The Problematic Power of Music

In striving to become more mindful about the ways in which music can be used and abused, religious traditions offer a rich fund of counter-cultural wisdom.

I taught a course in the spring of 2013 at the CUNY Graduate Center entitled, “The Problematic Power of Music: A Religious View.” A typical response when pitching the course was: what’s the problem?

And at first glance, it’s true. With an MP3 player in hand, music is always and everywhere available. You like what you like, and I like what I like, so what’s the problem?

But a little reflection should help us remember that music is a mysterious thing. Play the right song and you can stimulate a man to make love, or war – and sometimes the love is adulterous while the war is just. Music holds out the promise of marrying the rational and passionate parts of our soul and fashioning a harmonious personality, but it can also damn the voice of reason and, in a romantic swirl of emotion, supply the soundtrack for murder. Music is, in other words, a power, and a very ambiguous power at that.

Contemporary Westerners, raised to believe that the free play of the arts goes hand-in-hand with society’s progress, aren’t educated to think critically about art’s formative power. But strange as it might sound to modern ears, there is an ancient tradition of political philosophy that takes seriously the power of music to shape the character of individuals and societies. Plato devotes much of Book Three of The Republic and The Laws to music, and Aristotle did the same in chapter eight of the Politics. We, however, have a hard time imagining a professor of political science taking an active interest in the power of music. It’s true that the great modern rebels against modernity, Rousseau and Nietzsche, drew on the classical tradition in their writings on music, but their approach remains marginal, and for all practical intents and purposes, the classical tradition is irrelevant in contemporary culture. Our access to music has exploded, but we don’t think very much about how music affects our souls.

In striving to become more mindful about the ways in which music, like any power, can be used and abused, religious traditions offer a rich fund of counter-cultural wisdom. I am a Jew deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition, and in line with the commandment of the great twelfth-century sage, Maimonides, “[To] hear the truth from whomever says it,” I also listen closely to what thoughtful Muslims and Christians have to say. There is, for instance, a long and rich history of Islamic literature devoted to the question of music’s use and abuse. While Salafi jurists forbid instrumental music, Sufi thinkers have transformed listening to music into a necessary condition for drawing closer to God.

In addition, and closer to home, the Tanach, or Hebrew Bible, points both to the problematic origins of music as well as to music’s potentially elevated use. In order to understand the Bible’s teaching, however, we need to get the Sunday School vision of the Bible out of our heads. The Tanach is, in part, a book of reason that advances arguments about the nature of the good life.

The point of departure for the Tanach‘s teaching is that musical instruments were invented by the cursed line of Cain. It’s helpful recalling the context: After Adam and Eve sin they are exiled from the presence of God. Then Cain, jealous of Abel, kills his brother and is exiled from the earth. Finally, the murder itself and Cain’s response to God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” reflect a profound disconnection from humanity.

When the Bible then tells us in Genesis, chapter four, that either Cain himself or his son builds a city – the text is ambiguous – we shouldn’t be surprised. The city, the home of “anonymous humanity,” emerges from the three-fold disconnection from God, the earth, and other people. But the line of Cain doesn’t only found the first city. In Genesis 4:21 we are introduced to another of Cain’s descendants, Jubal, who is, “the ancestor of all who play the lyre and the pipe.” According to the Bible, musical instruments are also invented to fill the void.

That said, Cain and his line are not only literary characters. They also represent a type that is characterized by jealousy, bloodshed, disconnection from the earth, dwelling in cities, and a connection to musical instruments. We are amazed, then, when these same qualities later characterize the Levites, the spiritual elite of Israel entrusted with administering the service in the temple. In other words, the Bible portrays the Levites as a variation on the line of Cain but with the “Cainite” powers channeled into the service of God, including the appointment of the Levites to serve as temple musicians.

Who installs the Levites as temple musicians? No less than King David himself, the “sweet singer of Israel” who first steps on the scene as a young courtier playing the lyre to ease King Saul’s troubled mind. David goes on to usher in a new world that will revolve around a temple built in a city and that features the musical service of God. Aside from performing music therapy for Saul, David uses music to create community and to bring that community closer to God.

The trajectory of the Tanach, from music’s low origin to its high end, is a helpful corrective for some of our contemporary prejudices and inclinations. Take the propensity in certain circles to romanticize the arts, in particular music. It’s not uncommon to hear it said that, “music comes from God,” while those who love and make music are likewise idealized. You would think that the fascist and totalitarian use of music, from the Nazis to the Bolsheviks (explored in detail in Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise), would help us get over this cultural convention, but the prejudice remains.

That said, the prejudice is based upon some powerful experiences. Music often plays an outsized role in articulating a sense of identity, while many Westerners, religious and secular alike, go to music for spiritual sustenance – to get “the big feeling” – a tendency that was portrayed, in different ways, in the popular rock-operas Tommy and Jesus Christ Superstar.

The Tanach validates the authenticity of these experiences – Israel’s spiritual elite were temple musicians – but it resists the temptation to idealize them. That combination is not completely in tune with contemporary sensibilities, and it is, as such, a helpful place to start thinking about the problematic character and potential nobility of music.

Image: "Saul and David" by Rembrandt van Rijn (1650-1655)

Discussion and Comments

  1. I agree that music is powerful…healing…soothing…energizing…mystical…Unfortunately, today, many use it as “background noise”.

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