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A Taste for Music

Music is a universal language. Nearly every culture has its own form of music. Thus, most people have an opinion concerning music. These opinions rarely concern music simply. Rather, any such opinion is usually made concerning a given kind of music or a given performance of music. Additionally, the opinion arises as a matter of taste and is left with little to support it substantially beyond its undeveloped status as an opinion. Although this is usually the case, can anything more be said of music? Surely, a subject of such universality has more to it than is determined by mere preference or taste. One can enjoy the taste of junk food or candy, but this does not make such foods good when consumed more than occasionally. It is far better to eat a meal consisting of meats, vegetables, and starches rather than to treat junk food as if it were the main course. Thus, enjoyment does not dictate the goodness of food. The same rule applies to all enjoyable things. Any given pleasure has a certain place amongst a hierarchy of other pleasures which are more and less good for people. Some things are good for people regardless of whether or not they find them pleasurable. The opposite may also be true. Thus, it is important to become educated such that one can learn to like what is in fact good for oneself as a human person.

As food is a good, so too is music, analogously. Like food, music can be either good or bad for the human person regardless of whether or not it is found to be enjoyable. As such, there is more to music than just taste; taste is relative to the taster. But, there are better and worse tasters insofar as there are people who know more about what they taste and who thus train their taste accordingly. Therefore, the best tasters taste both according to how things are supposed to taste and which things are truly best for the human person. Ultimately, to judge taste, the taster must know the purpose of that which he tastes. In the case of food, its fundamental purpose is to nourish the person and to additionally be palatable. Thus, food must not only be good for the person but must also taste as good as its nourishment suggests. Here it is evident that foods which seem to taste good can be dangerous when they are actually detrimental to the person’s health. Food is then principally nourishing and secondarily tasteful, though both are necessary.

Extending the analogy to music, one must judge the taste according to the purpose. Does it taste as it should? Is the substance actually good aside from the taste? Ideally the two ought to coincide as the actually good being actually tasteful. But, as food does not always occur in this fashion and thus requires training and discipline to learn to like what is really good, so too a musical performance ought to sound as the music itself dictates. Here, the two parts are again evident. Music ought to have a purpose and a means by which it attains that purpose. But it is clear that music can serve many purposes. These purposes can all be examined according to the standard of music’s ultimate or highest purpose.

Before examining the different kinds of music and its various purposes, one must look at music simply. Why do people listen to music? People listen to music because it brings about a certain disposition or state. For example, drums in warfare stir courage in the troops on one side and stir fear in the troops on the other side; Catholics have Gregorian Chant to lift their souls to God in prayer. Whatever the purpose, the music can be performed either well or poorly. Assuming that the music is performed well and achieves its purpose, which purpose is highest?

The highest purpose corresponds with the highest state or disposition for the human person. Man is essentially a rational animal. Thus he is a thinking being which is self-animating. There are many animals in the world but what sets man apart from the rest of the animals is his ability to reason. Thus, while not denying any part of the human person, the highest activity is thinking. And, since man is also essentially a social being, the highest activity is thinking with other rational beings—conversation. Additionally this conversation must tend towards the highest things. The highest thing is God. Thus conversations about God are among the highest activities of the human person. The highest activity of man is to converse with God Himself in prayer. Thus, the music which best brings about this highest disposition is the sacred music fostered and preserved in the Roman Catholic Tradition, namely Gregorian Chant and Sacred Polyphony. The nature of this music is such that it does not draw attention to itself. Rather it is a transparent window into the things of God.

On a purely human level, the highest things to think and converse about are truth, beauty, and goodness. How does one musically bring about a disposition which is conducive to the contemplation of such elevated things? First and foremost, the music must not be too emotionally focused because it would draw away from the intellectual nature of the highest things (a by-product is that such music also does not draw much attention to itself directly). Also, music conveying truth, beauty, and goodness should not arouse the passions such as sex, anger, etc. One can hardly expect to contemplate truth, beauty, or goodness while the irascible or the sexual passions are aroused. What kind of music, then, is most transparent, ordered, and elevated? Here is a hint: it is not Rock and Roll.

Categories: General
  1. John Lollard
    July 29, 2009 at 10:54 am

    Reading back over carefully, I noticed a huge leap in your reasoning. You ask about the best kind of music. You draw analogy to conversation and thought, that the best kind of thought it thought about God and the best kind of conversation is conversation about or to God. Rather than then concluding that the best kind of music is music about or to God, you conclude that the best kind of music is a particular subset of music about or to God, the sacred music of the Roman Catholic tradition. It does hold that Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony are some of the best kind of music, but certainly not all of it.

    I’d say the best kind of music is the kind of music that God Himself has His people perform in worship to Him. You can find a pretty decent cross-sampling of it in the book called Psalms, which is a theopnuestos collection of worship songs located in the ipsissima verba Word of God. I’d say to look around the 90’s and 100’s especially.

    Are we to believe that God Himself has commanded His people to arouse their baser passions to inappropriate excitements? Why doesn’t God know the proper way to worship Himself? Or did He inspire these so as to test us and make sure our well-reasoned philosophical arguments will prevail in showing us the real thing he wants us to do?
    Colossians 2

  2. July 29, 2009 at 6:15 pm

    I voice the a concern similar to that of John Lollard. While I can intuit the connection you wished to make between the highest conversation between man and God, there is no proof given in your article to support your assertion that the music fostered by the Roman Catholic Tradition is, in fact, the vector of a heavenly disposition. While I firmly believe your argument that the Catholic musical tradition conveys this sense best, it would be greatly beneficial to have a bit more underpinning the statement.

    Pax Christi!

  3. Alcibiades Norton
    July 29, 2009 at 11:27 pm

    The assertion that the music fostered by the Roman Catholic Tradition can be given proof when speaking to a fellow Catholic. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the greatest prayer of the Church– it is an anamnesis of the Christ’s death on the Cross at Calvary. As such, the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, has in her great wisdom set the standard for the music which is integral with the Sacred Liturgy. In Sacrosanctum Concilium, it is explicitly stated that Gregorian Chant has principle place within the Liturgy and that Polyphony is second to it. Such a document carries great weight since it is from Vatican II. Unfortunately, this statement is largely ignored by many Church musicians today. It seems that the appropriate music for the greatest action on earth, bridging the atemporal with the temporal, would also be the highest music in that man’s most proper act is to worship God. Thus, the greatest act of worship carries the greatest music. And, this music has been set down by the Church as principally Gregorian Chant (which is largely taken from the Psalms)and secondly Renaissance Polyphony. It is also interesting to note that the second greatest prayer of the Church, the Office of the Hours (which is also mostly from the Psalms), is ideally to be chanted using one of the standard psalm tones. This is not to discredit the beauty and goodness of other kinds of other kinds of music. I am simply saying that secular music, as such, can never be higher than sacred music. And, the greatest sacred music, music of God, is Gregorian Chant and Polyphony.

    Now when dialoguing with non-Catholics, it is much more difficult to arrive at an understanding of the highest music because there will always be a fundamental difference in theology and thus a fundamental difference in understanding man and his proper relationship to God. Catholics acknowledge the teachings of the Magisterium which is guided by the Holy Spirit. Catholics also have the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass with Christ present body, blood, soul, and divinity. Non-Catholics have a different understanding of the human person along with the task of deciding for themselves the best music for worship whereas Catholics have the guidance of the Church. Without such guidance, things become much more fuzzy. A different notion of worship brings a different notion of music and a different notion of theology (lex orandi lex credendi).

    When dialoguing with someone who does not believe in God, the highest act of the human person takes on a whole new spin. Unless the person agrees that the highest act is thinking then there is not much of a chance for further dialogue about the most tasteful music.

  4. July 30, 2009 at 3:48 pm

    Thank you for a most helpful response. As stated before, I believed your argument anyway, but was looking for a bit more detail to support it. I appreciate your taking the time and effort to provide an excellent explanation, executed rather eloquently. I particularly enjoyed your commentary on dialogue at the end.

  5. John Lollard
    July 31, 2009 at 1:28 am

    So then if one is to accept the claims of the Roman Magisterium, is one then to believe the very style of worship songs the Holy Spirit inspired in Scripture are inappropriate and detrimental to use in the worship of God?

    You are claiming that one form of music in particular is preferable to the exclusion of all others, in particular in the sacred sense, and that the others incite sinful and lustful passions that detract from the true purpose. If that were truly the case, we would expect God, were he ever to act in such a way as to lead to the composition of music, to compose music specifically and exclusively of the type you have described. It is interesting, then, to note that when God DID inspire his people, by the very breath of the Holy Spirit, to compose music for the worship of himself, he did not solely compose the sort of music you have described. In fact, it is doubtful if any of the psalms were originally sung as Gregorian chants. Most of them call for stringed instruments, wind instruments, and percussion, and the few I referenced call for shouting and rocking the mountains.

    It would seem your argument then is really a matter of taste. It is fine to have a musical preference (even though I doubt you actually enjoy listening to Gregorian chant at all), but you are extending your argument to claim more than it should. By this argument you merely mean that you like Gregorian chant, and instead you’ve said that Gregorian chant is the best music for the soul. I really like ska, but I know better than to pretend that it is the best music for the soul.

    If all you mean by this article is “Gregorian chant is pretty cool and Thrice is pretty lame”, then whatever. If you mean “Gregorian chant actualizes the inherent goodness of the person, whereas Thrice incites a privation of that goodness” then you’ve gone way too far, outside of the historical actions of God acting in history through his people, and outside of the revealed word of God in Scripture.

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