What did Plato observe in music that prompted him to label it the most important of the liberal arts? He perceived that, of all seven, music best “tunes the soul.” Here Plato addressed the development of character, for music can inspire the unfolding of moral and mental qualities needed to be a virtuous person.
Our journey through life should be one filled with recognition and enjoyment of God’s glory as revealed both in the created order and in his son, the God-man. As recipients of both general revelation and God’s special revelation through the Word, we have been shown true beauty and have been invited into the greatest story of all ages. Following the lead of the Holy Spirit who applies this beautiful story to our hearts, we want to use every tool at our disposal – in this case music – to better tune our souls to know God and self.
What, then, might it be that Plato had in mind with his bold claim? What makes music capable of accomplishing such a task? Fundamentally mathematical and deeply emotional, music is a tangible blend of art and science which offers a universal context for us to enjoy life’s joyful and tragic narratives.
As we experience and study music, we learn about rhythm, the strategic ordering of musical events through time. We learn to love the peacefulness of predictability as we hear ostinatos and recurring progressions. We become more able to embrace the surprises of the unexpected as we recover from the shock of well-placed orchestral hit. Rhythm has undeniable effects on emotion and action. For example, the distinctive drumbeat of a tribe unites its members and solidifies feelings of belonging. Cadences and marches strengthened the resolve of weary soldiers fighting in abysmal conditions. Rhythm is a powerful force in shaping the musical artform – perhaps because our own heartbeat is a rhythm which intensifies and eases with the unfolding story of life.
In music we learn to enjoy melodies. Maybe it is a melody that traverses along a predictable path and leaps to a resolution you did not expect. Our interest is awakened as we hear a single theme transform into a nuanced composition through modulation, imitation, variation and recapitulation. Possibly a favorite Romantic-period masterpiece takes your breath away when, after turns and delays, it sweeps upward – hinting at resurrection. If you can look to the heavens for a glimpse of the glory of God, perhaps you can also lean into a melodic refrain and hear a hopeful sketch of creation being freed from its groaning when the Day of the Lord comes and all things are made new.
As it is important to read great literature, it is also important to listen to great music. In the works of ancient and modern composers we hear light and darkness wrestle for prominence. We hear weariness and triumph occur within minutes of each other. We set out on a quest for victory and long for resolution. Engaging with music is a vital way to cultivate our love for the right and beautiful prevailing over the disordered and foul. Music tunes the soul by nurturing the imagination. Sweeping melodies, vivid changes in tone, energizing rhythms, lush harmonies – these fill the creative palettes of our minds with rich colors to be used in all kinds of visualizing, thinking and enjoying. Studies in the field of music psychology have revealed that people who frequently listen to classical works have an advanced ability to grasp the “geography” of stories; music builds networks of creative associations linking sounds to people, situations, and events.
The capacity of music to simultaneously portray loveliness, complexity, and tension makes it especially effective at cultivating our love not only of excellent destinations, but also of the journeys that lead us there. Music helps us realize that, in time, dissonance will be replaced by consonance if we wait for the Maestro to lead us to the finale. If Beethoven can extend the final cadence of a symphony until we are grinning in bewildered amusement, should we not be able to see delayed gratification as a good part of God’s world? If Rachmaninov can begin a concerto with dark, stormy chords and end with rapturous triumph, why can’t we redeem a troubling day knowing tumult is an opportunity for victory? If Debussy can transport us to a misty, sunlit garden where for a brief moment all feels pure and delightful, why might that not be what we were destined for?
We want imaginations that soar far above this fallen world. We do not seek, like the Gnostics of old, to leave it behind, but rather to believe that it will one day once again be made perfect. We believe that “as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are [God’s] ways higher than [our] ways and [his] thoughts than [our] thoughts.” Let music help you dream, child of God, for we hope for what we do not see – and we will obtain it: the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
“Music… will help dissolve your perplexities and purify your character and sensibilities, and in time of care and sorrow, will keep a fountain of joy alive in you.” ― Dietrich Bonhoeffer