Is there a hierarchy of perfection in music? Can we really say that some music is superior to others? The great philosophers Plato and Aristotle believed so. They also believed, as has the Catholic Church for centuries, that music deeply affects the human soul and society at large, changing them for better or worse according to the type of music popular with a people.
In his book Politics, Aristotle wrote, “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.”
In his dialogue The Laws, Plato wrote of the role music played in the moral degeneration of Greece, lead by “poets who were men of a native genius, but ignorant of what is right and legitimate in the realm of the Muses. Possessed by a frantic and unhallowed lust for pleasure… their folly lead them unintentionally to slander their profession by the assumption that in music there is no such thing as right and wrong, the right standard of judgment being the pleasure given to the hearer, be he high or low.”
If it is true that music has a profound influence on the human soul, then I believe it is the duty of every conscientious person to examine their musical tastes according to some objective criteria to determine whether it is having a positive or negative effect on their spiritual life. A deeper understanding of the moral element of music can also enable us to better critique and understand our society at large. This is a more urgent necessity in our own generation than ever before in the history of the world because technological advances have enabled music to reach unprecedented levels of influence in the life of the average person.
Where can we go for this ‘objective criteria’? Great strides may be made in one’s understanding of music simply by using common sense and uncompromising honesty to observe the effects of different types of music on one’s own emotional and mental states and on the behaviour of others. Nevertheless, learned guidance is a great help. The website www.catholiceducation.org has a number of enlightening articles on the subject. For readers who have some background in musical theory and/or philosophy, the writings of philosopher and public commentator Roger Scruton will revolutionize the way you see music. This article is an admirable introduction for those without the time to read his book Understanding Music: Philosophy and Interpretation. Hans Urs Von Balthasar is another Catholic philosopher to seek out.