44. Good Music Promotes Good Manners

The right molding or ruin of ingenuous manners and civil conduct lies in a well-grounded musical education.

Aristoxenus (fl. 335 BC)1

It is true that, as Saint Paul says, every evil word corrupts good manners, but when it has the melody with it, it pierces the heart much more strongly and enters within; as wine is poured into the cask with a funnel, so venom and corruption are distilled to the very depths of the heart by melody.

John Calvin (1509–1564), Genevan Psalter

In ancient times the most frequent advice about controlling the manners of the young involved music. Since music was considered fundamental in establishing character, the subject of the previous essay, the ancients considered a problem in manners to be more on the order of the young person being temporarily “out of tune” and in need of a musical “tune up.” Indeed, Vasari, in his Lives (of artists) of 1550, uses this very analogy,

If we bring in music, with its most sweet connections and its very suave intervals, we shall be able to tune, almost like strings, the contrary and diverse motions of our souls.2

An early biography of Pythagoras (6th century BC) gave to that philosopher the credit for discovering the power in music to affect manners. Pythagoras, we are told, discovered ancient knowledge,

which subsists through music’s melodies and rhythms, and from these he obtained remedies of human manners and passions, and restored the pristine harmony of the faculties of the soul.3

But Athenaeus (c. 200 AD) maintained that the practice of using music to “keep in tune” the manners was much more ancient, dating back to the rhapsodists who sung epic poems before the age of written Greek. Singing of the great men of the past at their banquets, according to Athenaeus, enabled the noble guests to restore balance in their character.

This was the accepted custom, it is plain, first in order that every one who felt impelled to get drunk and stuff himself might have music to cure his violence and intemperance, and secondly, because music appeases surliness; for, by stripping off a man’s gloominess, it produces good-temper and gladness becoming to a gentleman.4

From the perspective of all early Greek philosophy the key word is the “soul.” The ancient Greeks often used the analogy of the string instrument, the lyre, to illustrate the relationship of body and soul. One can see the lyre, as a material object like the body, but the sounds it makes are unseen, like the soul. They added to this analogy the word “harmony,” meaning “music,” using it to express not only the unity of the various elements of music, but also to express the soul in its ideal state. Plato believed music was given to man by the Gods for this purpose, and not for the more common use of it as entertainment.

Harmony, which has motions akin to the revolutions of our souls, is not regarded by the intelligent votary of the Muses as given by them with a view to irrational pleasure, which is deemed to be the purpose of it in our day, but as meant to correct any discord which may have arisen in the courses of the soul, and to be our ally in bringing her into harmony and agreement with herself; and rhythm too was given by them for the same reason, on account of the irregular and graceless ways which prevail among mankind generally, and to help us against them.5

If music was considered this important to education, it stands to reason that someone must oversee the quality of the music itself. Much as Plato would recommend later for his utopian city, Plutarch (46–122 AD) suggests that the music and sung poetry used in education was subject to civic censors.

They adjudged it necessary for the preservation of that gravity and seriousness of manners which was required of their youth for the attainments of wisdom and virtue, never to admit of any light and wanton, any ludicrous or effeminate [sung] poetry; which made them allow of no poets among them but such only who for their grave and virtuous compositions were approved by the public magistrate; that being hereby under some restraint, they might neither act nor write anything to the prejudice of good manners, or to the dishonor of their laws and government.6

The power of music to change behavior and manners was also remarked on by the ancient Romans. Since the quality of the music was an important key to the effectiveness of music changing manners, the philosopher, Quintilian (30–96 AD), began his discussion by commenting on the deterioration of music in his time.

think I ought to be more emphatic than I have been in stating that the music which I desire to see taught is not our modern music, which has been emasculated by the lascivious melodies of our effeminate stage and has to no small extent destroyed such manly vigor as we still possessed.

Then he addressed the power of music to affect manners by retelling a story told about Pythagoras. Included here is a very rare reference to a female aulos player.

We are told that Pythagoras on one occasion, when some young men were led astray by their passions to commit an outrage on a respectable family, calmed them by ordering the aulos player to change her strain to a spondaic meter.

He follows this with a rather extraordinary illustration, although he doubts it is true.

Further I may point out that among the fictitious themes employed in declamation is one, doing no little credit to its author’s learning, in which it is supposed that an aulos player is accused of manslaughter because he had played a tune in the Phrygian mode as an accompaniment to a sacrifice, with the result that the person officiating went mad and flung himself over a precipice.7

With the arrival of the Christian Era we find a comment by one of the church fathers, Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–215 AD), which also mentions the ancient banquet tradition. Here he specifically speaks of the use of music to improve manners and emphasizes the importance of using only good music for this purpose.

Music is then to be handled for the sake of the embellishment and composure of manners. For instance, at a banquet we pledge each other while the music is playing…. But we must reject superfluous music, which enervates men’s souls, and leads to variety, — now mournful, and then licentious and voluptuous, and then frenzied and frantic.8

We have an extraordinary survey of the aesthetics of music by Cassiodorus (480–573 AD), in a letter to the famous Boethius, requesting Boethius to find someone “who is skilled in musical knowledge,” who with his “sweet sound can tame the savage hearts of the barbarians.” In this letter he mentions the power of music to affect manners.

The artist changes men’s hearts as they listen; and, when this artful pleasure issues from the secret place of nature as the queen of the senses, in all the glory of its tones, our remaining thoughts take to flight, and it expels all else, that it may delight itself simply in being heard. Harmful melancholy he turns to pleasure; he weakens swelling rage; he makes bloodthirsty cruelty kindly, arouses sleepy sloth from its torpor, restores to the sleepless their wholesome rest, recalls lust-corrupted chastity to its moral resolve, and heals boredom of spirit which is always the enemy of good thoughts. Dangerous hatreds he turns to helpful goodwill, and, in a blessed kind of healing, drives out the passions of the heart by means of sweetest pleasures.

Later in this same letter, Cassiodorus briefly mentions the affect of the tonality in accomplishing this.

The Dorian mode bestows wise self-restraint and establishes chastity; the Phrygian arouses strife, and inflames the will to anger; the Aeolian calms the storms of the soul, and gives sleep to those who are already at peace; the Ionian sharpens the wits of the dull, and, as a worker of good, gratifies the longing for heavenly things among those who are burdened by earthly desire. The Lydian was discovered as a remedy for excessive cares and weariness of the spirit: it restores it by relaxation, and refreshes it by pleasure.9

Guido of Arezzo, in his important music treatise, Micrologus, of c. 1026–1028 AD, provides another illustration of the ability of music to affect behavior in an anecdote not found elsewhere. As to the explanation how music does this, he cannot say, offering only the observation that this is known only to Divine Wisdom.

Another man was roused by the sound of the cithara to such lust that, in his madness, he sought to break into the bedchamber of a girl, but, when the cithara player quickly changed the mode, was brought to feel remorse for his libidinousness and to retreat abashed.10

Marsilio Ficino, the 15th century founder of the Florentine Academy, was a philosopher who was an active musician in his leisure, playing the lyre for his own relaxation, but also in concerts in the Medici palace.11

Music, he believed, served man’s “spirit” in the same way medicine serves the body and theology the soul. The music one hears provokes a memory in the soul of the divine music found in the mind of God and in the music of the spheres. Through affecting the spirit, music also affects the body and soul. He says he personally found music valuable for ridding the body of disturbances and lifting his mind to a higher level of intellect.12

His contemporary, Franchino Gaffurio (1451–1522), in his Theorica musice, also stresses the ethical potential of music.

Socrates and Plato and also the Pythagoreans, attributing a moral resource to music, ordered by a common law that adolescents and youth, and young women too, be educated in music, not for inciting to desire, through which this discipline becomes cheapened, but for moderating the movements of the soul through rule and reason.13

Desideratum Erasmus (1469–1536) was the greatest humanist, scholar and writer of prose of the early 16th century in the Low Countries. In a lengthy letter to Pope Adrian VI in 1522, Erasmus writes of the power of music to change behavior and retells a story about Pythagoras.

It is a property, they say, of man-made music that it can either rouse the emotions or control them if a skilled performer makes an appropriate use of specific harmonies. It is said that Timotheus could kindle the heart of Alexander of Macedon with warlike fire by playing in certain particular modes. Pythagoras, by playing spondees in the Phrygian mode, transformed a young man mad with love and restored his sanity. A similar story is told of Empedocles, who is said by the use of some particular musical modes to have recalled to his proper wits a young man already beside himself with rage and hell-bent on murder. The tales told in antiquity of Mercury and Orpheus playing on the lyre look like fables; and yet these fictions were inspired by the wonders music can perform.

Recognizing that the ancient writers had placed great emphasis on using only good music when matters of character were involved, Erasmus, in another place, writes at length on the dangers to the morals of young women by the vulgar popular music of his time.

It is customary now among some nations to compose every year new songs which young girls study assiduously. The subject matter of the songs is usually the following: a husband deceived by his wife, or a daughter guarded in vain by her parents, or a clandestine affair of lovers. These things are presented as if they were wholesome deeds, and a successful act of profligacy is applauded. Added to pernicious subject matter are such obscene innuendoes, expressed in metaphors and allegories, that no manner of depravity could be depicted more vilely. Many earn a livelihood in this occupation, especially among the Flemish. If laws were enforced, composers of such common ditties would be flogged for singing these doleful songs to the licentious. Men who publicly corrupt youth are making a living from crime, yet parents are found who think it a mark of good breeding if their daughters know such songs.14

The important English Church philosopher, Richard Hooker (1553–1600), a rational voice which attempted to counter the radical Puritans, shared the concern of Erasmus for the influence of vulgar music.

In music the very image and character even of virtue and vice is perceived, the mind delighted with their resemblances, and brought by having them often iterated into a love of the things themselves. For which cause there is nothing more contagious and pestilent than some kinds of [music]; then some nothing more strong and potent unto good. And that there is such a difference of one kind from another we need no proof but our own experience.15

At about this time in France, Charles IX (1550–1574), in a patent document relative to Baif’s Academy, noted that,

it is of great importance for the morals of the citizens of a town that the music current and used in the country should be retained under certain laws, for the minds of most men are formed and their behavior influenced by its character, so that where music is disordered, there morals are also depraved, and where it is well ordered, there men are well disciplined morally.16

When the revival of drama began in the Renaissance, drama followed music in adding an educational purpose to its art. Sebastiano, known as Minturno, was bishop of Ugento, and represented that town in the council of Trent. Author of two books on drama criticism, Arte Poetica (1563, in Italian) and a De Poeta (1559, in Latin), he emphasizes that “the ennobling or purification of manners is the end toward which all effort is directed.”17

Juan Vives, author of a famous 16th century book, On Education contended that music should be part of education for the purpose of stabilizing the students’ manners, but he is yet another who specifies the importance of using only good music.

Only let the pupil practice pure and good music which, after the Pythagorean mode, soothes, recreates, and restores to itself the wearied mind of the student; then let it lead back to tranquility and tractability all the wild and fierce parts of the student’s nature.18

Martin Luther is reported to have mentioned this purpose in a dinner conversation.

Music is a semi-discipline and taskmistress, which makes people milder and more gentle, more civil and more sensible.19

We also find some interesting comments on our subject in 16th century German music treatises. Andreas Ornithoparchus, author of Musicae activae micrologus of 1517, was associated with several universities, in particular Leipzig and Tubingen. The very purpose of his book, he announces, is to provide the youth of all of Germany with a book which would introduce them to good fashions, the honest delights of music and “little by little stir them to virtuous actions.” In this, he continues,

Among those things by which the mind of man is wont to be delighted, I can find nothing that is more great, that appeals to any age or sex…. There is no breast so savage and cruel, which is not moved with the touch of this delight. For it drives away cares, persuades men to gentleness, represses anger, nourishes arts, promotes concord, inflames heroic minds to gallant deeds, cures vice, breeds virtues and nourishes them…. Therefore this Art is of a holy, sweet, heavenly, divine, fair and blessed nature.20

Ornithoparchus returns to this subject again at the end of Book I when he discusses the character of the various medieval Church modes. Dorian, he says, bestows wisdom to and causes chastity in the listener, while Phrygian causes wars and inflames fury. Aeolian calms the tempest of the mind and, after having done so, lulls it to sleep. Lydian sharpens the wit of the dull and moves the mind from earthly to heavenly desires. No wonder Ornithoparchus warns that the musician must diligently observe which mode he plays for specific listeners! The men of our time, he says, know how to do this according to the nature of the occasion.

And that is not without cause, for every habit of the mind is governed by songs. For songs make men sleepy and wakeful, careful and merry, angry and merciful. Songs heal diseases and produce diverse wonderful effects, moving some to vain mirth, some to a devout and holy joy, yes often to godly tears.

Nicolaus Listenius (c. 1500–1550), the author of Musica, of 1537, matriculated at Wittenberg in 1529 when both Luther and Melancthon were teaching there. This book is dedicated to Johann Georg, son of Joachim II, the elector of Brandenburg, and it seems rather daring to us when Listenius tells the prince that by cultivating music he will be worthy of his ancestors. In this same Foreword, Listenius writes of the impact on manners of music, this “serious art.”

Many great and serious reasons are established by learned and intelligent men, for all men of genius particularly free princes, must be versed in music and habituated to it. It influences souls to humanity, suavity, even-temper; it restrains all immoderate affections, grief, wrath; it represses violence and obscene desires, for it calms them; as in sounds and songs, so in all the actions of life we may conserve harmony. Hence we see the highest kings in old monuments singing and playing on strings, not only as a pastime for the enjoyment of the arts, but even more, however, making it a serious art, tying music to the harmony of the soul…. This art invites the soul to virtue.21

Lodowick Bryskett (1546–1612), in his A Discourse of Civill Life, begins with a review of a number of ancient Greek philosophers and their philosophies and provides an extensive summary of other purposes and virtues of music.22 He agrees that the kind of music we should have is found in the writings of the ancient Greeks. It should be grave, with learned and grave verses by excellent poets, and should create magnificent and noble desires in the minds of the listeners. Such music enters,

like lively sparks into men’s minds, to kindle in them desires of dignity, greatness, honor, true praise and commendation, and to correct whatsoever is in them of base and vile affection.23

His concern is that because of the deterioration of music in his time (Elizabethan music!), the ancient principle of the use of music to improve manners may no longer be valid. Young men today, he advises, must be very selective of what they listen to.

Let it suffice that young men are to take great account of that part of music which bears with it grave melodies, fit to compose the mind to good order by virtue of the rhythms and sound…. But those which by variety in tunes, and warbling variations, confounds the words and melodies, and yields only a delight to the exterior sense, and no fruit for the mind, I wish them to neglect and not to esteem.24

There was somewhat more discussion of the ability of music to affect manners in England during the Baroque Period. Thomas Mace (1613–1709) laments the loss of the music of former times, specifically the consort music of the early seventeenth century.

We had for our grave music, Fancies of 2, 3, 5, and 6 parts to the organ; interposed (now and then) with some pavans, allmaines, solemn, and sweet delightful ayres; all of which (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 so set them forth according to their true praise, there are 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 (for the time) and disposing us to Solidity, Gravity, and Good Temper, making us capable of Heavenly, and Divine influences. It is a great pity few believe thus much; but far greater, that so few know it.25

The fashion today, he notes, has replaced these things with an emphasis on the virtuoso performer, “the Great Idol,” and music,

which is rather fit to make a man’s ears glow, and fill his brains full of frisks, etc., than to season, and sober his mind, or elevate his affection to Goodness.

The first great philosopher of the English Baroque Period was Francis Bacon (1561–1626). In his Natural History he devotes a lengthy discussion of the role of music in affecting manners and attempts to explain how it works.

It has been anciently held and observed, that the sense of hearing and the kinds of music most in operation upon manners; as to encourage men and make them warlike; to make them soft and effeminate; to make them grave; to make them light; to make them gentle and inclined to pity; etc. The cause is, for that the sense of hearing strikes the spirits more immediately than the other senses, and more incorporeally than the smelling. For the sight, taste, and feeling, have their organs not of so present and immediate access to the spirits, as the hearing has…. We see that tunes and airs, even in their own nature, have in themselves some affinity with the affections: as there be merry tunes, doleful tunes, solemn tunes; tunes inclining men’s minds to pity; warlike tunes, etc. So as it is no marvel if they alter the spirits, considering that tunes have a predisposition to the motion of the spirits in themselves.26

John Milton (1608–1674) also recommends music for the student’s periods of rest, for education in manners and to temper the passions.

Music has a great power over the dispositions and manners, to smooth and make them gentle from rustic harshness and distempered passions. The like also would not be inexpedient after Meat to assist and cherish Nature in her first concoction, and send their minds back to study in good tune and satisfaction.27

Joseph Addison, writing in the Spectator for 14 June 1712, briefly reviews the use of music in the Old Testament and in the religious rites of the ancient Greeks, after which he wishes,

Had we frequent entertainments of this nature among us, they would not a little purify and exalt our passions, give our thoughts a proper turn, and cherish those divine impulses in the soul, which every one feels that has not stifled them by sensual and immoderate pleasures… Musick, when thus applied, raises noble hints in the mind of the hearer, and fills it with great conceptions. It strengthens devotion, and advances praise into rapture.

We find this topic discussed by one of the 19th century’s great composers and philosophers, Richard Wagner. His discussion is not limited to the individual, but entire societies.

No less than Drama, Music is able to work on taste, yes, also on manners: the first point will be disputed by no one, even in our day… Let us think back to our own immediate past; with tolerable certainty we may contend that those inspired by Beethoven’s music must have been more active and energetic citizens of the State than those bewitched by Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti, a class consisting for the most part of rich and lordly do-nothings… This rather proves that Morals operate on Music, yet the mutual relation of the two is manifest; it consequently is the State’s affair to apply to this art, as well, that demand addressed by Kaiser Joseph to the theater: “that it shall work for the ennobling of taste and manners.”28

Now there is a nice line by Franz Joseph! Wouldn’t it be nice if music education took that line as its mission statement?

Music education shall work for the ennobling of taste and manners.

The early philosophers, for 2,000 years blamed decay in music for any decay in manners. This raises a valid question relative to the music the public listens to in our time. Certainly it must be recognized that the popular music has become so degenerate as to have been unimaginable in earlier times. But is this vulgar music only reflecting society, or has society allowed this music to diminish society itself?

Who is there to speak out on the subject of the vulgar popular music of today? Certainly not most music educators, even though they should be society’s experts.


  1. Quoted by Plutarch in Concerning Music ↩︎
  2. Quoted in Palisca, Humanism in Italian Renaissance Musical Thought ↩︎
  3. Porphyry (c. 233–305 A.D), Life of Pythagoras, trans., Kenneth Guthrie, The Pythagorean Sourcebook (Grand Rapids: Phanes Press, 1987 ↩︎
  4. Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae, XIV, 627ff ↩︎
  5. Timaeus, 47d ↩︎
  6. “Customs of the Ladedaemonians” ↩︎
  7. Quintilian, The Education of an Orator, trans., H. E. Butler (London: Heinemann, 1938) ↩︎
  8. Clement of Alexandria, in The Miscellanies, trans., William Wilson, (1884), Book VI, xi ↩︎
  9. Letter to Boethius, in Variae, trans., Thomas Hodgkin (London: Frowde, 1886)., II, xl ↩︎
  10. Hucbald, “Melodic Instruction” in Hucbald, Guido, and John on Music, trans., Warren Babb (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), 160 ↩︎
  11. Kristeller, Paul Oskar. “Music and Learning in the Early Italian Renaissance.” Journal of Renaissance and Baroque Music 1, no. 4 (1947): 269ff. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20528744 ↩︎
  12. Quoted in Pirrotta, Nino. “Music and Cultural Tendencies in 15th-Century Italy.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 19, no. 2 (1966): 140. https://doi.org/10.2307/830579 ↩︎
  13. Quoted in Claude V. Palisca, Humanism in Italian Renaissance Musical Thought (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 193 ↩︎
  14. Erasmus, “Opera omnia,” ed., J. Clericus (Leiden, 1703–1706), V, 717F, quoted in Clement A. Miller, “Erasmus on Music,” in The Musical Quarterly, Volume LII, Issue 3, July 1966, 347ff. https://doi.org/10.1093/mq/LII.3.332 ↩︎
  15. “On the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity,” V, xxxviii, in The Works of Mr. Richard Hooker (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1888), II, 159 ↩︎
  16. Quoted in Frances Yates, The French Academies of the Sixteenth Century (London: University of London, 1947; Nendeln: Kraus Reprint, 1968), 23 ↩︎
  17. Clark, European Theories of the Drama (New York: Crown, 1959), 58ff ↩︎
  18. On Education, trans., Watson, (Cambridge University Press, 1913), IV, v ↩︎
  19. Quoted in Buszin, Walter E., and Martin Luther. “Luther on Music.” The Musical Quarterly 32, no. 1 (1946): 92. http://www.jstor.org/stable/739566 ↩︎
  20. Ornithoparchus, Musicae active mirologus and Dowland, Introduction: Containing the Art of Singing (New York: Dover, 1973), 117ff ↩︎
  21. Translation, Albert Seay (Colorado Springs: Colorado College Music Press, 1975), 1 ↩︎
  22. Ed., Thomas Wright (Northridge: San Fernando Valley State College, 1970), 107ff. ↩︎
  23. Ibid.,146 ↩︎
  24. Ibid., 113 ↩︎
  25. Mace, Musick’s Monument [1676] (Paris: Editions du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, 1966), 234 ↩︎
  26. Natural History, Section 114, in James Spedding, ed., The Works of Francis Bacon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1869 ↩︎
  27. The Works of John Milton, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1931-1938), IV, 288ff ↩︎
  28. Ellis, Wagner’s Prose Works, VII, 355ff ↩︎