Mozi says he does not despise music for its intrinsic qualities; indeed, he agrees that listening to it is a delight (Lau 110). His objection instead follows the line of Judas Iscariot when he criticized the repentant prostitute for anointing Christ with expensive fragrance: it is wrong to spend money on luxuries when there are poor and hungry people who need charity (John 12:1-8). Maintaining court performers is costly; dancers, for instance, need the best food and clothing so they can continue to be beautiful, so they take away resources from those who produce without giving the producers anything in return (Lau 113). Being able-bodied young men and women, they could be working in the fields or spinning silk, producing commodities that are in too short of supply by Mozi’s reckoning, but instead they idle in court so noblemen can have music at their leisure (112). Finally, music is not just a waste of the performers’ time; it is a waste of the listeners’ time, as well. Rulers are bound to occupy all their time with affairs of the state in order to ensure abundance for the people, and while they are listening to music, they are not doing this work (114-115). So while music is a good, it is not as high a good as food and clothing, and a lower good must be put aside until these necessities are available to everyone. Note that Mozi’s eternal refrain is not “Music is wrong!” but “Making music is wrong!”
Confucius also cares for the poor and agrees that the government has a duty to ensure its people receive basic commodities. He says that a person who provides for the people is not merely Good but also a sage (6:30), and that the basic responsibilities of a ruler are to provide sufficient food and armaments for the people and to inspire their confidence. A philosopher who is also quoted in the Analects, Master You, says that even if the king cannot satisfy his own “needs,” if the common people’s needs are satisfied, a lord cannot be lacking, whereas if the common people are not provided for, even a wealthy lord cannot be content (12.9). Surely, there were needy people in Confucius’s time as well as Mozi’s – as Christ says in reply to Judas’s argument, “the poor you will always have with you” (John 12:8) – yet Confucius does not reject music like Mozi does. He says that the ancient rituals, of which music is a part, are necessary for the proper functioning of the state: “If those above love ritual, then the common people will be easy to manage” (14:41). Furthermore, a gentleman needs music in order to perfect himself (8:8). Confucius himself has chops: he harmonizes with other singers after learning the finer points of their songs (7:32), discusses the subject with the Music Master himself (3:23), and seems to have helped restore the Ya and Song to Lu (9:15). In contrast to Mozi’s hierarchical ethical system, in which one must acquire the necessities before even thinking of anything else, Confucius seems to believe that lesser goods such as music can contribute to the attainment of greater goods, so the gentleman is better served taking a more holistic approach to life, simultaneously pursuing all that is worthy.
Music is one of Confucius’s greatest delights. The Shao music affects him so much that after he hears it on one journey, he does not notice the taste of meat for three months because he is still marveling upon what he has heard (7:14). However, music has two other important functions in the Analects: it teaches us about the way, and it teaches us about others.
Music is a metonym for The Way. If music did not exist, Confucianism would still stand, so music is not an essential component of it in the same way that traits like filial piety and timeliness are. However, Confucius strives to order his philosophy according to the same principles that order music and thinks we can investigate the principles of music in order to learn more about the good life.
The most important concept that music shares with The Way is harmony, which is the simultaneous combination of different but compatible pitches in order to make a new, fuller, and more pleasing sound. Master You says that “harmonious ease” (和) is necessary for the practice of ritual (1:12). I do not know if和carries the musical implications that Slingerland’s translation does, but the parallel is fairly easy to grasp regardless given Confucius’s opinion on music given in 3:23. Confucius’s ideal man has many talents and also many passions: the ability to balance them all could be called “harmonious ease.” Harmony could also refer to the gentleman’s ability to blend into any social situation, with any kind of people, even the barbarian tribes (9:14), thanks to his courtesy. Confucius further develops the notion of social harmony in the statement, “The gentleman harmonizes, and does not merely agree. The petty person agrees, but he does not harmonize” (13:23). So the gentleman does not merely copy the opinions, or “pitch,” of his interlocutor. Even when he agrees with his companion, he contributes new concepts to the conversation, and when these are contrasted to the original idea, we better enjoy both. Confucius’s conversation with the Music Master helps us to understand how one can express complex concepts:
What can be known about music is this: when it first begins, it resounds with a confusing variety of notes, but as it unfolds, these notes are reconciled by means of harmony, brought into tension by means of counterpoint, and finally woven together into a seamless whole. It is in this way that music reaches its perfection. (3.23)
At first, the piece is a “confusing variety of notes.” The song, and The Way, are too complex to be understood all at once: for instance, when Zilu learned something, he was afraid to learn something new until he had put the previous lesson into practice (5:14). Note also the value Confucius places in the creation and resolution of tension. This is still a common metaphor for chord progressions, and it calls to mind the difficulties the gentleman continuously undertakes to better himself. One sentence does not a philosophy make, nor does one action a state make: perfection comes from putting one thing on top of another over time, as Confucius did over his seventy years (2:4).
Confucius thinks propriety is as important to music as it is to the rest of life. His assessment of “The Cry of the Osprey,” the first of the Odes, is an eloquent argument that restraint preserves the effectiveness of art. In comparing Music Master Zhi’s rendition of the ode to “a wondrous ocean of sound” (8:15), Confucius assigns to the piece massive, strong, and powerful emotions, but elsewhere in the text he says that “the ‘Cry of the Osprey’ expresses joy without becoming licentious, and expresses sorrow without falling into excessive pathos” (3:20), so Zhi’s arrangement must not have mirrored the 1812 Overture. Bombastic music loses the listener, but emotions expressed in a more balanced way may overwhelm him because they are more genuine.
The philosopher thickens the concept of appropriate music through his harsh criticism of the Zheng style. He compares Zheng’s seductive melodies to a clever person who has attractive words but dishonest intentions (15:11, 17:18). He considers the style licentious and hates that it has become more popular than the music of the Shao and Wu. It is interesting that though Confucius is a lover of music, he hates the style that is most popular with his contemporaries. This indicates there is something particular about his tastes in this pursuit just like in others. Confucius told the music master he loves music which develops harmonic complexity over time, but according to the commentary of 15:11, the Zheng tunes had simple but catchy beats, so it would appeal to a different and perhaps a shallower appetite than the Shao. Since Confucius said that he did not achieve his current excellence until age seventy, and he would need to study fifty more years to free himself of faults, he is not one to believe in either instant gratification or a three-minute pop song (2:4, 7:17).
It is even more interesting that he wants to prohibit the Zheng (15:11). He can choose not to listen to this style, but if it is prohibited, no one can enjoy it anymore. He must believe, then, that silence would be preferable to the deleterious effects of the Zheng. Perhaps the Zheng uses the same emotional portal to the spirit – music – as the Shang and Wu, but rather than drawing the spirit toward harmony and profundity, the Zheng draws it toward baser pleasures like sex and merriment. Hence the popularity of the Zheng is undermining the cultural art of music, and a ruler who cared for his people would stop this from happening.
Music need not be perfect in order to instruct us, however: a person’s character is inextricably linked to the way he makes music, so we can learn much about others by the way they sing and play instruments. Confucius says that a scholar-official examines other people’s words and observes their demeanor, and he also instructs his disciples, “Do not be concerned about whether or not others know you; be concerned about whether or not you know others” (1:16). So the pursuit of this knowledge is indeed worthwhile.
Confucius never explicitly claims that music tells us about personality, but a description of a person’s musical style is substituted for a judgment of his character in three different excerpts of the Analects. When Confucius criticizes his aggressive disciple Zilu’s zither playing (11:15), the other disciples, in turn, disrespect Zilu, so they must consider Confucius’s words to be the damnation of Zilu as a student. Confucius is judged himself by a man with a wicker basket who has simply heard him playing the stone chimes (14:39). This educated man says to the Master, “Whoever is playing the chimes like that certainly has something on his mind!” Upon listening to Confucius further, the man accuses Confucius of stubbornness for hopelessly trying to turn people back to The Way. The man’s knowledge of the Odes suggests he is a sage who chose exile over social engagement, so by the logic of the Analects, it is no surprise that Confucius’s chime-playing grabbed the man’s attention: the two are kindred spirits who understand each other but have chosen opposite life paths.
Confucius uses music to assess not just contemporaries but the sage kings as well: “The Master said of the Shao music, ‘it is perfectly beautiful and also perfectly good.’ He said of the Wu music, ‘It is perfectly beautiful but not perfectly good’” (3:25). According to Huang Kan’s commentary on this verse, both Shao and Wu ascended the throne at the will of the people, so the ruler’s relationship with the ruled was harmonious. Wu, however, had to overthrow his king to take power, and though this followed the Mandate, it violated the principle of obedience to superiors. Confucius could just be using music as a prop to indirectly comment on the rulers, but 7:14 also indicates his very high opinion of the Shao music. In my opinion, then, the meaning of this passage is that the quality of a king directly affects the quality of his court’s music. Indeed, as the state of Lu declines, its music ministers scatter to the four corners of China; supposedly, they can no longer tolerate such a state (18:9).
“Eating plain food and drinking water, having only your bent arm as a pillow – certainly there is joy to be found in this!” Confucius says in 7:16, so he does not consider luxury a requirement for a happy life. He never speaks of the glories of sedentary luxuries like fine dining or large mansions. When he says that the cultural arts refine man’s native substance, then, he truly believes that such study is not a luxury but a requirement for spiritual development (6:18). The music that a person makes reveals the state of his heart, be it jarring, like Zilu’s zither playing, or sublime, like the music that will issue forth from the Son of Heaven when the Way prevails (16:2). If Confucius is correct, then the benevolence the ruler learned from song would more than repay the tax he levied from his people for the musicians. This would demolish Mozi’s argument, though Mozi would probably be happy the people were receiving these spillover benefits. The modern reader should mark the music himself to determine how much time to invest in it.