Throughout history the unspoken but highly evocative language of music has exerted powerful influences on individuals and societies alike. Felix Mendelssohn once remarked that music is more specific about what it expresses than words written about those expressions could ever be. That music has the power to express, convey and illicit powerful emotions is without question, however the issue of music's moral and ethical power, and how that power affects individuals and societies, is one that receives too little attention in our post-modern world. Ancient cultures held strong beliefs in the moral and ethical power of music and as such it was imperative for artists within those cultures to exercise a certain moral and ethical responsibility in their creative endeavors.
As a professional musician for over thirty years I concur with that premise and it is primarily from the axiological, rather than a theoretical or aesthetic viewpoint that I approach this discourse. The responsibility of artists to the social environment in which they live and work is something that I have always had strong sentiments. As we now find ourselves beginning a new millennium, questions with regards to music's origins, its spiritual, religious and mystical properties, its moral and ethical power, its transcendent qualities, the role of the arts and artists and the importance of art in general, and music in particular, are questions that I believe any thinking, caring, probing musician should seriously contemplate.
At the outset of the twenty-first century it is undeniable that the pervasiveness of popular culture and the values it engenders has had an adverse effect on our societies. In light of the current climate of Western popular culture, "art music" has become increasingly marginalized. In fact the word "art" has been greatly trivialized. The lines between trend and tradition, the profound and the superficial, art and cliché have become hopelessly indistinct as some of the most inane works, created by self-absorbed individuals of dubious talent, are now considered important works of "art." To this unfortunate situation it must be noted: All art may be self-expression, but not all self-expression is art.
We know that in Ages past music was not considered merely an entertainment but rather was associated, in fact, interlocked with religious and philosophical beliefs, thus possessed axiological connotations. Examining the perceptions and understandings of the ancient's attitude about music can be most enlightening and hopefully beneficial for our spiritual and social development as we begin our quest for a culture of peace in the new millennium.
The Ancient Chinese
It is not far-fetched at all to suggest that today's attitudes about music might be surprising, even dismaying to Confucius, Aristotle, Ptolemy, St. Augustine and Boethius. To the ancients music and values were juxtaposed in ways that many today might find uncomfortable or politically incorrect. The axiological and spiritual aspects of music -- as both indicator and measure of values -- was a readily accepted notion in the cultures of China, Egypt, Greece and India, There existed a common belief in these cultures that music had a fundamental power that could either uplift or degrade and therefore enhance or corrupt entire civilizations.
Greek culture has had a profound influence on Western art and culture, however Chinese musical philosophy was also a highly developed system of theory and mysticism which was most prescient in its attitudes about music. The Chinese attached a great deal of importance to the transcendent and therapeutic power of sound and music. Individual pieces of music possessed an "energy formula" which had the power to exert various influences over those who listened to it. This metaphysical concept of music had religious connotations as well as moral and ethical implications. To the ancient Chinese, music's power and how that power was utilized was...
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