c. 50 BC | China

Power of Music

“Where there is music there is joy.”

In music the sages found pleasure and saw that it could be used to make the hearts of the people good. Because of the deep influence which it exerts on a man and the change which it produces in manners and customs, the ancient kings appointed it as one of the subjects on instruction.

When a ruler’s aims are small, notes that quickly die away characterize the music, and the people’s thoughts are sad; when he is generous, harmonious, and of a placid and easy temper, the notes are varied and elegant, with frequent changes, and the people are satisfied and pleased; when he is coarse, violent, and excitable, the notes, vehement at first and distinct in the end, are full and bold throughout the piece, and the people are resolute and daring; when he is pure and straightforward, strong and correct, the notes are grave and expressive of sincerity, and the people are self-controlled and respectful; when he is magnanimous, placid, and kind, the notes are natural, full, and harmonious, and the people are affectionate and loving; when he is careless, disorderly, perverse, and dissipated, the notes are tedious and ill-regulated, and the people proceed to excesses and disorder.

Therefore the ancient kings in framing their music laid its foundations in the feelings and nature of men—they examined the notes by the measures for the length and quality of each—and adapted it to express the meaning of the ceremonies in which it was to be used. They thus brought it into harmony with the energy that produces life.

After this they established schools for teaching their music, and different grades for the learners. They marked most fully the divisions of the pieces, and condensed into small compass the parts and variations giving beauty and elegance in order to regulate and increase the inward virtue of the learners. They gave laws for the great and small notes according to their names, and harmonized the order of the beginning and the end, to represent the doing of things. Thus they made the underlying principles of the relations between the near and distant relatives, the noble and mean, the old and young, males and females, all to appear manifestly in the music. Hence it is said that “in music we must endeavor to see its depths.”

In the fine and distinct notes we have an image of heaven, in the ample and grand an image of earth—in their beginning and ending, an image of the four seasons. The lengths of all the different notes have their definite measurements, without any uncertainty. The small and the great complete one another. The end leads on to the beginning, and the beginning to the end. 

Therefore, when the music has full course, the different relations are clearly defined by it; the perceptions of the ears and eyes become sharp and distinct; the action of the blood and physical energies is harmonious and calm; bad influences are removed, and manners changed; and all under heaven there is entire repose. 

Hence we have the saying, “Where there is music there is joy.”

About This Text

From The Book of Rites. Known as one of “The Three Rituals,” this classic text exemplifies the Confucian emphasis on moral training and education.