Music: a Means and an End

Music and worship are two pillars of human society that have existed for so long that it is difficult to judge which preceded the other. As St. Basil suggests in Weiss and Taruskin’s Music in the Western World, music during worship may have been a useful method of helping followers to comprehend the ideology and doctrine of the religion, similar to putting honey in a medicine that is difficult to swallow (21). In order to facilitate such an approach, a fairly utilitarian view of music is needed—one that is quite different from those of Plato and Aristotle.

Plato’s opinion with regard to music is that it should be used to enhance the intellect, and that to enjoy it capriciously is reprehensible: “[Plato] looked down on the use of music for mere pleasure” (5). Music and gymnastics are the two halves of the path to human perfection, and thus should be treated with scholarly respect. The fundamentals of Aristotle’s view are much the same, but with different judgment. The categories of intellectual and pleasurable music remain, but neither has a good or bad connotation; they must simply be kept separate (8-9). The way in which Plato and Aristotle concur is that music can be an ideal form of art. Its purity can be achieved through study, and the system of self-improvement that it is a part of is of the utmost importance.

These are the two ways of thinking about music presented in certain chapters of Weiss and Taruskin’s book. Music can be utilitarian—like honey on the rim of a cup—or ideal, almost becoming a form of worship in itself. Fortunately, both methods of thought mentioned here seem to encourage the use of music in worship, which perhaps points to the reason why it has been so universally accepted there. Music is both a tool for worship and an ideal to be worshipped, and because of that, its place in religion is well cemented.