Music and Its Influence According to Shakespeare’s Lorenzo

On a calm evening with a bright moon, “When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees / and they did make no noise” (Merchant of Venice, 5.1.1-2), Lorenzo sends for musicians, who come and begin to play for him and Jessica. 

Title page from Wikipedia Commons.

Then Lorenzo begins to comment on the influence of music on its listeners. He says that when a herd of wild colts, whose natural tendency is to pretty much just go crazy, neigh loudly, and anxiously race about, whenever they hear “any air of music,” they immediately stop to listen, and their nature is changed by its sweetness. Indeed, Lorenzo continues, the poet Ovid once wrote a fictional story about the legendary musician Orpheus who had such musical power that he could allure trees, rocks, and waters. Here is the passage:

For do but note a wild and wanton herd
Or race of youthful and unhandled colts,
Fetching mad bounds, bellowing and neighing loud,
Which is the hot condition of their blood,
If they but hear perchance a trumpet sound,
Or any air of music touch their ears,
You shall perceive them make a mutual stand,
Their savage eyes turned to a modest gaze
By the sweet power of music. Therefore the poet
Did feign that Orpheus drew trees, stones, and floods,
Since naught so stockish, hard, and full of rage
But music for the time doth change his nature. (70-81)

But it gets even more interesting. Lorenzo then concludes with the famous statement that the person who has no appreciation for good music and cannot feel its harmonic melodies must therefore have affections as dark the place of shadow between the earth and Hades, the Greek Erebus:

The man that hath no music in himself, 
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music. (82-87)

For Lorenzo in these passages (which are actually just two parts of the same passage) music has a massive amount of influence on humans and on animals. Could we translate this into modern speech? Let’s try to do it.

First, what exactly does Lorenzo mean by music? Well, his statement in line 82, “The man that hath no music in himself,” is repeated in different words in line 83, “Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds.” In other words, to have music in oneself means something like having a capacity to be “moved with concord of sweet sounds.” So, just hearing music, what Lorenzo is calling the “concord of sweet sounds” is not enough. The word moved is important. One must be moved by music. 

Next, what does it mean to be moved? To move is to go from one place or state to another. In this particular case, I think we are not talking about moving in the physical sense, but moving in a symbolic sense, where symbolic, could mean emotional or spiritual. I use the word spiritual because Lorenzo uses the word spirit in line 85 when he says that the person that isn’t moved by music has a spirit whose motions are “dull as night.” And I use the word emotional here because Lorenzo says that this person who isn’t moved by music has “affections dark as Erebus” (86 emphasis added). 

Let’s also briefly discuss “concord of sweet sounds.” Concord means harmony. So “concord of sweet sounds” would become something like “harmonious or melodic sweetness.” We left out the word sound just now, but the word melodic denotes sound, so we’re good. Harmony is the one in the many and the many in the one.

While we’re talking about harmony, let’s cite Paul Woodruff, who teaches philosophy and ethics at the University of Texas at Austin. In his book First Democracy: The Challenge of an Ancient Idea he writes that harmony is the agreement that human beings make to live together even though all of us are not exactly the same. In terms of music, “Harmony,” he says, “is not singing one note; it is singing different notes in a way that makes one texture of music” (99). Musical harmony is symbolic (or synecdochic) of political harmony. 

So, we can now translate Lorenzo’s Elizabethian iambic pentameter to modern day speech this way: “The person that is not emotionally moved by harmonious or melodic sweetness is dangerous to society because that person cannot feel–and thus cannot understand–the necessary political principle of harmony.” That person is hence “not to be trusted” and is thus “fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils.” Furthermore, if we recall the herd of wild colts that Lorenzo mentioned earlier, we note that the herd is actually better off than this person who has no capacity to be moved by music because the wild colts, though their natural condition includes a savage gaze and untamed craziness, at least understand–and submit to–the principle of harmony. 

Cognitive Dissonance and a Snickers Bar

According to social psychologist Leon Festinger, human beings are motivated by something he calls cognitive dissonance, which is essentially a fancy name for disharmony among or within our thought processes, beliefs, and/or opinions (A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance 3). Human beings thus have a drive to produce consistencies, reduce inconsistencies, and avoid situations that might produce inconsistencies. Cognitive dissonance comes from receiving new information, which can also be manifest in new events (4-5).

Cognitive dissonance is implicit whenever we have a decision to make, when we choose between two or more options. These options are dissonant–they’re not in harmony–because they cannot be done at the same time and in the same moment.
Let’s look at a trivial but revealing example. Let’s say I am sitting at my desk, busily working on a project. I am focusing on my work when all of a sudden I have a problem–I receive some new information: my stomach growls, I start salivating, and I think about the Snickers bar that’s in the vending machine down the hall. At this new information, I have cognitive dissonance, an inconsistency, and one my nature drives me to resolve. I am hungry and I want to eat, but I also want to continue to do what I’m doing because if I get up to go get that Snickers bar, I will lose much (or all) of my concentration. (I also already know that Snickers bars aren’t very good for my health, which means that eating one is going to create another kind of dissonance.) But I have to make a choice. I cannot make both choices at the same time, and both choices have some consequences that I do not want–no Snickers on the one hand, a loss of focus on the other. The choices are dissonant because each choice will take me in a slightly different direction than the other. But when I do make a decision, and since both options have undesirable consequences, I must justify the resulting dissonance from that choice. If I choose to eat the Snickers bar, I’ll argue to myself that once in a while is okay (studies have said that chocolate is good for your health!), I needed a break anyway and will be able to focus better after I get a snack, and, besides, it just tastes so good that it’ll be worth it. On the other hand, if I choose to stay at my desk, my justification would be that I don’t need all those calories or all that fat and sugar (I’ll just have to exercise them off!), I’m getting so much done that I cannot risk losing my focus right now, and, besides, I find pride in not stooping so low to give in to my cravings–mind over matter, right?
In my own mind, the problem has been resolved. For now.