“But it’s not of God!” he exclaimed, shocked. We had been discussing our musical interests, and I had said something about my great fondness for Beethoven; I had recently listened to his Sixth and was making my way through a biography. “Wait, you like classical music?” he had asked, incredulous. “Um, yes,” I had said, confused.
Something strange is at work here, this idea that only something which explicitly refers to God is worth doing or paying any attention to. It seems to me that, left unchecked, this can become a thinly disguised version of the ancient dualistic heresies (Gnosticism, Manichaeism, Paulicianism, Catharism, and so on): there’s good and there’s evil—there’s “of-God” and there’s “not-of-God”—and you had better choose wisely which side you’re on. Depending on how you decide what’s good (spirit good, matter bad? New Testament good, Old Testament bad? explicit mention of God good, no mention of God bad?), this way of thinking could rule out all sorts of otherwise apparent goods, including, yes, Beethoven’s Sixth.
This drastic dualism, it turns out, is neither balanced, nor true, nor helpful. Of course, divine goods are to be sought above created goods, but this doesn’t entail the wholesale repudiation of created goods. Created goods are created precisely to lead us to God; created goods are in the service of divine goods: Ever since the creation of the world, [God’s] invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made (Rom 1:20).
In the case of music, the created good is not the music directly, but us: music possesses its goodness not because it’s divine, but because it’s human. Among all animals, only we humans are rational, and music is an exercise of our rationality, in that it requires intellect and will. Properly speaking, only music that’s intelligently and freely made is music: there’s a difference between a musician and a random pitch generator, between a composer and a computer. Things can mimic music in various ways, but if no thinking and no freely willing is happening, it’s not music, precisely because it’s not human. Man is the only creature who can sing and know why he does it.
This may help explain why we rightly rebel against much hypermodern classical music: it’s deliberately irrational. For a time, it was in vogue for composers to use their rational faculties to produce something with no reason in it. (I would even say that Cage’s famous 4’33” is not music at all, because the only sound is precisely the non-thinking, non-chosen noises that happen to happen.)
Irrationality is not the only way music can fall short of its ideal. Natural goods are in the service of divine goods: so music, a natural good, should be in the service of a higher good, namely, contemplation, especially contemplation of beauty, which can in turn lead to contemplation of divine things. Some music, while rationally created, is put in the service of all sorts of other ends and is therefore deficient; for example, I don’t quite know what the intended purpose of death metal is, but I don’t think it’s a good one.
The point is, music—rational, free, musical music—is good, because it is a human activity which can lead us beyond ourselves. In fact, its humanness means that, in a way, it actually is of God after all, for we can only make music because God created us to be the kind of thing that can. What do you have that you did not receive? (1 Cor 4:7) Since our capacity for music comes from God, our exercising of that capacity can lead us back to him. Music, when rightly ordered to what’s good, has the ability to lift us beyond ourselves to contemplation of the source of all good things—and this can lead to our greater flourishing as well-ordered human beings. One friar, who is also a jazz pianist and has written a book on this subject, puts it like this:
Might listening to the inner relationships of a work by a Bach or a Mozart… exercise and strengthen the intellect to more easily contemplate divine things? Likewise, might not the beautiful as contemplated dispose one to realize that there is more to life than simply or exclusively the material goods of the senses? Could not a sonata or concerto, or Benny Goodman’s big band music of the 1940s suggest, through the intricacies of a well skilled melody joined in a deep relationship to harmony and rhythm, that one desire a life of more virtuous perfection?
So, go listen to that symphony. It’s good for you.
Image: Thomas Eakins, Music