Saturday, September 06, 2008

Music and Morality, Part 2

When speaking of the moral life, we focus on actions.  The science of morality comprises learning to choose actions that are in accord with human flourishing and training ourselves to accomplish them.


This is another reason that we are often reluctant to make judgments about the goodness of music.  When we speak of artifacts rather than actions, it is not always valid to draw ontological conclusions about their moral implications.  Is a knife a good thing?  For cutting your vegetables yes, for stabbing someone, no.  We often can only make moral statements regarding the use of human artifacts.

On the other hand, some artifacts imply the presence of injustice and so will not be needed in the Kingdom of God.  The fact that in the eschaton we shall pound our swords into plowshares suggests that swords, even as implements of justice, are inherently more problematic than plowshares.  By its nature and the purpose of behind its creation, the sword implies warfare, which is a tremendous evil.  Though swords can be used for good in a just war, something of the violence of war inheres in a sword.  Many Americans today instinctinvely feel this way about guns, hoping that eliminating guns will eliminate the violence that a gun implies and facilitates.  Others, perhaps more traditionally, understand that until the Parousia, guns are a necessary tool for the implementation of justice (and more specifically that the Second Amendment asserts that it is primarily the citizens' task--as opposed to a professional government class's task--to ensure justice).  Many vocal proponents of gun control consider the gun evil, but it is still merely an artifact and not an action.

We should also admit that there are certain human artifacts that require evil behavior is order to be made.  Manipulative advertising strategies and pornography would fall into this category.  So artifacts do retain some moral status because they are the product of human action and decision.

Music is unusual as a human artifact in that it must be reproduced in order to exist.  There is a sense in which Beethoven's Seventh only exists when it is being performed or at least heard.  Like theater, it must be brought into existence by the deliberate actions of the performers and sponsors.

What is more, music, more than any other art, directly impacts the passions, which exert powerful impulses toward certain actions and away from others.  Plato was perhaps the first philosopher to expound on this point.  Certain musical modes (or scales), he claimed, arouse bellicose passions, and these were good for warriors.  Other types of modes were more sensual, and these inclined the hearers toward an unhealthy relaxation--bad for the warrior or guardian class.  His arguments are notoriously difficult to follow, since we don't have much evidence of what these modes sounded like (more proof that music depends on performance for existence--these songs don't exist any more).

The Classical composers, most notably C.P.E Bach, Haydn and Mozart, consciously aimed at musical moderation in order to model the restraint of the passions and build up the good character of citizens as understood by the Enlightenment mindset.  In the Romantic reaction, composers such as Schumann, Wagner and Chopin aimed more consciously at arousing stronger passions, believing that artificial restraint was actually less enobling.  It is perhaps worth noting that the Classical composers were paid by the nobility and ruling class, whereas the Romantics began a move toward more popular patronage (eventually leading to academic funding, which has produced, in my opinion, the worst type of 'serious' music).  In any case, the link between music and the passions, and therefore with morality, persisted in common parlance well into the twentieth century.  Though widely pooh-poohed in academia today, the average listeners among quite naturally feel the link when we examine our response to different kinds of music (the fact that these can be culturally conditioned within limits will be examined in the next post).  When Bobby McFerrin sang "Don't Worry, Be Happy," he used 1) a major mode, usually associated with brighter feelings; 2) a gentle reggae beat; 3) a strophic form, implying simplicity, lack of strain or effort.  It would have been absurd or ironic had he used a minor key, a military beat with dissonant trumpets and intellectually demanding counterpoint in this song.

Now that I mention it, it sounds like fun trying to compose a song with those parameters...

Once we enter into the realm of the passions, we are much nearer to moral reflection.  Passions must be properly governed in order for us to make good moral choices.  Anger must be restrained, confidence and joy cultivated, sadness resisted, etc.  Deliberately arousing baser passions makes moral choice exceedingly difficult.  Music designed and performed in order to arouse baser passions thus inhabits something akin to the moral area of, say, pornography or much advertising today (which almost always uses music to help).

2 comments:

maria from elmhurst said...

I don't know that I agree that music is the best route to the inner self-but it is an effective one. It reminds me of studying Kandinsky's theories of color, the spiritual in art, how we have emotional responses to color. This enters everything from the Waldorf color theories for school classrooms to the color on a mental institution's walls. Or how the warm yellow color of my room makes me feel comforted and safe. Any of our senses strike forth peace and harmonious self that is true self under the best circumstances-the kingdom of God in our hearts. There is the false self that can be struck as well, in the jarring, in the fearful, in the pornographic--in the bits of us that become culturally sold and not our own.

Mr. Potato said...

Ouu - Maria from Elmhurst that was good. Now I have something to think about for the week.

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