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Music as a Character-Forming Force


Nobody who understands the experiences of melody, harmony, and rhythm will doubt their value.

arvo1Arvo Pärt

The great philosopher Roger Scruton observes:

"Nobody who understands the experiences of melody, harmony, and rhythm will doubt their value.  Not only are they the distillation of centuries of social life:  they are also forms of knowledge, providing the competence to reach out of ourselves through music.  Through melody, harmony, and rhythm, we enter a world where others exist besides the self, a world that is full of feeling but also ordered, disciplined but free.  That is why music is a character-forming force, and the decline of musical taste a decline in morals."  (The Aesthetics of Music, 502)

In Aristotle's ethical theory, we find this cardinal principle: "As a man is, so will the good seem to him."  Our very ability to perceive the good, the true, the beautiful, to recognize it when we meet it, hinges on the formation our powers have undergone.  As a Protestant author, Frank Gaebelein, admits:

The key to better things in Christian music is the habitual hearing of greatness in music not only in school, not only in college and Bible Institute, but in Sunday school also.  For the music that younger children hear exercises a formative influence on their taste.  Not even the smallest child may safely be fed a diet of musical trash.

The spiritual maturity of the Christian is very much connected with habituation in the nobility of the fine arts.  Learning to distinguish between the beautiful or worthy and the ugly or trite is as much an acquired habit as is learning to obey one's parents, being responsible for one's actions, or treating one's siblings well.  It is as much a habit as temperance, bravery, justice, and prudence.  To think that children will automatically grow up into adults who have a sense of what is and is not fitting, appropriate, noble, beautiful, is as naïve as thinking that they would behave morally or turn to God in prayer with no discipline and no religious education.

Our human potential for the beautiful is vast.  In the realm of music alone, consider the stunning masterpieces left to us by the likes of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Tomas Luis de Victoria, Johann Sebastian Bach, Georg Frideric Handel, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, and to race ahead to our own day, Arvo Pärt.  Apart from rare circles, this human potential is nowadays horribly underestimated and underdeveloped.  Young Americans are not even aware of the artistic potential of their souls, either as makers or as recipients of the gift of art.  We should be helping them in every way we can — including training Catholic students to give the best of their artistic talent to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, at very least to appreciate how the Mass deserves only the best of our artistic tradition.




Peter Kwasniewski. "Music as a Character-Forming Force." Corpus Christi Watershed (April 25, 2013).

Reprinted with permission from Corpus Christi Watershed and Peter Kwasniewski.  The original article can be found here.

Corpus Christi Watershed is a non-profit organization dedicated to exploring and embodying as our calling the relationship of religion, culture and the arts. We employ the arts and creative media in the service of theology, the Church and Christian culture for the enrichment and enjoyment of the public.

The Author

kwKwasniewski6Peter Kwasniewski holds a B.A. in Liberal Arts from Thomas Aquinas College and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America. After teaching at the International Theological Institute in Austria and for the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austrian Program, he joined the founding team of Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyoming, where he taught theology, philosophy, music, and art history, and directed the choir and schola. He is now a full-time author, speaker, editor, publisher, and composer. Among his books are Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis: Sacred Liturgy, the Traditional Latin Mass, and Renewal in the Church, A Missal for Young Catholics, and Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness: Why the Modern Age Needs the Mass of Ages. His website is here

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