“…from enjoying the imitation, they come to enjoy the reality.”
Socrates, in Plato’s Republic
If Socrates is correct then we have in music a remarkable opportunity to expand our souls. We also have the danger of deforming them.
Reading good books is an irreplaceable means for cultivating right reasoning. We can enter the minds of the wise, following their train of thought. Listening to good music is similar. But music is an intimate expression with a more immediate effect than the written word. This is because music—which Plato and Aristotle see as an imitation of human states—makes present something of the reality it imitates.
Despairing music really has something of despair in it. You can feel it. Courageous music really has something of courage in it. Just how this is so is hard to grasp. Here we bump up against one of those aspects of reality that causes wonder. Aristotle is insistent. A painting of a courageous man simply ‘points’ to courage; yet music can actually imitate courage itself. “Even in mere melodies there is an imitation of character,” he writes in the Politics. He concludes “music has a power of forming the character.” It is no surprise the ancients saw music as a gift from the gods—a gift that can be used for great good, or evil.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this gift is how music can function to expand our experience. Music gives us a taste of things we otherwise have not tasted. The fruits of this soul-expanding power should not be underestimated. Great music can expand and deepen our experience of both the transcendent and the mundane. In our age where so many live in contexts devoid of richer things and true beauty, great music might be a sole and even saving contact with the higher realms of truly human life.
In a striking scene of the movie Shawshank Redemption, an operatic duet (it’s from The Marriage of Figaro) is played over the loud-speaker of the penitentiary. The inmates are simply stunned. The Morgan Freedman character ‘Red’ gives the following commentary:
I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don’t wanna know. I would like to think they were singing about something so beautiful it can’t be expressed in words and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made these walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man at Shawshank felt free.
Higher than we dare to dream. But we can learn to dream it. And we can learn to live it. And great music can help us. It’s not magic, or some shortcut. It’s better. It’s a natural path that is meant for us. We just need to tread the path. As the great Greek philosophers saw, music should be part of our education—education in the deepest sense: formation of the soul. All through life. It will take patience, and cultivation. The fruits can be even more stunning than the music.
If you are interested in a some specific suggestions, see Music: A Two Week Challenge, and therein is also a starter playlist from our youtube channel. You can also share this brief video on this same topic:
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Growing up as a Boomer, my parents were not from a television generation. As such, we were surrounded by reading materials and vinyl LPs. Their tastes were eclectic and ranged from jazz/Big Band to orchestral & classical to traditional country. I distinctly remember sitting in the family room, music playing on the turntable, and watching leaves fall in October. Or listening to an LP of Peter & the Wolf. The philosophers and Red are 100% correct: it was always something of. a transcendent experience even though I couldn’t articulate it as such. And the aesthetics were never (and still aren’t) foremost on my radar. I’ll always be more ascetic in that I prefer to just let the music take me where it will. Thank you for this posting and the YouTube link!
And thank you for sharing, Bob.
An article in “The Catholic Thing” introduced me to Morten Lauridsen’s O MAGNUM MYSTERIUM. It is available on Youtube.
Everytime I hear it, I am overwhelmed with an intense desire to share it with others. So I invite you, encourage you to play it, especially if you have not yet heard it.
At my previous parish (St. Michael parish in Annandale), the schola sings beautiful pieces that lifted my soul. It enabled me to pray because I didn’t understand a word they were singing (🙄), so it didn’t distract me, but the beauty sometimes brought me to tears, and took me to where I needed to be to feel the presence of God! I miss that music!
Cathy, Liturgical music is a profound and unique gift that has many fruits. It is worth our making efforts to find, encourage, and support great sacred music.
What a timely blog post. I had been feeling a lack of music in my life and was not sure where to start but had opened “The Gift of Music:” by the L’Abri members Jane Stuart Smith and Betty Carlson. So I now have some reading material to go with my listening. Bach piano and cello were what I listened to today, through twice as suggested, and I simply loved the experience. Geoff and I are travelling to Vienna on 1 October and so music will be something I can explore when there and in Europe in general. Thank you for sharing the challenge. The part in the movie is so poignant. Music transforms and transports us.
Thanks Cate. May you find that there is still great music in the hallowed halls of Europe!
I grew up listening to various genres of music because my father had vinyl 33-1/3 rpm records of jazz, Polkas, Easy Listening, Mantovani, Country, Bog Band sounds, etc. i learned to appreciate different kinds of music.
I’m taking this challenge and shall share it with family and friends. Thank you
I hope it is fruitful for you Nancy and would love to hear any feedback.
I have always loved music and agree that it can take us to a higher level. Two songs that lift me spiritually are. Pentatonic singing “Mary did you know”; and Chet Atkinson’s guitar solo of ” Ave Maria”.
Thank you, Gerald.
As the great Greek philosophers saw, music should be part of our education
“Music is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend. LVB”
Ludwig van Beethoven
The educative power of music is so under-appreciated and under-utilized.
Thank you Dr. Cuddeback for the playlist. I look forward to exploring them all.
I’ve done similar challenges. I remember when I was bathed in modern music how difficult the first challenge like this was for me, but it always bears such great fruit that I now jump at these opportunities to explore new music.
What always strikes me about this music is how natural it is to the pace I feel my life and body was made to be lived at. Years of living my life driven by the pace of high energy music has left me disabled, so for me, that point is really evident, and I encourage all young people to give the challenge a try with the realization that it is a challenge. Once those deepest realms of your body adapt to the pace of the music it opens up pathways for which creativity, expression of emotions, and wonder can flow without being overly energetic and draining on our bodies. I feel as though these are the types of music you can live your life to and live it to its broadest extent.
Thank you for this opportunity.