Friends Don’t Let Friends Listen to Terrible Music

Plato, the Church, and Flannery O’Connor on the place of truth in music.

Here’s a challenge: Go up to someone who is listening to modern pop music and suggest to them that what they’re listening to is vastly inferior to, say, Brahm’s third symphony, or a Rachmaninoff prelude, and then encourage them to switch to something better. Actually, there’s no need to do this, because I think we all can guess pretty well what the reaction would be. An odd look, no doubt, and then you will be kindly asked to shove off and mind your own damn business.

Obviously the social experiment I suggested above isn’t the most kind, charitable, or Christian thing to do, but it does raise some interesting questions about how we think about what we’ve come to call “taste” in music. What it particularly brings to light is the assumption underlying all such matters of musical taste: that the tastes of a person are just that, personal, and thus (in this modern democratic age where personal choice is upheld as the greatest good) inviolable.

Musical taste is supposed to be something like personality: everyone’s is unique, no one shapes it in any sort of conscious, rational way and, as the saying goes, there’s really no accounting for it. In other words, when it comes to taste in music, we’re all moral relativists.

But why?

I suspect a good deal of our unwillingness to make “good, better, best” statements when it comes to music stems from the fact that most of us want, understandably, to distance ourselves from the various forms of religious fundamentalism of past generations, which often saw rock music as at best, some form of secular worldliness, and at worst, even linked with the Satanic. We somehow felt, intuitively, that this view was errant, but we ran indiscriminately into the only other prevailing view we saw available – the view that all musical forms are created equal, and that it’s the “message” of the music that matters.

Our current treatment of music – that its form (or what we might loosely call genre) is strictly a matter of taste, and that the goodness of any piece of music depends primarily on whether or not it communicates its message in an effective way – would have been entirely foreign to almost anyone living in the shadow of the Greek philosophical tradition. Plato and Aristotle both took music extremely seriously; Plato is often remembered for banning certain “modes” (again, think genres) of music in his hypothetical “just city,” and both Plato and Aristotle were clear that music was essential to proper education.

The early Christian church, influenced as it was by the Greek tradition, similarly emphasized the formative power of music. Music was, from the beginning of Christianity, a central function of the liturgy. St. Basil, St. John of Chrysostom, and St. Augustine, among others, all took great pains to detail the proper uses of music in the liturgy and explain why music was seen to have a fundamental relationship to the human soul. The Church fathers inherited from the Greeks their love of numbers, and incorporated it into their theology of music. Certain harmonic intervals, for example, were considered especially apropos for worship. It wasn’t just that the Church was filled with a bunch of number geeks, however; rather, she understood music to be a profound reflection of the order and beauty which God had bestowed upon Creation. The Church would have been absolutely horrified at the notion of music being merely a vehicle for self-expression or mindless entertainment; rather, the worshippers were participating with the pre-existing and cosmic harmony of the universe through their song.

Fast-forward to the Middle Ages, and we can see the Church begin to incorporate a few newer ideas and practices into worship. Instruments gained acceptance into the service, as well as more complex forms of choral singing. Yet in all these additions the Church held fast to the belief that music must adhere to certain forms. What any study of the history of music will reveal is that what has happened in the past few centuries with regard to our musical practices is nothing short of revolutionary. Music as entertainment, music as self-expression, music as mere conduit for message – all of these would have been roundly condemned by the Church in ages past.

What can we learn from this more ancient view of music? Chiefly that music, prior to whatever explicit messages it might contain, is always educating and forming our souls. Critics of Plato’s musical theories often cast him as the ancient Greek equivalent of those naysayers of the past century who saw in the birth of rock ‘n roll only a slippery slope toward sex and drugs. What this particular portrait of Plato fails to address, however, is that Plato’s theories about music run much deeper than his condemnation of certain forms of music. In fact, in might be said that the whole of Plato’s Republic can be seen as a treatise on the power of music, because for Plato the just city is just precisely because it is harmonious. Its citizens are at harmony with each other and with the Good.

In other words, music isn’t primarily about message; it’s about how sound resonates with our souls, anterior to analytical reason. In an age where much of what passes for worship in evangelical churches is so much vapid, over-emotionalized drivel, we’ve trained ourselves to be wary of anything that claims access to the soul through anything but rational principles. But what we must realize is that to know the truth is not merely to assent to a number of rational principles – it is assenting to reality itself, a reality which, as Christians, we believe to be harmoniously ordered. Our tastes in music should reflect that harmony.

But perhaps the most important lesson is this: If Plato is right, then every taste is an acquired taste, whether it was acquired consciously or not. The question, then, is not whether or not we’re going to bother with developing those tastes commonly referred to as “acquired”; the question is how we’re going to acquire our tastes. We can either do it thoughtfully, with an eye towards Goodness, Truth, and Beauty, or we can passively accept whatever tastes our social environment thrusts upon us.

So can we get over our fear of being labeled cranky fundamentalists or snobby elitists and start getting serious about musical criticism again? There’s no snobbery in kindly suggesting to the person whose diet consists only of Big Macs that a healthy, home-cooked meal is better than what he’s currently eating. Likewise is there no snobbery in assisting our fellows to discover that there’s more to music than its efficacy in either entertaining or acting as a vessel for whatever message we’re trying to hit our enemy over the head with.

Truthfully, this will most likely not make us immensely popular. But then, that is the nature of truth; as Flannery O’Connor wryly noted, “You shall know the truth; and the truth shall make you odd.”

Let’s all start developing some odd tastes in music.

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