Plato, Bloom & Wan Baochang On The Destructive Power Of Bad Music


Wan Baochang (whom I learned of from Richard Spacek) lived some 1,500 years ago. According to the The Taoism Reader, Wan had a spiritual revelation in which he was told “the supreme God has sent officers of the highest heaven to show you the mysterious and subtle essentials” of music.

In the early 590s, when a certain nobleman completed a musical composition and submitted it to the throne for official adoption as court music for the newly established Sui dynasty, Emperor Wen summoned Wan to consult him. After listening to it, Wan said, “This is the sound of the destruction of a nation: sad, bitter, fleeting, scattered. It is not the sound of true elegance. It will not do for classical music.”

Presumably the translator wrote “classical music” for music of beauty, complexity, insight, spiritual rigor. In English, “classical” is the best one-word adjective we have; a pity, but also revealing. Consider that when Bach reigned “classical music” was just called music. We didn’t need a modifier, except for the intent (chamber group, organ, etc.) and style of compositions (mass, symphony, and so on). The real pity is what is called “music” today (even country!).

Subsequently Wan readjusted countless musical instruments, but their resulting tone was elegant and serene, and not in accord with popular tastes; so they never became fashionable.

When Wan heard a composition called “Forever and Ever,” he wept and told people, “It is licentious, harsh, and sad; it won’t be long before people are killing each other everywhere.”

Now at this time there was peace throughout the land and the economy was flourishing, so everyone who heard this statement of Wan’s thought he was all wrong. But by the end of the Great Works [618, when the Sui dynasty collapsed], Wan’s words proved true.

No better summary of our current (most) popular music exists than licentious, harsh, and sad.

Allan Bloom, in his The Closing of the American Mind, agrees. He correctly noted that the young were “addicted” to music, and this was before ubiquitous cell phones. “Today, a very large proportion of young people between the ages of ten and twenty live for music. It is their passion; nothing else excites them as it does; they cannot take seriously anything alien to music.”

Bloom explained the effects on university students of changing musical tastes, from classical to rock music. Of course, as his career lengthened, greater proportions of young adults matriculated, and so the “average” music taste necessarily coarsened.

Symptomatic of this change is how seriously students now take the famous passages on musical education in Plato’s Republic. In the past, students, good liberals that they always are, were indignant at the censorship of poetry, as a threat to free inquiry. But they were really thinking of science and politics. They hardly paid attention to the discussion of music itself and, to the extent that they even thought about it, were really puzzled by Plato’s devoting time to rhythm and melody in a serious treatise on political philosophy…

Plato teaches that, in order to take the spiritual temperature of an individual or a society, one must “mark the music.”…

It is hardly noticed today that in Aristotle’s Politics the most important passages about the best regime concern musical education, or that the Poetics is an appendix to the Politics.

Now rock music “attempts to tap the rawest passions” and does tap them, especially in “hip hop” or “rap”. Bloom said—and caught hell for saying—“rock music has one appeal only, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire.” Perhaps it was then an exaggeration to say so, but today’s most applauded music, it is not. It is no coincidence the sexual revolution was set to rock music. “It may well be that a society’s greatest madness seems normal to itself,” says Bloom.

Worse, today’s popular music ” ruins the imagination of young people and makes it very difficult for them to have a passionate relationship to the art and thought that are the substance of liberal education.” Why?

Rock music provides premature ecstasy and, in this respect, is like the drugs with which it is allied. It artificially induces the exaltation naturally attached to the completion of the greatest endeavors—victory in a just war, consummated love, artistic creation, religious devotion and discovery of the truth. Without effort, without talent, without virtue, without exercise of the faculties, anyone and everyone is accorded the equal right to the enjoyment of their fruits.

If Wan Baochang’s prophecy about music is applied to our times is right (and it is), and all indications are that he is—hello riots!—then it won’t be long before people are killing each other everywhere.


In the novella Mozart on the Way to Prague by Edmund Morike (1856), we see Mozart at the home of new acquaintances, leading them through Don Giovani on the piano. The opera had not found initial success, but the guests knew its true importance. The following brief scene is amusing.

Mozart looked around in search of someone, evidently Eugenie; but as she was not there just at that moment, he addressed the question he had intended for her directly to Franziska, who was standing near him ‘What do you think of our Don Giovani on the whole? What sort of future would you prophecy for it?’

‘On behalf of my cousin,’ she replied laughing, ‘I shall answer as best I can. My own foolish opinon is, that if the whole world does not madly applaud Don Giovani, then God in Heaven will close the lid of His music box—for a long time, I mean—and given mankind to understand—‘ ‘And give mankind,’ broke in her uncle, correcting her, ‘a set of [devices] and so deaden people’s hearts that they shall henceforth worship Baal.’

In the original it was ‘bagpipes’, and not ‘devices.’


  1. acricketchirps

    O wonder what Wan would’ve thought of Don Giovanni.

  2. Gary

    The technological age enables anyone to make noise and call it music. As you write, expanding the franchise necessarily lowers the average quality. The proportion of musical genius in the population probably has not changed from what it was in previous centuries; given that and that tastes have coarsened, the probability of genius being recognized and appreciated broadly has declined, IMO. Pr(x|y).

  3. Ray

    I had popular music aversion therapy and loathe popular music. I worked one summer as a technician at a radio station that played the top 40 in music. I had to listen to that 8 hours a day. Afterwards, I couldn’t stand popular music.

  4. John B()

    Suggested Retitle: Wen Wan Sui Song

    Allan Bloom … correctly noted that the young were “addicted” to music, and this was before ubiquitous cell phones.

    40 some odd years ago that was true of me. But if the addiction doesn’t kill you, it eventually releases you. I still enjoy but no longer do I consider myself an addict

  5. Ken

    “Worse, today’s popular music ” ruins the imagination of young people and makes it very difficult for them to have a passionate relationship to the art and thought that are the substance of liberal education.” ”

    That appears to be a statement by Briggs — who routinely condemns things liberal, including such liberalizing trends in colleges — and here a relationship to a form of popular music that “makes it very difficult to have a passionate relationship to the art and thought that are the substance of liberal education” is presented as ‘bad.’ It would seem that [here] something that interferes with the liberalization of youth would be ‘good.’

  6. DAV

    Emperor Wen summoned Wan to consult him.

    The Emperor had to be told if the music was any good? He didn’t know?
    A bit like Modern Art.

    Music is an acquired taste just like the taste for dog and locust. There are no objective standards but many pompous ones do exist. Jazz was once considered decadent and poor. Led to outrageous behavior like smoking weed and the Lindy Hop.

    So was the cakewalk — a bordello favorite — which preceded jazz Here’s Debussy playing one of those decadent cakewalks but then Debussy wasn’t eagerly embraced by classicists either.
    (recorded on piano roll)

  7. Stravinsky’s classical piece Le Sacre du printemps was considered an outrage at the time of the opening night.

  8. Hrodgar

    Re: Ken

    Liberalism only rose to dominance with the deformation and endarkenment, but the term “liberal arts” goes back all the way to classical Rome. The two are only tangentially related.

  9. Francsois

    Briggs, list some music that you think is great. You mentioned Bach St Matthews Passion once. I bought it and listen to it a lot.

  10. JH

    Hmmm…who were so privileged to enjoy music during the agricultural, short-lived Sui Dynasty? After listening to all the bad music then, Emperor Wen became tyrannical and had many wives. Which in turn ruined not only his relation with all his cabinet members but also his genes that resulted an incompetent and spoiled successor. So, yes, it’s the music that caused the demise of Sui Dynasty… as Wang wisely predicted.

    Oh, of course, it’s the Liberals’ fault that your children lack imagination. We all know that writing bad music requires no imagination.

  11. Ken

    Hrodgar –

    Re-Read Brigg’s; in relevant part: “Worse, today’s popular music ” … makes it very difficult for them to have a passionate relationship to [the underpinnings of a] liberal education.”

    Briggs complains about liberalism, routinely citing some bizarre obscure study in that regard.

    Here, he seems [?] to be presenting a quote that asserts modern music among the youth is making it harder for them to “have a passionate relationship” with things that make them receptive to the “liberal education” he so routinely rails against.

    And you’re writing about “liberal arts” (in quotes) where no such thing is mentioned?

    I’m unsure what Briggs meant by “liberal education” … maybe a wholesome sort as opposed to the Left Wing liberal indoctrination one can also associate with his choice of words.

    All that aside, I think Briggs has gone off course with this extrapolation:

    Briggs: “If Wan Baochang’s prophecy about music is applied to our times is right (and it is), and all indications are that he is—hello riots!—then it won’t be long before people are killing each other everywhere.”

    If “Wan Baochang” made that observation abut 1500 yrs ago, that would’ve been relatively early in China’s Shang Dynasty. A briefly cursory review of history of that era presents a fascinating warning:

    Back then Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism hadn’t been invented and ancestor worship came into vogue…using one’s ancestors as a sort of lobbyist intermediary for worshiping the then-dominant deity, Shang Ti, the “lord on high” (note how Catholics can pray to saints to perform a similar lobbying function…). The scanty historical record doesn’t seem to say anything about music causing domestic violence, but back then repeated battles with nomads and rivaling tribes within China has been cited as bringing down down the last king of the Shang dynasty, Shang Chou, a cruel man known for his methods of torture. Along the way, ancestor worship sometimes included human sacrifice — anything to gain an advantage over one’s many enemies.

    So, I think, based on that, we can see where Briggs derailed a bit:

    “Wan Bochang’s” observations of the deleterious effects of music no doubt has somewhat modern parallels to the tritone (a specific series of musical chords) — this is common to modern rock & roll (thank you Britain and your “British Invasion” of evil rock & roll, including early on the likes of “Black Sabbath”!). The tritone was supposedly banned in the Middle Ages on religious grounds.

    Thus, with the breakdown of religion in Western society, the widespread use of the tritone (aka “Devil’s Chord” or “chord of evil”) society has finally embarked on repeating the path taken by China in its Shang Dynasty. Being astute student’s of history [we read Ianto Watt, for example!], we recognize that because history repeats, or at least rhymes, we see the inevitability of our present course being a modern repetition of the Shang Dynesty’s:

    It’s not so much that random people will be killing each other (Purge[movie]-style) so much as it will be various more organized & formally structured factions killing each other everywhere (a distinction with a difference, sort of). All due to bad music, in no small measure including the beat [not just “drumbeat”] of the evial tritone.

    But it won’t be just ‘killing everywhere’ as Briggs understates the future, there’s more — history tells us [Ianto Watt-style, that is] that torture and human sacrifice will be noteworthy elements (undoubtedly that coupled with future religion(s) du jour, as we see religious doctrines, malleable as they are, continue to bend to the designs of charismatic faction leaders, who, in a desire to win, escalate their sacrificial offerings to include humans).

    That, or its all “BS” (except for the historical bits regarding China, the tritone, and the “British Invasion” that are actually true).

  12. Ye Olde Statistician

    In his History of the Franks, Gregory of Tours wrote:
    Decedente atque immo potius pereunte ab urbibus Gallicanis liberalium cultura litterarum, cum nonnullae res gererentur vel rectae vel inprobae, ac feretas gentium desaeviret, regum furor acueretur, eclesiae inpugnarentur ab hereticis, a catholicis tegerentur, ferveret Christi fides in plurimis, tepisceret in nonnullis, ipsae quoque eclesiae vel ditarentur a devotis vel nudarentur a perfides, nec repperire possit quisquam peritus dialectica in arte grammaticus, qui haec aut stilo prosaico aut metrico depingeret versu: ingemescebant saepius plerique, dicentes: ‘Vae diebus nostris, quia periit studium litterarum a nobis, nec reperitur rethor in populis, qui gesta praesentia promulgare possit in paginis’.
    [“With liberal culture on the wane, or rather perishing in the Gallic cities there were many deeds being done both good and evil: the heathen were raging fiercely; kings were growing more cruel; the church. attacked by heretics, was defended by Catholics; while the Christian faith was in general devoutly cherished, among some it was growing cold; the churches also were enriched by the faithful or plundered by traitors-and no grammarian skilled in the dialectic art could be found to describe these matters either in prose or verse; and many were lamenting and saying: “Woe to our day, since the pursuit of letters has perished from among us and no one can be found among the people who can set forth the deeds of the present on the written page.'”]

    It is thus easy to see that by “liberal education” one means “bookish education.” Eduction from books (ab libera) requires processing by the intellect, and the liberal education of the Middle Ages resulted in the bourgois, who is often depicted in paintings with a book in his hand. As is so often the case, the modern US conservative is the last defender of liberalism, more often than not from a leftism masquerading as liberalism.

    During the same era, the Age of the Book, serious music developed from the notation invented by the medievals into intricate tapestries of sound — these were often called “inventions” — that involved several dimensions: rhythm, melody, harmony, counterpoint. But with the collapse of Modern civilization, as noted by John Lukacs, most of this was scraped off — “melody gave way to melodiousness” — until only rhythm was left: the simplest kind of music possible.

    “Wan Bochang’s” observations of the deleterious effects of music no doubt has somewhat modern parallels to the tritone (a specific series of musical chords) — this is common to modern rock & roll… The tritone was supposedly banned in the Middle Ages on religious grounds.

    Oddly enough, while researching medieval music for my novel Eifelheim, I found a web site that claimed Mode IV was “forbidden” by the Church because it contained the “satanic” tritone. Ironically, I was listening at that point to a recording of Benedictine monks singing “Media vita in morte sumus,” a medieval hymn set in Mode IV. Yet another beautiful theory bludgeoned to death by an ugly fact.

  13. Dean Ericson

    Ken — are you drunk?

  14. Oldavid

    I beg differ with YOS about the “satanic tritone”. The tritone that contains the minor 3rd is/(was) a gut-wrenching dissonance to anyone accustomed to the consonance of 4th’s 5th’s and major thirds.

    There are many more “offensive-to-the-ear” chords that have become fashionable over a couple of thousand years, cautiously interspersed with harmony, to represent the grief and misery of an ordinary “man’s” lot. You can still find it in country and folk music.

    On the other hand, one can find a relentless, mind-destroying “beat”, tuneless “melody”, utterly offensive and unstructured dissonant “chords” in fashionable post-civilisation “music”.

    I only disagree in a matter of priority… the anti-music (and anti-arts) does not destroy the civilisation… it is only a symptom of a civilisation already destroyed with hedonism and narcissism.

  15. Ye Olde Statistician

    The tritone that contains the minor 3rd is/(was) a gut-wrenching dissonance to anyone accustomed to the consonance of 4th’s 5th’s and major thirds.

    As may be; but it was clearly not forbidden as the website claimed, inasmuch as I was coincidentally listening to a medieval chant in that mode at the time I came across the claim. The reference to its diabolic nature apparently dates to 1725 and refers to the devlish difficulty in singing the interval.

    There is a discussion here regarding the common use of the tritone in 13th century music:

  16. Nate


    Get off my lawn you dang kids!

  17. Oldavid

    Ah, good, YOS.

    It’s so long since I was involved in all that stuff I was getting some of the concepts and terminology confused.

    Yes, as I recall the augmented 4th or diminished 5th was called the “devil’s note” because it is “unexpected” in any scale (and thus difficult to sing) but it has long been used to great effect if it is immediately “resolved” into a tonic or dominant triad.

    But, as I recall, a diminished 7th is about the most fiendishly difficult interval to sing.

    There, however, is the departure from soul-stirring music where such intervals were sparingly used for contrast until the C19 opium-eating, fascinated-with-occult, “composers” battered their audiences and fascinated the sympathetic critics with gratuitous portions of sustained dissonances and tuneless mush.

    “Music” has been going downhill from beauty to brutality for a long time.

  18. Ye Olde Statistician

    No question about the slope of the hill, Oldavid; but I’ll contend that composers like Wagner, Nielsen, Richard Strauss used dissonance very effectively; and it was only after their time that music lost it. The pop music of the 50s was not especially dissonant, but it was very simplistic compared to, say, J. Strauss and other pop composers of an earlier time.

    You have to learn to listen, though. A Tamil friend of mine told me that Western classical music, like Mozart and Beethoven, just sounded like noise to her. But that was because the polyphonic nature of Western music is strange to their ears as the intricacies of a well-developed raga is to ours. The idea of several musicians, each doing something different, but nonetheless forming a harmonious whole was one of the keys to Western success and expanded from medieval polyphony to team sports, parliaments, and the corporation. Everywhere else, the soloist-with-accompaniment was the rule until the West rudely came a-knocking at their doors.

  19. Sevenths don’t come in diminished–they only come in major (11 semitones) and minor (10 semitones) the perfect intervals 4ths, 5ths and 8ves come in augmented and/or diminished. If Old D meant a diminished octave, then yes, depending somewhat on its context in the piece, it can be difficult to sing.

  20. JH

    Only racists would deny Wan Baochang’s testimony.

    Yep, they are not only racist but also bigoted, sexist, intolerant, xenophobic, homophobic because Wan was Chinese and male. Wan political-incorrectly cursed the Sui Dynasty because the governmental officials highly appraised his music. Being politically incorrect has always been in fashion. Cursing and condemning enemies to hell and death has always been the politically correct thing to do.

    Briggs, you might want to stop listening to country music, (you know, a kind of bad music) as it has caused you to talk trash about people you don’t know and to do some immoral things. Who knows what would happen to you if you don’t stop.)

    (Gee, I sure enjoy talking nonsense like Briggs does! I only listen to good music.)

  21. Joy

    My dear Bailey,
    I will get over the first part of this (unsaid) Letter as soon as possible for it relates to the affair of poor Crips – To a Man of your nature such a Letter as Haydon’s must have been extremely cutting – What occasions the greater part of the World’s Quarrels? Simply this, two Minds meet and do not understand each other time enough to prevent any shock or surprise at the conduct of either party – As soon as I had known Haydon three days I had got enough of his character not to have been surprised at such a Letter as he has hurt you with. Nor when I knew it was it a principle with me to drop his acquaintance although with you it would have been an imperious feeling. I wish you knew all that I think about Genius and the Heart – and yet I think you are thoroughly acquainted with my innermost breast in that respect, or you could not have known me even thus long and still hold me worthy to be your dear friend. In passing however I must say of one thing that has pressed upon me lately and encreased my Humility and capability of submission and that is this truth – Men of Genius are great as certain ethereal Chemicals operating on the Mass of neutral intellect – but they have not any individuality, any determined Character – I would call the top and head of those who have a proper self Men of Power.
    But I am running my head into a Subject which I am certain I could not do justice to under five years Study and 3 vols octavo – and moreover long to be talking about the Imagination – so my dear Bailey do not think of this unpleasant affair if possible – do not – I defy any harm to come of it – I defy. I’ll shall write to Crips this Week and request him to tell me all his going on from time to time by Letter wherever I may be – it will all go on well so don’t because you have suddenly discover’d a Coldness in Haydon suffer yourself to be teased. Do not my dear fellow. O I wish I was as certain of the end of all your troubles as that of your momentary start about the authenticity of the Imagination.
    I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination – What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth – whether it existed before or not – for I have the same idea of all our passions as of love: they are all, in their sublime, creative of essential beauty.
    In a word, you may know my favorite speculation by my first book, and the little song I send in my last, which is a representation from the fancy of the probable mode of operating in these matters. The imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream, – he awoke and found it truth. I am more zealous in this affair because I have never yet been able to perceive how anything can be known for truth by consecutive reasoning – and yet it must be. Can it be that even the greatest philosopher ever arrived at his goal without putting aside numerous objections? However it may be, O for a life of sensation rather than of thoughts! It is a ‘Vision in the form of Youth,’ a shadow of reality to come. And this consideration has further convinced me, – for it has come as auxiliary to another favorite speculation of mine, – that we shall enjoy ourselves hereafter by having what we called happiness on earth repeated in a finer tone and so repeated. And yet such a fate can only befall those who delight in sensation, rather than hunger as you do after truth. Adam’s dream will do here, and seems to be a conviction that imagination and its empyreal reflection is the same as human life and its spiritual repetition. But, as I was saying, the simple imaginative mind may have its rewards in the repetition of its own silent working coming continually on the spirit with a fine suddenness – to compare great things with small – have you never by being Surprised with an old Melody – in a delicious place – by a delicious voice, felt over again your very Speculations and Surmises at the time it first operated on your Soul –

  22. Joy

    If one were silly enough to draw a graph, one might notice a ~~“””TREND LINE!!!!”””~~ (emphasis mine)
    Which might show that the whole thing is stuff and nonsense. Beauty, truth, never die. That music and art which is served up by media and commercially motivated outlets does not reflect this fact is not relevant to what is and what will be. Vivaldi’s music wasn’t discovered for two hundred years. There will be art and music which will surface after a time.

    Focussing on the bad , the evil and the ugly isn’t healthy. Reality contains both good and bad. If people forget the good they will then find there is nothing worth fighting for. So focus on the good and be aware of the bad. Don’t complain as some jaded people do that no new classical music is being written. 1. it’s not absolutely true, 2. Is there not enough anyway to last a lifetime?

    Ken, heed this unsolicited advice: I’m serious now because Some cheese is still an excuse to smile.

    What now? This song Springs to mind:

    From Joy:

  23. Oldavid

    Quite so, Chirps. As I said, I’m rusty on the terminology. I meant the leap of 10 semitones from the tonic. It’s a big jump that doesn’t land on either the leading note or major 6th.

    YOS, your Tamil friend would have plenty of agree-ers in the “rock” generation.

    I’m not saying that ALL music has deteriorated into disordered cacophony… there are still some of the folksy-country real people knocking up some good tunes.

    I can’t call to mind any of Wagner’s stuff that I think is a blessing to the world.

  24. IA

    Hi, I’m new here and enjoyed the article and comments. Couldn’t rock n’ roll be Dionysion? Not saying it’s great music just that it expresses a fundemental part of European or possibly even human nature. If totally suppressed bad things happen. Remember Pentheus.

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