the same: “Mom!” This response is usually followed by some explanation about how what the singers are actually saying in the song doesn’t really matter. This is the Nietszchian response, and it is made primarily by children.

The Miltonic response (the Rational Mistake) is made primarily by adults. It is the belief that the music doesn’t really matter, only the lyrics. This is a common mistake made in discussions over music in church, where it is often argued that we can take the same musical patterns that have been in the service of secular objectives, and, by putting new words to these tunes, automatically transform them into worship songs.

Of these two mistakes, the second is easily the worse. At least the Romantic Mistake acknowledges the truth that it is not the rationalistic but the purely musical aspect of music that is it’s most significant aspect. The Rationalist Mistake misses the point altogether.

Music is indeed important, but one wonders if those of us who seem so obsessed with it—young or old—understand exactly how important it really is. We play with music as with a toy, when in fact we are really playing with fire.

And fire, as everyone knows, is the Devil’s only friend.

1 comment:

Elisabeth said...

I really, really enjoyed your post.

I think a great many people want to write off music as being a totally neutral medium, when in truth it is just like literature or any other medium. And just like other mediums it can be either constructive of dangerous.