In our last post, we discovered the music of the spheres, the ancient Greek idea that as the planets revolved around their spheres they made a beautiful music together. The universe is held together in consonant harmonies and strange coincidences that could be heard and enjoyed. The early church tapped into this conception of the music of the spheres but re-appropriated its frames of reference around Christ, the divine Logos, in whom the cosmos finds its harmony. By awakening the music of the heavens on earth through the study of mathematical proportionality and symmetry, we are able to embody such proportionality and symmetry and thus transform into heavenly beings.

Music and the Sanctification of the Soul

This transformative significance of music is key. Music was considered a divinely ordained instrument for the sanctification of the soul. Plato’s pursuit of the Good in his Republic outlines his musikē paideia, how music and poetry provide the chief means by which rhythm and harmony could be communicated through the body and sunk deeply into the recesses of the soul.[1] And because the Beauty of music communicates Truth and Goodness to the whole soul, bringing harmony to our rational, volitional, and aesthetic capacities, the music of the cosmos always involves the awakening of arête, the classical virtues (wisdom, moderation, justice, and courage) which results when the intellectual, moral, and emotional constituents of our souls reflect the balance or harmony of the cosmos (cf. Republic 442A).[2]

Within this cosmic and intellectual milieu, the early church developed a profound sense of the formative significance of music for the human person. Athanasius’ extended discussion of the psalms observes that singing was ordained to benefit the soul, “because as harmony creates a single concord in joining together the two pipes of the aulos, so … reason will that a man be not disharmonious with himself, nor at variance with himself …” (Epistula ad Marcellinum de interpretation psalmorum 27).[3] The facilitation of this inner harmony is a necessary constituent of music: “Just as we make known and signify the thoughts of the soul through the words we express, so too the Lord wished the melody of the words to be a sign of the spiritual harmony of the soul, and ordained that the canticles be sung with melody and the psalms read with song.” (Epistula ad Marcellinum 28)

Basil of Caesarea understood the psalms as a chief means of shaping a harmonious soul: “Thus he [the Holy Spirit] 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” (Homilia in psalm i).[4] In the same sermon, Basil spoke of a psalm as “tranquility of soul and the arbitration of peace; it settles one’s tumultuous and seething thoughts. It mollifies the soul’s wrath and chastens its recalcitrance.” And in his letter to youth, Basil contrasts the ethos engendered by different types of music:

The passions born of illiberality and baseness of spirit are naturally occasioned by this sort of music. But we must pursue that other kind, which is better and leads to the better, and which, as they say, was used by David that author of sacred songs, to soothe the king in his madness. And it is said that Pythagoras, upon encountering some drunken revelers, commanded the aulete [a player of an aulos, and ancient Greek wind instrument] who was leading their song to change the mode and to play the Dorian for them. They were so sobered by this music that tearing off their garlands they returned home ashamed… Such is the difference in filling one’s ears with wholesome or wicked tunes![5]

Thus, music was profoundly moral for the formative period of the church. Music was either oriented away from God and towards demons, or it was oriented back towards God within a redeemed cosmic order through the redemptive work of Christ. The job of the composer is to reveal the world as recreated in Christ and thereby facilitate the sanctification of the soul. To the extent that our musical tastes and sensibilities are in the service of this larger cosmic reality, they are reflective of this redemptive vision.

 Teach me the songs of thy truth,

            that I may yield fruits in thee;

And open the cithara of thy Holy Spirit to me,

that with every note I may praise thee, O Lord. (Odes of Solomon XIV, 7-8)[6]


In our next post, we will summarize our conclusions to the previous several posts. In the meantime, how has music served as an instrument for your sanctification? What role does music play in Christian character formation?

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[1] Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 8.

[2] For a helpful overview of the classical conception of harmonia and its relationship to virtue, see Basil Cole, Music and Morals: A Theological Appraisal of the Moral and Psychological Effects of Music (Staten Island, NY: Abba House, 1993), 15-45.

[3] Cited in James McKinnon, Music in Early Christian Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 53.

[4] Cited in McKinnon, Music, 65

[5] Cited in Cole, Music and Morals, 55.

[6] Cited in McKinnon, Music, 23.

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