How Music Refines the Character

Music can heal. It fosters intelligence and keeps us young, as long as it resonates in harmony with the Universe. Read what we can learn from the wisdom of antiquity and modern brain research.

There lived in China, virtually concurrently with Plato, one of mankind’s greatest teachers of wisdom: Master Kong (551-479 BC), whom we know in the West as Confucius. He had much to say1 about the nature of music. In Confucian philosophy, there are two key ideas: ren, compassion (or Love), and li, mankind’s pursuit of harmony with the Universe. Li is characterised by preservation; it means continuity in societal life, but also self-control and, when necessary, an externally imposed discipline/punishment of the individual. Thereby, li embodies precisely those qualities that the revolutionary spirit of the hippie generation and its intellectual stepfather, cultural Marxism, diametrically oppose. Li, according to Confucius, bestows mankind with justice and endows him with strength. But only music makes us complete.

“Music rises from the heart when it is touched by the external world.” When we are sad, we make sad music; when we are angry, we make aggressive sounds. Piety creates simple, pure tones, and the melodies of love are soft and sweet. “Therefore, the ancient kings were ever careful about things that affect the human heart. They tried to guide the people’s ideas and aspirations by means of li, and establish harmony by the means of music.” For the highest goal, according to Confucius, is unity in the hearts of the people.

“When the emotions are touched, they are expressed in sounds. And when sounds take definite forms, we have music,” teaches the Chinese sage. “Therefore, the music of a peaceful and prosperous country is quiet and joyous, and the government is orderly. The music of a country in turmoil shows dissatisfaction and anger, and the government is chaotic.”

In another treatise on music, Confucius teaches that if mankind doesn’t learn to control its desires and inclinations and is therefore monopolised by the material world, it stands to reason that it will lose its true self and thereby destroy its inner nature. And precisely this was the stated goal of the Marxist-influenced Frankfurt School: to dispel the idea of an overriding natural or divine law from the minds of man, so that they would base their authority solely on rationality.

What Confucius then goes on to say is increasingly relevant for our times: “When a man becomes dehumanised or materialistic, then the principle of reason in nature is destroyed, and man is submerged in his own desires. From this arise rebellion, disobedience, cunning, and deceit, and general immorality. We have then a picture of the strong bullying the weak, the majority persecuting the minority, the clever deceiving the simple-minded, the physically strong choosing violence, the sick and the crippled not being taken care of, and the aged and the young helpless not cared for. This is the way of chaos.”

“So music is connected with the principles of human conduct,” continues Confucius’ teaching. “Therefore, the animals know sounds, but they do not know tones. He who understands music, comes very near to the understanding of li. And if a man has mastered both li and music, we call him virtuous, because virtue is the mastery of fulfilment.”

The final words of this philosopher of old can hardly be more apt today: “Truly great music shares the principle of harmony with the universe. When the soul is poor, things do not grow (…) and when the world is chaotic, the rituals and the music become licentious. Therefore, the superior man tries to create harmony in the human heart by a rediscovery of human nature, and tries to promote music as a means to the perfection of human culture. When such music prevails, and the people’s minds are led toward the right ideas and aspirations, we may see the appearance of a great nation. Character is the backbone of our human nature, and music is the flowering of character.”

A Vision of Man’s True Spiritual Advancement

It is not by chance that the composer of the European hymn “Ode to Joy” belongs to the Titans of an era in which the greatness of Germany’s mental giants shone over the whole world. Among these was also Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835), whose name still graces countless high schools and universities today, although we have long since abandoned his holistic educational model in favour of an “industrialised” school. Humboldt was a Prussian reformer and disciple of Friedrich Schiller, whose beliefs assumed a central position in Humboldt’s new educational system. Both believed that every education must serve the ultimate goal of the development of a “beautiful soul” (Schiller). It would therefore be wrong for people to learn only those practical skills that are necessary to practise a trade. Rather, urges Humboldt, they should be instructed to be citizens of strong character who are conscious of their responsibility for the common good and who strive to attain the highest moral standard. Whoever has improved his soul in this way can then easily learn any trade that corresponds to his particular abilities.

Mozart: Fantasy in F minor, Organ Prelude
Powerful chords create a rectangular, fiery foundation, while the fugue makes a vase-shaped form with a diametre of more than 20 metres, whose interior undulates and foams. The final chords manifest a sound energy that shoots upwards out of the open mouth of the vase.

Instead of pressing out children as well-oiled cogs to feed the demands of a hungry economic machine (albeit a decreasing one), it would be wiser to foster their innate genius. According to Humboldt, this includes a broad general knowledge that also includes the cultural history of mankind, the great discoveries in various fields of science, as well as the fine arts, and, above all, music. And instead of crossing off multiple-choice tests, the students should reconstruct the creative cognitive processes of prominent mental giants in their own mind. For example, they should recite Shakespeare poems in order to develop a feel for language. Or play the music of great composers. Whoever whets his mind on the genius of great men, in addition to independent thought, also learns to become creative himself in some way.

Advocates of this classical Humboldt education model are proud to point to the example of the Thomanerchor (St. Thomas Choir of Leipzig), founded in 1212. This world-famous boys’ choir, which can look back on a soon-to-be 800 years of continuous tradition and which includes Johann Sebastian Bach as one of its former choirmasters, has today approximately 100 members ranging from ages nine to eighteen. They live in a boarding school and attend the Thomas School, a high school emphasizing languages and enhanced musical education. Even the youngest boys are able to perform the most difficult choir pieces fault-free within a week and to sight-read and sing new melodies at the first go. They can do these things because they give voice to the music of the greatest composers every day. Bach himself wrote a new chorale or other vocal work for the Thomas Choir every week, which they then also had to rehearse.

What is possible in the domain of music is naturally also true for the natural sciences. And yet: music moulds our souls like no other art form. The Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero wrote more than two thousand years ago: “Everything that lives is apprehended in music, for music is the soul of Heaven.” A thought that the prince of poets, Goethe, expressed thusly: “We enter godhood through the temple of music.”

Music Lends Wings to the Mind and the Soul

Through music lessons, which are an ailing plant at our state-funded schools, we could significantly improve the academic performance of our children. Brain researchers have also explained why that is. The brilliant physicist Albert Einstein clearly embodied this principle, as he was highly gifted on the violin. And what is true on a large scale is also true on a small one: ever since my own son began to enthusiastically play classical guitar on a daily basis, his mathematical abilities have improved without his having to hit the books.

Shortly before the turn of the century, the city of Berlin conducted a study at twelve schools on what role the influence of classical music would have on the intelligence and character of the students. All of the schools were in socially disadvantaged neighbourhoods, where unemployment and high immigrant populations have led to difficult environments for children. Those taking part in the study were able to study a classical instrument or take voice lessons free of charge.

The leading professor of the study noticed very early that the music-making children were “happier, more intelligent, and more creative” than the other pupils. This impression was confirmed over the following years. Thus the students not only learned to make music, but also showed measurably improved cognitive abilities. They were able to express themselves more eloquently and more intelligently than their fellow students in discussion groups and had a great capacity for memory, which was noticeable in all subjects. In addition, they were more self-assured and strong willed, and were able to interact more flexibly with their environment. They learned to think independently (i.e. originally)—and their so-called social competency significantly increased. Music-making students lost their aggressiveness and showed respect for other children. Bullying in the playground and antagonisms were also not to be found in these children.

This shows that we modern people would do well to follow the teachings of the Confucian tradition, or emulate the example of ancient Greece, if we are more drawn to that. The motto of the Berlin music study was taken from Socrates: “Education through music is therefore the best, because rhythm and harmony penetrate into the innermost depths of the soul, and give it grace and decency.”

“Rhythm is it!” said the British Sir Simon Rattle, conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, as he began an ambitious music project that continued the Berlin school study. Under the direction of the choreographer and dance teacher, Royston Maldoon, children and young people from troubled schools in Berlin came together in February 2003 to rehearse Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring in six weeks, the performance of which with the Berlin Philharmonic caused quite a furore.

Of the 250 students from 25 different countries, none was familiar with classical music or dance. The sensitive images of the award-winning documentary film, Rhythm is it!, show how music overcomes social and cultural barriers and brings people together who likely never would have made it out of their isolation alone. And a documentation of the documentary film proved once again, by providing a closer look at individual stories, that classical music can help turn no-future kids into self-confident, successful, and happy people who have their lives in order.

The great reception and, what was also for the ‘proper’ musicians, a uniquely beautiful experience inspired the Berlin Philharmonic to continue the project with other ballet pieces and choreographers over the following years. Royston Maldoon also realised similar projects in England.

Another great example can be found in the project called into life by Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim and the now-deceased, Palestine-born literary scholar Edward Said in 1999: in their West-East Divan Orchestra, Israelis and Arabs peacefully made music together for a better world. Barenboim was honoured with the German Cultural Award in 2010 for his engagement as a bridge-builder for reconciliation between the two peoples.


  • 1 Confucius himself did not leave any written teachings. His followers committed his teachings to paper after the sage’s death.