Every human culture has music and every human being has some relationship to music. Some view music as nothing more than a pleasant distraction. Others have built their entire identities around their musical interests. Regardless of our level of interest in music, however, most of us have had the experience of “being moved” by a piece of music. We heard a song that “spoke to” us in a special way. We connected with it. Music has the power to influence, inspire, and even transform.
Music is powerful and our choice of music, therefore, is an important one. What music should we listen to and why?
The music we choose to listen to can tell us a lot about ourselves–maybe even more than we realize. Music can show what we value, what we don’t, and what we believe. Sometimes we are so ovewhelmed with the emotional experience of music that we fail to realize that it trasmits lessons and messages. It can be beneficial to step back and consider what we’re really listening to. Confucius examined the music of his day and had this to say about it.
“The music of the Shao was both perfectly beautiful and perfectly good. The music of the Wu was perfectly beautiful, but not perfectly good.” Analects 3.25
Confucius offers two criteria we can use to analyze music: beauty and goodness. If we apply these criteria to our own musical choices, what do we find? How often do we find ourselves swept away by beautiful music carrying messages that are immoral or disagreeable?
I don’t believe that listening to music with immoral content forces us behave immorally. I do believe, however, that music can influences our decisions and, ultimately, the kind of person we become. Can making better musical choices help us become better people? Confucius thought so.
“There are three kinds of pleasure that will help you … The enjoyment of cultivation in music and ritual, speaking well of others’ good points, and being surrounded by friends of good character…” Analects 3.25
Music, according to Confucius, is pleasure, but it’s also a tool for self-cultivation. Just as learning, quiet-sitting, and journaling can help us become better people, so can a refined attitude toward the pleasures of music. One way to get started is to reflect on the music you listen to in your journal. Make a note of what you’re listening to, what ideas you believe it expresses, and the influence it has on your emotions, thoughts, and behavior. Over time, you may even choose to listen to new or different kinds of music.
Music is, in this sense, is a little like food. Eating is a pleasure and we may enjoy junk food. If we pay attention, however, we will notice the destructive effects it has on our bodies. By making better food choices, and cultivating a deeper sense of pleasure in eating the right kind of food, we can become healthier.
Likewise, when we pay attention to the effects of the music we “ingest,” we may find that some of our favorite artists are musical junk food that we should cut back or eliminate. Just as it takes time and effort to “get the taste” for vegetables, it takes time and effort to develop a taste for more wholesome musical fare. The payoff, however, are thoughts and emotions more attuned to the pleasure of virtue.