24. Music is the Ruler of the Passions of the Soul

Martin Luther (1538):

Only Music deserves being extolled as the mistress and governess of the feelings of the human heart.

Angelo Berardi (1681):

Music is the ruler of the passions of the soul.

Education today, and for as long as it has been a formal discipline, does not discuss emotion. It has always been left to individuals to try to understand our emotions and from the most ancient of surviving studies Music appears to have been the key to this subject. In the Akkadian language, 3,000 BC, the word for music, “nigutu” or “ningutu,” had the connotation of joy or merry-making.1

In ancient Egypt all music went under the name “hy”, which also meant joy or gladness.2

The early Christian Church, following its goal to invent a new kind of Roman citizen, tried with the utmost vigor to remove all emotion from the life of the Christian. They said that emotion is the first step toward sin and so they warned the new Christians not to go to the theater or to sporting events in the arena for emotions are found there. St. Basel warned that a good Christian should not even laugh, for laughing is a form of emotion! Music, which by nature has little purpose other than expressing emotions, they attempted to turn into mathematics. And they left us their notational system which is based on simple arithmetic and has no symbols at all for feeling.

Since the early Church controlled education, and since for centuries Church clerks were the only people in Western Europe who could write, philosophies were put in place which still intrude upon our lives. The way we teach music in the universities is still very much in the footsteps of the Scholastic teachers of the early Church universities. To this day music history texts dealing with the Renaissance and Baroque concentrate on Church music, and thus have provided generations of music students with a very incomplete view of music in society between 1300–1750. Therefore, for a long time there has been some who have continued to think of music as left-hemisphere concepts and mathematics instead of its natural role as a voice for the emotions. In the twentieth century, for example, we have had a whole school of composers who had little desire to communicate emotions to their listeners. They and their music have disappeared without a trace.

In view of this history, we believe it might be well to take a closer look at some of the philosophic thoughts on the relationship of the emotions with music which preceded our time. The most influential catalyst for change in Western European music was the rediscovery of the books of the ancient philosophers which the Church had tried to destroy. It was largely the discovery of the role of emotions described by the ancient authors which caused the following Europeans to begin to reconsider their music from the perspective of the ideals of the ancient world. This discussion became Humanism in music, a return of emotions to their ancient and natural purpose in music. And so one finds more and more musicians and philosophers talking about emotion as the Renaissance proceeds. By the beginning of the Baroque the topic had become an obsession and philosophers began to publish theories on exactly how music can communicate specific emotions. These ideas are known as the “doctrine of affections,” a topic to which we devoted the two previous essays.

During the Middle Ages, because the Church was so powerful and because the Church had placed so much emphasis on Reason, it was difficult for any writer to advance new ideas about the emotions. Nevertheless, common observation began to uncover some things which could not be ignored. First, philosophers were slowly becoming aware that both the emotions and some aspects of music itself seemed to be genetic in character. The first-century philosopher, Longinus, author of the very important treatise, On the Sublime, declares, “Music is a language which is implanted by nature in man and which appeals not to the hearing only but to the soul itself.” Because of this he has observed that the listener understands music even though he has no training in the art. This is so obvious, writes Longinus, that it is “folly to dispute it, for experience is proof sufficient.”

For does not the flute instill certain emotions into its hearers and as it were make them beside themselves and full of frenzy, and supplying a rhythmical movement constrain the listener to move rhythmically in accordance therewith and to conform himself to the melody, although he may be utterly ignorant of music?3

Our attention was attracted to the writer known as Aristides Quintilianus, who lived sometime between the first and fourth century AD, and his treatise, De Musica, because he promises to explain what kinds of melody and rhythm will discipline the natural emotions. Not only does he promise to set forth the principles written down by the great philosophers, but to reveal to us some of the things they did not write about—those “esoteric secrets they reserved for their discussions with one another.” He must do this, he says, because now,

Indifference to music (to put it politely) is so widespread, we cannot expect people with only a mild interest in the subject to tolerate being faced with a book in which not everything is explicitly spelled out.4

Aristides assigns the emotions to the soul, where he divides them into male and female qualities. This same duality he finds in nature as well, in plants, minerals, and spices, expressed through their qualities of color or texture and their opposites. This duality Aristides finds as well in the simplest elements of music, even in single notes, or sounds. “Some of them are hard and male, others relaxed and female.” He finds rhythms composed of short syllables are faster and more passionate, those composed only of long syllables are slower and calm and mixtures have the qualities of both. Compound rhythms are more emotional and the impression they give is tempestuous, because the number from which they are constructed does not keep the same order of its parts in each position. Running rhythms inspire us to action, others are supine and flabby.

Since Aristides finds that rhythm is so closely associated with character, it follows that he believed one can judge a person by his manner of walking.

We find that people whose steps are of good length and equal, in the manner of the spondee, are stable and manly in character: those whose steps are long but unequal, in the manner of trochees or paions, are excessively passionate: those whose steps are equal but too short, in the manner of the pyrrhic, are spineless and lack nobility: while those whose steps are short and unequal, and approach rhythmical irrationality, are utterly dissipated. As to those who employ all the gaits in no particular order, you will realize that their minds are unstable and erratic.

Musical instruments also have character, which explains why a particular listener will love and admire the instruments that are suited to them. Thus he finds the trumpet to be male, because of its vehemence, and the aulos female, since it has a mournful and dirge-like sound. Similarly, among the strings, he finds the lyra to be male, because of its extreme deepness and roughness and the “sambyke” to be female, since it lacks nobility and incites people to abandonment because of its very high pitch. Finally, he adds an aesthetic observation,

There are two useful forms of music-making, one valuable for the benefit it brings to the best of men, the other for the harmless relaxation it gives to the common run of mankind, and to anyone there may be still less exalted than they.

The Roman philosopher, Quintilian (30–96 AD), explains that the ability of the orator to communicate emotions to the audience depends on the use of both the voice and the body. Here he recommends to the orator the study of music for learning how this is done.

Music has two modes of expression in the voice and in the body; for both voice and body require to be controlled by appropriate rules. Aristoxenus divides music, in so far as it concerns the voice, into rhythm and melody, the one consisting in measure, the latter in sound and song. Now I ask you whether it is not absolutely necessary for the orator to be acquainted with all these methods of expression which are concerned firstly with gesture, secondly with the arrangement of words and thirdly with the inflections of the voice, of which a great variety are required for law practice … It is by the raising, lowering or inflection of the voice that the orator stirs the emotions of his hearers, and the measure, if I may repeat the term, of voice or phrase differs according as we wish to rouse the indignation or the pity of the judge. For, as we know, different emotions are roused even by the various musical instruments, which are incapable of reproducing speech. Further the motion of the body must be suitable and becoming, or as the Greeks call it eurythmic, and this can only be secured by the study of music.5

The great mathematician, Boethius (475–524 AD), was another who believed that perception through all the senses was something present due to nature and that this genetic information is something different from the “mind.” He goes even further and states that the genetic aspect makes the power of music inseparable from man himself, “From all these accounts it appears beyond doubt that music is so naturally united with us that we cannot be free from it even if we so desired.”6

Aurelian of Réôme, of the ninth century, does not address genetics as such, but he was impressed by the fact that music has a universality beyond anything else.

The very world and the sky above us, according to the doctrine of philosophers, are said to bear in themselves the sound of music. Music moves the affections of men, stimulates the emotions into a different mood. In war it restores the strength of the combatants; and the stronger the blaring of the trumpet, the braver is the spirit made for battle. It influences beasts also, serpents, birds, and dolphins, at its hearing … and what more? The art of music surpasses all other arts. If anyone doubts that the angels, too, in the starry sky, render praises to God with the practice of this discipline, he is not a reader of [the book of Revelations].7

In a discussion of two fragments of poetry by Horace by John of Salisbury (twelfth century) we can clearly see that the stage is set for the Renaissance, for Humanism and for the return of emotion as the central element of performance. First there are two points, that Nature has genetically prepared our emotions and, second, that speech is only a surrogate for the emotions.8

Nature first adapts our soul to every
Kind of fate: she delights us, arouses our wrath,
Or overwhelms and tortures us with woe,
After which she expresses these emotions
Employing the tongue as their interpreter.

It follows that if the musician expects to communicate with his listeners, he must feel the emotion himself,

If you expect me to weep, then first
You yourself must mourn.9

In the early Renaissance we still find some comments which seem to consider no further than thinking of the emotions in music to be just a matter of making life more bearable. A character in Chaucer’s The Book of the Duchess, for example, tells us, “I put my feeling into songs, to gladden my heart.” Perhaps another example of the utilitarian use of the feelings in music is the case of Leonardo da Vinci, who arranged to have music being performed while he painted the Mona Lisa.10

Another reference to feeling in music in the early Renaissance is quite different as feeling has taken on an importance of its own. John Lydgate (1370–1450) in his poem, The Minstrel’s answer to Death,11 has the minstrel observing that if he is taken from the earth people will continue to dance, but will feel nothing in their heart.

THIS new daunce is to me so straunge,
Wonder divers and passingly contrarye;
The dredefull footyng doth so oft chaunge
And the measures so oft tymes varye,
Which now to me is nothyng necessarye.
If it wer so that I might asterte!
But many a man, if I shal nought tary,
Oft daunseth, but nothyng of hert.

As the Renaissance progresses it is not long before we see this return to music’s purpose of communicating feeling described in eye-witness reports of actual performance. Think for a moment of lute performances you have heard. Now consider this remarkable passage in Galilei’s book on lute intabulation where a lutanist gives a startling description of the emotions capable on the lute. No organist, he says, can approximate the emotions capable on the lute, not even such virtuosi of the organ, such as Claudio di Correggio and Gioseffo Guami,

… not by failure of their art and knowledge but by the nature of the instrument, have not been able, cannot, and never will be able to express the harmonies for affetti like durezza, mollezza, asprezza, dolcezza—consequently the cries, laments, shrieks, tears, and finally quietude and rage—with so much grace and skill as excellent players do on the lute.12

“Shrieks, rage, this is the Renaissance lute?” Perhaps so, for a character in Robert Green’s (1560–1592) fictional Perimedes is surprised by the emotional power of her own music. She calls for a lute,

whereupon singing a mere galliard, she thought to beguile such unacquainted passions, but instead finding that music was like trying quench the flame with oil: feeling the assaults to be so sharp as her mind was ready to yield as vanquished: she began with diverse considerations to suppress the frantic affections.13

Or consider this art song for voice, an elegy of Magdalene by Michael de Verona. Heinrich Glarean, in his Dodecachordon of 1547, an extremely dull and prosaic description of church modes published at a time when the entire practice had virtually ended, nevertheless, when asked for one of his favorite songs suddenly becomes quite emotional as he describes this elegy as,

possessing great emotion and innate sweetness and tremendous power, so that one really believes he hears the weeping of a woman and her following … At the end, through a certain confident hope, it rises so magnificently and is lifted to the heights with such tremendous exultation, and then again, as if wearied and self-reproachful for immoderate joy, it falls back into deep and customary weeping.14

And, of course, the music of no other Italian Renaissance composer was so emotionally charged as that of Gesualdo. If the reader is not familiar with this powerful music, Isacoff summarizes it well. [“Temperament,” 131]

His pieces … reflect the stirrings of an anguished soul. The music is by turns tragic, erotic, and shocking. Tortuous melodies squirm and leap uneasily through convention barriers. Harmonies heave and sigh as they strain to find resolution … They are stories not of love’s ultimate fulfillment, but of relentless yearning — of a heart languishing in the fires of unsated desire — and his music captures that state with remarkable potency.

It represented everything the Church was hoping to quell.15

The great French writer, Michael Montaigne (1533–1592), seemed amazed by the emotional power of the music he was hearing everywhere in society.

No heart is so flabby that the sounds of our drums and trumpets do not set it ablaze, nor so hard that sweet music does not tickle it and enliven it; no soul is so sour that it does not feel touched by some feeling of reverence when it contemplates the somber vastness of our Churches, the great variety of their decorations and our ordered liturgy, or when it hears the enchantment of the organ and the poised religious harmony of men’s voices. Even those who come to scoff are brought to distrust their opinion by a shiver in their heart and a sense of dread.16

When one reads first-hand accounts of performances such as the following one by the lute player, Francesco da Milano, one realizes that by the end of the Renaissance the role of emotion in music was understood by all. This could very well be a description of contemplative listeners of our own day.

The tables cleared, he took up a lute and, as if merely essaying chords, he began, seated near the foot of the table, to strum a fantasy. He had plucked no more than the first three notes of the tune when all the conversation ceased among the festive throng and all were constrained to look there where he was, as he continued with such enchanting skill that little by little, through the divine art in playing that was his alone, he made the very strings to swoon beneath his fingers and transported all who listened into such gentle melancholy that one present buried his head in his hands, another let his entire body slump into an ungainly posture with members all awry, while another, his mouth sagged open and his eyes more than half shut, seemed, one would judge, as if transfixed upon the strings, and yet another, with chin sunk upon his chest, hiding the most sadly taciturn visage ever seen, remained abstracted in all his senses save his hearing, as if his soul had fled from all the seats of sensibility to take refuge in his ears where more easefully it could rejoice in such enchanting symphony.17


  1. Farmer in New Oxford History of Music, 1966, I, 236 ↩︎
  2. Ibid., I, 262 ↩︎
  3. On the Sublime, trans. Roberts, Cambridge, 1935, XXXLX, 2 ↩︎
  4. Barker, Greek Musical Writings, II, 457ff ↩︎
  5. The Education of an Orator, trans. Butler, I, x, 22 ↩︎
  6. Fundamentals of Music, trans Bower, I, i ↩︎
  7. The Discipline of Music, trans. Ponte, XX ↩︎
  8. De Arte Poetica liber, ed. Vollmer, Leipzig, 1925, 108–111, 102–103] ↩︎
  9. The Metalogicon, trans. McGarry, 51 ↩︎
  10. Varsi, quoted in The Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci, ed. Richter, I, 72 ↩︎
  11. The Daunces of Macabree, ed. Bergen, VIII, 1040 ↩︎
  12. Fronimo, 1584, trans. MacClinock, 87 ↩︎
  13. The Life and Complete Works of Robert Greene, ed. Grosart, VII, 33 ↩︎
  14. Dodecachordon, trans. Miller, II, 3548ff ↩︎
  15. Temperament, 131 ↩︎
  16. Essays, trans. Screech, II, xii, 670 ↩︎
  17. Pontus de Tyard, Solitaire second, 1555 ↩︎