The object of this article is to show what light may be thrown from a Theosophical point of view upon the nature of music, its function, and the cultivation of the art. Theosophy illuminates all subjects upon which it sheds its light, and supplies the missing links so often needed to fill the gaps in the chain of our thoughts.
The nature, function, and influence of music have always been mysterious and hard to define. Both in its ultimate source and in the quality of its appeal, it pertains to a sphere of conscious existence that is not directly related to the reasoning brain. The creation of music is inspired by a faculty beyond the ordinary course, and its influence appeals to an equally recondite power of appreciation.
All attempts to limit music by trying to make it descriptive of definable ideas have merely proved by their failure the truth of the general proposition. Its effect, and presumably its natural function, is to convey ideas that are not definable in the ordinary way; and we feel that by striving to describe the impressions we have received from music we merely belittle the indefinable by our attempt to define it.
People of a comfortably superficial habit of mind, content to accept facts without inquiring too closely into their cause or significance, may be satisfied to say that music (along with other arts) pleases the emotions, and to let the matter rest there. But perhaps in their case, the appreciation was not very intimate, the appeal very deep.
Music can excite the more superficial emotions, from the grave to the gay, the refined to the gross, as has been said so well and so often. But it also appeals to emotions of a far deeper and more sublime kind and rouses in us feelings for which we have no words, ideas that we can relate to nothing else, aspirations which fill us with a zeal that we cannot portray. In short, music has a meaning, and all who are susceptible to its subtler influence must often have asked themselves what those ideas and aspirations mean.
It must not be overlooked that other influences besides that of music have also the power, in varying degrees and kinds, to arouse what might be called soul-memories or to connect us temporarily with some higher and richer quality of existence. Perhaps it is scenery, pictures, ancient ruins, some one or more of the numerous kinds of beauty that thus appeals to our particular susceptibility. But music is peculiarly isolated and unmixed in its character. Poetry conveys ideas through language to the mind, and the delineative arts present familiar forms to the eye. But music speaks in no words, is formless.
Music combines two great potencies -- sound and harmony -- if we may for the moment regard rhythm as included under harmony. Harmony of any kind appeals irresistibly, for it is but another name for perfection -- our inevitable quest and goal. But, as associated with sound, its appeal is special and paramount. There are beautiful scientific experiments illustrating this idea, such as the sand-figures produced on a taut membrane when a musical note is sounded near. Sound in itself is one of the most potent and mysterious powers in nature.
Physical science has studied the properties of those vibrations in physical matter that produce the sensation of sound; but it does not pretend to tell us anything about the nature of the psychological effect -- the sensation we feel. As we are not at present concerned with a consideration of the value of music in a world in which there would be no ears to hear, we must concentrate our attention on the psychological aspect of the question. For present purposes, sound must be defined as something produced in our mind, and music as the quality that we apprehend rather than as the mechanical excitants thereof.
Sound is one of the most potent and fundamental forces of nature, having much to do with creation and the orderly arranging of atoms in a building process. In cosmological symbology, the Word is always made the creative power. Vibration and sound represent mysteries whose disclosure would lead to great power over nature, but such secrets would cause destruction except in the hands of responsible people.
The culture of music may surely be reckoned among the chief of those influences that in our time have tended to counteract materialism and sordid ideals. Through its agency, souls have been able to speak to the souls of humanity in a universal language and to influence mankind for its good by means other than verbal appeal.
This gives the clue to the real object with which music should be cultivated. The art must be regarded as a powerful means of promoting the soul-life of humanity, as opposed to the sensory. We have to consider both the effect on the artist and the effect on his audience.
By studying music and learning some instrument, a man finds a new channel for the expression of that which is in him. Perhaps it may be nothing more at first than a new channel for his vital energies to run in; and in this case, the study becomes a most powerful aid to the development and refinement of coarse, stunted, or warped natures. Energies that otherwise would run into wrong channels now find a healthy object. The effort of mastering the new art wakens up the whole nature of the student and arouses his faculties of apprehension and understanding in general so that his usefulness and fullness of life is increased all round.
To a more refined nature also, the culture of music may be a stepping-stone to a fuller realization of the meaning of life and to a richer development of faculty. But this theme is familiar enough and calls for no special comment here. A word should be added on concerted music.
When people learn to do anything in concert, even if it is only physical drill, they make a great advance. They learn to subordinate the personal motive to the collective purpose. Try to drill an undrilled body of grownups, if you want experience of the difficulty of taking out personal kinks. When told to put out their foot, instead of doing it, they will raise an objection. It hurts them to have to obey rules that seem to them arbitrary. In this case, the personal nature has grown solidified and often has to be broken and then reset. But the man who, realizing what it means, takes the process with a good will, rejoices in the new world he is opening up for himself by learning to do things that are in the line of duty but opposed to personal inclination.
Drill of any kind is a needed introduction to the practical philosophy of life. And when the drill takes the form of concerted music, it has many added glories. People who sing in a choir have to subordinate personal notes in order to blend with the general harmony. Here again, grownup choirs are apt to find the work go a little against the grain at first.
This article set out to speak of music from a Theosophical standpoint; and the way in which Theosophy elucidates the subject is by closely connecting the culture of the musical art with the culture of the art of right living. Indeed the practical Theosophist thus associates everything he does with the art of right living; Theosophy enters into everything he does; all minor purposes are contributory to the great purpose.
In drilling a choir or an orchestra, we are drilling people to act in concert, which is the one thing needful for humanity to do -- if it is to progress and be happy. Now in a Theosophical center, as at the Theosophical Headquarters at Point Loma, music is cultivated with this principle always to the fore in full view. As there is no purpose to turn out a supply of "stars" or merely to provide people with a lucrative profession (though they of course obtain this incidentally), the main purpose can be attended to -- which is to train people in the art of right living. All those who deplore the admixture of undesirable motives and influences with musical culture will be glad to hear of the possibility of music being pursued in freedom from these drawbacks. Many artists must have often wished they could cherish their art without having as their spur vanity, gain, or necessity.
It will scarcely be denied that the arts stand in need of revival, they having, as many think, succumbed largely to a universal worship of things evanescent and external. But how can we revive them except by reviving that "inward and spiritual grace" that is essential to the production of all beautiful forms? Technique will enable people to express themselves beautifully -- if they have anything to express. In short, inspiration is needed. The mere breaking away from old sources of inspiration or old forms of expression, without finding any new ones, leads to the weird and bizarre in art, musical or otherwise, with which we are nearly satiated for the present.
Art is the expression of life, and beautiful art is the expression of the life beautiful and the soul beautiful, as Ruskin has so patiently labored to tell us. He had to use the English language to express himself, so we may find opportunity to cavil at some of his expressions, if we think we need to; but there is no doubt he expressed a true principle as well as anybody could express it under the circumstances.
What tremendous power music could be for educating people in a higher sense, if properly used! And used in conjunction with the drama, all the artists being people devoted solely to realizing by their art those ideals of purity and right living that they have set up in their hearts, the souls of humanity could be moved. Thus, from a source of harmony, waves of harmony might be born on waves of music throughout the world, lighting fires everywhere and spreading a new inspiration.
Now what is the reason why we fail to grasp the meaning of the sublime message which music sings to us? Is it not because we try to bring Beauty down to the plane on which we live, instead of rising to the plane whereon she lives? Music beckons us to a higher life and we cannot follow; we fall back. But a high ideal is worth striving for, and what is worth having cannot be had for the mere asking. To achieve peace, we must either relinquish our aspirations or else observe the conditions requisite to their realization. To realize the meaning of music, we must make our lives musical. And this is an affair of daily life. The difficulties all lie in the humble circumstances and duties, for herein the enemy holds his fortress. It is from this vantage ground that we have to oust him if we would allow the spirit of harmony to obtain possession. There is music within, whereof the outer music is but a feeble expression; and it is attainable by the man who makes his life harmonious.
We cannot divorce art from duty; and if our conception of art is such as to render the association unpalatable to our minds, we had better reform our conception of art. The narrow constricted ideas of righteousness are not in place at all; these go hand in hand with materialistic narrowness and prejudice in general. Our minds may be confused by the old partnership of joy with sinfulness, and gloom with holiness; but this is surely a snare of the great deceiver.
In the most sublime music, we find that joy and sorrow seem to combine or lose themselves in something that is greater and grander than both are; and we seem to see how all the experiences our soul may undergo are essential parts of its grand harmony. We see that our feeble notions of pain and pleasure are very inadequate, and we feel that the life of the Higher Soul stands in calm deep majesty beyond the flitting scenes. Music has thus initiated us into a foretaste of the greater Self-realization to come; it has admitted us to the forecourt of the temple. And while we are thinking thus, perhaps somebody sitting behind us begins chattering. Then we are angry, the personality shows his ugly head, and we are back in the cold dreary world once more.
If we are wise, this gives us a second initiation. We must master temper -- especially when it calls itself by a fine name. But the means of self-adjustment are within our power. We can find out ways of establishing the harmony within. Our circumstances are our opportunities. It will always be helpful to remember this, because we can always apply it to some extent if we are anxious to do so. "If we can't be easy, let's be as easy as we can."
From The Theosophical Path, August 1914, pages 137-41