Could Music Prevent a War?

“If one should desire to know whether a kingdom is well governed, if its morals are good or bad, the quality of its music will furnish the answer.”

This quote by Confucius keeps comming back to me. So for this blog post I have decided to give it a thought and find out what we could learn from a 2,500 years old wisdom.

Confucius (551 – 479 BCE) was a Chinese philospher, ideologist, and educator. He emphasized  the educational function of music, and believed in positive and morally uplifting aspects of music. For him, music was a metaphor of a harmonious society, and its performance could actually help bring that better society about. 

To put this Confucius’ quote into a more modern language, it would look probably like this: “In order to determine if a society is well-governed, one need only examine its music.”

So what does the currently produced music reveal about our society? How are our morals? Is our ‘kingdom’ governed well?

I am afraid, that if we accept the approach Confucius recommends and decide to examine music sounding constantly around us, at least in the developed world, we can not be satisfied. Not only that – I believe, that we should be terrified.

Let’s delve a bit deeper into the Confucians’ philosophy first, so that this harsh assessment becomes more clear.

Confucius considered two essentials – music and rites (or rituals). As he wrote “music is the harmonization of heaven and earth; the rites order heaven and earth.” The key result of music is harmony of the emotions. He distinguished two types of music – pure and vulgar. The pure music was elegant, in good taste, of classical traditions, mainly the ritual music of the court and the temple. Most other types of music were considered vulgar, especially folk music, which according to him was degrading and causing disorder. 

 For Confucius, music was corrective by nature. It was a cultivation of proper emotions by means of harmony to produce character and virtue. Music was established “not to satisfy the desires of the mouth, ears, and eyes of man. It was to teach the people to distinguish good from evil, and to return to the correct way of man.”

The most remarkable effect of the pure music was, that it caused harmony in the society, among all classes. He wrote “when there is music in the ancestral temple, both ruler and minister, superior and inferior listen to it together, and none fails to be harmonious and respectful. When there is music among the clan elders and townspeople, elder and younger listen to it together, and none fails to be harmonious.”

Those 2.5 thousands years old teachings of Confucius have been confirmed by a growing evidence of the scientific research confirming benefits of music on human health and wellbeing. So where are we now? What went wrong?

If we base our examination of our current society on the teaching of Confucius, the first and absolutely evident flaw we encounter in music around us is – the lack of harmony. Throughout the last (about) one hundred years, the harmony in music has been supressed, replaced by other theoretical approaches (serialism, atonal music), denigrated, and laughed about. It started in the ‘classical’ music, but later also changed the ‘popular’ one. If Confucius appreciated rituals and traditions, the current atmosphere in the society is clearly negative towards, even militantly attacking traditions. 

When listening to the popular music of the last couple decades wouldn’t one of the most suitable description be exactly the one Confucius used in his time? VULGAR? 

There is hardly any harmony in what our children can listen to from their favorite music artists nowadays. The same is with melody. What streams much too often from music service providers are overwhelming rhythms and vulgarities. What, then, could be the impact on these young generations of listeners? Those listeners, who instead of experiencing music in a setting helping them to become better humans, use it as a tool for blocking out the external world and for self-isolation. Instead of learning how to be more social – they use music to escape the real world. 

For Confucius “the goal of music was an ordered universe and harmony in the human world, while at the same time it provided form, order, and logic to human emotions.”

You may not agree with me, but from my point of view, our universe is far from being ordered, there is hardly any harmony in the human world, and you will not find almost any logic in human emotions. So is there any surprise, that we are finding ourselves in such a dangerous place as where we are now? That the whole world is succumbing to the threat of war? 

Here comes suitable another quote from Confucius – the one from the title photo. 

“When music and courtesy are better understood and appreciated, there will be no war.”

But there is a war! And it is bound to be spreading. 

How can we stop that?

I am not that naiive to think that music can stop a war. Especially if we’ve let it deteriorate for so long. 

But I am sure that music can help in making us better. Maybe the first step should be to start appreciate music more and to try to understand it better. For sure we could appreciate more courtesy, which has been disappearing from our everyday lives even in the country like Canada (where I live), until recently notoriously known for people be courteous. Courtesy and respect can help get people closer together, for the purpose to appreciate music. Not vulgar and offending music, but joyful, positively emotional, and harmonious music. Maybe instead of isolating ourselves to pasively consume/listen music from someone else, we could try to find ways how to start making music ourselves. There is no better way to enjoy a moment, than musicking with someone, who is able and willing to listen to us, and when we can listen, understand, and appreciate that other person. 

And don’t take only my word for it. About a month ago (September 2023) the US Department of State announced an interesting Global Music Diplomacy Initiative. Its role is to leverage public-private partnerships with US companies and non-profit organizations to elevate music as a diplomatic tool to promote peace and democracy. During the launch of the Initiative in Washington D.C., the audience could see performances of musicians like Herbie Hancock, Dave Grohl, Jamie Barton, and Rakim. 

To finish, I want to quote here another quote attributed to Confucius:

“Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without.”


For the preparation of this post I got a lot of helpful inspiration and information from the paper The Well-Ordered Heart: Confucius on Harmony, Music, and Ritual, by Jensen Armstrong Kirkendall -link!!

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