Music and Morality

There is a widespread assumption among religious fundamentalists that their particular holy book is essential for the human expression of morality. It is believed that without the guidance provided by this or that holy book or some other apocalypse, humanity would have no basis for determining right from wrong and would then quickly devolve into terror sprees, orgies, and general pandemonium. I have come to believe that this is an incorrect assumption.

I think that this perspective is flawed because it denies that there is an innate instinctive ability in each person to sense right and wrong and a motivation to do right – a conscience. To illustrate this innate instinctive ability, I like to compare the sense of morality to the sense of harmony and rhythm in music. While there are wide and varied tastes and styles of music enjoyed around the world, all music adheres to certain rules of proportion to produce harmony and almost everyone has an innate ability to determine whether these rules of proportion are being properly followed. An experiment that could be done to illustrate this might go as follows: Choose 200 people from all different cultures and age ranges around the world, and play for them a major C-chord on a piano that is perfectly tuned, and again on a piano that has each note out of tune by 4-5 hz. Then have these people choose which sound is more pleasing. I would be willing to bet that the majority of people – even children who have had little exposure to music – would find the chord on the tuned piano to be more pleasing to the ear.

I would further venture a guess that if you had two recordings of Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca, one played by a maestro and one poorly played by a novice, that a majority of people – even those who have never heard Mozart or had any formal musical training – would be able to tell which version is the better played.

The mathematical proportions that govern harmony and rhythm in music are fundamental proportions to the geometric construction of the universe. These geometric proportions through fractal programs provide an infinite variety of structures throughout the universe just as these proportions expressed in harmony and rhythm provide an infinite variety of music to enjoy.

Harmony and rhythm are the expressions of the fundamental universal proportions experienced through audible sound waves which we call music. And what of other types of waves? Everything in the universe can be considered to be a waveform – an oscillation between a positive and a negative, a give and take, a push and a pull. Light is the waveform sensed by the eyes and certain proportions in frequency (color) and intensity (contrast) and composition harmonize better than others creating both pleasing and repulsive images. The intensity of sunlight as it falls on the earth follows a waveform which we call days and seasons and years. By harmonizing our sleep and activities with the natural waveform of sunlight intensity patterns, we can have some pleasing benefits. If we clash with the natural rhythms of the sun we may experience displeasure or even harm.


Relationships can also be viewed as waveforms. There is give and take, push/pull, help/hurt, like/dislike, intimacy and separation. When people in relationships harmonize they achieve a pleasant and peaceable experience. To behave in a moral manner brings harmony. Empathy gives us the ability to feel what others are feeling and thereby creates a feedback loop between self and other which is shorter and more highly motivating than the feedback loop of action/reaction. The empathy feedback loop is like the cruise control on your vehicle which allows you to achieve a steadiness in relationships despite all of the external excitation – peaks and valleys of life.

Although I believe that a rudimentary sense of harmony in music is almost universally innate and instinctive, this sense can be developed, refined, and expanded through discipline (the ability to control one’s actions with skill), practice, and study of theory. Likewise, the same can be said for morality. Any person is free to walk up to a piano and bang on it, but it takes many hours of practice and study to play something interesting and pleasing to the ear. You’re free to bang out your noisy life with minimal discipline clashing with the environment and those around you, but with practice and study you can learn to lead a beautiful life with harmony, rhythm, and balance. This is where religious institutions and holy books can play an important role. They can take this rudimentary sense of morality and develop it. Unfortunately they can also introduce some negatives. An overbearing piano teacher can induce anxiety in a young pupil to the point where music is no longer fun. That rap on the wrist for every wrong note can produce such frustration the student becomes completely unable to play. Or by overburdening students with theory or the repetition of particular rigid interpretations of classic pieces, the student’s creativity and enjoyment will be stifled. There are obvious correlates with religion.

I have been careful up to this point to say that the sense of harmony in music is “almost” universal. There are those among us who are completely tone deaf and some who cannot keep a beat. The moral analogue is the sociopath. The sociopath lacks empathy and therefore has no feedback loop to provide him with the ability or motivation to tune his actions to harmonize with others. He must rely solely on the longer feedback loop of action/reaction (i.e. hurt/retaliation or crime/punishment) so he does not easily harmonize with society and society labels him “immoral.”

Just as the various musical schools and cultures found throughout the different regions of the world have explored the fundamental universal proportions of music and come up with different creative results, the various religions of the world have explored the fundamental proportions of the harmonies of life which we call wisdom, morality and spirituality, and they have come up with different creative results. When two waves match up and excite one another that is called a resonance. A child in the West may be raised in a Christian environment to learn from the Bible not to worry about tomorrow or not to be overly concerned with material possessions, and a child in the East may learn from the Tao Te Ching the very same wise principle. The child from the West reading the Tao Te Ching or the child from the East reading the Bible will find a tremendous resonance as the waveforms of the two teachings synchronize because they were derived from the fundamental proportions of reality – the Logos. This is not to say that 100% of the teachings of the Bible or the Tao will perfectly harmonize because both are explorations or maps of the divine proportions left behind for us by previous explorers. And like the early explorers and cartographers of the geographical structures of the world, some things were slightly out of proportion or out of tune. But by comparing many maps and models, a more accurate picture begins to emerge.

I am suggesting that there are a simple set of fundamental moral rules from which diverse phylogenies of cultural moral expression can expand. If we ever discover life on other planets we fully expect species on that planet to differ from ours, but we would also expect the fundamental rules of physics that governed the development of those species to be the same. So although our expressions of life might look different, there would be many similarities that would resonate with lifeforms on Earth.

With all this in mind, I think that we should be freed to evaluate the beauty and interestingness of a person’s life or a culture based not on the moral forms particular to one species of religion, but instead based on the way that person harmonizes and resonates with the fundamental principles of the universe. So I guess I am still a fundamentalist! But I believe that the fundamental moral principles can be discovered through the sense organ of the conscience and developed as one discovers geography or physics or music whereas the religious fundamentalist believes that the fundamental moral principles cannot be explored and developed by man but must be dictated from God solely through the language centers of the brain and reinforced with punishment and reward from established institutions.

The religious fundamentalist always argues that without an authoritative holy book to tell us the difference between right and wrong, who is to decide right and wrong? My answer is that you don’t need a book to tell you if a piano is out of tune or if someone is clapping off beat, but a book might aid you in your efforts to become a better musician. Similarly a philosopher will read many books in attempt to become wise and strengthen the natural inclinations of his conscience. Perhaps another reason we need books to help us see right from wrong is that the waveforms of morality sometimes happen on such large timescales that a feedback loop cannot be easily established and therefore a sense of harmony cannot be easily felt and instead can more easily enter through the language and logic centers. If I hit you for no reason and you cry, that is a short timescale and I might immediately feel bad for my wicked deed. But it could take hundreds or thousands of years to reap the pain of some of our environmentally unfriendly actions.

At any rate, I hope that more people will become philosophers in an effort to explore the realms of universal harmony and add to our collective understanding so that we may live ever more beautiful peaceable and interesting lives.


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4 Responses to Music and Morality

  1. paperedcut says:

    “…13for it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified. 14For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, 15in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them,…” – Romans 2:13-15

    It’s very interesting how much of your article I agree with. Although, some I disagree with. The verse above explaining my qualm with your concept that,

    “There is a widespread assumption among religious fundamentalists that their particular holy book is essential for the human expression of morality. It is believed that without the guidance provided by this or that holy book or some other apocalypse, humanity would have no basis for determining right from wrong and would then quickly devolve into terror sprees, orgies, and general pandemonium.”

    Romans states that anyone and everyone has the law of the Lord written in their heart and need not the guidance of a particular book to know what it is. The true “Fundamental Christian” understands that the human doesn’t need the Book for “moral” guidance as the Law is already in the heart. For example, to borrow from your example, if you were to walk around a corner, see me and hit me, I would be very angry. Why? Because something inherent in me understands that humans ought not to act that way. I hesitate to believe that ANYONE would not understand this concept. However, if you were to walk around the corner, trip, and accidentally hit me while falling, it may hurt, and I may be angry for a second before my reasoning overcame my reaction and I understood the action to be an accident and let it go while trying to help you up. If I had never read a religious book, would I feel the same way about either incident? Of course.

    So it is an error, especially from a former “evangelical Christian” to state that this is an assumption from religious Fundamentalist when not all religious fundamentalists believe this.

    HI BRANDON!!!!! 🙂

    • simcah says:

      Hey Josh 🙂

      Yes, I agree that most fundamentalist Christians would concede based on Romans 2 that non-Christians have a rudimentary sense of morality and truth. But I think most would also say it is not enough to simply follow your heart and conscience since the “heart of man is desperately wicked” and “there is a way that seems right to a man, but the ends thereof is death.”

      Fundamentalist Christians believe in a standard of absolute truth – the Bible (or the canon) (and Muslims in the Koran and there are even fundamentalist Buddhists who think only a certain set of scriptures are true – any religion with a sacred written text ultimately develops fundamentalists). And most believe that if you do not fully accept the authority and inerrancy of the Bible (or substitute other written canon for other religions) then you make yourself and your opinions your new standard. Or put more sternly: instead of letting God decide right from wrong and truth from fiction, you put yourself in God’s place and make such decisions for yourself. Being thus un-anchored from the written standard, you are free to drift on the currents of culture and your own emotions such that your standard is dangerously capricious and impotent to provide true firm guidance in the face of life’s many moral crises. Therefore the overall effect of the questioning of Biblical authority on a mass scale (in the West) is a degeneration of society.

      To some extent this is true. Being anchored to an agreed upon set of written documents is structural, stabilizing, pro-establishment, and reduces the variation in moral opinion – although there is still the matter of translation and interpretation which still allows room for a wide variety of moral opinion. Questioning authority is anti-structural, destabilizing, anti-establishment, and increases the diversity of opinion.

      Some individuals (perhaps most) are mainline, structural, stable, and find their identity in part through an establishment or status in an organization or hierarchy. Some individuals are marginal, fringe, boundary-crossers, and often deliberately or accidentally anti-establishment.

      For a highly entertaining allegory showing the dance between structure and anti-structure, watch The LEGO movie! (Note that while structure usually seems good and the marginal anti-structure type is often devilish, it is Mr. Business who is devilish)

      Personally I was raised like many who have come out of the Christianized West in a highly structural, pro-establishment, pro-authority environment. But I have found that my innate insatiable curiosity has led me to probe the edges of knowledge and drawn me to all sorts of marginal fringe topics which have led me to question many authorities. I think that anyone who persistently knocks and seeks for “The Truth” must ultimately question author-ity because “The Truth” is a story and all stories have an Author. So all sincere Truth-seekers eventually find themselves on the margin, at the boundary, and at odds with the establishments that bred them. Sometimes they return as reformers. Sometimes they drift about as status-less mystics and oddball tricksters. I have not yet decided which I shall be. 🙂

  2. Don Salmon says:

    Just found this site through your post on the trickster.

    I like both that one and this post; just one very small thing. You’d be surprised how many differences there are in terms of perception of music over the course of history.

    i remember how surprised I was – since I’ve always loved the sound of the major third (C to E, for example) to discover that until about the 13th century, it was considered by most to be extremely unpleasantting and dissonant. British musicians around that time began to use it (you’ll notice a lot of use of thirds in the harmonies of English and Irish folk music) and eventually the perception of it changed rather radically.

    Otherwise, great post.

    • simcah says:

      Wow that is really interesting about the major 3rd! I suppose music and morality are both evolving or revolving through and exploration of different forms.

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