A+ A A-

The Moral Power of Music


Some Greek thinkers and past civilizations in general have held that good music disposes man to virtue whereas bad music disposes man to vice.


Philosophers and sages throughout the ages have asserted the decisive influence music can have on the character and moral formation of the young and on the formation of a civilization. In the 6th Century, the Christian philosopher Anicius Boethius, wrote: "Music can both establish and destroy morality. For no path is more open to the soul for the formation thereof than through the ears. Therefore when the rhythms and modes have penetrated even to the soul through these organs, it cannot be doubted that they affect the soul with their own character and conform it to themselves."1 Boethius attested to the awareness that ancient peoples had about the influence of music. So great was the regard for music among them, that they looked on it as having a definite power over the soul. A teacher was once exiled from a Greek city state because he had added another string to one of their traditional instruments. The decree, stating the charges against him, read that the people "were angry with Timothy the Milesian because by rendering the music complex he brought it about that the souls of the youth, who had been entrusted to him to educate, were hindered from the moderation that characterizes virtue. Moreover, he had altered the harmony, which he had received as modest, into a type which is more effeminate."2

In more recent years the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau wrote "Music can be intoxicating. Such apparently slight causes destroyed Greece and Rome, and will destroy England and America."3 Cyril Scott, an eminent 20th Century composer wrote: "the prevalent notion holds that styles of music are merely the outcome and expression of civilizations and national feelings-that is to say that the civilization comes first, and its characteristic species of music afterwards. But an examination of history proves the truth to be exactly the reverse: an innovation in musical style has invariably been followed by an innovation in politics and morals. And what is more . . . the decline of music in [Egypt and Greece] was followed by the complete decline of the Egyptian and Grecian civilizations themselves."4

These men are cited in order to convey a sense of the gravity of this topic. It concerns not only our own personal human growth and progress towards holiness but also the very survival of our civilization. Inasmuch as the civilized public order of men depends upon a culture which seeks to perfect the private order of individuals, there is scarcely any more effective means for disrupting civilization than through a degenerate music, which inordinately stimulates the passions giving them free dominion, a veritable tyranny of avarice and sensuality. The thinkers mentioned and past civilizations in general have held that good music disposes man to virtue whereas bad music disposes man to vice. The music generally accepted by a civilization will profoundly determine its moral health, and ultimately its growth or demise.

It is important to note that philosophers do not say that music produces virtue or vice, but rather disposes one for the acquisition of one or the other. As one writer puts it: "Music can only suggest, encourage with its delights, not force anyone to act contrary to their best convictions, yet, many suggestions can undermine felt and reasoned convictions over a prolonged period of time."5 Moreover, the free choice to expose oneself to one form of music or another, especially repeatedly and over a prolonged period of time, is a moral choice itself, that is, this very choice is either virtuous or vicious.

But the question is: why does music have such a strong influence in disposing man to virtue or vice? To put it briefly, music as an art form is unique with regard to the object that it imitates. The philosophical axiom states: art imitates nature. Every form of human art must take from the created order elements that it imitates and arranges so as to articulate a feeling or conviction which the artist wishes to express to his fellow man. As such they have an effect on man.

What does music imitate? It is capable of imitating various things in our experience such as the sound of a blustery storm, the rushing of troops into battle, or the hectic bedlam of rush hour traffic. But the motion of musical sounds, expressed in various types of melody, harmony, rhythm, timbre and tonal texture, most importantly are capable of imitating man's own inner passions or emotions. There are certain natural bodily motions which commonly accompany man's feelings of joy, anger, hope, sorrow, fear, despair, love, hate and courage. Music is capable of imitating these same movements, and so evoke these feelings in the soul. In this way, music is a natural and universal language which is not learned, but immediately and connaturally felt. It is true that we can learn to associate certain memories and feelings with certain kinds of music due to repeated experiences. Nevertheless, for the most part, music, by its very melody, harmony, rhythm, etc., expresses specific emotions. There is no need to teach a child "this is happy music," or "this is sad music." As soon as happy music is played the child begins to dance. Whereas, when sad music is played a different reaction occurs.

The fact that music intensifies our emotional experience is obvious from sound-tracks that accompany movies. For example, imagine you are watching a horror-suspense movie. You know that there is a vampire waiting behind a door ready to spring out and attack. But the hero does not realize this, and he is about to open the door. There is a certain kind of music of suspense which sharpens the sense of impending danger. If the director chooses to put in such a scene circus music it would destroy the effect, because the emotion imitated and aroused would not match the emotional impact of the scene.

It is true that the other arts also work upon man's emotions. Take for example a statue, such as Michaelangelo's Pietá, which imitates the scene of Mary holding her dead Son Jesus. This statute arouses pity, compassion, and sadness because it depicts the Blessed Mother in the state of these emotions. Hence, those devoted to the Blessed Mother are easily moved whereas the impious may remain untouched. Music is different, because it does not portray others experiencing the emotion, but rather it directly imitates and so stimulates the emotions themselves. That is why music can be categorized according to the passion it imitates and arouses. There is joyful music, sad music, suspenseful music, romantic music, rebellious music, etc. A person would not usually confuse romantic music with a marching song, nor would they mistake music to celebrate victory with a funeral dirge. This is because even without there being lyrics to identify the feeling the composer wishes to arouse, the feeling is aroused. This point is of the utmost importance. Music consists neither essentially nor primarily in the lyrics. Whether a piece of music has words or not is accidental to the music itself insofar as it imitates and affects the passions. You do not need to understand German to know that the fourth movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is an Ode to Joy. The joy is felt, not intellectualized.

But what does all this have to do with disposing man to virtue or vice? The connection between music and the formation of virtue becomes clear when we realize that the two cardinal virtues of fortitude and temperance and the many other related virtues are primarily concerned with the ordering of our passions or emotions according to right reason. These virtues perfect our emotions so that we take delight in what is truly good and avoid what is truly evil. They increase our capacity to love truly and well, and unify our strength to oppose and overcome evil; they are the strongholds of man's character. We are talking about virtues like chastity, sobriety, meekness, patience, clemency, courage, humility and many others. On the opposite side there are the vices of drunkenness, lust, infidelity, harshness, cruelty, racism, jealousy and many other ugly beasts. The passions of our soul, which are love and hate, desire and aversion, joy and sadness, hope and fear, audacity and anger and despair will all be formed, either by virtue, in accord with right reason or by brute passion in vice. In order to acquire these moral virtues which beautify the soul by ordering the passions, man must habituate his emotions to act in accord with right reason.6 This is what the ancients meant when they said that good music fosters virtue, while bad music fosters vice.

Music, as an art form, moves man to delight in the emotions and passions which the music evokes. The repeated listening to a certain kind of music becomes habitual in the strictest sense of the word: the emotions clothe themselves with a habit, either a virtue or a vice, according to the quality of the music one habitually listens to. In this regard Aristotle wrote: ". . . emotions of any kind are produced by melody and rhythm; therefore by music a man becomes accustomed to feeling the right emotions; music has thus the power to form character, and various kinds of music based on the various modes, may be distinguished by their effects on character one, for example, working in the direction of melancholy, another of effeminacy, one encouraging abandonment, another self-control, another enthusiasm, and so on through the series."7

Music can imitate a reasonable, ordered, honorable, virtuous emotion, in which case music helps dispose man to the virtuous and honorable ordering of his life. However, music can also imitate an unreasonable, disordered, dishonorable, vicious emotion. The old saying that music calms the savage beast may be true of old music, but it would hardly hold true for many forms of modern music, whose purpose often is to release the beast. In the Old Testament, when King Saul was troubled by an evil spirit he was calmed and delivered by David's harp playing. Should David have played upon the war drums or had he sounded the battle horns for attack, one could hardly expect Saul to have been calmed and brought back to his senses by such music. Is there any serious doubt in the mind concerning the category into which the modern electrified instruments would fall?

Many people think that the goodness or badness of music can be judged simply by its lyrics. It cannot be doubted that the lyrics themselves may be good or bad. Bad lyrics certainly magnify the depravity of bad music, and also vitiate otherwise good music. For example, if a composer writes a very solemn, beautiful hymn, and puts blasphemous words to it, great would be the perversion. So also if a composer wrote a piece of music which inspired great fortitude, and accompanied it with a lyric which called for the annihilation of a particular race or class of people, this obviously would be an evil song. For this reason, if the words are bad, then the music is especially to be avoided regardless of whether a person listens or pays active attention to the words, because the human mind is influenced nevertheless.

But the point of our present argument is, as Marshall McCluhan observed: "The medium is the message." That is to say, the music: its melody, harmony and rhythm, all by itself disposes man to virtue or vice by moving the emotions. Therefore, the way in which they move the passions should serve as a principle basis for judgment on whether any given piece of music is good or bad.

It is an unfortunate mistake to think that moral formation consists simply in teaching children the Ten Commandments. Such instruction provides good and important intellectual formation, but it is not moral formation. Moral formation is the formation of the will and the emotions, accustoming them to delight in their proper objects. How can we teach our passions to rejoice in accord with right reason? Music is one of the most powerful means. This is what Plato meant when he wrote in the Republic, "Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul."8

There exists a large assortment of good music. No particular style or period of music has a monopoly on that claim. Each person will find some types more to his taste than others. Nevertheless, the principles of judgment concerning good and bad music can not possibly be reduced to a mere matter of personal taste and preference any more than the moral virtues are a matter of personal taste.

The degree to which each individual is affected by music will certainly vary due to temperament and character. Nevertheless, just as we can indicate general norms of virtuous behavior based upon the proper ordering of the passions to right reason, so too we can indicate general norms for good music based upon whether the passions imitated are according to right reason or not. In a word, good music will stimulate the emotions in such a way that these faculties of the soul, under the guidance of reason, are made to more effectively pursue the good of the individual and his neighbor. Bad music tends to absolutize the passions, making their pleasure or hate a good in itself, such that right reason more and more loses dominion with the result that the individual falls victim to the passions. Hence, it is not perchance that disordered music naturally advocates libertinism, rebellion and chaos.

To give a quick application of these principles, let us take the prevalent genre of music enjoyed by many of today's youth: rock music. One music historian who has covered the rock scene for national publications since 1967 described rock music in a very honest way. From its very inception, he writes, it has been "all about disorder, aggression, and sex: a fantasy of human nature, running wild to a savage beat."9 What Alan Freed originally named "Rock and Roll" in 1955 has since spawned a large progeny such as: Heavy Metal, Rap, Punk, Alternative, Grunge, etc. The common element in most, if not all, is the throbbing heavy pulsating beat, and syncopated rhythm which are amplified through the electrification of instruments, especially the guitar. The lyrics which accompany much of this secular music are similarly often morally objectionable. But the fact of the matter is such lyrics fit the music perfectly. Very often the music itself is obscene even without the lyrics. The emotions evoked by such music can hardly be considered virtuous much less Christian. The passions of sensuality, rebellion, pride, power, and irreverence are commonly evoked by the rhythms characteristic of these types of music.

Apart from the emotional effects that the progeny of rock music has on man, there are also verifiable physiological effects, such as the increase of adrenaline in the blood stream which makes the music physically addictive.10 Also it causes the out-pouring of sexual hormones when the volume of the music is high which is practically the norm, especially in concerts and places for dancing.11 These physical repercussions also serve as indicators of the effect this music can have on the moral life. Since the moral virtues of temperance and fortitude do not reside in man's purely spiritual faculties of intellect and will, but in the passions of his soul they are more easily disturbed by such bodily changes.

By contrast, let us now consider the musical antithesis of rock music: plain chant. Here we note that the emotions are being stimulated in a very different way, not in a riot of passion, but peacefully in a way that serves reason and respects the integrity of the individual. Plain chant has been preferred for sacred worship in the Church, and even before Christ in the Jewish praying of the psalms. Such is the case not simply because it so perfectly serves to convey the meaning of the text; but because plain chant itself conveys a sense of peace, reverence, purity, and humility.

The point is not that plain chant is the only good music, nor that all good music is like chant, except in that all good music stimulates the emotions in a way consonant with reason. The Baroque period as well as the Classical or Romantic Period offer many fine pieces of such music, although to many they seem too complex and inaccessible. Beyond these there is also a wealth of traditional folk songs from America, Germany, Ireland, France, Italy, Spain, etc. which have entertained and delighted Christian peoples for centuries. These, along with many other types of good music are just waiting to be rediscovered.

Good music touches the soul delightfully and elevates it nobly; whereas bad music corrupts the soul as profoundly as error corrupts the mind, because just as the mind should not be enslaved by untruth, so too the soul should not be enslaved by tyrannous passion. It is so very important to realize that it is not simply the lyrics that will affect man, but the music itself enters into the deepest recesses of the soul to influence man even more profoundly. Words must first be understood by the mind, but music is immediately grasped by the emotions.

It seems a great paradox that this hour in history which enjoys an unprecedented accessibility of music should suffer from a correspondingly unprecedented ignorance or denial of the incredible power and influence that music has on the moral formation of man. However agreement is found in this: both the producers of bad music and the commercial empire that uses it for its purposes, both want to manipulate man through his passions. It was to such music that Israel reveled before the golden calf of avarice and debauchery, while Moses was on the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments, which so perfectly articulate right reason. That he shattered the tablets of the Law in his righteous indignation made manifest what Israel was doing with its debauched music before the golden calf. The incident is both historical and perennially true. As one author puts it: "Possibly the greatest weakness of the modern materialistic outlook upon the world is its inability to perceive the causes behind effects. If anywhere, it is here that the philosophers of ancient China, India, Egypt and Greece deserve our fullest respect, since it could be said that they specialized in seeing to the cause and core of things. And they most certainly would have agreed with Thoreau, that music can destroy civilization."12 The ancients may yet have a thing or two to teach us which bear upon the survival of western civilization, if only we have the humility to learn.


  1. Ancius Boethius, On Music, bk I, ch. 1, quoted from "The Portals of the Ears: Music and Morals" an article in Newletter of Maronite Monks of Adoration, Holy Nativity Monastery, Bethlehem, SD, Easter 1995.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Quoted from David Tame, The Secret Power of Music, Destiny Books, Rochester Vermont, 1984, p. 29.
  4. Cyril Scott, Music, Its Secret Influence Throughout the Ages, Aquarian Press, 1958.
  5. Fr. Basil Cole, O.P., Music and Spirituality, from "The Homiletic and Pastoral Reveiw", New York. N.Y., May 1995.
  6. This evaluation is based upon an explanation of the relation between music and virtue which was given with greater length and depth by Marcus Berquist, Good Music and Bad, Lecture given at St. Thomas Aquinas College, Ojai, California, Oct. 1991.
  7. Aristotle, Politics, 1340a.
  8. Plato, Republic, III, 401.D.
  9. James Miller, Flowers in the Dustbin, Simon and Schuster, 1999, p. 88.
  10. Verle L. Bell, M.D. Psychiatrist, quoted in: How to Conquer the Addiction to Rock Music, Institute in Basic Life Principles, Oak Brook, Illinois, p. 81.
  11. David Tame, p. 199.
  12. Ibid, p. 30.


Rev. Basil Nortz, O.R.C. "The moral power of music." The Homiletic & Pastoral Review (April 2002): 17-22.

This article is reprinted with permission from The Homiletic & Pastoral Review. All rights reserved. To subscribe phone: (800) 651-1531 or write: Homiletic & Pastoral Review PO Box 591120 San Francisco, CA 94159-1120

The Author

Reverend Basil Nortz, O.R.C., is a priest in the Order of Canons Regular of the Holy Cross. He graduated from Christendom College in 1986 with a B.A. in theology. His seminary studies were at the Insitutum Sapientiae in Anapolis, Brazil. A more complete explanation of this topic can be found on Father Noritz's CD "Music and Morality" here. He is the author of Deliver Us From Evil, is available here. The Order of Canons Regular of the Holy Cross, has a web site here.

Copyright © 2002 Homiletic & Pastoral Review
back to top