At least since perhaps the earliest extremely effective ideological movement in modernity--the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century--one can discover how music has been used as a powerful weapon in the arsenal of ideologues. First, we need to give a little thought to how music achieves its effect in the hearer.
Music has the power to communicate more deeply, I believe, than any other art; it surely communicates emotional reality most effectively. Rational words operate on the intellect of the hearer, and seek to persuade by reasoning from truth to truth--from what is understood to newer, expanded insights. To have effect, words depend on rational understanding. Not so with music. Even meaningless sounds, when put to emotionally charged music, can move the feelings of the hearer, and lead them according to the will of the composer and / or the performing musicians. Indeed, music needs no words at all to communicate, for the sounds themselves, using elements of melody, harmony, rhythm, and texture, operate on the feelings of the hearer. Music has power to quicken one’s heartbeat, breathing, or urge feet and hands to move rhythmically. Beautifully peaceful music can calm one’s emotions, and leave a person feeling tranquil, quieted. Or martial music with its characteristic rhythms can arouse a person to bodily movement--even to marching off to war! The anger and violence so evident in much of pop-rock music arouses anger and a morose spirit in the hearer (and these emotions are often displayed in the young immersed in such music). A well-composed love song operates on the imagination of the hearer, and may remind him or her of the “love of one’s life,” or bring back concrete memories of the beloved, or increase yearning for the beloved’s presence. Music works through moving emotions and imagination.
I cannot think of any major modern mass movement which has not used music to move the masses to the leaders’ will, or to the overall thrust of the ideology. Consider several examples. Luther was not only a theologian of considerable learning, but a gifted composer of hymns. Some of his hymns became, in effect, the battle cries of the Reformation. The best example is his famous “Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott,” “A mighty fortress is our God.” Laced in to its memorable melody (more familiar in Bach’s modifications) are words of questionable rational truth. But these imaginative quite wild words convey Luther’s experience of a world that is radically fallen and needing revolutionary change. For the world, Luther preaches in the music, is “full of devils,” and thereafter a great threat to the person of “faith.” Consider this stanza from Hedge’s translation of Luther’s hymn:
And though this world, with devils filled,
should threaten to undo us,
we will not fear, for God hath willed
his truth to triumph through us.
The Prince of Darkness grim,
we tremble not for him;
his rage we can endure,
for lo, his doom is sure;
one little word shall fell him.
Although the world is “filled with devils,” threatening to undo the believer, a single word of God, a kind of Zauberwort--a Magic Word--can “fell” “the Prince of Darkness” and presumably bring the “believer” temporary respite from demonic attack. In Luther, the “little word” would be a quotation from the Bible. In later ideological movements, the Magic Word to overcome evil may be replaced by Hegel’s “knowledge of dialectics,” or a Marxist’s “revolutionary consciousness in the Proletariat,” or by a fervent “Sieg! Heil!” from a devout Nazi. Magic words, symbols, and music are stock-in-trade for ideological mass movements.
Modern mass movements rely not only on Magic Words and phrases and slogans, but on charming or magically-powerful music to move the masses. Chanting of “Sieg! Heil!” could be sustained only so long; to maintain fervor in the crowds, it was highly useful to break into “Deutschland, Deutschland, ueber alles”--”Germany, Germany, over all,” or perhaps into another nationalistic anthem with which we are less familiar. In the case of “Deutschland ueber alles,” of course, the melody was borrowed from a great composer. The original melody--gentle, sweet, wonderfully varied--was composed by Joseph Haydn as the andante of one of his many string quartets; and for many years after its composition, it was used in a hymn of praise to the Austrian Emperor. In the hands of National Socialist musicians, Haydn’s urbane melody was transmogrified into a powerful sea of sentimental yet martial sound that overwhelms the hearers and stirs them up to “love” the Reich, the People, and the Leader, and of course “to fight” for them. In short, whether in the Reformation or in the Nazi movement--and in movements temporally in between the 16th and the 20th centuries--music has been used as an effective weapon of mass propaganda.
Christian worship has used music from the beginnings of the Church; the Gospels mention Jesus singing Hebrew psalms, and several of the Apostle Paul’s letters quote from early Christian hymns (the Philippians’ “Christ-Hymn” being the best known). The Hebrew songs and melodies sung by Jesus and the original Jewish Christians were gradually fused with Greek melodies, and no doubt other Gentile music as well. The fusion of Jewish and Greek became preserved in the chants of the Church, especially Ambrosian and Gregorian chant. This enormous body of music, developed over many centuries, comes as close to the Platonic ideal of music sketched out in the Republic as any music of which I am aware: the chants highlight the meaning of the words sung, not mere emotional expression; melodies are simple, easily sung, and unadorned; the music calms the emotions; and the chants aim to lift the soul towards the Good One would be hard pressed to call this music “propaganda,” although one could say that it inculcated the teaching and the spirit of the Catholic faith with noble simplicity. Propaganda dominates, invading the person’s psychic freedom. Gregorian chant, on the other hand, does not dominate the hearer, or overwhelm, but gently and mindfully leads the soul into a quiet union with the unseen God, or simply quiets the passions, and at the same time, builds a bond of spiritual friendship between those singing together. Or so it seems to me.
I do not intend to sketch the history of music in the Church. No doubt, propaganda music emerged in the Church before the 1960’s. (As much as I appreciate the music of J. S. Bach, for example, much of his church compositions express excited energy, and hence energize the psyche.) Our present interest is in the way the secular Progressives, who came to dominate much of Catholic worship and teaching for several decades beginning in the 1960’s, used music to spread its ideology of “changing the world” (borrowing young Marx’s famous phrase). A prime example which has been sung for years now in the Catholic Church in the United States is the song, “City of God.” Set to a melody and rhythm reminiscent of a college drinking song from an earlier era, the words direct the singers to “build the city of God” in the world. Radically unlike Gregorian chant, the thrust of this spirited song is not divine worship or union with Christ effecting peace in the soul, but social action. Comparing “the City of God” to Gregorian Chant, one calls to mind Marx’s famous 11th thesis on Feuerbach: “Philosophers of old merely sought to contemplate the world; the point, however, is to change it.” Gregorian chant proceeds from a contemplative spirit and leads to contemplation; propaganda songs such as “City of God” stir people up to restless action, and in the process, rob the soul of the hearer of what quiet he may have sought in Church.
A good example of music as propaganda in the Catholic Church is the Lenten song “Ashes,” written by Tom Conry. From a few discussions, it seems that parishioners sing the song mindlessly, without attending to the meaning--or lack of meaning--in the words. For the melody is fairly pleasant, a kind of catchy ditty that is neither joyful nor penitential in sound, but what a devout Marxist might call “bourgeois sentimental.” In other words, the melody is a kind of popular, middle-class tune that is “non-threatening” to the hearer. Or in the larger Marxist tradition, “Ashes” is the kind of melody that Stalinists would have approved, for it does not sound “modernistic,” but has a familiar, non-challenging, non-intellectual quality to it. Similarly, the words beguile the singer, because they hide their ideological thrust among strings of vague or meaningless phrases. One can spend considerable time pondering the meaning of most of the phrases, and be left wondering, “What in the dickens does that mean?” Well, not much--accept for the key ideological points cleverly hidden in the gray weeds of ashen words:
“We rise again from ashes, from the good we’ve failed to do”
[What “ashes” do we rise from? And what is the good we failed to do?]
“We rise again from ashes” [repetition of the meaningless, dulling the mind]
“to create ourselves anew....”
The fourth phrase is one of the ideological centerpieces of this propagandistic song: “To create ourselves anew.” Without thinking of what he or she is singing, the person in the pew presumes to take the place of the Creator, whose work, after all is defective (not unlike Luther’s experience), and requiring human effort of re-creation. Again, we have the ideology of mass Marxism dressed up in a “Catholic” song. Let’s put the matter simply as if speaking to the song writer:
Mr. Conry (whoever you may be), you are deceived and deceiving the faithful who are “invited” by musicians to sing this song. We are not God, and we cannot “create ourselves anew.” Your ideology is poisoning the minds of well-intentioned but inattentive Catholics, who repeat your words with perhaps as much mindfulness as they routinely utter the words of the Creed. Your vague poetry of “rising from ashes” dulls the senses, and then you instill your ideology into unaware singers.
One can go on in this vein through the entire song, but I shall not waste our time doing so. The poetry does not deserve much attention, lamenting “dreams not fully dreamt,” and with our “offering of ashes, an offering to you.” What are we giving to whom? Giving ashes to whom? In true Christian faith, God wants our heart, our mind, our soul--not mere “ashes.” Again, however, among the mindless chatter, the ideological centerpiece lies hidden for the unwary faithful: “The rain we’ll use for growing” [that is a fine teaching for those who garden), “and create the world anew.” Hold it! There he goes again with human beings replacing God as creator: “We will create the world anew.”
There in a nutshell is modern ideology, with its foolishness, its arrogance, its illusions. Return to simple truth: We are not God, we are not the Creator, and we cannot “create the world anew.” Is God’s creation so defective--so “full of devils” in Luther’s symbols--to necessitate its “re-creation?” Was the Creator Himself defective? Was the creator god perhaps the evil god of the ancient gnostics after all? For Tom Conry, it surely appears so. God failed in creation, so we superior, enlightened human beings “must create the world anew.”
Examining details in “Ashes,” let us not fail to overlook the most essential piece of secularist propaganda in the song: There is no mention of God or Christ until the last verse--which of course may not be sung at all. In fact, worship of God has been replaced in the song by chatting about “us.” It is precisely the secularist agenda that replaces focus on God with focus on human being. “It’s all about us.” To that I say, “Ashes!”
All of this nonsense is communicated through the propaganda of a song. Who approved this song for singing in Catholic Churches? Bishops, or some music company that makes money off publishing these pop-songs? One may well wonder why the Catholic Church has become so exacting and literalistic in the way it translates the prayers in the Eucharistic liturgy now, and yet seemingly pays no attention to words sung by the faithful? Here is a guess: When folks sing music in church, they are more engaged than when the priest offers or prays (or mumbles) the Eucharistic Prayer at the altar. “You are indeed holy” may be heard, but does not grab the soul the way “Ashes” does when sung in church. That is how propaganda works: it replaces mindfulness and reasoned thought with emotionally-laden nonsense and ideological dreaming.
Finally, a short addendum on the magical power of music that ideologues may harness:
For anyone interested in the potentials of music to move emotions and serve as ideological tools when combined with gnostic myths or “dreams” or just plain “magic words,” one could consider contemporary popular music. I prefer, however, to pass over in virtual silence the slop dished up on TV, radio, and in stores as “music,” and cranked out for making money and “entertainment.” Most of this noise is at such a low cultural level that it is offensive to the ears and psyche of anyone unfortunate enough to be subject to it. This “music” is imperialistic and highly aggressive, and is played virtually wherever one happens to go among Americans today. This much is evident to anyone with ears to hear--whose mind has not lost all sense of standards of beauty: cranked-out, cranked-up rock music is indeed propaganda of the first order. And what is the central message of this impoverished noise? Ultimately it is this (putting the trash into simplistic words): ”It’s all about me, me, ME, and about MY FEELINGS, which are the only reality I know and care to know, so you shut up and listen to ME.” Much of the emotional content of this self-centered, solipsistic music is rage, hatred, lust, selfishness, violence. There are exceptions, but the overall pattern is clear to a discerning mind.
But passing on to a far higher cultural level, perhaps more subtle in its propaganda value, but historically more important and effective, consider briefly the music of two fairly recent masters of western music: Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) and Richard Wagner (1813-1883).
More than anyone else, I submit, Beethoven paved the way for the raucous propaganda that is “rock” music. More broadly, Beethoven most skillfully unleashed powerful emotions in music, and sought to move audiences intensely through his masterful compositions. Beethoven’s thrust was not to calm the soul or unite man and God, and not to bring pleasant and enlivening experiences (as in most of Haydn and Mozart, his older contemporaries). Beethoven is expressing himself, and self as the focus of art and life is clearly the substance of Beethoven’s music. In this sense, one can say that his music is propaganda for the modern religion of self-worship, or at least self-adulation and self-expression. Beethoven is the high priest of self-expression in music, and hence of the modern religion centering on self. And what Beethoven does, he does extremely well.
If Beethoven was the foremost and unsurpassable pioneer in the use of music to manipulate audiences to “feel” whatever the composer wishes, and to become absorbed in the intensity of those feelings, Wagner achieved truly impressive heights in dominating the audience through music. His music does not only generate and arouse intense passions in the hearers; using poetry, drama, staging, orchestral sound, and highly demanding singing all at once, his operatic works in effect carry the audience into a Wagnerian dream world in which the composer is the Master-magician, the great Leader, and the audience becomes his subjects. Wagner rules, dominates, manipulates, works over his hearers until they are cooperating, docile subjects in the hands of the Master. Moreover, there is discernible clear content to Wagnerian musicpropaganda. As with Beethoven, Wagner inundates the hearers in sounds that stir up strong emotional responses. As with Beethoven, the religion of self, of self-centered, emotional existence is inculcated, or at least intensified. But whereas Beethoven’s spirit concentrates on anger, rebellion, romantic love, and sentimental humanitarianism, Wagner’s world is bathed in passion, eros, heroic dreams, mythical illusions, a make-believe world divorced from the concrete reality of God’s creation.
The analysis offered is that of a political scientist fascinated by the propagandistic-manipulative skills of two highly competent composers, Beethoven and Wagner. As a human being who enjoys well-composed music, I delight in many of Beethoven’s compositions, and increasingly in Wagner’s music-dramas. Listening to both composers, however, makes me feel something like Ulysses, who asked his shipmates to strap him to the mast so he could listen to the magical singing of the sirens, without diving under the waves to his death. While listening to Wagner, for example, I have intense feelings, and I desire to keep indulging in these feelings. With an effort of will, I must limit my exposure to the music, and try not to become absorbed in emotions. Yes, indeed, I appreciate Wagner’s musical genius. The cult of self, of self-absorption, has its magical charms, and if one is exposed to it in music, he must listen to the music and be aware of its effects on him, even while trying to keep his spiritual balance and not be drowned beneath its powerful, emotional waves.