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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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The idea of music as a demonic art implies that music
is not considered on its merits alone, but points beyond
itself and man to the demonic. Thus music can be
understood as an invention and inspiration of demons,
indeed almost as a demonic possession. It may be
interpreted as an imitation or image of demonic proto-
types. The musician may be conceived of as a servant
or assistant of demons. Demonic music may seduce or
destroy human beings. Conversely, however, demons
can be influenced, conjured up, or exorcised by means
of music. These notions are intimately related, although
mostly antithetically, to those of music as a divine art
[see next article]. Here too there is a characteristic
connection with religion and the history of religion.
Of course, a precise definition of the demonic, e.g.,
by opposition to the divine, is not possible for all
epochs. There are fluctuations in many areas. And only
in cases where some antecedent division between (good)
divinities and (evil) demons is already established can
a corresponding dualism arise likewise in musical per-
spectives. Such conceptions had already been encoun-
tered quite early. Like the ideas of music as a divine
art, they extend from magical, via mythological, down
to theological and philosophical, forms of thought and
remain active at least into the baroque period. There-
after they fall victim in the course of a general process
of secularization to an increasingly rational skepticism.

1. Primitive Peoples. The sounds of nature (thunder,
water, wind, echo) seem to early man to be the voices
of demonic beings, and a spirit is locked within the
sounding instrument. The narcotic ecstasy induced by
music and dance is seen as superhumanly and
demonically inspired. It leads to union with the demon
world, or to participation in it, or may serve as protec-
tion against it. Different kinds of music correspond
respectively to different kinds of demon. Certain
demons have a special music pertaining to them, by
which they may be influenced. At all events, music
and dance play an altogether central part in all activi-
ties of magic and witchcraft. The power of shamans
and medicine men depends on knowledge and mastery
of the musical devices in this connection. Similar
magical-demonic elements survive in music, often more
slightly modified, well into historical times. They may
be recognized without difficulty even today in the
concerted pealing of church bells, in the blowing of
alphorns at the onset of darkness to frighten off evil
demons, or even as a romantic evocation of atmosphere
in advanced music, as, for example, in the Wolves'
Ravine scene in Carl Maria von Weber's Der Freischütz.

2. Civilized Cultures. In the ancient Mesopotamian
cultures distinct indications are found of a discrim-
ination between light and dark, beneficial and ruinous
demons. Thus in the Babylonian-Assyrian religion a
documented existence of apotropaic (evil-averting)
rites has shown that music served to rescue man from
the activities of destructive demons. Iranian influence
is primarily responsible for the emphasis on a dualism


between good and evil spirits. This is also encountered
in the Old Testament. Jahweh orders his high priest,
Aaron, to wear a ceremonial robe with little bells when
he enters the Holy of Holies. Belonging to the same
context is the scene of David playing the harp to drive
with his music the evil spirit of melancholy from the
soul of king Saul. To the Greeks all demons are inter-
mediaries in the order of the cosmos. They know noth-
ing of a battle between light and dark powers and
acknowledge no devils. Only the syncretist period of
later antiquity conceives of the world as governed by
good and evil demons. Each has its appropriate music.
According to Porphyry (died A.D. 304), good and evil
(specialized) demons are intermediaries in the songs
of men. They can be invoked only by the song-forms
proper to them.

3. Christian Middle Ages. For Christianity Satan is
the enemy and opponent of Christ. Over against the
kingdom of God stands the realm of the devils and
demons. These latter have their own musical perspec-
tive, characterized by cacophony and disharmony.
Demonic and devilish music are, however, at the same
time, antithetically related to celestial music, and vir-
tually presuppose it. They thus equally belong to the
order of creation and, after their own fashion, take part
in praise of creation, confirming it by contraries. It
is for this reason that the realm of Hell together with
its music can find a meaningful place in the sculptural
decoration of medieval cathedrals. In Dante's Divina
the “music” of the Inferno is thus con-
sciously assigned its place.

The specifics of demonic music are taken by the
Middle Ages partly from ancient representations of
Hades, while others are specifically Christian. They are
encountered in literary visions of the other world and
in legends, in morality plays, and in art. Typical of
“Pandemonium” is its consistently contrasting charac-
ter: overwhelming volume, eery shrieks, mocking
laughter, groans, snarls, rattling of chains, cracking of
whips, thunder, howling wind. Instead of playing on
tuned instruments the devils prefer noisemakers be-
longing to a prehistoric and magical world, now dis-
credited and denounced as devilish. They beat on
cymbals and pots, ring cowbells, or blow steer horns
or animal bones. It bears the same significance when,
according to a German folk tradition, the devil plays
out-of-tune trombones on the death of witches. Who-
ever hears such music falls prey to madness. A major
role is recurrently played by animal cries and sounds,
like the barking of dogs, braying of donkeys, snakes'
hissing, and pigs' grunting. Whether explicitly or
implicitly, this tonal pandemonium is in the last analy-
sis taken best in contrast to angelic music, to the music
of the blessed, of heaven, of paradise.

In the Middle Ages the devil is seen virtually as the
ape (simia) of God and of the angels. Hence he imitates
“apelike” the heavenly and earthly liturgy. He parodies
the Latin liturgical songs in order to lead the faithful
astray. In some of the morality plays regular parlia-
mentary assemblies in hell were enacted, including
dances, acclamations, and chants of praise by the devils
before Lucifer enthroned on a barrel, the whole a
caricature of the liturgy before God's throne. The
themes of angelic music reappear in inverted form in
the music of Hell and the devils: from the concord
of una voce (“unison”) is derived discord and disorder;
the sine fine (“without end”) of the jubilus becomes
a ceaseless plaint, harmony is made to correspond to
discord. The orderly and measured circles of the
angelic choruses become a disordered, immoderate
leaping and springing (the Devil limps!). The angels
move to the right, but the devils to the left, a motion
based on the ancient (Orphic) belief that the left is
the wrong side.

The devils are as active as the angels as soul-guides,
as they conduct the damned to Hell with mocking
laughter, howls, contemptuous chants, tuneless music,
and grotesque dances. Many representations of the Last
Judgment as well as scenes in morality plays display
this accompaniment, in which angelic and devilish
music are simultaneously heard and seen. The notion
of dances of death is undoubtedly related to these
conceptions. As minister and deputy of the Devil,
Death is made to accompany the living, or those of
the dead who have died unprepared and unrepentant
on the Day of Judgment, and in the shape and after
the manner of a medieval minstrel intones a demonic-
ally fascinating music. The inescapable compulsion
with which it induces one to dance is an image of the
inescapability of death. The dance and play of death,
according to medieval convictions, likewise belong to
the left, demonic side of music and, like it, are related
E contrario to music as a divine art.

Not only Hell and the road to it are the scene of
demonic-devilish music, but also, and primarily, the
mundane world in its concrete actuality. Depending
on the viewpoint of the observer and judge, music was
repeatedly accounted devilish. Over against spiritual
“true” and “good” music, unsatisfactory music was set
in opposition as worldly, “false,” and “evil.” Even
Plato, in connection with the Greek doctrine of the
“ethos” of different modes and instruments, had distin-
guished between good music, leading to manliness, and
bad, leading to effeminacy and luxury. In Christian
times it was not so much certain melodies, modes, or
instruments that were accounted demonic or devilish,
but rather all heathen religious music altogether, and
then came secular and, above all, instrumental music.

To the Church Fathers the devilish nature of heathen
cult music was a really outstanding issue. They de-


clared it to be a work of demonic deception, chants
of the Devil, and contrasted it with the divine and
angelic music of Christian psalms and hymns. Clement
of Alexandria about A.D. 215 characterized the pagan
singers Amphion, Arion, and Orpheus as frauds, for
Christ alone was the true Orpheus. The sound of the
aulos, the cithara, and the syrinx belong to the Devil's
pomp, said John Chrysostom around A.D. 400. Ephraem
Syrus (died A.D. 373) says: “Where the chant of psalms
resounds in deep contrition, there God is present with
His angels. Where the playing of the cithara and danc-
ing occurs, there is a feast of the Devil.”

The denunciation of musical instruments as works
of the devil, and their rejection for liturgical music
led, up to the later Middle Ages, to a difficult problem
arising out of the fact that musical instruments are
mentioned in Scripture in a wholly favorable light.
Above all in the psalms musical instruments are men-
tioned frequently as tools for praise of God. A few
Church Fathers therefore declare that the instruments
were once (under the old dispensation) holy but, be-
cause of devilish machinations, they had become
blasphemous objects. Most authors, however, interpret
the instruments mentioned in Psalms allegorically or
emblematically by giving them a different meaning (see
article “Music as a Divine Art”). They thus liberate
them from the offensive character of physically sound-
ing instruments.

Dance and dance music were accused with particu-
lar bitterness of diabolism. “The Devil is where the
dance is,” “the Devil is the patron of the dance,” “the
dance is the Devil's leap,” “the dance is a circle whose
center is the Devil.” These and similar stereotyped
assertions derive from the age of the Fathers until the
late Middle Ages and beyond. Their very polemical
sharpness is evidence, by the way, of an immense love
of dancing that, as we know, did not stop even at the
church doors.

Instrument-playing and dance music were in the
hands of musicians, who were also called mimi, jocula-
or minstrels. They were thus regarded virtually
as ministri Satanae and were excluded from the strati-
fied societal structure of the Middle Ages. According
to the preacher Berthold of Regensburg (thirteenth
century) the hierarchy of earthly society corresponds
to the celestial hierarchy of the nine choirs of angels.
And just as the renegade fallen angels became the choir
of devils and went to Hell, so the minstrels are the
choir of renegade men. In legends and fairy tales the
connection between the devil and minstrel was pre-
served for a long time as a favorite theme. It is very
clearly expressed in Hieronymus Bosch's depictions of
Hell. Here musical instruments all but assume the
character of torture implements on which the damned
are stretched (“crucified”), or with which they are
tormented in other ways. This is pursued undoubtedly
in accordance with the old idea that the punishment
should be commensurate with the sin and bear a sym-
bolic relationship to it; those succumbing to vanity and
sensuous lust, and with them their seducers, the min-
strels, are punished with the instruments of their sins.

A distinctive feature of minstrel music and at the
same time one of the leading objections to it, is its
purely pragmatic character, directed only to practical
application. The minstrel lacked real knowledge. He
did not understand the speculative aspects of musica,
its theological context, or the rational and theoretical
principles of order that lay at its roots. In contrast to
the true musicus he is therefore to be compared rather
with an irrational animal: nam qui facit, quod non
sapit, diffinitur bestia
(Guido of Arezzo, about 1025).

The interrelated significance that emerges here be-
tween Devil, animal, and minstrel, is strikingly charac-
teristic of the Middle Ages. Thus the innumerable
representations of music-making animals, demons, and
monsters in art are not only manifestations of
archetypal conceptions in which recollections of music-
making animal divinities in pre-Christian religions
surely play a role; nor are they merely an expression
of playful fantasy; rather they display in the first place
the inverted, demonic-diabolical minstrel aspect of the
Christian order in general and of music in particular.
The very locus of their appearance outside cathedrals
and churches typifies this meaning. Most often they
appear outside the west wall, since night and with it
most of the demons come from the west; also at the
pedestal of the choir, on the cornice, the eaves, the
windowsills; and finally, within the church, on the
capitals of pillars and the choir pews. The favorite
animal musicians are the ape, donkey, bear, dog, hare,
and pig; further, compound beings of various animal,
and also human, shapes. To these belong also the sirens
of Greek legend as the emblem of seductive and
diabolical sensuous lust. The most important literary
source for all these figures is the Physiologus (or
Bestiary) which had appeared in late antiquity. Its
medieval versions treated also of the symbolic classifi-
cation of the partly real, partly fantastic animal figures.
In miniatures in books we find representations of dance
processions and masquerades in which can be seen
music-making minstrels wearing animal masks or skins.
In this connection it is also worth recalling that from
earliest times down to the modern period valuable
musical instruments are found with carved animal
figures as decoration. In this too survives the old asso-
ciation of ideas concerning instruments, minstrels, and

4. Post-medieval Period. The idea of the demonic


power of music reaches well into modern times. It
belongs to the effectus musicae. Popular traditions
preserve it in fairy tales and legends and in customs
still surviving today, such as the south German and
Swiss Shrovetide celebration with its magical orches-
tration of rattles, whipcracking, bells, and pigs' blad-
ders. Many tales recount how the Devil enters his
victim so as then to be able to shout or sing or cry
from within him. This was how the ecstasy of witches
was explained; also the so-called St. Vitus' dance, a
pathological compulsion to dance that could afflict not
only individuals but, like an epidemic, whole groups.
More subtly such possession could take the form of
melancholy, as had previously been shown by the Bible
in its account of David's harp-playing before Saul, a
theme that, particularly during the baroque period, was
often favored, e.g., in two of Rembrandt's paintings.

The exorcism of demons, devils, or of melancholy
by the power of music is based, as we know, on
primeval magical conceptions that survive uninter-
rupted, even though modified, below the surface of the
musical perspectives of various periods. Martin Luther,
for example, accepts as perfectly real the exorcism of
devils by the aid of (spiritual) music: “Should the Devil
come again and heap you with care or sad thoughts,
defend yourself and say: 'Out, devil, I must now sing
and play to my Lord Christ'.”

The antithetical polarity of ideas about music as a
divine or demonic art respectively survives particularly
in the circle of German Protestant musicians of the
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, for example,
Michael Praetorius (ca. 1620), Johann Kuhnau, and
Andreas Werckmeister (ca. 1700). It still forms part
of the basis of Johann Sebastian Bach's thought and
oeuvre, while in Italy and France musicians and writers
had been for a long time dedicated to more modern
and enlightened ideas. The affirmative background of
a divine, ordered, and erudite music was long con-
fronted in Germany by a negative evaluation of and
attribution of diabolism to minstrels and their baser
descendents, the “beer-fiddlers,” the “atheists,” the
“Devil's musicians.” Their music was accounted no
better than the howling of dogs and wolves, their music
was without order, they could “give no rationes con-
cerning their own patchwork harmoniam,” which
consisted rather of “a mess, chaos, muddled notions,
the whole quite irrational” (Werckmeister). Johann
Sebastian Bach's definition of thoroughbass as the
foundation of music is well known (1738):

Thoroughbass is the most perfect foundation of music. The
left hand plays the prescribed notes while the right hand
supplies consonances and dissonances so that a pleasing
harmony is produced to the honor of God and a proper
delight for the spirit. Like all other music the end and object
of thoroughbass is only for the honor of God and recreation
of the spirit. If this is not heeded it is no real music but
a devilish howling and tinkling

(cf. Ph. Spitta, Johann
Sebastian Bach,
3rd ed., Leipzig [1921], II, 915).

In the post-baroque period the preconditions of the
old metaphysical ideas disappear everywhere, includ-
ing Germany. Music is henceforth based solely on
this-worldly principles, its origin lies in the human
heart or within itself. It is the expression of human
feelings or cherished for its own sake, a purely aesthetic
phenomenon. The idea of music as a demonic art now
becomes an empty form, at best a metaphor in which,
however, no one any longer believes.


No comprehensive treatment of this topic exists. How-
ever, there are a few works covering particular periods and
problems, and these often only skirt the topic.

H. Abert, Die Musikanschauung des Mittelalters und ihre
(Halle, 1905). R. Dammann, Der Musikbegriff
im deutschen Barock
(Cologne, 1968). Th. Gérold, Les pères
de l'église et la musique
(Paris, 1931). R. Hammerstein, Die
Musik der Engel: Untersuchungen zur Musikanschauung des
esp. chapter on “Die Musik der Hölle” (Berne
and Munich, 1962); idem, “Die Musik in Dantes Divina
Deutsches Dante-Jahrbuch 41/42 (Weimar,
1964). E. Langton, Satan: A Portrait (London, 1945). J.
Quasten, Musik und Gesang in den Kulten der heidnischen
Antike und der christlichen Frühzeit
(Münster, 1930). K.
Meyer-Baer, Music of the spheres and the Dance of Death.
Studies in Musical Iconology
(Princeton, 1970). C. Sachs,
Geist und Werden der Musikinstrumente (Berlin, 1929);
trans. as History of Musical Instruments (New York, 1940).
H. Schade, Dämonen und Monstren, Gestaltungen des Bösen
in der Kunst des frühen Mittelalters
(Regensburg, 1962).
M. Schneider, “Primitive Music,” New Oxford History
of Music,
Vol. I (London and New York, 1960). H. Sedlmayr,
Die Entstehung der Kathedrale (Zurich, 1950).


[See also Demonology; Dualism; Evil; Hierarchy; Music as
a Divine Art;
Primitivism; Witchcraft.]