The Three Levels of Music

The artist's role as a conduit

On the first day of Music Literature this semester at Indiana University South Bend, our professor taught us about the 6th century text De Musica written by the Roman philosopher Boethius. In De Musica, Boethius describes the three levels of the musical hierarchy as a philosophical approach to explain the structure of the universe. These levels are, from greatest to least, Musica Mundana, Musica Humana, and Musica Instrumentalis, all intrinsically connected to one another. Musica Mundana is the music of the cosmos, the proportional perfection of the universe that enables life on earth to exist. It is the source of inspiration for the musician from which he is able to express the message of his work through Musica Humana. Musica Humana is the music of the human spirit that enables us to understand the greater meaning in the aesthetics of compelling works of music, which are presented to us by means of Musica Instrumentalis. Musica Instrumentalis consists of all of the music we can physically experience, the musician’s manifestation as a creator, for which Musica Mundana provides inspiration. In this way, all three levels function interdependently. 

While Boethius applied De Musica solely to music, I believe the philosophy of De Musica applies to all art forms as an explanation for why the artist is more of a conduit for art than he is a creator. It can be argued that the artist is both conduit and creator, for indeed the artist creates the physical works of art we consider aesthetically pleasing and possessive of a deeper meaning. But in the musical hierarchy of De Musica, the artist’s role as a creator is of lesser importance. The artist is more important in that he has the ability to take inspiration from Musica Mundana and transform it into a tangible medium of Musica Instrumentalis that appeals on personal level of Musica Humana. The artist connects us to the arts, to each other, to deepen our experience with reality.

In the process of composing music, I use my skills to capture something from reality, some kind of inspiration, an ideal, and channel whatever it is into my artistic medium for others to experience. While at Interlochen Arts Camp this past summer, each composer was assigned to write for one of the camp’s ensembles. My assignment was to compose a three minute orchestral work for the World Youth Symphony Orchestra within a four week period. Throughout the compositional process, the initial handwritten draft, the orchestration, and three rounds of editing and arranging parts, I was inspired by the celestial body of the planet Saturn, hence I derived the title of the composition, “The Saturn Expedition.” Of course, I used my own musical voice and ingenuity in the creation of this work. I came up with the storyline to give the piece direction. I composed the motifs and the musical structure of the piece. I assigned instruments to different melodic and harmonic figures. Pretty much just did what every composer does in writing a new work. 

But in Boethius’s hierarchy of music, my original creation of “The Saturn Expedition” is in the form of Musica Instrumentalis, which is the lowest form of the three levels of music. In order for my work to have any substance, any meaning beyond the score and the sound, I must write it in a way that resonates with my audience; they do not have to love it, but the piece must somehow impart a message to them. This resonance that allows the audience to relate to the work is representative of Musica Humana. And the message, the inspiration, and value of this work come from Musica Mundana, the highest form of music, the form that allows all art to even exist, allows it to hold something in its mysteries beyond human comprehension. I believe the conductor of the WYSO that summer, Maestro Jung-Ho Pak, said it best in an impassioned lecture: “We as artists are doing society a service.” All artists humbly hold a responsibility to society. We are the conduits of the power and the beauty of the arts, bringing all of humanity closer to a meaningful existence. 

J.W.G. II