I once wrote a book called Music and Morals in which I tried to show that some music has a dispositive effect on the moral life. Music does not immediately or directly cause virtue or otherwise the beautiful works of Mozart or Bach that were played at the same time while the Nazis were killing Jews would have prevented such atrocities.
Like preaching itself, many works of music motivate to transcendence or degradation of one’s moral life. For example, listening to Gregorian chant or Palestrina at the Mass, all things considered, normally intensifies prayer because the mood is prayerful caused in large part by prayerful singers. If one understands Latin, then the sentences take on a richer meaning leading to contemplative prayer, more or less, depending on one’s spiritual life. It can introduce the listener to the praise and adoration of God himself.
Outside the liturgy of the Mass, many other sacred pieces of music can cause one to reflect about the transcendent order things because music attempts to shape notes, melody, harmony, rhythm and other sounds with a flood of reason creating a musical order. This in turn hints at virtue which also tries to flood the emotional life with reason and faith in making good moral choices which follows the natural law’s ordering of life.
Listening to good or even simple music in the course of one’s life is valuable because of a host of good effects. Some doctors even prescribe music when recovering from operations because it seems to aid the body’s normal healing of itself. Dentists often use music when having to do some serious drilling or replacing or removing teeth so that the patient is not overly anxious during the procedure. In moments of sadness, it can soothe one’s nerves and calm the emotions. Likewise, it can aid memory and even help teach a new language.
Bringing a lot of psychological delight, which is innocent and helpful, is necessary so that one can relax from the trials and tribulations of living the moral life. As St. Thomas reminds us if we do not have enough spiritual delectation, we turn to carnal pleasures. However, as he will remind us, carnal pleasures are good when they are the effects of conjugal love found exclusively in marriage.
The leisure for listening to music necessarily demands that it be seen as a segment of one’s life not its essential thrust. Unless one has a vocation to be a musician, which demands a great deal of practice and study, spending hours listening to music can become addictive, or an escape from serious responsibilities.
Hence the importance of understanding that listening to music come under some kind of virtue, a subspecies of Aquinas following Aristotle calls eutrapelia or “play.” It all goes back to the importance of diversion, a necessity in the life of following Christ. Doing his will is strenuous even with the help of grace. So it is necessary to relax or recreate.
When raising children, it is important if they have an ear for music that they be guided by a musical taste which elevates life. Slowly they need to be trained in listening to light music of the classics and later the more profound ones. Likewise, they need training in how to listen to contemporary music whether solid things from excellent jazz to concert pieces in the train of Gershwin and the like.
The difficulty with much if not most of contemporary “rock” music is that it tends to be excessively loud, which harms the ear drums. We are now seeing take place with an alarming number of men and women in their 40′s, the use of hearing aids. Also, much of this type of music often lacks originality, often angry or aggressive, and bereft of depth.
Adding to the difficulty is the words which often contain, sentimentality about human relationships, salacious words generating lustful desires, inflammatory rants against parents or authority figures, in addition with lyrics containing four letter words. In the 1950′s, much of the popular music boiled down to idealized romantic relationships that were supposed to bring about a naive happiness.
Part of being a good parent is developing the virtue of regnative prudence, a virtue that knows how to govern children through their various stages of their lives. One part of this intellectual value, among many others, is helping them to develop good taste for music as well as the other arts as well, if they are so attracted.
It does not mean that good taste will always and everywhere produce saints but it will aid in getting the child, the teen and the young adult to understand that one has to learn to think before making important decisions. Life is not all spontaneity and living primarily by desires for immediate results.
Good and great music lends itself to understanding that life necessarily requires working together in harmony. Not everyone can be a star of the show, and that everyone may and should contribute to the overall good of both society and the Church with the talents each has.
In the marching band, there are the tubas and the trumpets, the bass drummers and the snare drummers each needing the other. The many analogies are plentiful lessons for educating the family conceptually. Making time together to listen to solid music enables one to be able to listen to conversations as well because listening too is a kind of art.
Preventing bad taste in music begins at an early age not when the child becomes the teen and is listening to words and melodies that do not enhance his or her respect for self and others. Parents cannot wait for school to do this, but like monitoring the reading material, the kind of movies and television shown in the home, music too is a seed-bed for growth or stagnation in the spiritual life.
Counting on the mere presence of parents working and paying bills will not shield children from the culture of death which claims that there are no moral norms so long as it does not hurt people. “Enjoy freely, life is good,” as a standard for life without principles will never produce character or a culture of life.