What Music Tells Me: Beauty, Truth and Goodness and Our Cultural Inheritance

By David Eaton

The 19th century French novelist, Gustave Flaubert, asserted that “the art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe.”

In the process of writing my book, What Music Tells Me: Beauty, Truth and Goodness and Our Cultural Inheritance, I realized Flaubert’s assertion was quite apt.

The chapters in the book span several decades and were written for various publications, including The World & I magazine, the Journal of Unification Studies, the Peace Music Community blog, and the Applied Unificationism blog.

They draw upon many of my experiences as a musician, as well as my interest in music in relation to politics, philosophy, commerce, education, and religion. The influence of music on self and society is a central narrative of my book.

What Music Tells Us

One of my favorite composers is Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). Mahler is generally considered to be the last of the great symphonists of the European symphonic tradition. He composed nine symphonies and his third symphony, written between 1893 and 1896, has six movements. He ascribes the following titles to each movement:

1.  Pan Awakes, Summer Marches In
2.  What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me
3.  What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me
4.  What Man Tells Me
5.  What the Angels Tell Me
6.  What Love Tells Me

For Mahler, nature, angels, humankind, and love all had something to say to him — presumably something imbued with beauty, truth and goodness. He would say that it was through the art of music that he could find answers to many of his questions regarding life, love and the pursuit of happiness.

Mahler intuited, as did those in ancient cultures, that music wasn’t solely about pleasure or aesthetics. Like the philosophers of ancient China and Greece, Mahler believed music possessed moral and ethical implications and could be a gateway to higher truths and deeper understandings of the human condition.

Hebrew and Christian philosophers also shared this perspective and wrote treatises regarding the effects of music on self and society — psycho-acoustics in modern parlance. Any examination of our cultural patrimony reveals that the metaphysical, spiritual and axiological aspects of music, and its potential as a change agent in the spheres of politics and public ethics, has been a constant refrain from antiquity to Mahler, and remains so today.

The Unification movement’s founders, Rev. Sun Myung Moon and Mrs. Hak Ja Han Moon, often alluded to the importance of art and culture in establishing a culture of peace. In their respective memoirs, they each aver that it’s not politics that changes the world, but art and culture that can move people’s hearts and raise consciousness and thereby foster conditions for socio-cultural betterment.

American composer and conductor, Leonard Bernstein, echoed that sentiment in a 1972 interview with the Los Angeles Times:

“…Art cannot change events. But it can change people. It can affect people so that they are changed. Because people are changed by art — enriched, ennobled, encouraged — they can act in a way that may affect the course of events by the way they vote, the way they behave, the way they think.”

Rev. and Mrs. Moon believed that any particular genre of music could have beneficial aspects if lyrics expressed godly virtues and values and if the musical components of melody, harmony, rhythm, and structure were in accord with universal archetypes (Carl Jung’s concept), and embodied the laws and principles that are reflective of the nature of God.

As former UTS professor Dr. Young Oon Kim observed, the aesthetic experience of art is predicated in large part on the degree to which the principles and laws that emanate from and within God — give and take, polarity, harmony — are embodied in a particular artwork. The more an artwork amplifies or substantiates God’s nature, the greater the response of love and appreciation will be from the aesthetic experience.

Dr. Kim’s perspective speaks to the Unification Thought (UT) concept of “Joy and Creation in Resemblance.” From the view of the Divine Principle (DP), we understand that experiencing joy is the purpose of life. In the hope of realizing joy, God, as the Heavenly Parent, created humankind and all things to be objects of joy. God, in the subject position, attains joy from the stimulation coming from human beings in the object position when their internal form and external character nature resemble those of God. As UT posits:

“God created people in such a way that they resemble the image the dual characteristics of God and created all things in such a way that they resemble Him symbolically. Applied to the theory of art, this means that an artist produces works of art in resemblance to his or her internal character and external form. Also, it means that the appreciator feels joy by sensing his or her internal and external through the artwork.”

Accordingly, we experience joy from aesthetic beauty in art when it is ontologically similar to our Creator’s image and likeness. For instance, in music, when the polar opposites of consonant and dissonant intervals, or major and minor harmonies are well harmonized in a given work, there is a realization of the laws from and within God, and we are moved emotionally as a result.

David Eaton with several of the soloists who appeared with the New York City Symphony concert at the United Nations General Assembly Hall in June 2015 celebrating the UN’s 70th Anniversary.

Like Mahler, certain European philosophers, including Friedrich Schiller, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Emmanuel Kant, maintained that art wasn’t merely a mode of entertainment, but could be a repository of moral knowledge that could provide what Schiller termed “aesthetic education,” and thus could be a gateway to moral and ethical insights due to its transcendental aspects. As Schiller professed, “Only through Beauty’s morning-gate, dost thou penetrate the land of knowledge.”

The Wisdom of the Ancients

In his treatise on music, Le Institutioni Harmoniche, the Italian Renaissance music theorist, Gioseffo Zarlino (1517-90), speculated that hearing was the most valuable of the five physical senses because it allowed for a full “comprehension of science by intellect.” Taking his cue from Pythagoras, Zarlino believed nature was the source of the harmony of the spheres and that everything was dependent on godly principles, therefore the order of things ordained by God resulted in “a silent harmony of the universe.” This understanding is the cosmological antecedent of the beliefs of Martin Luther and Johann Sebastian Bach who believed music was the most efficacious way to offer praise and gratitude to the Almighty, and to “re-create the mind.”

The cultures of antiquity, particularly Chinese and Greek cultures, also placed a great deal of importance on the axiological aspects of music. Their writings regarding the moral and ethical power of music are well-documented and elucidate how they emphasized the need for artists to use that power with a sense of moral responsibility. As Confucius writes in The Analects: “If a person be without the virtues proper to goodness what has he to do with the rites of propriety? If a person be without the virtues proper to goodness, what has he to do with music?”

Chinese politician, Le Bu Wei (291-235 BCE), also alludes to the effects of music on the human psyche and society in his Spring and Summer Annals. He makes the point that the values, morals and ethics of a particular cultural sphere could be known by the music it enjoys.

Similar views about music were expressed by Plato, Aristotle and Socrates. In The Republic, Plato cites the cautionary utterances of Damon of Athens, one of the first Greeks to expound on the effects of music on the human psyche. Damon went as far as to suggest that altering the songs of a country would result in altering the laws of a country. He warned that the changes might appear innocent at first, but over time, music born of questionable motives and aesthetics could have deleterious socio-cultural consequences.

In recent decades, we have witnessed in our contemporary culture the toxic effects of music that has morally questionable lyrics. There has been a normalization of depravity offering proof that Damon of Athens was quite prescient in his concerns regarding the effects of music to debase a particular culture.

A significant aspect of our cultural inheritance vis-à-vis the attitudes and outlooks of the cultural spheres of the past is that the goodness feature in the beauty, truth and goodness paradigm (axiology) remains a salient factor. Western music is the progeny of the Judeo-Christian ethos that evolved over the past 2,000 years. The religious underpinnings of that tradition should not fall prey to the secular, materialist, nihilistic, or politically correct conceits that have had the effect of diminishing the Judeo-Christian moral principles and virtues that might allow us to fashion a culture of peace.

In I Cor. 10:23, we read that all things are permissible, but not all things are beneficial. Our artistic choices, whether we are artists or appreciators, ought to be predicated on ideals that are rooted in Godism. Rev. Moon often said that “religion and music go hand in hand.” Religion and music in their best iterations can assist in the “re-binding” of humankind to our Heavenly Parent. Mother Moon reiterated that sentiment in her Rally of Hope address on November 22, 2020, when she cited her admiration for the art of the Christian cultural sphere:

“In the past, as the Christian cultural realm waited for the Messiah to come again, an ancient, beautiful culture was formed with the European continent at its center. It is still loved today by all peoples of the world. That culture is the culture of longing for the Messiah. What I want to say now is that although due to the Fall, people have been lacking in filial devotion to our Heavenly Parent, who has endured and waited six thousand years for us, I wish to see their beautiful arts — which express the love, joy and praise they return to their Parent — shining forevermore through the revolution of the culture of heart. The arts are also a swift path by which the world can become one.”

Artists have a considerable role to play in that endeavor, therefore our understanding of what we might inherit from past cultures regarding the beauty, truth and goodness paradigm when it comports with the ideals of Godism remains an essential factor.

As Mother Moon noted, the aesthetic of beautiful music and art can be a profound unifying force when it resembles God’s divine nature in image, and then amplifies and substantiates the laws and principles of which God is the chief author and propagator. When that occurs, art can assist in our quest for truth and love in deeply meaningful ways.♦

David Eaton has been the music director of the New York City Symphony since 1985 and is currently an artist-in-residence in Korea serving as the Director of Music at the Hyo Jeong Cultural Foundation and conductor of the newly-formed Hyo Jeong Youth Orchestra. He received an honorary doctorate from Unification Theological Seminary in 2016. His book on which this article is based is available here.

9 thoughts on “What Music Tells Me: Beauty, Truth and Goodness and Our Cultural Inheritance

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  1. I enjoyed this meditation on the mission of music, from a person who is a musician, composer and conductor aligned with the Providence and an educator in Unificationist aesthetic judgments.

    The central piece of his essay, for me, was this:

    “Zarlino believed nature was the source of the harmony of the spheres and that everything was dependent on godly principles, therefore the order of things ordained by God resulted in ‘a silent harmony of the universe.’ This understanding is the cosmological antecedent of the beliefs of Martin Luther and Johann Sebastian Bach who believed music was the most efficacious way to offer praise and gratitude to the Almighty, and to ‘re-create the mind.’”

    David Eaton suggests that the ear would be the most important of our five senses for our spiritual elevation and that music would thus be the paramount form of art. I would define music as the art of combining sounds in the most harmonious way, in order to convey an auditory enchantment or catharsis in the listener. It is challenging, for cultural reasons.

    Therefore, I would like to invite David to think of two possible topics, which could be slogans. (1) God heard that it was beautiful (2) In the beginning was the note.

    (1) God heard that it was beautiful

    Genesis 1 describes the act of Creation as a divine composition. In the narrative, we find elements such as the inspiration, the motives and the themes, the patterns, which characterize art. One should notice, however, that the central role is played by the word, and the word is incarnated through substantial forms in space. The element of time is omnipresent, of course, and the Principle makes clear that the Origin-Division-Union Action is at work throughout the creative process. However, most Unificationists are more familiar with the Four-Position-Foundation, which is a spatial notion, than with the O-D-U action, which contains our whole philosophy of time.

    Moreover, the Bible says, “and God saw that it was good.” Our whole culture might be different if Genesis had said, “and God heard that it was beautiful“.

    Somehow, our imagination still associates the Creation with visual arts, as if God had acted mostly as a potter, painter, sculptor. When Michelangelo painted the Creation, he not only represented the Creation of the universe by God. Unconscious in his mind was probably the idea that the greatest art forms come from human hands creating forms in space. In his era, the Western culture was already extremely rich in painting, sculpture, frescoes, as well as in poetry and stories, but the time of musical geniuses would come later.

    In the theory of art of Unification Thought, the examples chosen by Dr. Lee mostly come from painting, sculpture and novels. He hardly speaks of music.

    Therefore, I would like David to go even more deeply into the philosophy of music. We would need detailed discussions about notions such as notes, melodies, rhythm, tempo. When, and how, and why are our ears and soul enchanted by music? Why can music be a channel to the divine? What are the purely physico-chemical, biological, psychological, sociological reasons for that? Why are sounds so important in our lives? In which way is music the best material to express some our deepest emotions? What kind of music would enchant the creator’s ears the most?

    (2) In the beginning was the note

    John 1 insists on the centrality of the word, in God’s Creation. The Logos is given utmost importance. “In the beginning was the word, and the word was in God, and the word was God”. This equivalence between God and the Word can do much damage. And it did.

    In the chapter on Logic, Dr. Lee explains that the main thing is not to know how to think well (laws of formal logic), but why we think and what for? Dr. Lee explains that, within the logos, the element of pathos (emotion), is always there. In other words, we speak not only to express logical things, but to convey our feelings.

    Our Western Culture is heavily intellectual and visual. We believe in what can be seen and touched, and what can be demonstrated logically. Our ears remain uneducated.

    I remember that, when I converted to God, at the tender age of 18, the Divine Principle brought me to accept God’s heart. But not only that. The songs I heard played an important role. When I saw a film on the Little Angels, I had a vision of the Kingdom of Heaven. The sound of music, as much as the logical explanations, turned an atheist into a newborn person. I remember how often I shed tears upon hearing “Suffering Jesus”, “Suffering Heart”, “Heart of the Father”. It was not just the deep and poignant lyrics, but the melodies.

    I am always impressed to watch a concert of classical music. First, there is a complete silence. You cannot hear anything. The conductor is gazing at the musicians, with the audience in his back. And suddenly, the very first notes are heard.

    We need to spread this culture more: being able to be completely silent, and then ready to hear with our whole being carried away by the notes.

    1. Laurent,

      I remember feeling emotionally moved by the mythical, poetic beauty in the first portion of “The Silmarillion” by J.R.R. Tolkien. It tells how the Ainur, a class of angelic beings, perform a great music prefiguring the creation of the material universe.

      Absolutely intoxicating!

  2. Laurent, thanks for the feedback.

    In chapter 13 of the book, I reference several arts conferences sponsored by Artists Association International that were held from 1988-91. The central themes of those conferences included the spiritual aspects of the arts and the role of the artist in creating a culture of peace. Notable artists, journalists and producers representing the realms of dance, music, literature, the fine arts, and the news media offered various perspectives on the matter of art in the pursuit of peace.

    In a rather perspicacious witticism on the issue of spirituality, sound and music, American pianist Lorin Hollander cited the biblical verses John 1:1 and 1:14: “In the Beginning was the word, … and the word became flesh.” Hollander hypothesized that since “words” are manifested as sound, the Almighty may have used sound to carry out the task of creation. Hollander suggested that if we follow this hypothesis to its logical conclusion, then it could be argued that instead of the Big Bang having been the primary energy force that initiated the creation of the cosmos, it may have been the Big Twang!

    1. Thank you, David, for quoting Lorin Hollander. I could not think of a better answer to my comment, especially coming from a musician.

      Now, tell me: In my comment on your beautiful essay, I also suggested, and I may be wrong, that geniuses in music (at least recognized as such) appeared rather late in the “providence of the arts”.

      How would you explain that, even at the time of the Renaissance and the Reformation, one cannot really identify the equivalent in music of giants such as Giotto, Fra Angelico, Da Vinci, Dürer, Michelangelo, or Dante, Cervantes, and Shakespeare? It seems that geniuses first appeared in visual arts and literature. Only later music produced those who really educated our ears. How, as a Unificationist musician, would you explain that? Is it a technical matter? When can one locate the birth of great modern music and composers?

  3. Thank you, David, for sharing about the revelatory and uplifting role of music for sentient beings in a disenchanted world. Music has definitely an important role to play in mobilizing the best in ourselves for peace.

    At the same time you pertinently mentioned:

    “In recent decades, we have witnessed in our contemporary culture the toxic effects of music that has morally questionable lyrics”.

    Sirens have indeed always been using beautiful melodies to ensnare unaware listeners.

    Music then appears to be an amazing and mysterious tool that can either free or enslave its public. It can echo celestial spheres and lead one to a kind of ecstatic rapture without however delivering the guarantee to the listener he/she will ultimately reach the originally targeted realm.

    It has been proven that advertisements and their unrealistic seductive promises greatly benefit from using music. Furthermore in the political sphere, music is alas actually a very useful medium for the delivery of propaganda.
    Since music is often viewed to be a leisure activity, it is usually not considered to be as threatening as other propaganda techniques which can then operate without even being noticed.

    In Hitler’s Germany, the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels once stated: “Music affects the heart and emotions more than the intellect. Where then could the heart of a nation beat stronger than in the huge masses, in which the heart of a nation has found its true home?”

    Communist parties in the Soviet Union and China understood this perfectly.

    So if religious hymns do help us focus on Heaven, thrilling national anthems and revolutionary hymns can truly send us there (or at least to the spiritual world) faster than we would think.

    In the past, religions, and most particularly Catholicism, have traditionally been using music to exalt followers in a powerful way. The “Messiah” from Händel or the “Ave Maria” from Schubert can’t but universally impress human hearts and minds.

    Consequently such timeless musical masterpieces can also be “recycled” or “hijacked” without the composer’s consent on today’s religious free market. Hundreds of modern day self-appointed messiahs can then use Händel’s “Messiah” for their own aggrandizement, in order to be divinely worshipped by their followers.

    It’s a bit like if an exceptional French champagne vintage were misleadingly decanted into the labeled bottle of an ordinary sparkling wine.

    But as the poet Alfred De Musset wrote, “The bottle does not matter as much as the drunkenness” (This English translation can’t be but a betrayal of the beautiful original alexandrine: “Qu’importe le flacon, pourvu qu’on ait l’ivresse”).

    This being said, I personally consider however that spiritual drunkenness remains of course preferable for both composing music and writing poetry.

  4. There’s a great deal to cover here, but in the book I write about an experience I had when I was in Taiwan to conduct a concert there. I visited the national art museum in Taipei and in every case when I viewed a painting, sculpture or tapestry, there was no mention of the artist who created the artwork; only the king, emperor or the dynasty from which the artwork came was acknowledged. This is obviously a cultural issue. Individual creativity was not celebrated in the same manner that happened in the Western Judeo-Christian cultures, especially since the Renaissance.

    With regard to the evolution of musical style and syntax, this was a long process — thousands of years. From what we know, the music of antiquity, whether in Mesopotamia, China, or Greece, did not possess the type of harmonic grammar that became so prominent over that past 500 years in Western music. (Leonard Bernstein does a deep dive into this in his Harvard Lectures of 1973.)

    We can make the analogy of painting and music. When we see the paintings of antiquity (Egyptian art comes to mind), there is generally little perspective evident. The images are flat, without depth. The point has been made that the development of harmonic grammar in music was akin to the development of perspective in painting; the spatial dimension. As the various intervals in the overtone series (the sonic etymology of all music), were absorbed into musical syntax, there became a new, rich and highly expressive musical language that allowed composers to be far more creative and expressive.

    The full flowering of the musical syntax as we know it didn’t really begin until the Renaissance. Then, in 1722 Johann Sebastian Bach’s invention of “equal-temperament” opened the harmonic gates to what became known as “the common practice” in musical composition. In my view, all of this was the preparation for the second advent. There was an explosion of great art, music, scientific discovery, architecture, literature, medicine, et. al. The fact that these breakthroughs happened in the Judeo-Christian sphere since roughly 1600 is an important consideration.

    1. Thank you, David, for this very deep explanation.

      It is the first time on this blog that I really received such a good and precise answer to a question which is on my mind. You gave many technical explanations that are really needed (the grammar of music), and you made a powerful analogy with perspective in painting).

      But besides providing all this technical and philosophical background, you insist that it was a preparation for the second coming. I really feel delighted with your explanation. I appreciate all sorts of music, but I don’t play any instrument. Therefore, all my intuitions about music are very naive and uneducated. I am glad to receive this education.

      Personally, I enjoy songs, I enjoy opera, I enjoy musical scores in movies (Ennio Moricone was a genius), I enjoy musical comedies (Stanley Donnen, Vicente Minelli), but what I enjoy the most is pure music, especially symphonies (mostly Beethoven) or great standards in jazz or even rock music, when it is really well composed and written with proper arrangements.

      I also like virtuosity in music, but it should not be excessive. In jazz and rock music, the band sometimes reaches a climax, and a powerful improvisation can be thrilling, but it should not be egocentric nor too long. It should serve a purpose.

      I am also deeply impressed by the passion that I see in great musicians, for example Glenn Gould on the piano. He was criticized for being eccentric, but on the other hand, I think he wanted to convey something about music that is used to described Michelangelo’s art, called Terribilità.

      Art, just like science and religion, should have this Terribilità which transforms our life, challenges us at the deepest level of our existence, and gives us rebirth. Besides being pleasant, music should urge us to become taller, wider, and bigger in heart. Let this year be the year of heavenly Terribilità for all the Water Rabbits.

  5. David,

    Reflecting on your as much inspired as thoughtful essay and your own comments, has led me to these questions that you (or anyone else) might be able to answer on this blog.

    – According to the Divine Principle, Korea has been the specific providentially long-prepared nation to receive the Second Advent and the First Advent of God’s Only Begotten Daughter. Do you know if Korea has then been particularly privileged with exceptional music composers during the past 400 years?

    – One would naturally tend to think that outstanding artists in the field of musical composition would rise within the True Family or among Unificationists who are among the most blessed people on earth and closest to the divine heartbeat. Did you notice encouraging signs toward the validation of such an expectation?

    – Concerning the mysterious activating of the inspirational and creative process: We have been taught that over the past decade, spirit world has been unified under Rev. Moon’s divine authority. Such providential achievement coupled with the successful liberations and blessings of billions of ancestors should certainly permit most providentially aligned Unificationist artists to break through in the musical field. Do you notice early beginnings of that?

    – In the past, some composers — even among the greatest ones — are said to have resorted to taking drugs and/or alcohol to reach a state of unmatched creativity. Do you know if this is pure legend or an explainable but dangerous tempting phenomena that contributes to entertain confusion in the artistic world?

    1. Regarding your first question, even though Korea has been “chosen” from a providential viewpoint, the nation did not have the same cultural DNA as the Judeo-Christian West. The merit of the age with regard to music and its Christian roots had a great deal to do with the emergence of great classical composers since the Renaissance. Because Judaism had the blessing for a time, there was foundation for many great musicians with Jewish ancestry to become great artists: Felix Mendelssohn, Gustav Mahler, Leonard Bernstein, Jasha Heifitz, Artur Rubenstein, Itzahk Perlman, Pinkus Zuckerman and Yehudi Mehuin come to mind.

      Christian composers would include Mozart (who was also a Freemason), Handel, Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Liszt, Brahms, Bruckner. Mahler converted to Catholicism in order to get around the anti-semitism that was present in Austria. He became a very successful conductor after doing so.

      There have been some wonderful Korean artists like sopranos Sumi Jo and Hye Kyung Hong, violinist Kyung Hwa Chung and her brother, conductor Myung-whun Chung, and pianist Yun Chan Lim. The only composer I know of who gined some international notoriety is Unsuk Chin, but her style is very much in the atonal Schoenberg mode. There have been several notable Japanese artists including conductors Seiji Ozawa and Eji Oue, violinist Midori and composer Toru Takamitsu. China has produced international stars such as pianists Yuja Wang and Lang Lang, composers Tan Dun and Chen Yi, and conductor Yu Long.

      Regarding UC artists, we have some talented individuals, but I always tell people that of the thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of composers, instrumentalists and singers in history, it’s but a handful who reach the zenith — not even .0001%.

      As for breakthroughs, there have been a few, but not on a significant level that I’m aware of. In my next book (What My Faith Tells Me), I will tell my personal story about being a conductor in New York with ties to the church. I had some successes there including garnering a few “to-die-for” reviews from the New York music press.

      As for the drug scene vis-a-vis the arts, most of the stories do not have happy endings.

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