Saturday, October 18, 2008

Music and Morality 4: The Problem of Culture

In my first course on Gregorian chant, Fr. Gerard Farrell, OSB, spent one class on the affects of the modes. The idea is that Mode 1 (in modern parlance "Dorian," the scale that goes from D to d using only white keys on the piano) connotes joy, strength, and so forth, whereas Mode 2 (same notes, but utilizing a lower range) connotes mystery, reserve, reflection. While the distinctions are not completely universally valid, there is much to be said for them. It is not a coincidence that the antiphons for the Divine Office of Easter Sunday are almost entirely set in Mode 7, the mode said best to connote exuberance and rejoicing.

When I mentioned this once to a novice who had studied ethnomusicology, he laughed out loud. It would seem, from the perspective of this modern and very useful discipline, that these connotations are strictly the work of inculturation and bear no intrinsic value. In modern music, for example, we often distinguish 'major' and 'minor' triads and keys by linking them to feeling of happiness and melancholy. Does this not happen simply because from an early age, we sing happy songs in major keys, (Happy Birthday, Jesus Christ is Risen Today) and darker songs in minor keys (Pray for the dead... Beethoven's Fifth)? Could we condition ourselves to hear keys in different ways?

In support of this cultural relativism, it is often pointed out that what was considered a noisy racket a generation ago is mainstream today. Fifty years ago, Ed Sullivan would only broadcast Elvis from the waste up. His music sounds almost silly compared to the hard rock and heavy metal trotted out today. When Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" was premiered, the crowd rioted. Today, we hardly bat an eye at the harsh sounds demanded of 'new music' orchestras, that is, if anyone attends the concerts.

This phenomenon of novelty creating a stir is not itself new. Here is a quiz: guess the century of this quote and the style of music being condemned:

Indeed, when such practices are taken to excess, they can more rapidly stir up the urgings of the lower regions of the body than devotion in the mind.

Answer: John of Salisbury (ca. 1150 A.D.) condemning the polyphonic compositions at Notre Dame of Paris, the distant forebears of the music of Palestrina, today held up as the style closest to Gregorian chant in appropriateness for the Divine Liturgy.

In attempting to assign affect to musical practices, are we really dealing merely with a case of de gustibus non disputandem est? Must we simply learn to put up with 'other peoples' preferences' and be suspect of our own, rather than holding ours up as exemplary and risking insensitivity or even musical colonialism?

Much of what I hope to write in this series will deal with this difficult question. In fact, there are two ways of attending to this problem. The first, which is somewhat easier perhaps, is to acknowledge that communities do, in fact, inculturate their members and ought to. Communities cannot survive, and by extension individual human beings cannot survive, without common standards of behavior. In any community, there will be a tradition of music which will be used to elicit proper emotional response in certain circumstances and also music whose use will be highly circumscribed or even outright prohibited. In such a case, we can limit ourselves to studying the rules of specific cultures or communities and see how music is linked to the passions by conditioning (see the previous post), and then draw conclusions about the morality of the use of music within this particular culture or community. I intend to do some of this, but we must admit that it veers somewhat close to moral relativism or situation ethics, that any type of behavior can be justified given the right circumstances. From a more positive perspective, I intend to treat the Church as a highly specific culture in which the restrictions on music are higher than they are when we function as members of our respective cultures in the world.

However, my own conviction, one that is backed by recent scientific studies about the biological effects of music and sound on the human body, is that certain musical gestures bear intrinsic moral weight, so that there are absolute rules for music that would transcend culture. This possibility is more easily entertained if we share some assumptions regarding the ordering of the cosmos. I hope to write on this aspect of the argument next. For today, we can restrict ourselves to obvious points. Loud sounds, especially when alternated with quiet sounds, can damage the human ear and tend to provoke irritation that disposes to violence. Loud sounds are also effective for announcing the threat of violence, as is the case with many car stereos today. Long exposure to steady rhythms has been shown to alter mental states, with the tendency to provoke a lowering of normally maintained personal boundaries, both physical and emotional. And so on. It is well established that certain styles of music assist the body and mind in healing (Pythagoras believed that certain illnesses could be cured by playing the flute; modern science has confirmed the underlying idea!).

Today, advocates of health food, non-smoking bars and green consciences are only too happy to make it moral obligation to restrict what is put into our bodies. Why is it considered controversial to suggest moral restrictions on what we allow into our ears?


Mr. Potato said...

The prior noted this popular point of view and I wish to focus on an underlying concept in it "....these connotations are strictly the work of inculturation and bear no intrinsic value."

One day while raking leaves I had an argument on reality with a long time neighbor who is deeply into the New Age. He loves Wayne Dyer (PBS/New Age Guru). He said that how I perceive reality is culturally conditioned. Reality is anything that I want it to be. There is no objective reality. This notion was imposed upon me to keep me from the real secrets of the universe that would liberate me.

I went over to the tree and asked him what it is. He said that through "intention" and prayer it could be anything he wanted it to be. I started pounding the tree and shouted "No. It is a tree. It's being a tree is independent of my thinking. Read Aristotle! You deny that things have an intrinsic nature."

He persisted. I closed my eyes, repeated "I am in the Pope, I am the Pope" opened them and said, "Look - I'm not the Pope. I'm covered in dirt. What did I do wrong?"

In the argument I jumped immediately to the logical conclusion of his views. "Can you tell me why it is wrong to murder someone?" He answered, "It's not wrong. Their soul just gets reincarnated." My jaw dropped. My heart stopped.

Music too has an objective reality. It can reflect the beauty of nature and the world. But can we recognize the beauty of music if we cannot perceive the beauty of the world? Can we see the beauty of creation if we don't acknowledge it's Creator and Redeemer?

Connie said...


Do you have any objections to someone, (myself) printing the above post and showing it to my local parish? Not to flatter you but I think it is brillant. Last week my pastor had just put out an article in our vestibule written by Martin Cothran called, "Can Music save your mortal soul?" Your post above would go along nicely with this article I should think.

Prior Peter, OSB said...

No objections to using the material as long as you cite my name as the author. Hopefully, it will direct readers to the monastery website and blog.
Fr. Peter

Connie said...

I surely will cite your name Father. I am proud to direct traffic to your monastery as I myself spent a retreat there about 5 years ago. It was a wonderful retreat! Please keep writing (when you have time that is).

God bless you!

Mr. Potato said...

The election results which are morally blind to legally protecting human life are, to some degree, a product of a selfish, immoral, rock-n-roll culture.

Legally protected death has been embraced because popular culture in its music embraced an explicit rejection of God, selfishness and an immorality focusing the identity of the self upon genital license unfettered by a logic based upon the Mosaic code. In the words of Archbishop Finn, "The poison of which abortion is the most dreadful manifestation is the sinful suffocation of selfishness, and it can and does affect all strata of society."

When the liturgy imitates these musical cultural norms (such in LifeTeen) the same thing happens - self absorbtion, moral confusion, and a lack of solid thinking. When the pelvis is engaged in a groovy beat in or out of church there is not a march to sanctity but a slouch to death.


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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
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and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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