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A Short Course in Music and Morals

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 13, 2009

Readers who liked my analysis What about Bad Music?, or even those who disagreed with it, owe it to themselves to read the book Music & Morals by Basil Cole, OP. Fr. Cole was a jazz musician before becoming a Dominican priest, and he did an extensive study of the relationship between music and morals for his doctoral dissertation.

Those who have been reading my commentary for more than a year may remember Fr. Cole from my July 2008 review of his more recent book, Hidden Enemies of the Priesthood (see What Makes a Good Priest?). Happily, Fr. Cole keeps up with what we're doing at CatholicCulture.org; recently he surmised from some of my previous remarks on music that I might be interested in his dissertation, which had been published as a book in 1993. He sent a copy. He was right.

Music & Morals is subtitled “A theological appraisal of the moral and psychological effects of music”. The genius of the work is that it surveys what both Sacred Scripture and the world’s greatest thinkers, especially philosophers, have had to say about music over the past several thousand years. The very diversity of viewpoints expressed by this significant body of witnesses serves to underline the difficulty of making any ultimate moral judgments about pure music, divorced from context, associations and lyrics. At the same time, all aspects of the question come under careful consideration, and Fr. Cole’s judicious conclusions are well-supported.

The book proved to be of great help to me in fleshing out my ideas, reinforcing key concepts, and bringing them into reasonable order. My recent essay shows this influence in nearly every paragraph. I am convinced that anyone with a serious interest in the subject will derive a similar benefit. Fr. Cole reports that the publisher cut out a portion of his dissertation, making the work less complete than he would have liked; he has promised to send me the entire text. Even so, the book provides significant food for thought on a difficult subject, and the notes and bibliography demonstrate how thoroughly the author researched every aspect of it.

But don’t be misled into thinking this is a labyrinthine academic tome. It is a fairly short book (133 pages in the main text). Everything is presented in a clear and orderly fashion, and Fr. Cole’s writing style is easily accessible to the layman. Even those interested in studying highly specialized works by particular philosophers, musicians and researchers would be wise to put them off until they’ve read Music & Morals—a book that brings order out of the chaos of mere opinion concerning the moral dimensions of music.

[Basil Cole, OP. Music & Morals: A Theological Appraisal of the Moral and Psychological Effects of Music. (Alba House, New York: 1993) 172 pp. Paperback. $8.95. Order through this link to benefit CatholicCulture.org: Music and Morals on Amazon.]

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