Music creeps in. If you walk down the street and hear a brass band or a drummer, your feet will tend to match the beat. Songs half-heard or half-remembered are the stuff of idle humming. A catchy riff from a song you don’t even like can end up stuck in your head for weeks – the dreaded earworm. Our receptiveness to music cannot really be switched off. Hence the ancient trope concerning the danger of music: its seductive power, its ability to corrupt, its sheer uncontrollable vitality.
There are two Greek myths that relate different sides of this worry.
The less well-known story, and the more ancient, is that of the satyr Marsyas, who discovers the aulos (a reed instrument resembling the oboe, with a piercing sound) and challenges the god Apollo, master of the lyre, to a musical contest. Apollo wins, of course. In one version of the story, Apollo insists that they play their instruments upside down. In another, more interesting one, the sun god triumphs because he sings along with his lyre. In every version, the contest ends with Marsyas nailed to a tree and flayed alive, a popular subject for visual artists in antiquity.
Versions of the aftermath of this gruesome requital also vary. In Ovid’s account in the Metamorphoses, Marsyas’ fellow creatures of nature, the fauns and nymphs and satyrs, and even the shepherds of the forest, lament his death. Diodorus Siculus recounts that Apollo repented after exacting his revenge – destroying his lyre, offering both it and the aulos as a votive to Dionysus, and renouncing music altogether.
In The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, Friedrich Nietzsche drew on both classical sources and his own aesthetic theory to argue that the Apollo-Marsyas contest really depicts a contest between the disorderly Dionysian possibilities of the aulos and the orderly Apollonian use of the lyre as a fitting accompaniment to words (whence “lyric poetry”). Nietzsche’s larger aim is to show that the true spirit of music is Dionysian, an intoxicant lying beyond language and representation, and that this spirit was harnessed both in the choruses of ancient tragedy and in the operas of Nietzsche’s countryman and then-friend Richard Wagner.
The more familiar and younger of the Greek music myths has also had a long afterlife: the story of Orpheus, with the affecting episode where he uses his musical talent to gain entry to Tartarus to bring his dead wife Eurydice back from the abyss. The stories are connected: Orpheus is Apollo’s son and shares his father’s affinity with the lyre. While Orpheus fails to restore Eurydice, his musical gift is what entitles him to the attempt. In Ovid’s version, even “the bloodless shades weep” at hearing Orpheus’ musical lament for Eurydice and his plea to Persephone and Pluto to restore her to him.
The story has received new life in the popular imagination through Anaïs Mitchell’s musical Hadestown, which reached Broadway in 2019, while Matthew Aucoin’s opera Eurydice, based on a libretto by the playwright Sarah Ruhl, made its Met Opera premiere just this season (2021), more than 400 years after the earliest opera that survives, Jacopo Peri’s Euridice. In Aucoin’s opera, Orpheus’ musical talent functions as a sort of antagonist, represented as a second quasi-divine figure on stage who witnesses the central marital drama. As in the ancient myth, Orpheus’ genius draws Eurydice to him, but in the opera’s modern twist, it also alienates her.
In both the Marsyas and the Orpheus stories, music is closely connected to strong emotions and to the elemental bonds between people. In the Marsyas myth especially, we are acquainted with the powerof music to lift us above our condition – even to the point of danger. In the Orpheus story, music functions as a power of affinity, even enchantment, that connects nature, human beings, and divinity.
In the world-picture that lies behind these stories, we are very far from the characteristically modern idea that music is simply a matter of taste as well as from the late modern experience of music as what we choose to have on in the background while we go about other tasks. Music is instead potent and vital. Nietzsche was right, I think, to recognize this truth in the Greek myths, though we should set aside his Schopenhauerian idea that music is the messenger of a wordless, insatiable will lying beyond the illusions with which we surround ourselves.
In my family, there are two things we take very seriously: books and music. My maternal grandmother was a gifted vocalist in the classical Carnatic tradition and I had my first music lessons with her on summer trips back to India. At a recent family gathering, my aunt and uncle (on my father’s side) and I realized we had each performed the Fauré Requiem with various choirs; inevitably we ended up singing the famous unison section of the “Libera me, Domine’” from memory as we sat in the late-summer sun on their porch.
While I was growing up, it was always made very clear why books mattered: they were a way to discover and come to understand the world. But why did music matter so much? Was it because music, too, was a part of discovering and understanding things? I can’t remember ever asking this question, exactly. I still don’t know the answer. I only know that I could probably manage to live without books – which is a scandalous thing for an academic to say – but not without music.
In the Republic, Plato makes music, along with physical training, a pillar of the educational system of his political ideal Kallipolis – the beautiful city. In order to be part of the beautiful city, citizens will have to themselves be beautiful: they must act graciously, take pleasure in beauty, and abhor ugliness.
I could probably manage to live without books, but not without music.
Because we tend to think of beauty as skin-deep, as belonging just to the surfaces of things, these views can seem as absurd to us as Socrates’ requirement that the ruling class hold not only property in common but also spouses and children. But consider physical training: the beauty of athleticism hardly lies just in the perceptible qualities of athletes’ bodies, pleasing as these may be, but primarily in their performance. Likewise, the beauty music cultivates is not some superficial refinement or elegance, but a real attunement to the manifestations of goodness that will surround the citizens of Kallipolis and manage even to break into our imperfect societies.
Socrates explains this transformative possibility of musical education in terms of order and harmony, qualities that beautiful music has that we can imitate or participate in. In fact, music is more properly understood as a quality of soul than of mere sound, and the true musician is the educator, tuning the soul of the student to be able to strike the true note. As Socrates puts it, “The one who most beautifully blends physical training with music and applies them in the most orderly way to the soul, that’s the person we would most rightly call consummately musical and harmonious, far more than the one who just tunes the lyre-strings to each other” (Republic 412a4–7).
It would be easy (and linguistically plausible) to say that the word “music” (mousikē) must here refer to the arts of all the muses and so means something like “culture” rather than music in the narrow sense. Socrates, of course, has a good deal to say about the place of the right sort of poetry in his educational scheme (hymns: good, lamentations: bad), and so is concerned with more than music’s aural qualities. Still, it is worth pausing before we dismiss the idea that music belongs to the soul as well as to the ears.
After all, music in the more familiar sense is not simply ordered sound, but expressive sound. We are unlikely to accept Socrates’s declarations that particular types of harmonies directly encourage particular patterns of behavior, still less that some harmonies are peculiarly feminine or masculine, cowardly or courageous. But the expressive character of music, its ability to convey a mood or a feeling far better than any description in language, is difficult to dispute. Can we then countenance a role for music in directly shaping our ethical sensibilities?
Sing unto the Lord
Most contemporary philosophical discussions of the ethical dimensions of music take up questions about the content of song lyrics, the character of the musician or composer, and the like. Typically, the music that comes in for scrutiny is what was once called secular music, whose production and consumption in most places has long been governed simply by markets of taste. Sacred music, by contrast, has always been understood to have a function beyond mere enjoyment.
The Council of Trent, a key expression of the spirit of the Counter-Reformation, is perhaps most famous for its injunction that sacred music should be arranged “not for the mere delight of the ears but in such a way that the words should be apprehended by everyone and that the hearts of the listeners should be ravished by longing for heavenly harmony and by contemplation of the joys of the blessed.” Taking up the challenge of the Protestant Reformers, the conciliar documents make it clear that sacred music ought to be more firmly subordinated to the demands of worship, and intelligible worship, than it generally had been.
As a church musician myself, I confess to harboring anti-Tridentine sentiments. The songs of praise embedded in traditional Christian liturgy (especially those that make up the so-called ordinary of the Mass in the Roman Rite, its unchanging texts) certainly carry their meaning when they are spoken or chanted. But they also offer a well-defined place for an ecstatic mode of expression that the great choral traditions of the church afford. Indeed, these traditions help us answer the call of the Psalmist to “Sing unto the Lord a new song” (Psalm 96:1). More generally, prayerful attention can be achieved in contemplative and ecstatic modes, through expressive as well as restrained language, through the vernacular and through a common liturgical language, even through visual art.
In other words, enjoyment does not have to be mere enjoyment, the kind of experience which generates the approval tracked by the Billboard charts. In sacred music, we find a clear example of the ethical significance of music in the possibility of the forms of cultivation and attunement that music itself makes possible.
My Renaissance chorus exclusively performs polyphonic sacred music, despite its lack of any religious affiliation and the unbelief of most members, on the grounds that the composers put their best efforts into such music. I’d like to think that we not only recognize the superior quality of the compositions, but benefit in our performances from understanding the music’s original liturgical functions and even the significance of the scriptural passages that many of our motets and anthems set. Such music continues to have meaning, even outside a church or synagogue.
So much for music as edifying. What of its dangers? Moral panics over music are hardly new. The worry once directed at jazz and rock-and-roll when they were countercultural now turns to death metal and rap. It remains for the critics to explain how their concerns are distinguishable from the denunciation of Shostakovich in Pravda. Certainly there is little evidence to suggest that music has the power to instigate disorderly behavior; the very fact that the dangerous music of the past now plays on radio stations devoted to “oldies” should unsettle our confident judgments about popular music.
Coarse song lyrics probably do help sustain a coarseness in listeners, but we should not amplify this worry unreasonably. There may be some popular music – the extreme fringe of so-called “black metal,” perhaps – whose performers genuinely seek to detach listeners from their moral commitments. But the personae of metal bands are typically better understood as harmless performance art.
If the ethical significance of music is connected to its power to promote individual and collective acts of attention, then we should consider whether some music tends to dull our capacities, or whether instead the worst music is merely indifferent on this score. This thought will lead us away from the usual targets of opprobrium and toward a different conception of bad music.
The very vitality of music, which figured in the ancient Greek myths as a possible source of hubris, is also its source of significance.
It would be hard to point to specific aural qualities shared by every kind of bad music, but there is in fact some music meant merely to take up acoustic space: the sort of bland instrumental music that frequently plays in elevators or on automated telephone systems when a caller is on hold – its close cousin is found in the non-genre called “easy listening.” These musical forms are designed to pacify us precisely by their inoffensiveness.
At the start of the pandemic, the Israeli actress Gal Gadot released a music-video cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine” featuring a number of other celebrities. It was poorly received for its timing during a global health crisis. But did the critics take note of the banality of the song’s lyrics? Despite its cultural ubiquity, the song is a nihilistic anthem for the rich and famous, not a celebration of humanism, as is sometimes thought. The music video may have been crass, but it also revealed something true about the badness of its source material.
The dangers of banal music seem to me greater than the dangers of novel or countercultural musical forms. The very vitality of music, which figured in the ancient Greek myths as a possible source of hubris, is also its source of significance. The modern individualistic conception of music as a matter merely of taste has tended to contract that significance, even as people have continued to turn to music for solidarity and solace, possibilities which the modern conception cannot fully explain. But in banal music we encounter the use of music as a weapon against the transcendent reality of our individuality, of our movement in the realm of spirit and not only of material production and consumption.
What would it mean to live with a sense of the vitality and necessity of music? We would have to recognize, not only in its fitness for worship but in its simple inevitability in our lives, the possibility that music can reorient us beyond our will. In the Greek myths, this reorientation is depicted as connected both to intense pleasure and proximity to the divine, and so also as fraught with danger. But as well, perhaps, for us, the danger and the promise of music rest in the ways it shapes our attention. Good music moves us without manipulation, inspires us without false promise, and perhaps, at the limit and fullness of its possibility, directs us toward our final end.