Music and Morality

Music has loomed larger in life of late for the Mrs. and me, as a result of our visits to Norcia and Vienna.  Its increased role in our life has to do, I hope, with our moral life, so I’d like to set down a few thoughts that have developed over the years about music and morality.

The initial challenge is to persuade people that music has anything to do with morality, that is, with right and wrong in action.   Music is as subjective as anything could be:  what music I like depends entirely on how I feel at the moment and on how the music makes me feel—it’s all about my feelings.  On the other hand, morality has exactly to do with how I feel about things:  an evil man will feel good about bad things, while a good man will feel bad about bad things, and this is precisely because the one man is morally good and the other morally bad.  But it is hard to make this point manifest.

The source of the difficulty seems to be a lack of self-knowledge:  Talk about morality requires a certain minimum level of awareness of what goes inside of us.  The Office of Readings for the feast of St. Ignatius recently brought this back to my attention.  While recovering from war wounds in a hospital, Ignatius would sometimes think on worldly things and romantic novels he had read before, and sometimes he would think about the lives of the saints and of Christ such as he was reading in the hospital:

But there was a difference. When Ignatius reflected on worldly thoughts, he felt intense pleasure; but when he gave them up out of weariness, he felt dry and depressed. Yet when he thought of living the rigorous sort of life he knew the saints had lived, he not only experienced pleasure when he actually thought about it, but even after he dismissed these thoughts, he still experienced great joy. Yet he did not pay attention to this, nor did he appreciate it until one day, in a moment of insight, he began to marvel at the difference. Then he understood his experience: thoughts of one kind left him sad, the others full of joy. And this was the first time he applied a process of reasoning to his religious experience.

I had a similar experience with music.  At some point in college I realized that after listening to some kinds of music I had a hard time praying or focusing on homework, while after listening to other kinds of music I prayed better and focused better.  That, to paraphrase the life of Ignatius, was the first time I applied a process of reasoning to my musical tastes.

Years before that, I began to notice that some music makes me want to move this way while other music makes me want to move that way.  It’s a real difference in the music, but I only noticed the difference when I began performing it or dancing to it.  If I just listened, I didn’t notice the impulses created in me by the music; they only made themselves known when I acted on them.  From this perspective, musicians and dancers are in a better position than most to talk about the morality of music.

But if someone lacks the self-awareness necessary for an Ignatian discernment of spirits then it is hard, if not impossible, to have a conversation about music and morality.  There are some things one can say—but more on that next time.

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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