March 2012 Print

Music as the Pathway to Beauty and Goodness

Dr. Peter Chojnowski, Ph.D.

“The man that hath no music in himself, 
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, 
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils. 
The motions of his spirit are dull as night, 
And his affections dark as Erebus: 
Let no such man be trusted. 
Mark the music.” –Lorenzo, Twelfth Night


“Mark the music.” John Senior, in his book The Restoration of Christian Culture,1 cites Shakespeare’s insistence upon “music” as being foundational for any true education. We are reminded of Plato’s insistence that rhythm and harmony “sink furthest into the depths of the soul and take hold of it most firmly by bringing it nobility and grace.”2 The great Western tradition is unified on this question. To achieve the beautiful and the good, we must “tune” our souls to the right order of things through “music.”

What does this “tuning” with the created order involve? How does “music” (i.e., tunes that are sung, lyric songs, instrumental pieces to be played, poetry, drama, art, literature, games, architecture, and gymnastics) play this necessary role in preparing the young soul for wisdom? We must first recognize that we have wandered far afield from almost all contemporary educational “systems.” Whether the school is solely dedicated to transmitting information concerning compartmentalized subjects, to “preparing to get a job,” teaching them “civic” conformity, how to quickly “fill out” a stack of “worksheets,” or, even, “getting through” the catechism, “tuning” the strings of the young soul to match the proper “pitch” of God’s created order seems to have nothing to do with contemporary “learning.”

Musical Education as Refinement of Soul and Body

To tune an instrument, we must either stretch the strings or loosen them, depending upon how much tautness it takes to hit the proper note. Here much depends upon the ear that judges the fittingness of the sound produced. The ear must be in the habit of hearing how the notes ought to sound. Are the notes doing justice to the specific complexity of the musical piece? The proper tautness of the strings must correspond to the demands of the objective world of sound and the rigorous requirements of the musical score. The ear that can hear the exact difference between attunement and dissonance is the refined ear.

From a philosophical and theological perspective, why is such a calibration of mind, soul, sentiment, and body necessary? First, it is man and man alone, of all the creatures within creation, which can be refined and requires refinement. Men of flesh and blood are the only possible subjects of a process of refinement and cultivation. Angels have been given all that they need and possess the fulfillment of who they are, since their creation. Animals can be trained to respond to changes in external stimuli, but not to perceive the inner order present in the heart of things. Second, it is this spiritually and intellectually perceptive man that confronts a world that is specific, bearing the mark of Divine Choice. This very specific Created Order is faced by a rational creature of flesh and blood, eyes, ears and senses. As St. Thomas affirms, nothing is in the intellect that is not first in the senses. The refinement of spirit must come through the refinement of body, through “music.”

The Senses as Obstacle and Conduit of Order

“Here we will sit and let the sounds of music, Creep into our ears.” When Lorenzo speaks these words to Jessica in Act V, Scene I of The Merchant of Venice, he is indicating something both obvious and, yet, the fundamental process of human cultivation and education. It is through the senses that man becomes engaged with the world. The music does “creep” into our ears. It, also, however has “touches of sweet harmony,” while Jessica is told to “look” at “how the floor of heaven, Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold.” All the motions of the heavenly bodies are in a motion, which “like an angel sings.” These cosmic musical harmonies are mirrored by the “harmony [which] is in immortal souls.” It is our present “muddy vesture of decay” (i.e., our mortal bodies and our senses) that keep us from fully appreciating the Order that is present both within and outside of the soul.

Obliviousness to this Order, both on the outside and within, is the very nature of that “boorishness” which characterizes the “amusical.”3 For suggestions as to how we can “stamp” our five senses with the rhythms of the Created Order, John Senior suggests that we put much of the time and money that we spend now for “entertainment” into a piano or a fiddle so that “common, ordinary Christian music can be restored to the home; also, the art of reading aloud around the fireplace of a winter’s evening or on the porch of a summer’s afternoon.”4 As for the importance of hearing and performing liturgical and devotional music, Senior stated, back in 1983, “Catholics have accepted some of the worst distortions of their Faith in the order of music, art, and literature without a shiver (i.e., the post-Vatican II years) of discontent because they never really heard the Tantum Ergo or the Ave Maris Stella—not for lack of faith, but because there had never been ordinary music in the home to have created the habit of good sound and sense.”5


Just as gymnastics, archery, skiing, and any outdoor game can perfect health and sharpen the senses, John Senior insists in his The Restoration of Christian Culture, that the “internal sense powers” of the memory and imagination—or the mind’s powers of recalling and imaginatively reconstructing what it has received from the senses—must be informed and “shaped” as well. The very images and awarenesses that we rely on for our day-to-day existence should reach our conscious mind enlightened by a clear understanding of the good, the true, and the beautiful. As Werner Jaeger states it, “Anyone who is properly educated in music takes it into his soul while he is still young, and his spiritual growth is unconscious; and he develops an unerring accuracy in enjoying what is beautiful and hating what is ugly, so when his conscious reason comes later, he can welcome her like a friend [emphasis mine].”6

The key to a good moral life, besides the necessity of grace, is to see what is morally good as morally beautiful and pleasurable and to see the morally evil or tawdry as morally ugly and that which is to be avoided. Jaeger continues, “We are not ‘musically’ educated until we have learned to trace and to cherish as far as possible, wherever we find them imprinted, the ‘forms’ of self-control, and temperance, courage, generosity, nobility, and all qualities akin to them.”7

It is here that we find a role for literature as “music” in the broad sense. The men and women who occupy and live out the stories that we read about, are expressing and reawakening for the reader various typical modes of human existence, modes that we participate in and “try out” by our attentive and reflective reading of a text. We can “feel” the injustice of a falsely accused woman by reading about the fate of Rebecca the Jewess in Ivanhoe. Who reads the story without wanting to be Ivanhoe coming to throw down injustice and save the innocent? When we stand with Starbuck on the ship as he confronts Captain Ahab, who has commandeered the Pequod for his own purposes, do we not struggle over the moral dilemma of whether or not to finish off the old man for the sake of the common good?

Educational Refinement and the Civil Order

Oberon recalls to Puck’s attention, in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the cosmic effect that the “dulcet and harmonious breath” of a “mermaid on a dolphin’s back” had upon the very elements of the cosmic system: “That the rude sea grew civil at her song, And certain stars shot wildly from their spheres, To hear the sea-maid’s music.”8 What we must not forget, when focusing on the educational role that music plays for the individual, is that there are “cosmic” and “political” dimensions of any discussion of the role of music. Indeed, there is an ancient story that Spartan officials prohibited the brilliant Timotheus, the greatest innovator in Greek music, from appearing in Sparta. Timotheus had abandoned the seven-stringed cithara, hallowed by tradition, and, instead, played on an instrument of more strings and richer harmonies.9 Plato, by way of condemnation, has Socrates say in his Republic, “They really look on music as if it were a mere amusement and think that no harm can come from it.”10 That we must use music for purposes of a healthier and more virtuous existence in our own lives and families is clear.

It is, however, not as clear to us “moderns” that music both creates and functions within a social and political environment, in which the individual is either nurtured in wholesome things or is poisoned by toxic attitudes and opinions. As Plato, speaking for the entire ancient Greek tradition, would allow only those modes of music into his city that expressed the ethos of brave and temperate men,11 let us, who have the full revelation of the beauty of the Eternal Word, be no less attentive that our “musical” culture, the nourishment of our souls, be characterized by the crystal clarity of undiluted truth and the vigor of moral perfection.


1 John Senior, The Restoration of Christian Culture (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1983), p. 23.

2 See Plato, Republic, 401e cited in Werner Jaeger, Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, Vol. II, trans. Gilbert Highet (New York: Oxford University Press, 1943), p. 229.

3 Eva Brann, The Music of the Republic: Essays on Socrates’ Conversations and Plato’s Writings (Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2004), pp. 150-151.

4 Senior, Restoration, pp. 25-26.

5 Ibid., pp. 30-33.

6 Jaeger, Paideia, p. 229.

7 Ibid.

8 William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act II, Scene 1 cited in Senior, Restoration, pp. 20-21.

9 Jaeger, Paideia, pp. 226-230.

10 Josef Pieper, Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation, trans. Lothar Krauth (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), pp. 47-51.

11 Jaeger, Paideia, p. 226.