Music as an Exercise in Virtue

Ours is a society saturated with music. Current technology has allowed music to penetrate our daily life to a unparalleled degree. Yet, our culture is also the most oblivious to its effects. In ages past, the impact of music on the individual and on society was unquestioned. Aristotle writes in his Politics,“It is plain that music has the power of producing a certain effect on the moral character of the soul.”[1] The divorce of music from ethics seems to have been a rather recent development. According to Noël Carroll, “It is only since the late eighteenth century that the view took hold that the aesthetic realm and the ethical realm are each absolutely autonomous from the other.”[2] I would like to challenge that notion with this little paper, written for a graduate course in ethics, and fine used here and there.

Virtually all studies that have sought to understand music as a moral force have done so from the perspective of the listener. I have noticed that a great void exists in the study of how the physical process of performing music shapes a person’s moral framework. Being a performer myself, I would like to know the answer to this question. Yet, before making this specific query, it is necessary for us to first examine the philosophical and patristic writings regarding the performance of music. We will then progress to a consideration of instrumental chamber music as an exercise in virtue and the essay will conclude with a few personal reflections on vocal music and its formative capacity.

It is noteworthy that, in the philosophy and social theories of Plato and Aristotle, music performance served a vital role in the education of youth. Aristotle dedicates a significant section of his Politics to the question: “Whether learning music can improve their characters?”[3] He relates that in neighboring Sparta the youth were only taught music appreciation—the ability to discern between worthy and unworthy music.[4] For the Athenian, Aristotle argues, “It is impossible, or difficult, to become a good judge of performances if one has not taken part in them.”[5] He adds, “It is proper therefore for the pupils when young actually to engage in the performances, though when they get older they should be released from performing, but be able to judge what is beautiful and enjoy it rightly because of the study in which they engaged in their youth.”[6] In this text, Aristotle betrays a sentiment common to many in the ancient world. Professional musicians were considered to be among the lower class and therefore Aristotle proscribes that music performance cease at adulthood.[7] However, aside from this, the point is clear: the physical process of learning to perform music shapes a person’s ability to discern beauty.

In Plato’s Republic, the link between musical and ethical training is even more evident. He writes, “musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul.”[8] Both Plato and Aristotle stress music’s powerful ability to serve as “imitations of character.”[9] Plato recognizes in music the virtues of “temperance, courage, liberality, magnanimity, and their kindred, as well as their contrary forms.”[10] Music is a mirror by which one can see the virtues in palpable form. Beautiful music is an image of all things beautiful. The study and practice of music, therefore, leads to beauty of soul. “For what should be the end of music,” Plato concludes, “if not the love of beauty?”[11]

The correlation between music and morality is not confined to the theoretical utopias of Greek philosophy. Even in the Orient, music was considered to be an integral component to a virtuous society. The Wisdom of Confucius reads, “Music rises from the human heart. When the emotions are touched, they are expressed in sounds. […] Therefore the music of a peaceful and prosperous country is quiet and joyous […] the music of a country in turmoil shows dissatisfaction and anger.”[12]  One can observe in this comparison an understanding of the relationship between an individual’s or society’s moral character and the music that each produces. Simply stated: A virtuous person or society produces virtuous music. Furthermore, like the Greeks, the Chinese also perceived an educational benefit to music. According to Confucius, the study of music is a necessary preparation to understanding the principles of government.[13] In addition, the study of music was also considered formative for personal virtue. Confucius relates, “He who understands music comes very near to understanding li [social harmony], and if a man has mastered both li and music, we call him virtuous.”[14] Thus, in summary, music in Confucian thought was considered to be both formative and indicative of virtue.

Even a cursory review of Oriental and Occidental philosophy reveals a deep chasm between their understanding of virtue and that of our own society. Today, virtue is commonly understood as something one does.The contemporary ethical forum is primarily concerned with discerning the “goodness” or “rightness” of particular actions.[15] However, Alasdair MacIntyre argues that, in the philosophies of ancient China and Greece, virtue is foremost thought as something one is rather than something one does. Virtue, he relates, is the “capacity to judge and to do the right thing and the right place and the right time in the right way. The exercise of such judgment is not the routinizable application of rules.”[16] In other words, the good man will apply the mean to the myriad of life choices, without appealing to any particular “standard of goodness,” because he is fundamentally good himself. The virtuous man does not examine political, aesthetic, or moral choices in categories of right or wrong. Instead, he weighs each choice in light of his ultimate purpose or telos. According to MacIntyre, “The virtues are precisely those qualities the possession of which will enable an individual to achieve eudaimonia [blessedness] and the lack of which will frustrate his movement toward his telos.”[17] Music, in the same way, is valued according to its ability to shape a person’s character and to bring him closer to his telos.

This teleological approach to ethics formed the backdrop for the formation of a Christian ethical ethos. Joseph Woodill, in his study The Fellowship of Life, relates that the Patristic approach to ethics certainly demonstrates an “inheritance of the Greek notion of excellence and fundamental concern with virtue, but with the added awareness that the Christian telos points beyond mere human excellence toward the excellence or virtue of Christ.”[18] Thus, music is judged on its affect on the soul and its capacity to further the Christian toward his telos: Christ-likeness and theosis. St. John Chrysostom considers the formative capability of music to be quite powerful. He writes in florid praise, “Nothing so uplifts the soul, gives it wings, liberates it from the earth, looses the shackles of the body, promotes its values and its scorn for everything of this world as harmonious music and a divine song rhythmically composed.”[19]

St. Athanasius speaks specifically of the benefit of actively singing. The soul, he relates, “Gaining composure by the singing of phrases […] becomes forgetful of the passions and, while rejoicing, sees in accordance with the mind of Christ, conceiving the most excellent thoughts.”[20] Woodill comments, “For Athanasius, communal worship ‘sings’ us; and the practice of worship forms the whole person, including one’s affections.”[21] Affections are a natural component to human nature, but sin has caused them to become unbridled. Music, possessing such a powerful influence over the affections, can help reorient the body’s relationship to the soul, bringing the affections under subjection to the mind. St. Athanasius writes, “For thus beautifully singing praises, he brings rhythm to his soul and leads it, so to speak, from disproportion to proportion.”[22] With the mind once more reigning as lord over the passions, the human body becomes itself an instrument of the virtues.

When practiced in a communal environment, music performance can also nurture the virtue of friendship. Friendship may appear peculiar alongside a discussion of virtue ethics. However, for the Fathers, friendship, community, and the synaxis were essential environments for the formation of a virtuous person. Aristotle devotes two large and fundamental chapters in his Nicomachean Ethics entirely to the virtue of friendship.[23] St. Basil, in his commentary on the Psalms, speaks specifically regarding the ability of sacred music to engender a fellowship of love. He writes, “A psalm forms friendships, unites those separated, conciliates those at enmity. […] So that psalmody, bringing about choral singing, a bond, as it were, toward unity, and joining the people into a harmonious union of one choir, produces also the greatest of blessings, charity.”[24] St. Basil is clearly observing a liturgical assembly and even a brief examination of Patristic writings will reveal that any praise offered for music is always within this context. However, the next section will discuss the capabilities of instrumental chamber music in the formation of friendship and the refinement of the senses.

John Baron, in his book Intimate Music, defines chamber music as “music performed privately by a small number of persons for their own enjoyment.”[25] The performers themselves constitute the audience. Within chamber music, therefore, the closest relationship between music performance and its ethical affects can be witnessed. The performer is wholly active and engaged in the process of making music and is invariably affected by its quality and orientation. In environments where a clear divide exists between performer and listener, whether in a liturgical setting or a concert hall, the observation of music’s formative capabilities will, by default, be oriented toward the listener. Chamber music is far less concerned with the aural effect of the performance than with the actual process of playing, together, a beautiful, intriguing, and complex piece of music. Baron’s definition of chamber music assumes that “performers are aesthetically of one mind and heart.” Homer Ulrich adds, “Where else than in chamber music can [one] find the flawless balance and ensemble, the selfless teamwork, the achievement of which is one of the finest manifestations of the human spirit?”[26]

A modern example of chamber music as a delightful avenue for facilitating genuine friendship can be observed in a documentary film of a quintet jovially preparing Schubert’s The Trout.[27] The quintet is made up of world-renowned artists: Daniel Barenboim (piano), Itzhak Perlman (violin), Pinchas Zukerman (viola), Jacqueline de Pré (cello), and Zubin Metha (bass). It is beautiful watching them playfully interact. Each responds to the other’s slightest movements with the utmost perception. The music is incredibly difficult but simple joy radiates from de Pré as she beams at Zuckerman. Metha pours himself into the bass line while watching Barenboim with admiration as his fingers fly over the piano. Perlman laughs, clapping his hands as Metha makes a witty jab at the group. Musician and instrument appear as one body and indeed the ensemble acts as one harmonious unit. No voice dominates but rather there is perpetual exchange of roles, a continual give and take. It is preeminently a conversation among equals.

Such conversations used to be common. Faint echoes of this culture can be seen even now in secluded jazz trios and bluegrass jams, though these are increasingly rare. According to Baron, in the 18thand 19thcentury haus musick was a widespread phenomenon. He writes, “family music-making was not only a fine way to pass the time in a society that had not yet discovered the sports palace, the cinema, the phonograph, or the television; it was also a marvelous means for a family to be together as a family, with each member making a contribution to the harmony of the whole.”[28] Unfortunately, passive listening—what one experiences today via both the iPod and the concert hall—has “isolated people from each other and shut them off from communicating with others the beauty that music can give.”[29] The conciliar result of performing music together in an intimate environment has thus been lost.

Our generation is not the first to lament the loss of a keener appreciation of music’s capacity to unite friends and elevate the soul to virtue. The 17thcentury musicologist, Thomas Mace, describes in his passionate avowal of English chamber music, Musick’s Monument,the horrible abuses he perceived in the newest musical fashions coming from Italy. He felt that the glamorous, audience-oriented, violin consorts that were quickly becoming the rage in England, were supplanting the sober, introspective and spiritually uplifting chamber consorts of nobler times. His reflection is worth quoting in full.

“Know in my younger time, we had music most excellently choice and most eminently rare […] and lest it should be quite forgot, for want of sober times, I will set down the manner of music as I make mention of. […] We had for our grave music, fantasies of 3, 4, 5, and 6 parts . . . with Pavans, Allamandes, solemn and sweet delightful Airs; all which were (as it were) so many pathetical stories, rhetorical and sublime discourses, subtle and acute argumentations; so suitable and agreeing to the inward, secret, and intellectual faculties of the soul and mind;that to set them forth according to their true praise, there be no words sufficient in language; yet what I can best speak of them, shall be only to say, that they have been to myself (and many others) as Divine raptures, powerfully captivating all our unruly faculties and affections, and a good temper; making us capable of heavenly, and divine influences.”[30]

Mace points to an underlying theme that threads throughout much of history’s aesthetical philosophy. The performance of music can constitute an excellent spiritual preparation, raising the mind above the mundane and elevating it to the heavenly Kingdom. The Church’s use of music demonstrates her recognition of this capacity. Nonetheless, Mace argues that the “grave music” of the English instrumental consort could also serve a similar function.

Critics, such as Johann von Gardener, offer the contention that “music by itself, devoid of words […] can create only a certain mood or atmosphere […] only when the musical element becomes linked to the verbal is it possible to say why a given emotion [arises] on account of the music.”[31] However, Ernst Meyer, in his study Early English Chamber Music, insists upon the ability of music itself to speak transparently to man’s soul. Instrumental music, Meyer argues, “Addresses man’s emotional life most immediately and directly; and in so doing does not rely on the ‘roundabout routes’ as do the other arts. […] In instrumental music man’s emotional life is most purely reflected.”[32] Felix Mendelssohn, responding to a similar critique as that of von Gardner’s, writes the following:

“People usually complain that music is so ambiguous, and what they are supposed to think when they hear it is so unclear, while the words are understood by everyone. But for me it is exactly the opposite—and not just with entire discourses, but also with individual words; these, too, seem to be so ambiguous, so indefinite, in comparison with good music, which fills one’s soul with a thousand better things than words. What the music I love expresses to me are thoughts not too indefinite for words, but rather too definite.”[33]

The Orthodox Church, in her adoption of music into her divine services, has always insisted on the primacy of the sacred text. Nevertheless, as evidenced by the florid chants that have graced her services since her infancy, it is clear that music played an important role in conveying a reality beyond the simple cognition of text.[34] The Church’s music can never be isolated from the sacred text but neither can its ability to refine and elevate the senses be ignored.

To a certain extent I can agree with Mendelssohn and Meyer regarding the affective strength of purely instrumental music. However, I would like to suggest that unaccompanied vocal music can equal and even exceed the formative capacity of instrumental chamber music.

For nearly two decades, I have experienced the sheer joy of singing on the kliros (a single music stand) with two or three other singers, both at St. Gregory Palamas Monastery and, now, at St. Tikhon’s Monastery. The unity of sound and soul has been, for me, unparalleled by anything that I have witnessed when performing instrumental music. There is often the feeling that we are being borne aloft by the music. The score itself is complex, intriguing, and my mind gradually becomes deaf to the nagging whisper of the passions. Each of us responds to one another as one body and I can think of no greater experience of friendship. We literally breathe one breath. After an exhausting day, parched by the cares and responsibilities that come with daily life, it is like drinking from an oasis. Certainly, it is the sacred text and the divine services to which the experience is oriented but to reduce its ethical impact to simple intellectual advancement would be a serious underestimation.

 At monasteries, there are many times in which those chanting on the kliros and the celebrant will be virtually the only “audience.” These times are by far the most rewarding because the mind is wholly preserved from any thought of “performing.” In these moments, I often reflect on how the experience is shaping me ethically—how are the subtle windings of the chant lines and the delightful musical conversation forming me as a person? In this essay, we have discussed the observations of philosophers and Church Fathers regarding the essential role of music in the formation of individuals and societies. For me, the greatest manifestation of music’s ethical power is in chamber music and foremost in the intimacy of singing on the kliros. I believe that the revival of instrumental chamber music in the form of relaxed and informal jam sessions and haus musickcan serve to return our society to a more refined spiritual sensitivity. Vocal music, especially sacred music, because of its natural physical tie to the body, provides the greatest potential for the reorientation of the body and soul and the formation of a virtuous person.


[1] ARISTOTLE, Politics, trans. H. Rackham,Loeb Classical Library Vol. 21. (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard UP, 1967)., 1340b, 661.

[2] CARROLL, NÖEL.“Art and Ethical Criticism: An Overview of Recent Directions of Research,” Ethics110 (2000): 350-387.), p. 350. 

[3]Aristotle, 1339a, 651.

[4]ibid., 1339b, 653.

[5]ibid., 1340b, 661.

[6]ibid., 663.

[7]cf. ibid., 1341b, 667.

[8] PLATO. Republic, trans. B. Jowett, The Works of Plato,Vol. 2. (New York, NY.: The Dial Press, n.d.) Book III, 108.

[9]Aristotle, Politics VIII,659.

[10]Plato, Republic III,109.

[11]ibid.

[12] Wisdom of Confucius, trans. L. Yutang. (New York, NY.: Random House, 1938)., 253.

[13]ibid., 255.

[14]ibid.

[15] WOODILL, JOSEPH. The Fellowship of Life: Virtue Ethics and Orthodox Christianity.(Washington D.C.: Georgetown UP)., 2.

[16] MACINTYRE, ALASDAIR. After Virtue: A Study of Moral Theology, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame: Notre Dame UP, 1984), 150. emph. added.

[17] Ibid., 148.

[18] Woodill, 15.

[19] CHRYSOSTOM, JOHN. Homilies on the Psalms,trans. R. Hill. (Brookline, MA.: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2003), 69. 

[20] ATHANASIUS,The Letter to Marcellinus,trans. R. Gregg. (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1980), 126.

[21] Woodill, 17-18.

[22] St. Athanasius, 126.

[23] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics,chpts. VIII, IX.

[24]St. Basil, 152.

[25] BARON, JOHN. Intimate Music (Stuyvesant, NY: Pendragon Press, 1998), 4.

[26] ULRICH, HOMER. Chamber Music.(New York, NY.: Columbia UP, 1948), 8.

[27] Franz Schubert, The Trout Quintet,3rdmov. “scherzo.”  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n8fkyI5dZuE, cf. full performance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D-2N17Su-UI

[28]Baron, 304.

[29]ibid., 437.

[30] MACE, THOMAS, Musick’s Monument: or the remembrance of the best practical musick, both divine, and civil, that has ever been known, to have been in the world (London: T. Ratcliffe & N. Thompson, 1676), 233-234. emph. added.

[31] VON GARDNER, JOHANN. Russian Church Singing: Orthodox Worship and Hymnography, Vol. 1. (Crestwood, NY.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1980), 23.

[32] MEYER, ERNST. Early English Chamber Music,ed. D. Poulton.(Boston, MA.: Marion Boyars, 1982), 82. 

[33] MENDELSSOHN, FELIX. Qtd. in Strunk and Treitler, Source Reading in Music History, rev. ed. (New York, NY.: W.W. Norton, 1998), 1199-1201.

[34] cf. Mikel Hill, I Shall Sing With the Spirit, unpublished thesis.

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