The Power of Music: What Makes Music Good or Bad?
This interview with musician and composer, Philip B. Calder, will help you discern between good music and what might be called noise that disturbs the order of the soul. From a Catholic perspective, discover why good music is a reflection of the order God created.
Watch Mr. Calder's excellent presentation here:
Crusade Magazine: What could you say in general about the nature of music and its workings?
Philip Calder: Through the centuries, music has been one of the highest arts, and perhaps one of the most abstract, in the sense that you can hear it but not touch it. By its nature, music is very impalpable, very ethereal and very abstract, yet it moves us so deeply that it touches the human heart and soul. Saint John Chrysostom, in the early Church, said that music was invented in heaven; and that if man is a musician, he is so by revelation of the Holy Spirit.
We can trace the origin of music back to the beginning of humanity. From the earliest times, man has always desired to express himself, hence all the different arts. And most of us, whether musicians or not, have tried humming a melody, or finding a tune, and these are the first efforts of musical composition.
There are many places in the Old Testament where musical instruments appear, such as the harp and the lyre, and King David is recorded as singing with instrumental accompaniment. The ancient Greeks were among those who discovered the seven scales, which were later used by the Catholic Church in the formation of Gregorian chant. So since the beginning, we can see the deep place music has had in man’s life on this earth.
CM: During the splendorous Christian civilization of the Middle Ages, how far was music developed?
Philip Calder: Music is a basic component in the salvific and wondrous influence of the Catholic Church, which has always aimed not only at giving people the true religion, but also at forming an entire civilization. Hence the development of all the arts and crafts that, under the Church’s influence, soared higher and higher. We think right away of Gregorian chant, which was codified by Pope Saint Gregory I in the sixth century. In fact, by the Middle Ages, this was the music that had developed the most. Gregorian chant at the service of the sacred liturgy has never been equaled, and expresses very much the unity of God.
In the secular realm, music was not so developed, though we find, in the last century of the Middle Ages, the beautiful example of the music for the coronation of King Saint Louis IX in 1226, which has two clear musical lines. There is the main line, along with an accompanying line, which is the beginning of a type of harmony. This definitely shows a further development of music, which we see much more of as we go on.
CM: Professor Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira makes explicit three depths of the Revolution: in the tendencies, in the ideas and in the facts. What role can music play in all this?
Philip Calder: To answer this question it is necessary to understand what he means by these three depths and the one that is most applicable here is the first: the tendencies. Professor Corrêa de Oliveira’s thesis is that if you have an environment like a room in a home, or perhaps a town square, the kind of structure and how it is decorated will affect the movements of soul that people will have within that environment. And in any such environment, if we have music playing, the characteristics of that music are going to influence the way people respond. Professor Corrêa de Oliveira’s analysis shows that the tendency precedes an idea. The person is moved to have a tendency in one direction or another, and that usually precedes a conscious idea that the person has, and once the person gets the idea, this in turn precedes an act, a fact or actual happening.
Movement in the tendencies usually precedes everything, and that is where music really comes into this equation. Music can be very good, very bad or anything in between. A music that is very good tends to influence a movement of soul of everyone within the environment toward good things. If the music is not good, that will tend to influence people in a wrong direction. And so, as Professor Corrêa de Oliveira shows, the Revolution used all the arts very successfully in motivating mankind from one decadence to the next. Music was not at the forefront of this process, because music still went on to develop in a very fine way long after the Middle Ages. But gradually, as music began to decline and become more Revolutionary in various aspects, it moved to the forefront of influencing people in one direction or another because of its power of expression. And what is so powerful is that, being the most abstract, it speaks to the subliminal aspect of our soul, an area where we can be influenced without even realizing it. Music can be effective wonderfully in moving people toward the good, and it can be effective devastatingly in moving people toward the bad.
CM: Do you think music is in the forefront of the Revolution today?
Philip Calder: It is definitely in the forefront and I am sorry to say in a very bad way. One of the main reasons this happens is because people are not generally accustomed to analyzing how they respond to things. They tend to just respond. If you respond to something without asking yourself, “Why am I responding to this that way?” you can find yourself being lead down a path much farther than you would have otherwise realized.
CM: One of the most poisonous aspects of the Revolution is its desire for total equality. Can music debunk that idea and reveal the harmonious inequality of God’s order?
Philip Calder: Well, before I had the privilege to meet and know Professor Corrêa de Oliveira, I always had a clear notion of why I liked a piece of music. But all the deeper reasoning, influenced by studying his work Revolution and Counter-Revolution when applied to the history of music, becomes very enlightening.
One of the examples I like to use very much is a famous example from a piece which demonstrates irrefutably how God’s order intended to have a harmonious inequality.
We are all given repeatedly that noxious and poisonous precept that everything has to be equal at all levels and on all fronts. It is simply not true. Let the first movement, or the allegro, of Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C major, K. 545, speak for itself. It is the most famous piano sonata Mozart wrote. Everyone who has studied piano and gets to a certain degree of accomplishment will play this sonata, and the melody is in the right hand, and the accompaniment is in the left. If you take the right hand alone it is perfectly evident that it controls the melody. But if you play the accompaniment in the left hand alone, it is nice, but it is just the figuration of some chords over and over again. And this by itself would become very tiresome, very quickly.
However, if you play just the melody by itself, you perceive that there is less beauty there than when you play the melody with the accompaniment, that is, the two hands together. As such the whole is much greater than the parts, though you also perceive that the melody is superior, or is higher, than the accompaniment that supports it. The accompaniment is not crushed by the melody, nor is it put aside by the melody, but they work perfectly together. The accompaniment supports and elevates the melody and the melody in turn lifts up the accompaniment. The two together are a perfect example of harmonious inequality. So we can show that the whole idea that everything should be entirely equal is simply fallacious.
CM: So, could we say that God wrote His signature in the harmonious inequality of the world of sound? And to what lengths have Revolutionary musicians of the twentieth century gone in denying this hierarchical world of sound?
Philip Calder: There are two distinct questions here, but they are very much related. There are a number of examples to show how God wrote His signature in the hierarchical world of sound. If we take any musical sound, on any instrument, the human ear hears that one sound. But, physics has shown that when that one sound is vibrating, there are actually 15 other sounds, inaudible to the human ear, that are sounding higher at the same time. That’s called the overtone series. The pattern is always the same.
Without getting too technical, you start from the given tone, and the number two sound, which is the first of these other 15, is an octave. So if you have a C, the next tone is going to be a C. The third one will be the G above that. The fourth will be the C above that G. So, you perceive already here, that there is an order. All those first four basic tones are in the same key. You are not going to have a C, a C-sharp, a G-sharp and a D-flat, because those would not be sympathetic tones.
God puts His signature in this, because He constructed nature, which of course includes the science of sound. We only discover the things He already made. And it is interesting how this overtone series has definite bearing to religion, to Catholic doctrine, because the tone that is given could be like the visible world. The 15 others are the invisible. People who don’t have faith will say, “What are you talking about? It’s not there!” But we know that they are there. The angels are there. The overtones are there.
Another example of God’s signature would be the common scale, because He made the scale, the major scale. We see the major scale most easily in the notes on the piano from C to C. Just the white notes. Now anyone who hears that, if they have never had any musical training, they will notice that it has a certain rightness. If you depart from those eight white notes, and all of a sudden go from E to B-sharp to B-flat, to end up in D-flat, they will ask: “What are you doing? Why did you do that? It doesn’t fit.” So that series of keys carries an order within itself. It speaks for itself. The proof is in the sound.
Now, the second part of the question, the old masters understood this in many ways and built their great musical structures what we could call, “musical truths.”
Nobody is going to write a symphony in C major and end it in B major because that would jar the very identity of that piece. B major is a beautiful chord, but it doesn’t belong in ending a symphony in C major. As time went on, composers found more ways to modulate, going from one key to another, and coming back again. But, all of the great ones would reaffirm philosophical truths, good sense, balance, rightness, symmetry, by starting in one place, performing a tremendous variety and coming back to the main. If we didn’t do so it would start to dislocate, and unsettle something deep within the listener.
Anyway, as time went on and the Revolution went further in leading man away from God, the modern musicians – as well as the modern painters, sculptors and architects – became infected with this idea of doing something completely different. They became less humble, as it were, to build upon the great things of the past.
All the masters of the past in any of the great pursuits of art would build upon the good things that had been done before. In music, if you didn’t have Palestrina, Corelli and all those great masters, you wouldn’t have had Bach and Handel. There’s no way. And, you certainly wouldn’t have had Mozart. Mozart didn’t just come out of nowhere and start writing his music. The modern idea of total equality and everybody being independent gave musicians this idea that unless they did something totally different than anyone had ever done, they wouldn’t have any value. Well, in the twentieth century this went completely wild.
For example, Arnold Schoenberg came up with this idea that he called the “12-tone rule.” He didn’t invent these 12 tones, what he did was come up with an arbitrary rule that said the person writing the music could not reuse any of the 12 tones, until he had used all the others. This was something not only arbitrary but fatal to any recognizable work of music, because in any great piece of music, even a chant, there is that beautiful repeated progression. So, it is only natural for the human soul to hear beautiful music and say, “I want to hear it again.”
Now you can ask: “What’s the Revolution got to do with it?” To say that something must be completely different and never return again jars the whole notion of order. So, under this 12-tone rule, composers began saying that the relationship of those chords we talked about has to be denied completely. In other words, there’s no order, no hierarchy, no inequality, nothing.
Now, if you reduce everything to the same plane in any sphere, as the great Saint Thomas said, you’ll never find God. You’ll only find God at the height of a long hierarchical series, going up. And the only way you can have a hierarchy of things is when things are different. If things are the same you cannot sort them, because they’re all the same. Nothing has preeminence over anything else, nothing serves anything else, everything has its own beginning and end, and there’s a total breakdown. That’s what’s happened in society, and that’s what’s happened in music. The twentieth century musicians have gone mad in trying to devise new ways of doing things. The end result of what they do is chaos, which is the absolute opposite of the tremendous ordering of civilization and the arts, which the Church has always done.
CM: Can you give us a means by which we can objectively analyze a piece of music, to see to what degree it is good or bad?
Philip Calder: There are – thanks to the luminous wisdom of the Catholic Church – several things that can help us. Of course we have to apply those things to music. One is what’s called in theology, the four attributes of being. If we analyze anything in God’s creation and anything that man has done that it is good, it will have these four attributes: unum, verum, bonum and pulchrum.
The unum means the oneness of something. Anything that is good and right in God’s eyes has a oneness. You are not going to see a rose stem coming out of an oak tree. The tree has a oneness unto itself. Similarly, in a good piece of music, you will perceive how the different parts fit together and form a unified whole. If something suddenly disrupted that unity, it would break the unum, the oneness.
The second quality, the verum, is the truthfulness. Anything in God’s creation has a truth unto itself, it has a right reason for being. And so anything good that man has done reflecting God’s order has this verum. A good work of music, as well as the other arts, will have a truthfulness, a true purpose, a good purpose.
Now, the bonum is the goodness. Anything that God made in the universe has a goodness. The things man has done which are good, that is, pleasing in God’s sight, will have a reason for being. And so, for example, a good piece of music is going to be very out of place in a discothèque.
The fourth quality is the pulchrum, which means beauty. And what the great Catholic philosophers have shown is that if you have the first three, that is, the unum, the verum and the bonum, you have the conditions for beauty. If you are missing any one of the first three, you will not have the fourth. That’s why that famous phrase, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” can be quite deceiving, for if the beholder is not grounded in these good principles, the beholder may have a distorted idea of what beauty is.
There is another point that also comes from the Catholic theologians. Saint Thomas makes explicit what he calls the three faculties of the soul: intelligence, will and sensibility. Intelligence gives the understanding the ability to analyze and grasp something. If these faculties are in their right order, the intelligence enlightens the will so that a person is directed to want things that the intelligence has shown to be good. The lowest of the three faculties is the sensibility, that is, the way the soul responds to exterior stimuli. Here we are talking about music. So the way our soul responds to a certain series of sounds pertains to the sensibility.
Now, if the intelligence and will are in the right order, and if we’re facing a series of sounds deemed to be objectionable, the will orders the sensibility of the soul to reject it. If our intelligence and will have not done what they should have, then the sensibility is allowed to reign. So what the Revolution did gradually was to invert these three, because it got people used to not using their intelligence to get to the bottom of something. The less people use intelligence, the less the will has the ability to discern.
That explains why this whole gradual process over a long time resulted in what has been called the “civilization of the image.” This encompasses not only physical, palpable images, but images of sounds, whatever sounds the person happens to like because his friends like it, and he does not make any conscious analysis or rejection of it. That’s what’s happened in our modern age; it has gone completely wild.
In the context of this interview here, people need to start meditating about a piece of music and ask: “Why do I like this?” How does this piece of music hold up under the four attributes of being? Does the composer or performer have the faculties of their soul in the right order or has everything been entirely inverted? And, if people begin to do that enough they’re going to have a more objective approach to the music they like, and not just say, “I like the music.” Why? “I don’t know, I just like it.” That’s not enough.
I don’t want to give the idea here that these things are all black and white. They are not. There are degrees. How far can one go with something having undesirable degrees before saying, “That’s it!”? The more a person can put these things in focus, the more their soul is going to grow, their interior life is going to grow, and the more their preferences are going to be refined. There are preferences in music.
CM: A collateral question: Can good musical fruits be produced in societies existing solely in the natural order?
Philip Calder: The great missionary efforts of the Church through the ages have shown that when the Church has reached out to people of all backgrounds, we see that God, as the Father of all, never abandons anyone. In the billions of people God has created from the beginning, one can see an infinite number of degrees, as each one is unique. God will not fail to give each one, on whatever level they are at, the means to know Him. One of the ways the Church shows us that God reveals Himself is through the Ten Commandments.
However, even in primitive people who have never heard of them, the Ten Commandments are written in their hearts. Each one knows what is right and wrong.
Societies—I’d rather reserve “civilization” for that which the Church has developed—that didn’t have the supernatural influence of the Church, but just existed in the natural order, are going to have all different degrees of these things. For example one of the oldest societies, China, even without the civilizing and salvific influence of the Church, did many beautiful things. Of course there were disorders, but the Chinese have tremendous refinement and intelligence, with a great appreciation of beauty.
Now, coming to the specific point of music, I cite an example of an instrument that they developed, the erhu (pronounced ARE-who), a string instrument with a bow. It appears that the Chinese developed this after seeing a lute, which is a string instrument of European origin. The erhu in its range is almost identical to that of the violin. It has only two strings, which are the D above middle C and the A above that. The violin has the G below middle C, then the same two middle strings, and the upper string E. Now, the difference in sound is very interesting. The erhu is very expressive of the Chinese people, with a sound that is quite beautiful, almost like an instrument that mirrors the way they sing.
For a long time, until about 30 years ago, the erhu has been more of a popular, folksy type of instrument as compared to one capable of great virtuosity. But it’s interesting that the Chinese have now developed a tremendous love and admiration for Western culture and music, and this has motivated them to begin learning Western musical instruments. And they have become extraordinary in their musical capacity, and students of music in the West can almost wonder at the degree of perfection that these Chinese have attained, especially with the violin. Now under this impulse, the erhu players have developed a tremendous degree of virtuosity, on two strings. You could almost say that a virtuoso erhu player can do almost what a violin can; and that is saying a lot.
CM: Considering the vast universe of music we have discussed here, what would be your summarizing comments?
Philip Calder: Music has great importance for all of us. Most everyone is moved by music of some kind. Everything in our environment influences us in one way or another, so the arts, decoration, the way we talk, our clothes, and so forth, are all relevant. Music, as I have tried to show here, influences us very profoundly. It is hard to put your finger on why music affects us as it does. For that very reason, it seems absolutely essential that everyone begin analyzing the type of music they like, and to try and determine why they like it, because it is going to help them morally and spiritually. It takes a little time, because it is not a mathematical science.
To anyone who doesn’t know the great masterpieces of the past, the great music of Palestrina, down through the history of music before it started to go off base, we can say that a wonderful world awaits them. So, I would strongly encourage everyone to go deeper into music, and the understanding of the music they are hearing.
About Mr. Philip Calder
Born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Mr. Philip Calder already displayed great musical talent at age 7 when he began piano lessons. He completed his first composition at 11. And at 13 he became a favored pupil of internationally renowned composer and conductor, John Duffy, and soon joined the famous Tanglewood Music Festival.
“Philip was a child prodigy, my foremost student,” said Mr. Duffy.
At the Julius Hartt Conservatory of Music, Mr. Calder studied under piano master Leo Rewinski. Then he went on to study organ with Ernest Nichols, highly regarded disciple of the legendary Virgil Fox.
Composer of hundreds of works for solo piano, instrumental ensemble and orchestra, Mr. Calder has performed throughout the Western and Eastern Hemispheres as pianist, organist and conductor, including featured appearances at Carnegie Hall and with the Metropolitan Opera. Mr. Calder is one of the founding members of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property and currently teaches at the Calder Academy of Music.