Musical character

Cantare amantis est, “To sing belongs to lovers” — St. Augustine

As yesterday was the feast of the patroness of sacred music, St. Cecilia, I wanted to re-post two quotes I shared here two years ago on the immense power of music to form, or deform, our moral imagination.

After my first child was born, a seasoned grandfather once gave me this piece of advice on parenting: “The best recipe for raising good kids is good books, good music, good friends and your good marriage.”

The hardest “control factor” in our children’s lives has in many ways been the music piece. It’s an endless struggle to wade trough the sea of cultural kitsch and find what is at least acceptable, if not preferable. Though I will not here attempt to share personal reflections on my experience of this struggle here, suffice to say to that all parents should be keenly aware that the music your children listen to is never morally/spiritually neutral, the lifestyle of the musicians is not incidental, and the words/message of the lyrics are not peripheral in significance (belying of the oft repeated phrase, “I just ignore the lyrics and enjoy the tune”). Beyond the simple years of Baby Einstein CDs, choose wisely the music your children imbibe and, while not going ghetto in a posture of cultural isolation, always think: what shape does this music impress in the soft wax of my child’s soul? What character does it conjure? What associations of emotion, thought and behavior doe sit forge?


Here are the two quotes — the first, written 2300 years ago by Plato in The Republic; the second, written by Allan Bloom in the 1980s in a book, The Closing of the American Mind, that seriously shook my worldview when I first read it in 1997.

Let me write the songs of a nation – I care not who writes its laws.

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Picture a thirteen-year-old boy sitting in the living room of his family home doing his math assignment while wearing his Walkman headphones or watching MTV. He enjoys the liberties hard won over centuries by the alliance of philosophic genius and political heroism, consecrated by the blood of martyrs; he is provided with comfort and leisure by the most productive economy ever known to mankind; science has penetrated the secrets of nature in order to provide him with the marvelous, lifelike electronic sound and image reproduction he is enjoying. And in what does progress culminate? A pubescent child whose body throbs with orgasmic rhythms; whose feelings are made articulate in hymns to the joys of onanism or the killing of parents; whose ambition is to win fame and wealth in imitating the drag-queen who makes the music. In short, life is made into a nonstop, commercially prepackaged masturbational fantasy.

This description may seem exaggerated, but only because some would prefer to regard it as such. The continuing exposure of rock music is a reality, not one confined to a particular class or type of child. One need only ask first-year university students what music they listen to, how much of it and what it means to them, in order to discover that the phenomenon is universal in America, that it begins in adolescence or a bit before and continues through the college years. It is the youth culture and, as I have so often insisted, there is now no other countervailing nourishment for the spirit. Some of this culture’s power comes from the fact that it is so loud. It makes conversation impossible, so that much of friendship must be without the shared speech that Aristotle asserts is the essence of friendship and the only true common ground. With rock, illusions of shared feelings, bodily contact and grunted formulas, which are supposed to contain so much meaning beyond speech, are the basis of association. None of this contradicts going about the business of life, attending classes and doing assignments for them. But the meaningful inner life is with music.

This phenomenon is both astounding and indigestible, and is hardly noticed, routine and habitual. But it is of historical proportions that a society’s best young and their best energies should be so occupied. People of future civilizations will wonder at this and find it as incomprehensible as we do the caste system, witch burning, harems, cannibalism and gladiatorial combats. It may well be that society’s greatest madness seems normal to itself. The child I described has parents who have sacrificed to provide him with a good life and who have a great stake in his happiness. They cannot believe that the musical vocation will contribute very much to that happiness. But there is nothing they can do about it.  — The Closing of the American Mind, 74

6 comments on “Musical character

  1. Where is the music which could have enriched the soul of this teen? There is so much music with a magnitude of offering – the whimsy of great animation viewed in youth sound tracked by the musical giants – Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven. Later, undertaking the challenge of learning an instrument to play these great works. Utilized in personal prayer and at Mass, music allows us to “pray twice” and develop the spiritual life.

    Society has stripped us of these building blocks of music. Cartoons are frequently senseless chatter aimed at keeping a child “out of trouble” and frequently there is no connection to the picture and the music presented. Schools have eliminated music programs citing it as not important compared to reading and math. Sadly, our culture is “unchurched “ – leaving secular music free reign to grasp our youth, who does not know to wrestle free from the entanglement.

    The remedy is complex yet simple. We must relearn to differentiate between music and noise. Not the joyful noise of the Psalmist, but just NOISE. In addition, the more we eliminate all types of noise (not just musical) the more present we are our God, to ourselves and to others. This changes the trajectory of any society for the betterment of all.

  2. Pam H. says:

    Re “pop” music, my teenager has found Japanese pop online via YouTube, which she translates. The lyrics seem to be innocuous as a general rule, and the tunes are catchy. I have been surprised repeatedly. Wonder why Americans can’t write and publish secular songs more like those.

    • Culture, culture, culture. There is a fundamental cultural difference that’s reflected in music, entertainment, food, consumption of pornography, etc. That was what I found so eye opening about Allan Bloom’s book is his analysis, back in the 80s, of what happened in the U.S. especially in the educational system (which is his major focus). On that note, a Russian woman who emigrated to the U.S. 10 or so years ago, said to me: “Why are you Americans so obsessed with violence and violent crimes in your entertainment?” It’s an important story to understand and you caught it well in your comment! Thanks, Pam.

  3. Whimsy says:

    I attended a small high school in the 80s. With both choir and band I’d say 30-40% of the student body was enrolled in music. My kids’ large suburban high school has a choir/band participation rate under 10%. I would say the music programs follow a collegiate model, which is not appealing to, well, 90% of the families who send their kids to this school.

    This is a shame. While the kids are certainly not performing Bach and Mozart, it is a place for them to create music, some of it quite beautiful.

    It is disappointing that the school made the music department uninviting to such a high percentage of families. Creating music is different from consuming it.

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