Michael Griffin

Music, Character, and Moral Development

Michael Griffin article character

Published in Rhode Island Music Educators’ Review, Winter Issue 2018 Vol. 60 No. 2


In 2015, the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at Birmingham University called for character education to be embedded in the UK curriculum. The report linked strong character traits such as resilience and perseverance to higher educational achievement, employability, and social, emotional, and physical health. Character matters. It is critical for personal happiness, maintaining relationships, and essential for an ordered society. Character strengths help people thrive and become the best version of themselves. But how is it taught, cultivated and nurtured? The family is the first place where moral cultivation begins. If adults wish to raise children of good character, they should start by showing them through their own actions.

Children may not listen to their parents, but they never fail to imitate them. – James A. Baldwin, 1924 –1987, American social critic.

UK Education secretary Nicky Morgan, in her quest to help schools teach character, says one way is to learn a musical instrument. Supporting her claim, the Jubilee Centre study found that students involved in choir/music or drama performed significantly better on character tests than any other school-based extra-curricular activity. There is nothing new in this modern-day appeal for character education to be embedded in schools, nor in the relationship between character formation and musical learning. The great thinkers Rousseau, Kant, and John Locke viewed the aim of education to enable children to think for themselves with the aim of becoming virtuous. The views of Confucius , Pythagoras, and Aristotle are also worth noting. Confucius (551–479 BC) believed the real purpose of education was, rather than to get a job, to become a better person. The cultivation of the self should be a daily renovation, and is a life-long process, requiring constant work and practice. A zitherist, Confucius considered music education indispensable for character cultivation:

Wouldst thou know if a people be well-governed, if its laws be good or bad? Examine the music it practices.

Because of the deep influence music exerts on a person, and the change it produces on manners and customs, the ancient kings appointed it as one of the subjects of instruction.

A man who is not good, what can he have to do with music?

Confucius suggested that the teaching of music, along with poetry, history and ritual, be the foundation for teaching moral behaviour. This involved integrating songs and music into the curriculum that reinforced Chinese (Confucian) values and moral virtue. His view has support throughout history, for instance from Napoleon Bonaparte: “A moral book might change a person’s mind but not his heart, and therefore, not his ways. However, a piece of moral music would change his heart, and where the heart goes the mind will follow and the person’s ways will change”. To be a person of character is a choice from less virtuous alternatives. Accordingly, moral choice would be arrived at through a change of heart influenced by music. Like Confucius, English philosopher Roger Scruton equates a decline in musical taste with a decline in morals, arguing that “beauty should be restored to its traditional position in music.”

In China, Confucianism is undergoing a renaissance, particularly evident in education. A major reason modern-day Chinese parents value learning a musical instrument is that it provides a vehicle for visible application, thoroughness and commitment. Likewise, Aristotle (385-322 BC) believed that character is formed by doing. One can only learn about commitment by being committed to a cause. One learns to delay gratification by exercising the patience and experiencing the discomfort that comes with the wait. Aristotle believed that the development of character strengths took time, being taught and learned through opportunity and practice. The repetition of the act becomes a habit, evident in thoughts, feelings, and actions, resulting in consistent patterns of action.

Human excellence, in morality as in musicality, comes about as a result of habit. – Aristotle, Book II of the Nicomachean Ethics

Therefore, a person cannot be considered a “good person deep down” unless character traits are in action. Aristotle’s teacher – Plato, believed that music permeated the recesses of the soul nurturing goodness, but that improper music had a “dangerous capacity to inspire lawlessness and boldness”.

Pythagoras (570-490 BC) may well be the first person on record who employed music as a therapeutic agent. He believed that beauty and truth combined in music, and could “quell the passions of the soul”. In his philosophy, medicine and therapy were based on music. Pythagoras believed that an appreciation of beauty aided recovery from illness, a position now supported by modern-day research. He called the medicine obtained through music purification. Hence, music played an important part in Pythagorean education because music could purify manners, character, and physical ailments. Those who committed crimes were prescribed “pipe and harmony” to shape the mind so that it became cultured again. At night, Pythagoreans sang certain songs to induce sleep and sweet dreams. In the morning, they sang different songs to awaken and prepare for the day. Sometimes the music was instrumental, played on the lyre alone. Pythagoras considered the study of music essential for a rational understanding of God and nature. Therefore, in Ancient Greek society, the primary goal of studying music was for learning moral behaviour. If education is about integrating thought, Pythagoras and the Greek thinkers who followed him led the way. Contrast this regard for music by the Ancient Greeks and classical China to the Roman Empire that followed. Music was not valued beyond entertainment, and became peripheral in education and culture. Rather than arts, science, and intellectual thought, Rome’s focus was conquest and pleasure. One of the main reasons attributed for the decline of the Roman Empire was a decline in moral character. If only they had listened to Confucius.

Music is the only one of all the arts that does not corrupt the mind. – Montesquieu, 1689 – 1759, French Philosopher

There is no definitive set of character traits, but consider perseverance, commitment, and self-discipline. Character is the X factor in expert performance. Many people desire to learn music but give up too early without ever fully exploring their potential. Often, the reason given is lack of talent. A more likely explanation is the lack of character traits required for the challenge. Being a musician is a testament to character. Almost 2500 years ago, Plato believed that “music training is a more potent instrument than any other.” Hopefully, the world will again give music the place it deserves in education. There are positive signs. In April, 2015, it was announced that for the first time in USA education history, music will be a core subject in draft federal education policy (Every Child Achieves Act of 2015).

Listening to music has long been argued as a method for developing children’s listening skills. Listening to classical music boosts concentration, self-discipline, listening power, social intelligence, and aspiration. Good music cultivates the mind. Equally, another study found that listening to music with lyrics about alcohol makes people more likely to drink. Yet another study found a link between music embodying aggression, sex and violence, with antisocial behaviour. Music influences behaviour. These studies might serve to argue against the popular contention that there is no such thing as good or bad music.

Next to the Word of God, music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our thoughts, minds, hearts and spirits.

– St Augustine of Hippo

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M. Ed Studies, B.Ed.

A. Mus. A

Adelaide, South Australia



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