Music as a Transformative Power

My study covers the role of music as a transformative power taught by Confucius and seen in Chinese society. Using Jacques Attali, we can examine the different manners of reflection of music in society and vice versa.

Works Cited:

“【风华国乐 HQ】洞庭秋思 / 龚一 / 古琴独奏.” Youtube. Youtube. 12 November 2011. 20 April 2013. Web.

Attali, Jacques. “Noise: The Political Economy of Music.” The Sound Studies Reader. By Jonathan Sterne. New York: Routledge, 2012. 29-39. Print.

“Confucian Music 孔子音乐.” Youtube. Youtube. 6 July 2008. 20 April 2013. Web

“Musical Bells, Temple of Confucius, Nanjing.” Youtube. Youtube. 6 August 2012. 20 April 2013. Web.

Dan and Sarah’s Soundwalk

Soundwalk Presentation

Dan and I walked from UHeights to the library, then back around through Living and Learning. While outside the library on the green, we heard mostly laughter, conversation, and music, as well as some unidentifiable machinery (possibly a generator or ventilator) which became background noise. Most of the sounds that we heard were human sounds and ranged across the entire green. This shows us how full of life UVM is when we finally get warm weather!

Confucius and Politics

Politics is common to all cultures; every section of the world has some semblance to a political system. Like many other civilizations at the time, ancient China was ruled feudally. Through Confucius’s large role in Chinese society, his doctrines greatly influenced kings, as Confucians believe that a strong sense of virtue through benevolence and li are of utmost importance to rule. Furthermore, a ruler must adhere to the proper way and make decisions based on the rites (Dongfang et al). Thus, kings were strongly bound to music. To be benevolent, one must enjoy music both for its own beauty and its coexistence with ceremony, the most important part of li (Analects). These doctrines can easily be compared to largely individualistic America. Though we certainly have societal norms, it is much more difficult to pinpoint guidelines followed strictly by political figures. Confucian China and America thus create an interesting dichotomy.


Kongzi Duyi:

Guqin played for a Chinese TV station

Both of these songs are played on the guqin, a seven-string instrument related to the zither. In ancient China, this was referred to as just the “qin”, and it is mentioned a few times throughout the Analects. The first song is called “Kongzi Duyi”, and is traditionally associated with Confucius (Confucius’s real name is Kongzi). Music like this would traditionally be played at a ceremony or in a temple to help orchestrate the proceedings; without the sounds, the ceremony would not be complete. This could also be played for enjoyment, as Confucius deems both ceremonial music and music for entertainment important.

Bian zhong: Bells used in temples and for ceremonies

Bian zhong



Confucius, and D. C. Lau. The Analects (Lun Yü). Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979. Print.

Dongfang, Shou, Hongcheng Ling, and Deyuan Huang. “Separation of Politics and Morality: A Commentary on “Analects of Confucius”” Frontiers of Philosophy in China (2006): 401-17. JSTOR. Web. 20 Mar. 2013. .

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The Role of Sound in Confucianism: Morality through Music

“The Master said, ‘Be stimulated by the Odes, take your stand on the rites, and be perfected by music’”(Analects 8:8). 

“He stands to benefit who takes pleasure in three kinds of things…To take pleasure in the correct regulation of the rites and music, in singing the praises of other men’s goodness and in having a large number of excellent men as friends is to benefit” (Analects 16:5).

            Music is extraordinarily vital to Confucianism. Without it, Confucius believes that we cannot achieve jen, or general benevolence. Achieving jen is the ultimate goal of Confucianism; it is similar to reaching Enlightenment in Buddhism or creating general happiness in Utilitarianism. What it means is that everything a person does is in the name of humanity for all people; it is the way in which we should consider our actions and the absolute virtue to follow in living our lives. Almost as important is the concept of li, stating that there is a right way to achieve jen. This correct path is defined by Confucius as well as by Chinese society. For instance, there are strict guidelines for beginning a meal, approaching a place of worship, the role one should play in a relationship, etc. In many ways, it is simply the ceremonies or the repeated actions that we follow, even if they refer to something seemingly unimportant in our day-to-day lives.

Confucians also believe that these two principles are tightly bound to morality; li and jen are both virtues, and we must adhere to them. A main part of this morality is respect for music. In ancient (and modern) China there was a distinct reverence for music, and it was integral to ceremonial practices. According to Confucius, the music is as important as the ceremony itself; without it, the ceremony would not be whole. For this reason, the rites (or li/ceremony/morality) go hand in hand with music throughout Confucius’s Analects. Because of morality through ceremony and benevolence, music holds extreme importance in Confucianism.

It is known that ancient Chinese society was based on many Confucian beliefs; Confucius is still highly respected, and he played a large part in both the social and political evolution of the Chinese people (Chan 2.4.13). This raises the question of how music reflects the moral rules of a society; is it possible to use said rules as a parameter with which to measure the actions of the society? In this case, can we examine the Confucian ideas of proper music and see them reflected in the Chinese people? This is clearly true in an idealized Confucian world; everything is supposedly dictated by the propriety of a person and the goal of goodness to humanity, thus a respect for music would inevitably be found in all people. As a result, this attention to music is of utmost importance. However, this could only be stated without further investigation if everyone in the society strictly followed Confucianism.

As authors such as Jacques Attali have argued, we can learn much from a society’s music. According to Attali, music reflects the culture of the people and the way in which that group is moving. It can also be used to detect evidence of future events, whether that is a social, political, or economic change. Again, this seems to mirror what we would hypothetically see in a Confucian world. As I have mentioned, Confucius believes that his society must stick to a certain way, and that way can be orchestrated through respect for music. In the literature of both Confucius and Attali, we see this same relationship between music and the actions of people.

The problem I propose is to analyze the role of music within Confucianism in order to determine the effect of his stress on music and ceremony on ancient Chinese society. According to Jacques Attali, there will be a clear relationship between the two, but only if Confucianism had enough of an effect on the people.  Similarly, Confucius indicates his belief that this will be true for people trying to achieve jen, but says nothing about society as a general rule. Thus, I propose an examination of both the music and ceremony in Confucianism, along with the role of Confucianism in ancient Chinese society. From this, we can determine the role of music as well as the attention to Confucian morality in this society. This will not only tell us about ancient and modern Chinese society, but also about the role of politics and religion on music in general. Furthermore, we can examine the backing of Attali’s claims in Eastern societies and find a standard with which we can measure the role of music in other cultures.



Attali, Jacques. “Noise: The Political Economy of Music.” The Sound Studies Reader. By Jonathan Sterne. New York: Routledge, 2012. 29-39. Print.


Chan, Sin Yee. “Confucius: Li as Ceremonies.” PHIL 121: Ancient Chinese Philosophy. Hills 234, Burlington. 4 Feb. 2013. Lecture.

Addressing Confucius in my ancient Chinese philosophy class has been the most useful source of information. Throughout many of our lectures, we have frequently touched on the role of Confucianism in Chinese society and the role of music in each. In this particular lecture, our main focus was the importance of ceremony in Confucianism as well as in Chinese society, especially in contrasting it with the much smaller role it plays in American society. This strongly relates to the theme of my research, again showing another dynamic of the importance of this analyzation.


“Confucianism and Music.” Confucianism and Music. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Mar. 2013. .

Confucius, and D. C. Lau. The Analects (Lun Yü). Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979. Print.

This is the most important source that one can use in any examination of Confucianism; it is typical for Chinese philosophers to write an account of their beliefs, and Confucius has done just this. As we can see above, he frequently outlines this belief system of li and music going hand in hand. He also argues throughout the Analects that these are extraordinarily vital. This is also closely related to many of the lectures from my Chinese philosophy class; we have also read this work in that class and go over many of the doctrines that have been recorded.


Mencius, and D. C. Lau. Mencius. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1970. Print.

Mencius is known as the second most important Confucian after Confucius himself, as indicated by his Latinized name. Much like I have outlined about the Analects, Mencius has written a detailed account of his own belief system. As predicted by his designation as a Confucian, he also is a huge advocate for music. In this sense he shares the same beliefs as Confucius, and he similarly holds the same regard for music and li. Since he lived roughly 200 years after Confucius, Mencius also shows a very useful view of the Chinese society in which he lived. Additionally, his is very interesting in that he actually says that both popular and classical music should be revered. This gives a parameter with which to compare the lasting effect of Confucianism and see if ceremony still plays a large part in Chinese society.


Schwartz, Benjamin I. The World of Thought in Ancient China. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 1985. Print.

Harvard University’s Benjamin Schwartz is one of the premier scholars on Chinese philosophy. Throughout this piece, he examines the role of music in Confucianism, as well as compares this role to the ideas in other schools of thought in Ancient China. Like many scholars, he holds the idea that Confucius had a very large influence on the Chinese society, and also outlines the reception of Confucius and opposing philosophers by the people. Predictably, the Analects is one of the main pieces he analyzes, but he also mentions Mencius and later Confucian philosophers. Again, this gives a parameter to compare the evolution of Chinese society with the evolution of Confucianism and see if there is the proposed reflection.


Wang, Keping. “Mozi Versus Xunzi on Music.” Journal of Chinese Philosophy (2009): 653-65. Academic Search Premier. Web. 8 Mar. 2013.

One of Confucius’s largest opponents is Mo Tzu (Mozi). He advocates for the abandonment of music, since it supposedly wastes resources which could be used to improve the lifestyle of the people. However, Xunzi, another important Confucian, holds the traditional belief that music improves a person’s character through its relationship to morality in li and jen. Keping Wang, another commonly cited source in philosophy, shows their opposing arguments, as well as Xunzi’s extension of Mencius’s belief that popular music is equally important to classical music. Wang concludes that Xunzi (and thus Confucianism) is a stronger view, because Mo Tzu does not consider the intellectual needs of humans, only the physical needs. This is a concept which we are very familiar with in today’s world. Similarly, this illustrates many of the real-world applications to the Confucian realm of thought and why it was so effective in Chinese society. This source was provided to my by my philosophy professor, Sin Yee Chan.

The Sounds of Winter

Something that I am very familiar with is the sound of winter in Vermont. Growing up here, I’ve always accepted it as the season of snowboarding, dragging sleds of hay out to my horses, and the rumble of the snow blower. However, UVM has depicted an entirely new concept of winter that is easy to explore with sound.

I begin my audiography in the Davis Center tunnel. In order to escape the frigid wind howling off the lake, I try to take the tunnel as much as possible. Once I started paying attention to my walks through, it became clear to me that there were two very separate soundscapes at work. The first is during actual class time. This causes near silence in the trek between athletic and central campuses, a trek that I tend to take with only three or four other silent travellers. However, during my rush back to University Heights North at the end of the next block, the tunnel is complete chaos. The line of people waiting to get into the door is the first clue, followed by the loud voices and roar of students scrambling to class or to eat. It ends with the second bottleneck up the stairs and out the door onto athletic. This is something that I only experience in the winter; on fair days, the masses opt to enjoy the weather outside.

Following my rush through the tunnel, I’m usually ready for something to warm me up. The newest addition to my dorm room is my espresso maker; the roar of the coffee brewing and the light tones of the milk frother are always well-received noises after the bitter cold. This tends to be accompanied by some procrastination in the form of Netflix and a cozy blanket. One of my favorite shows is Desperate Housewives. The upbeat theme song instantly relaxes me, an assurance that for at least 43 minutes I won’t have to worry about the work I’m pushing off. Occasionally the four women’s lives are put on hold so I can wash my cup and spoon in the sink, and again when I need to refill my water bottle to combat the dry air emanating from the heater above my head. This has recently been aided by the installment of the water bottle station on the UHN1 side, which has a very distinct hum followed by the trickle of excess water.

When I finally venture out again, sometimes to my next class or to dinner, the cyclical squeal of the heater in the entrance to UHN2 always catches my attention. It’s been a distinct sound since the heating system got switched on in the fall, annoying anyone who is forced to wait there. As I walk outside, my boots mimic the squeak in the snow-packed pathways. Due to the storm, there are plow trucks everywhere, dictating where I can and cannot walk. The beeping as they reverse upsets the peacefulness of the cold day.

Another trademark of the change in temperature is my desire to take the bus downtown or across campus instead of walking. I can usually make it to Waterman before my fingers begin to numb and I hop on the College Street Shuttle. Instantly, the heating vents hit me as I sit down for the warm ride. However, the cold doesn’t bother me when I am able to get out and go snowboarding, usually either to Bolton or Smuggs. Unlike many of the other sounds, the scrape of my board against ice is something I’ve been familiar with my entire life.

These sounds create a very different soundscape than the one I experience in warmer months; the shouts in the sun are replaced by the scraping of ice, the whir of my bike by the crowded bus, and so on. However, both are soundscapes that tend to be overlooked. But throughout this project, I noticed that my sense of hearing became attuned to picking up interesting sounds in everything I did. As Michel Chion would say, my listening turned from solely being causal to being reduced; or it focused “on the traits of the sound itself, independent of its cause and of its meaning” (50). I became more concerned with the intricacies of the actual noises instead of the source, since I needed to notice sounds that I tend to ignore. Instead of simply detecting the noise around me, I would actually practice resolution and sometimes identification as well; I would really listen to sound in order to understand it (Arehart 12). This is something that can be challenging in today’s society of constant overstimulation where we are rarely forced to heed the world around us. Through this project, I was forced to understand Horowitz’s conclusion that “listening is a skill that we’re in danger of losing in a world of digital distraction and information overload” (2).

Works Cited

Arehart, Kathryn H. “The Nature of Hearing and Hearing Loss.” Sounscape. 1st ed. Vol. 6. Melbourne: Printing Edge Melbourne, 2005. 11-14. Print.

Cherry, Marc. “Give Me the Blame.” Desperate Housewives. ABC. Burbank, California, 2011. Television.

Chion, Michel. “The Three Listening Modes.” The Sound Studies Reader. Ed. Jonathan Sterne. New York: Routledge, 2012. 48-53. Print.

Horowitz, Seth S. “The Science and Art of Listening.” The New York Times 9 Nov. 2012: 1-3. Print.


Frederick Douglass Assignment

The contrast between the North and South in antebellum America is so undeniably huge that it is almost impossible to imagine them as parts of the same country. As Mark Smith stated in his “Listening to the Heard World of Antebellum America”, “The quiet of the plantation acted as a counterpoint to the noise of urbanism and industrialism” (143). The South was associated with the silence and peacefulness of the farm, while the North reflected the progress of Industrialization and all the discord that came with it. However, Frederick Douglass shows in his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass that this may not be the case to every ear. If the noises he heard were to be made into a soundtrack or put into a docudrama, they would be as follows.

While on the plantation in Easton, Maryland, the sounds of slavery and suffering constantly surround Frederick. First and foremost is that of labor. Throughout the entire day, there would be the light swish of the scythe cutting through the wheat, followed by the gentle drum of its fall. The next sound is the low melody of the slaves’ songs. The rumble of voices, soft but noticeable, saturated with the hurt and hopelessness of their owners’ situation permeates the heavy air in a constant hum. “I have sometimes thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject” (Douglass 8). This desperation would be ever-present. Behind these quiet words and chants is a much louder shriek of pain and a cry for reprieve from such excruciating suffering; however, never are they heard in their true form. Next, over the voices is the intermediate crack of a whip. A white man overseeing the workers reminds them frequently of his presence with the sharp sound of leather snapping back on itself. Douglass describes one overseer: “His presence was painful; his eye flashed confusion; and seldom was his sharp, shrill voice heard, without producing horror and trembling to the ranks” (Douglass 13). These sounds carry to the ears of the slaves, causing the loudest sound of all to fill their minds. This is the sound of fear.

This is what Frederick Douglass lived with every day working on the field. When he arrives at New Bedford, Massachusetts, he hears a very different soundscape. “Almost every body seemed at work, but noiselessly so, compared with what I had been accustomed to in Baltimore” (Douglass 67). To the ear of a slave, the wharf is almost silent. There is no overarching tone of servitude and humiliation, only the thrum of comfortable labor. To Frederick, these were the sounds of contentment and freedom. No desperate song comes from the mouths of slave men and women, but silence from free human beings. “Every man appeared to understand his work, and went at it with a sober, yet cheerful earnestness, which betokened the deep interest which he felt in what he was doing, as well as a sense of his own dignity as a man” (Douglass 67). Everyone served only themselves, not the employer of the brusque men with their crackling, eager lashes. Instead of a soundscape based on pain and harm, it is the gentle scraping, creaking, and hammering of wholehearted work; the undertones of fury and hatred caused by the institution of slavery are not present. Frederick no longer sensed the utter roar of destitution and agony that was constant in the South, but instead only the gentle thrum of free men. The tones are strange and low to him; never before has he witnessed such a place.

To an escaped slave, the haven of the North is the depiction of peace and refuge, while over a hundred years later a white man makes a case for the same to be said of the slaveholding South. Regardless of this inconsistency, Frederick Douglass illustrates the contrast between his perception of the soundscapes of North and South in his autobiography, leaving a very clear picture of what he believed to be the heard worlds of antebellum America.


Works Cited

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. New York: Dover Publications, 1995. Print.

Smith, Mark. “Listening to the Heard Worlds of Antebellum America.” The Auditory Culture Reader. Oxford, UK: Berg, 2003. 137-63. Print.