Music’s Ennobling Power

So it seems that James Levine, longtime conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, is an abusive creep. Still, he was a good conductor.

This makes me think about something which I have long pondered. Growing up, my main identification was as a Christian, but my parents also took me and my siblings to a lot of music lessons. We were members of the Community Music Center’s choirs, the local youth symphony, and went to week-long Suzuki Violin camps in the summer along with lots of other musically enriching classes and ensembles.

I mention this in relation to being a Christian not so much in comparing the duties (going to church and going to the music center) but rather the beliefs, because across the board in the music world there was a pretty unified philosophy.

That was:  music has great power to make us better people.

Like in the Orpheus myth, music could raise us from being savage and beast-like to being noble and humane. If only every child were part of a choir, he wouldn’t want to do graffiti or drugs. If only enough money were allocated to music education, world peace could be achieved, for what man would want to pick up a bazooka if he already had a bassoon in his hands? What nation would have time to practice violence while practicing violins?

What always concerned me, however, was that the trained classical musicians of our community did not seem to be automatically more kind. Exposure to the music of Chopin, Beethoven, Mozart, and Debussy did not seem to have given them compassionate hearts.

Dr. Suzuki, the founder of the Suzuki Violin Method, famously spoke of “a beautiful tone from a beautiful heart,” but I have not really noticed there to be a strict correspondence. Levine seems to be a good example of good musical sense and skill coming from a manifestly selfish heart. And involvement in the splendid and sensitive work of classical music-making didn’t take away that selfishness.

Of course, I can encourage myself that music does have some ennobling effect, that though classically trained musicians are not delivered from being unkind, we would be a lot more vicious without the training and exposure. There is a lot less crime among classical symphony musicians than gangster rappers.

I think music helps you be a healthy human being — like hiking in the great outdoors, listening to Shakespeare, eating healthy food etc.

The first half of the last century saw a widespread movement to equate things like fresh air and good music with moral goodness. I once read an article from the August 1909 issue of Sunset about Katherine Tingley’s Theosophist colony at Loma Linda. It definitely portrayed them as a group that believed in the salubrious effect on the soul of exposure to fresh air.

The activity of the Theosophists, according to the article, “might be said to consist of the teaching of an amplified evolutionary philosophy, in some respects similar to that of Spencer and Darwin, with the addition thereto that the law of evolution and progressive development works the same in the invisible realms of spiritual existence as it does on the physical plane; to this is joined a system of child training…”

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“The indoor study hours are short”

I’m not exactly sure what it means that progressive evolution works in the invisible spiritual realm the same as on the physical (re-incarnation would be a necessary component, obviously) but evolution always was a kind of vague and magical science; it would seem in the invisible spiritual realm as we evolve up — like a snake being raised from the basket to the sound of the pungi — music is used.

“Music instead of being regarded as an amusement, is taught to be one of those subtle forces of nature which, properly applied, tend toward higher aspirations and higher ideals. there are not many hours in the day that music is not heard from some part of the grounds.”

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Mrs. Tingley’s boast of the effectiveness of Theosophical education

But how did all these children turn out? Impervious to all the temptations common to man? Even with all the music and fresh air, it seems unlikely. The Theosophical way of running the colony even with all its dedication to music, exercise, and work also had a certain hard-heartedness. Recounted in the article is how the writer of the article saw a young lady become disenchanted with Theosophy. She was being shown around the campus in the same tour as him, and on seeing some children playing, this young lady inquired, 

“”Whose babies are these?”
“Most of them belong to the members of the organization.” was the reply.
“Kept here during the day I suppose?”
“And at night, too,” was the surprising reply.
“But where are their mothers?”
“They are here, engaged in their chosen work.”
“You don’t mean to say that the mothers give up their babies, allow their little ones to be separated from them and cared for on a community plan?” asked my companion, her eyes wide with astonishment.
“Give them up? Oh, no. At first they see them once a day, when they grow a little older once a week…”
“I cannot conceive of the mother’s heart that would willingly separate herself from her babies. That part of your philosophy does not appeal to me.””

So there’s some cold-hearted wickedness afoot in the Theosophical paradise.

C.S. Lewis critically depicted a somewhat similar progressive 20th-century education in his book The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. His character Eustace Scrubb is raised in a family of “very up-to-date and advanced people. They were vegetarians, non smokers and teetotalers and wore a special kind of underclothes. In their house there was very little furniture and very few clothes on the beds and the windows were always open.” 

And personality-wise Eustace is a first-rate stinker. 

But in such a critique one could go two ways: either point out the particular problems in a specific educational model, or argue that even the best training methods that seek to bring out and develop humans are ultimately limited by the wickedness of the human heart. 

C.S. Lewis goes both ways; He often says that Eustace hasn’t read the right books (there were particular problems in his education), but he also reforms this beastly character only through a miraculous new-birth experience. 

In the showing the need for a re-birth Lewis sides with Christ who, in contrast to progressive idealism, is not sanguine about a goodness in man (even with the best education.) Christ says “ye must be born again.” You need a new heart from above. 


I took a break from writing this and went over to my Grandma’s house as I do most nights, and she was watching a classical music concert on the TV. I sat down in front of the T.V. and felt my heart uplifted by the music. Beauty’s uplifting power seems real; I think that it is real and that is why God gave us beautiful music.

Look around at the beauty of the stars, the flora and fauna of the land and the sea; beauty is something God gave us to be a part of life, and it’s to be received with thanksgiving.  But I still think that Christians should remember the limitations of the power of beauty and not make the field of aesthetics the main battlefield. For, what does it profit a man if he gains the world and loses his own soul?

Yet God certainly can use beauty to give us a sense of something beyond this world of sights and sounds. I pray that classical musicians like Levine would not only receive the blessings of getting to experience beauty in this life, but that they would take the hint of a world beyond, and seek God.


One thought on “Music’s Ennobling Power

  1. I think most Theosophists would agree with you that Music can have an uplifting and Spiritual effect. Music was an important aspect of Katherine Tingley’s Point Loma, Ca. Theosophical community, and they had a department of it in their School. I personally knew 2 people that were raised there, who turned out “OK,” and are among the person’s I’ve most admired in my life.


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