Music and the Difficulty of Language

Dr. Patrick J. DiVietri, Ph.D., MA, CPC, OCDS

How can a life that is so mysterious and bright be seen when it is blinding by nature? How can man express what is inexpressible? A consideration of the difficulty of man expressing himself and the things of God with words may be appropriate.

It is understood by poets and philosophers alike that our words are limited when it comes to expressing the profound experience of human life. Lovers cannot fully express their love. The slighted cannot fully express their anger. So many of the secrets of our intimacy remain secrets because of their inexpressibility. However, there is nothing that goes so beyond our capacity with words as the experience of the transcendent God in the mystical life. Here even the literal words which come from the mouth of Our Lord contain meanings and depths that remain only partially understood and ultimately a mystery. His ministry was one of parables in which so much remained hidden from the wise. So much so that the apostles repeatedly asked Jesus to explain Himself. How many times did He tell them of His death and they would not understand?

Just as Jesus gave His parables to bring the mysteries into a form that could be reflected upon, He also lived within the heritage of the Jewish people who had come to praise God with song and instrument. Basil Cole lists a number of such references from the Old and the New Testaments.[2] The recitation of Scripture within the temple took the form of a chant; the psalms were all expressed in music.

The place of metaphors and allegories are rich in the Jewish tradition. Music is pure metaphor. It makes us think of or imagine something, and when it is true, it sounds like something beautiful.

[1] DiVietri, Patrick J. Ph.D., A COMMENTARY ON THE CANTATA CARMELITUM, Dissertation presented to the faculty of the Graduate School of the Humanities, American Commonwealth University, San Diego, 1997, Pp. 11-12.

[2] Cole, Basil OP. Music and Morals. (New York: Alba House, 1993,) pp. 15-21.

Music and Contemplation (1)

Dr. Patrick J. DiVietri, Ph.D., MA, CPC, OCDS

It is in consideration of the relationship between music and contemplation that we can more clearly see the role of music as a means to expresses things so difficult for words alone and aid in the formation of human beings. Music and morals are allied in principle. To listen to music is to contemplate something beautiful ….something eminently true since it mirrors the infinite beauty of God, Himself.[2] The happiness which comes from true contemplation is often defused in art that is beautiful.

The art of composing possesses a value in exciting devotion and prayer. Cole holds that music can reach into the depths of personality, change men’s hearts, and express the law of nature within the soul.[3] For him, the true purpose of music is to express the external proportions of God’s universe which transcends mere sense impressions. It can do what words alone cannot do. Cole states:

“Might one listening to the inner relationships of a work by a Mahler or a Stravinski, to use some modern examples, exercise and strengthen the intellect to more easily contemplate the divine? Likewise, might not the beautiful as contemplated dispose one to realize that there is more to life than simple or exclusively the goods of the senses? Could not a sonata or concerto suggest through the intricacies of a well written melody joined to harmony and rhythm dispose one to desire a life of greater virtue, indeed a life of perfection? Would not such a life contribute to one’s ultimate happiness?…To the extent that music brings one to the taste and joys of contemplative activity and life, it leads one to the purpose of the virtuous life, for moral virtues anticipates and disposes one to the contemplative life, naturally and supernaturally.”[4]

With music man can boldly give glory to God,[5] not as the mystic who stands in silence before the dark majesty of God, but rather as the musician who stands in the light and sound of music. The musician stands as Hezekiah stood before God knowing what fate he truly deserved but knowing the mercy God had shown and would continue to show. He stood in the pit of the grave and sang out:

“You have preserved my life from the pit destruction, when you cast behind your back all my sins. For it is not the nether world that gives you thanks, nor death that praises you; neither do those who go down into the pit await your kindness. The living, the living give you thanks, as I do today. Fathers declare to their sons, O God, your faithfulness. The Lord is our savior; we shall sing to stringed instruments in the house of the Lord all the days of our life.”[6]

It is this boldness that lives in the song of the musician. The boldness to sing out to God and demand that God respond in like form. At his best, the musician sings to God for his entire life in hopes that he might hear Our Lord’s sweet voice sing to him on the day of his death. But in truth God does not keep the artist only for that day but allows him to hear something of the melodies that await us all.

[1] DiVietri, Patrick J. Ph.d., A COMMENTARY ON THE CANTATA CARMELITUM, Dissertation presented to the Graduate School of the Humanities, American Commonwealth University, San Diego, 1997, Pp. 15-16.

[2] In Boethius. de Trinitas, 5,1, ad 3, De institutione musica, in Source Readings in Music History, selected and annotated by Oliver Strunk, (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1950), cited by, Cole, p. 74.

[3] Cole, Basil OP. Music and Morals. (New York: Alba House, 1993,) p. 59.

[4] Ibid. p. 87

[5] Ibid. p. 85

[6] Isaiah 35:17-20

Music and Theology[1]

       Dr. Patrick J. DiVietri, Ph.D., MA, CPC, OCDS


In light of the place given to music by the philosophers of Greece we might also consider for a moment the role of music in Judeo-Christian history as expressed in the writings of the early fathers of the Church.

The Christian tradition considers itself a fulfillment of Jewish heritage since it considers Jesus Christ to be the fulfillment of the Father’s love and covenant with the Jewish people. It is not surprising, therefore, to find the richness of that heritage enhanced through by music. The Church fathers commented on the aid that music brought to the ascetical practice of virtue, religion and prayer, and contemplation. Thus, Basil the Great wrote:

“He mixed sweetness of melody with doctrine so that inadvertently we would absorb the benefit of the words through gentleness and ease of hearing, just as clever physicians frequently smear the cup with honey when giving the fastidious some rather bitter medicine to drink. Thus he contrived for us these harmonious psalm tunes, so that those who are children in actual age as well as those who are young in behavior, while appearing only to sing would in reality be training their souls. For not one of these many indifferent people ever leaves church easily retaining in memory some maxim of either the Apostles or the Prophets, but they do sing the texts of the Psalms at home and circulate them in the marketplace.”[2]

Ambrose comments on music in that it softens anger and brings release from anxiety.[3] Augustine speaks of the “beata vita” of voice and strings when he says that the “truth poured into my heart.”[4] Plotinus said that music makes us attentive to truth[5] for universal truths are embodied in proportioned sound.[6] It can also bring the human person into a more harmonious relationship with God and transport the soul to the society of the angels.[7] As St. Albert the Great said, “lyrics lead to contemplation.”[8]


[1] DiVietri, Patrick J. Ph.d., A COMMENTARY ON THE CANTATA CARMELITUM, Dissertation presented to the Graduate School of the Humanities, American Commonwealth University, San Diego, 1997, Pp. 14-15.

[2]Homolia in psalmum,i., James McKinnon, Music in Early Christian Literature., cited by Cole, p. 54.

[3]Explanatio psalmi i, 7, ibid., cited by, Cole, pp. 126-127.

[4] De utilitate hymnorum,5, ibid., cited by, Cole, pp. 135-136.

[5] The Essence of Plotinus, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1934) compiled by Grace H. Turnbull from the translation of Stephen MacKenna’s The Enneads (London: Faber & Faber, 1956.) (First publication 1917-1930), p. 60.

[6] The New Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th Edition, ed. by Philip W. Goetz, Chicago, 1986), p. 63

[7] John of Salisbury, De nugis curialiam, Robert Hayborn, Papal Legislation on Sacred Music, 95 AD to 1977, (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1979), p. 18.

[8] Cole, Basil OP. Music and Morals. (New York: Alba House, 1993,) p. 66.

Music and Morals


Dr. Patrick J. DiVietri, Ph.D., MA, CPC, OCDS

In his book, Music and Morals, Basil Cole, O.P. tracks the history of music as it relates to the moral development of the human person.  In so doing, he addresses not only the relationship of music to morals but also to other disciplines such as philosophy and psychology.  Cole’s discussion is of value for several reasons: first, it addresses the theme of union which for our purposes not only applies to the healing upon the individual soul but also a harmony within the disciplines of the humanities; second, it addresses the question of facility of expression for those things which challenge human expression such as mystical theology and contemplation;  third, it contributes to the discussion of moral development and character.  Cole argues that music may dispose one to the good through less ascetic effort on the listener’s part as one’s senses and imagination are inspired and drawn to the good and beautiful.  This contributes to my premise that music assists the layman in approaching an appreciation of the mystical experience.

The significance of Cole’s contribution is that there are very few resources of this type in regard to all the fine arts and the humanities.  This present age of specialization and independence of the disciplines offers little promise for the immediate future.  As he says, theology needs to take this art more seriously.[1]  The following is a short synopsis of Cole’s work in the areas which apply to this dissertation.

The primary thrust of Cole’s history shows that from Confucius to John Paul II, philosophers, theologians, musicians and churchmen, have acknowledged the role of music within the life of the human person.  They conclude that it shapes and forms moral character.[2]  Music expresses emotions and thoughts.[3]   This effect can be for bad as well as good ends, as reflected in the resistance at various times to musical forms and instruments and the reluctance to acknowledge the nobility of the art.  We find this exemplified in Plato’s association of the flute with various gluttonous and sensual rituals.

Because all the arts imitate the actions, passions and character of men, Aristotle spoke of music as an “imitative art”.[4]  Rhythm and melody supply imitation of anger and all qualities of character.[5]  For Aristotle, music mirrors reality.  Basil Cole comments that “Imitation as a reality, therefore, is analogical…for example feeling pain and delight at these representations of reality is close to feeling them as they are in themselves since they mirror reality itself.”[6]

[1] Cole, Basil OP. Music and Morals. (New York: Alba House, 1993,) p. 81.

[2] Aristotle, Politics, Great Books, The Works of Aristotle,  Ed. Robert Manard Hutching (Chicago: W. Benton Publishing, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952), Book VIII, 1341-42, pp. 546-548.

[3] Ibid. 1340, 24-25, p. 545.

[4] Aristotle, Poetics, 1447, 28, p. 681.

[5] Aristotle, Politics, 23, p. 545.

[6] Ibid., 1340.