40. Music is Truth

Music is a form of beauty.

Music Educators National Conference (1991)

Anyone who still hasn’t got past the stage of the beauty of music knows nothing about music … Music is Truth.

Sergiu Celibadache (1989)

The real secret to the power of music is that it is the expression of experiential Truth dealing with feeling. It is only the left hemisphere of man’s brain which is capable of lying, thus making suspect all reading, writing, speech, history, poetry, oratory and theater. But, the right hemisphere of our brain, the domain of the experiential nature of music, does not lie and has no equivalent of “No.” This is clear to everyone in the example of love. You can use the left brain (speech, thought) in trying to talk yourself in or out of your feelings of love, but it is always quite clear to yourself what those feelings really are. And so it is with music, as was accurately observed by Confucius (551–479 BC) in a treatise on music,

Music is the one thing in which there is no use trying to deceive others or make false pretenses.

And Robert Schumann once noted, “Understanding may err, but not feelings.”1

The agent that makes Truth in music so powerful to the listener is the fact that the communication is always first person present tense, it occurs live, lock-step in time with the listener. In the performance of music, the listener experiences the music immediately and has an instantaneous connection with the inner artistic idea of the composer. W. H. Auden observed, “A verbal art like poetry is reflective; it stops to think. Music is immediate, it goes on to become.”2

This is an important distinction between music and painting or sculpture. The observer of a canvas first employs exclusively the eye. If he is going to be successful in going beyond this to see and communicate with the inner artistic idea of the artist, he must make a shift from vision to mental contemplation. In other words, he must get past the experience of the eye before he can get to the experience of the artist. It is this delay, this circumnavigation which robs art and sculpture of the power of music.

But there are additional important distinctions. First, the art work of the painter is “frozen” in time. In this way it is like a photograph. If you think of someone you know well, you can “see” in your mind much of his features. But if you happen to have a photograph of that person, when you look at that a much more vivid picture of the person comes to mind. But the picture never becomes the real person. A recording of music, by the way, is analogous with a photograph.

Another important distinction lies in the nature of the existence of the art work. A finished canvas exists as a work of art even if it is hanging in a closed museum where no one can see it. A composition, on the other hand, exists as genuine music only in performance, which implies the presence of a listener — as there would be no purpose in a performance if there were no one to hear it. Therefore in a musical performance the listener is not an observer at all, but a participant in a live aesthetic experience. And in this regard let us remember that a single wealthy individual can own a canvas of Leonardo, and keep it secret from the public if he so desires, but no one owns Beethoven. Music, as is appropriate for a form of Truth, belongs to all mankind.

Among the early Greek philosophers, Plato (427–347 BC) makes three important points which most of the following philosophers would agree. First, he sets music apart from the other arts and theater as, he says, these are only “imitations” of the real thing. He seemed to understand that music was not an imitation of something, nor a symbol of something, but the real thing expressed from composer to musician or listener. This is why, he points out, that a singer cannot be fooled, he knows immediately if a composition is good or bad and if the composer has a “good or bad soul.”3

Second he, as with so many early philosophers, makes the connection between music and the divine. Speaking of the poets, whom let us not forget were musicians who sang their works before the public, Plato observes,

For poets are a divine race, and often in their strains, by the aid of the Muses and the Graces, they attain Truth.4

He follows this with the suggestion that music was genetically given to man by the gods,

And did we not say that the sense of harmony and rhythm spring from this beginning among men, and that Apollo and the Muses and Dionysus were the Gods whom we had to thank for them?

The third, and most important, point which Plato makes is the distinction between entertainment music and that aesthetic music which represents Truth. He condemned those who had allowed music to fall to the level of mere entertainment, “ignorantly affirming that music has no truth … and can only be judged by the pleasure of the public.” Quite the contrary, he contends that “being pleasant” is not an appropriate criterion for selecting music for performance or for judging the value of music.

An Athenian Stranger. When anyone says that music is to be judged by pleasure, his doctrine cannot be admitted; and if there be any music of which pleasure is the criterion, such music is not to be sought out or deemed to have any real excellence… Those who seek for the best kind of song and music ought not to seek for that which is pleasant, but for that which is True.5

Aristides Quintilianus, who lived sometime during the first four centuries AD, wrote directly to the point of why music is so potent in its communication of emotions, because the emotion expressed in the music is identical with that felt within the listener (due to the genetic similarity in all men with respect to the basic emotions.

Music persuades most directly and effectively, since the means by which it makes its [appearance] are of just the same kind as those by which the actions themselves are accomplished in reality.6

The ancient Romans, who in general were more interested in entertainment than the Greeks, do not speak of this topic much. The Roman philosopher, Quintilian (30–96 AD), in the course of a discussion of oratory, seemed to believe that all the arts dealt with Truth. He observed that since all art must be based on direct perception, “Art can never deal in false ideas.”7

Cicero, 106 – 43 BC, rarely discusses or praises music at all, but we do find one interesting passage. Many early philosophers who comment on oratory point out that the successful orator is one who gets the crowd excited, even if what he says is completely untrue. Cicero, on this subject, seems to suggest that musicians are true to themselves, without regard to the audience, while the orator is the reverse. He phrased it this way,

Can it be that while the aulos players and those who play the lyre use their own judgment, not that of the crowd, … the [orator], endowed with a far greater skill, searches out not what is most true, but what the crowd wants?8

The poets of the early Christian Era also contribute some interesting comments on Truth in music. The 4th century poet, Ausonius, using the name of one of the Greek gods of music, writes, “Phoebus bids us speak truth.” But, he points out, Truth in music is not found in the externals.

Because with purchased books thy library is crammed, dost think thyself a learned man and scholarly, Philomusus? After this sort thou wilt lay up strings, keys, and lyres, and, having purchased all, tomorrow thou wilt be a musician?9

If the reader recalls that all early poetry was sung, and therefore usually cataloged under music, he will find interesting the suggestion by Sidonius, 5th century, that if there be Truth in music, it follows that it must reflect his own life as well.

As for me, my anxiety absolutely forbids me to make the content of my poetry different from the content of the life I lead.10

This suggestion that the music and the musician are to some degree inseparable reminds us of a comment by Boethius (475–524 AD). Boethius, the famous mathematician, when speaking of “Truth” was speaking of rational, or intellectual, truth. Nevertheless, he sets music apart with an observation which is near to the meaning of “Truth” as others use it in regard to music.

There happen to be four mathematical disciplines [arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy], the other three share with music the task of searching for Truth; but music is associated not only with speculation but with morality as well.11

As the Medieval Period progressed there were still occasional references in poetry to Truth in music. An 8th century poet from England declares he can write only of Truth in his songs,

Let none of human kind imagine, that I of lying words compose my lay, or write my verse!12

Vogelweide (c. 1170–1230) writes that the Truth in his song is so obvious that only someone with no experience in love could possible misunderstand it.

Many there are that mock my pain,
And ever say that ‘tis not truly from the heart I sing;
These but spend their breath in vain,
Since they can never yet have known love’s joy and suffering;
And so it is they judge me wrong:
Whoever knows
All that from true love flows,
Would not misunderstand my song.13

With the growing movement toward a return to the importance of emotions in music, and departing from the Church’s 1,000 years of pretending that music was a branch of mathematics, it is perhaps fitting that the Renaissance begins with an extraordinary insight by a man born in 1300, Johannes de Grocheo. In his De Musica, he observes that not only is music used to express the feelings of the composer or musician, but that music is the means by which the “practical” part of the brain “explains and exposes its functions.”14 This is an amazing early reference to the actual fact that the right hemisphere of the brain is otherwise mute. He is saying that music is the only means that we have for understanding the nature of Truth as it exists in the right hemisphere.

And so, in the early Renaissance we find some remarkable references to Truth on our experiential or emotional side. In Boccaccio a character says “don’t listen to the words of my song. Listen to what the feeling reveals when I sing it.”

Love, heed not what my voice sings, but rather how much my heart, your subject, is filled with desire.15

A passage with the same meaning is also found in Machaut,

And if it please you, my dear lady, to consider the last little song I sang, of which I composed both words and music, you can easily tell whether I’m lying or speaking the truth.16

There are two comments by Chaucer which are worthy of consideration relative to our topic. In one place, after concluding that Beauty is something which cannot be described in words, Chaucer offers a definition for Beauty that it is Truth. “Truth,” he says, “is the crown of Beauty.”17 We believe he was also thinking along these lines when he wrote, “Nature does not lie.”18

During the Baroque Period we find an interesting reference to our subject by the famous vocal teacher, Tosi, reminds his students that if they sing from the heart the listener will understand it is true.

Oh! how great a master is the heart! Confess it, my beloved singers, and gratefully admit, that you would not have arrived at the highest rank of the profession if you had not been its scholars … Admit, when the heart sings you cannot dissemble, nor has truth a greater power of persuading.19

Also from the Baroque we also like the thought by the famous mathematician, Gottfried Leibniz (1646–1716), that while painting makes the truth clear, music makes it believable.

It is as in painting and music, which are [also] abused, one of which often represents grotesque and even hurtful imaginations, and the other softens the heart, and the two amuse in vain; but they can be usefully employed, the one to render the truth clear, the other [music] to make it effective.20

During the 19th century we begin to see Arts in general associated with Truth.

The first universal characteristic of all great art is tenderness, as the second is truth.

John Ruskin, 1859

It is the glory and good of art
That art remains the one way possible
Of speaking the truth….

Robert Browning, “The Ring and the Book,” 1868

During the 19th century we also begin to find the use of the word, “soul,” rather than “Truth.” But the intent is often the same, a reference to the real meaning coming from deep inside oneself, as we read in Schumann, “Music is to me the perfect expression of the soul.”21

It is possible to talk about the Truth in music as being an idea, or some other rational construction, but if one does that one misses the real value which this kind of Truth offers mankind. Here are three quotations which are much more to the real point,

Music whispers to us dim secrets that startle our wonder as to who we are.



Music shuts us off from the outer world, as it were, to let us gaze into the inmost Essence of ourselves.22


You use a glass mirror to see your face; you use works of art to see your soul.23

Geroge Bernard Shaw

And this is the great opportunity for music education, the opportunity to be the only teachers in the school building who have the tools to reach the real student. But, music educators are not taught to understand this and they continue down the road no student is interested in, devoting themselves to the grammar of music, talking about music. They aspire to make music “important” like the rest of the curriculum, like English, Geography, Math and History.

But these kinds of subjects have nothing to do with the real student. These kinds of subjects only bombard the student with external past tense facts, outside the experience of the student, an unique, individual and present tense person. The student is then instructed to add this outside fact to his mental data base. “Two plus two is four, Memorize that!”

But music is different. Music deals with emotional Truth at the individual level, the real student. Since music is not taught this way in school, and thus is of little value in helping the student discover who he is, his only hope is to figure it out by himself. Some have been fortunate enough to do this, as was the case with Wagner, when one day walking “aimlessly in the country side of Italy,”

I suddenly realized my own nature; the stream of life was not to flow to me from without, but from within.24


  1. Robert Schumann’s Diary, c. 1833. ↩︎
  2. Quoted in George Marek, Schubert (Viking, 1985), 5 ↩︎
  3. Laws, 812b and following ↩︎
  4. Ibid., 656d ↩︎
  5. Ibid., 668b ↩︎
  6. De Musica, Book II ↩︎
  7. The Education of an Orator (Institutio Oratoria), trans., Butler, II, xvii, 1 ↩︎
  8. Tusculan Disputations, V, 104 ↩︎
  9. The Greek Anthology, trans., Paton, II, 161 ↩︎
  10. Sidonius Poems and Letters, trans., W. B. Anderson, 1965), II, 443 ↩︎
  11. Fundamentals of Music, trans., Bower, I, i ↩︎
  12. “The Phoenix,” in The Exeter Book, Oxford University Press, II, iv, 546ff ↩︎
  13. Selected Poems of Walter von der Vogelweide (London: Smith, Elder, & Co., 1896), 43 ↩︎
  14. De Musica, trans., Seay, 9 ↩︎
  15. L’Ameto, trans., Judith Serafini-Sauli, 40 ↩︎
  16. Remede de Fortune, trans., Wimsatt and Kibler, 374 ↩︎
  17. A Complaint unto Pity, 75 ↩︎
  18. The Parliament of Birds, 639 ↩︎
  19. Observations on the Florid Song (London: Wilcox, 1743), IX, xliv ↩︎
  20. New Essays Concerning Human Understanding, Trans., Langley. La Salle: Open Court Publishing Company, 1949, III, x, 34. ↩︎
  21. Letter to his Mother, Leipzig, August 9, 1832 ↩︎
  22. Ellis, Prose Works of Wagner, V, 77 ↩︎
  23. Back to Methuselah,1921 ↩︎
  24. Wagner, My Life (New York: Tudor, 1936), 603 ↩︎