The Supremacy of Classical Music

Over the past few days, three of our writers have offered lighter reflections on why they prefer a given genre of music — Rock, Showtunes, and Classical.

We conclude with Classical Music.

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Classical music is the greatest music. This assertion is not based upon my preference or opinion; it is as much a fact as the statement that the noble is higher than the base, or the beautiful than the ugly. I say this because there exists a hierarchy in the nature of reality, including in the world of sound, which is metaphysical. Noise occupies the lowest rung in this hierarchy; it is an undifferentiated mass of sound in which no distinction exists. The lowest kind of music — rock — comes closest to noise. Classical music exists at the highest rung, because it is the apprehension of reality in sound in the most highly differentiated way possible. It is the farthest from noise.

Classical music uses the natural laws of tonality to exploit fully the inherent potential of the world of sound and, by so doing, reveals the nature of reality and points beyond it to the source of reality itself. No other kind of music does this or can do it. The superiority of classical music is so decisive that I am almost tempted to rest my argument for the superiority of Western civilization based upon it alone.

Tonality is the natural law of the sound world in the same way as, say, gravity is a natural law in the physical world. Gravity operates everywhere in the same way: Things fall when they are dropped, and heavy things require more force to lift than light things. That may be simple enough, but it is how well one apprehends the laws of gravity that leads to things like Gothic cathedrals, skyscrapers, and airplanes — or does not. Some cultures’ grasp of the principle of gravity is so tenuous that the sight of airplanes has led them to create cargo cults.

Likewise in music, how well the principles of tonality are apprehended can lead to Bach’s inimitable counterpoint, the extraordinary tonal architecture of Beethoven’s symphonies, or Bruckner’s sonic cathedrals — or to banging on a hollow log with a stick. Is it fair to ask which culture is superior in light of these things? Of course it is, once you understand the superiority of the things themselves. It naturally follows that the culture that produces them is superior to the one that does not.

The reality revealed by great classical music is so profound that it was thought to be an approximation of the music of the spheres. By sharing in the celestial harmony, this music induces in the listener an inner harmony of the soul and places it in communion with divine truth. As Boethius wrote in The Principles of Music,

Music is related not only to speculation, but to morality as well, for nothing is more consistent with human nature than to be soothed by sweet modes and disturbed by their opposites. Thus we can begin to understand the apt doctrine of Plato, which holds that the whole of the universe is united by a musical concord and harmoniously joined together within our own being with that which is coherently and harmoniously joined together in sound . . . .

Great music has consistently been described in this way. Goethe said about Bach’s great fugues that “it is as though the eternal harmony has a conversation with itself.” What music other than classical can create such a sublime impression that one is eavesdropping on the divine? A more contemporary account of music’s role was given by Igor Stravinsky: “The profound meaning of music and its essential aim is to promote a communion, a union of man with his fellow man and with the Supreme Being.”

No one understands this better than Pope Benedict XVI. In 1985, the then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote, “Whether it is Bach or Mozart that we hear in church, we have a sense in either case of what Gloria Dei, the glory of God, means. The mystery of infinite beauty is there and enables us to ex­perience the presence of God more truly and vividly than in many sermons.”

How does this happen? Probing even deeper, Cardinal Ratzinger went on to say:

Faith becoming music is part of the process of the word becoming flesh. . . . When the word becomes music, there is involved on the one hand perceptible illustration, incarnation or taking on flesh, attraction of pre-rational powers, a drawing upon the hidden resonance of creation, a discovery of the song which lies at the basis of all things. And so this becoming music is itself the very turning point in the movement: it involves not only the word becoming flesh, but simultaneously the flesh becoming spirit.

Of course, this does not mean you have to like classical music or even prefer it. It does mean, however, that if you do not acknowledge its inherent superiority, you are deluding yourself.

Allow me to offer some analogies. The great Gothic arches in the central nave of the cathedral at Burgos (which I just visited) are a supreme expression of the art of architecture in their seemingly weightless upward thrust, of which the golden arch of McDonald’s is the ultimate vulgarization. El Greco’s canvas of the Annunciation uses color and form to take the genre of painting beyond itself in a way a billboard advertisement does not. Mouton Rothschild uses grapes in a way that someone only familiar with Thunderbird could not imagine possible. Higher mathematics exists on a higher plane than the simple arithmetic of which I am capable. These are not criticisms, but simple acknowledgements of reality. However, they will no doubt be resented by those who do not recognize the existence of hierarchy in reality.

This is not an argument against popular music, which Glen Miller, Benny Goodman, Hoagie Carmichael, Duke Ellington, and many others have shown can be great within its limited means. This is also true of the wonderful American musicals and songs. There is nothing wrong with entertainment or diversion, so long as it is not antithetical to higher ends and does not pretend to be something other than it is. I am reminded of my favorite comic author, P. G. Wodehouse, who said of his efforts, “I believe there are two ways of writing novels. One is mine, making a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going right deep down into life and not caring a damn . . . .” Wodehouse knew exactly what he was doing and on what level he was operating. He did not pretend Bertie Wooster was Raskolnikov. Within the genre he chose, he was brilliant.

However, popular music today has become base and often even depraved in its manifestation as rock. Rock music is often musically primitive and therefore uninteresting at best and irritating to the mind at worst. What rock music principally has is a beat. And the beat goes on — and on, and on . . . The monotony is staggering. This kind of music consistently relies on sheer volume for attention; there is a kind of aural violence in its loudness. Those not content with the mental self-paralysis it induces insist on rolling down their car windows so as to paralyze those around them. The self-indulgence of rock is evident in the exhibitionism with which it is performed. Its grotesque gesticulations are a contemporary danse macabre that has as a visual equivalent the nightmare canvases of Hieronymus Bosch. As entertainment it is degraded; as music it is retarded.

If you don’t believe me, listen to classical music. Only a gold standard reveals a base metal.


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly has written for many publications, including The Wall Street Journal, Reader’s Digest, The American Spectator, and National Review, and is the author or contributing author of over 20 books. His most recent book is America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding (Ignatius Press).

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