Hugh Taft-Morales

What is the role of Music in an Ethical Society? What optimally should it be?

Music and Ethical Culture

Full disclosure: I love music. It fills my life and my heart. It soothes, heals, animates, and inspires me. This probably contributes to why I think music is important to Ethical Culture; in particular what it can offer us psychologically, socially, and politically. I will also admit that my perspective is limited to experience of western music, particularly folk and rock.

From the birth of Ethical Culture, music played a role. In describing Sunday morning programs, Felix Adler said, “There is music as a kind of frame, but the center of the service is the address.” For Adler, music is involved, but not integral to our gatherings. But Adler did encourage Ethical Culturists to develop more varied and deep expressions of our non-theist faith, including music appropriate to our times and our challenges. So there has always been room for music’s place in Ethical Culture to evolve.

Many Ethical Societies have grown to appreciate how music helps create community. From drum circles to church choirs to folk festivals, music has fostered a sense of psychological and social unity. Recent physiological studies agree. Books such as Daniel Levitin’s This is Your Brain on Music, explore how certain rhythms and tones increase blood flow to parts of our brain, change brain waves, and release chemicals that change our mood in a myriad of ways.

One of my favorite composers, Aaron Copland, spoke of the “sheer pleasure of the musical sound itself.” He emphasized the importance of the purely “sensuous plane”–that plane where “we hear music without thinking,” perhaps import for sometimes overly intellectual crowds. We have a long tradition of intellectual orientation. Our movement needs more embodied inspiration that the non-rational elements of musical appreciation can bring.

In What to Listen for in Music, Copland explores how instrumental music expresses a wide variety of feelings, “serenity or exuberance, regret or triumph, fury or delight.” (Playlist, 6-10) Experiencing such in a group bonds people together and can facilitate increased cooperation toward a shared goal.

Music has long been used, for example, to prepare soldiers for battle. Shakespeare in Othello pointed to “(t)he spirit-stirring drum, the ear-piercing fife,
 The royal banner, and all quality, 
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!” The Nazis, the masters of manipulation, raised the military use of music to new heights by broadcasting rousing symphonies of Anton Bruckner to arouse national spirit. A young German soldier killed in 1942 described a Bruckner concert he attended: “Last night I heard a performance of Bruckner’s Ninth and now I know what we are fighting for!” Minister of Propaganda Goebbels loved how Wagner’s operas encouraged aggressive nationalism.

Music can also nurture peace building. For decades liberal-leaning musicians from Woody Guthrie to Phil Ochs have encouraged assertive pacifism, so to speak, in Ethical Societies. It has raised the morale of many humanists and progressives currently committed to public marches and rallies. Up-tempo chants help us attend and remain at protests.

When we return home, we can use music to calm us down and revive us thanks to the dopamine it can inject into our bloodstream. After all, music is used in the medical profession to raise our pain threshold and encourage psychological and physical healing. It can help induce serenity and inner peace. Many testify that music can be transcendent, creating experiences that connect us with something greater than ourselves.

In Levitin’s This is Your Brain on Music, he says, “…we surrender to music when we listen to it – we allow ourselves to trust the composers and musicians with a part of our hearts and our spirits; we let the music take us somewhere outside of ourselves. Many of us feel that great music connects us to something larger than our own existence, to other people, or to God.” For non-theists, music can connect us to nature and all of life. It can help us feel awe and at one with universe. Such natural transcendent experiences can nurture within greater energy, balance and hope. Music can help us live up to our deed-before-creed, civic orientation.

To close, however, I want to ask: What music should we bring to Ethical Culture? We have different tastes–from folk to hip-hop to opera. The tonalities of Middle Eastern music, for example, strike people very differently. The call of a muezzin from a minaret strikes some westerners as eerie and off-putting, but comforts many who grew up in Muslim lands.

I believe that in order for us to flourish, we cannot continue to rely on, almost exclusively in many cases, classical compositions and folk songs. If we are to celebrate the uniqueness of people and embrace our growing national diversity, we must make our music more diverse. The broader our experimentation, the more likely we will benefit from the riches of social and cultural resources all around us.


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