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Correcting Categories, Part 6 – Dionysian vs. Apollonian

My goal in this series is to help believers apply the Bible to their musical choices in life and worship. My contention is, however, that believers today approach the issue of musical choices with certain errant foundational presuppositions that need to be corrected before they can rightly apply the Bible in this area. So my task in this paper is to address a few categories of thought that inform our approach when applying the Bible to music and suggest a few ways that we may need to correct our thinking.

Affects of Music

I have argued that music is a metaphor of emotion, yet my explanation is clearly lacking now that we have made a necessary distinction within the category of emotion.

Dionysian vs. Apollonian

Premodern thought, understanding music to be metaphor of emotion, and understanding a distinction between the affections and passions, consequently understood a distinction between kinds of music. Some music inherently targets the spirit — the mind, the affections, and the will, while other music is designed simply to artificially create a physical experience of the senses. The terms “classical” and “romantic” have been used to describe this distinction, and more recently Friederich Nietzsche used the labels “Apollonian” and “Dionysian.”

Both Dionysus and Apollo were mythological Greek gods associated with music. Apollo was the god of reason and logic and was considered the god of music since the Greeks thought of good music as a great expression of order and patterns (a la Pythagorus and Plato). Dionysus, on the other hand, was the god of wine and revelry and was worshiped with loud, raucous music accompanied by pipes and drums. Neitche used these names, then, to describe the distinction that had been made in the past between kinds of music.

In an article applying this distinction to sacred music, Daniel Reuning explains this distinction in kinds of music:

Music that communicates emotions with a Dionysian force is that kind which excites us to enjoy our emotions by being thoroughly involved or engrossed in them with our entire person. Our enjoyment of the emotion then becomes ego-directed, driven by the desire for self-gratification. This direction often shows itself in keen physical involvement; people become emotionally involved through stomping of the feet, swaying of the body, clapping of the hands, and waving of the arms. Music that solicits from us this kind of emotional response allows us to enjoy our emotions from the inside and very experientially. This kind of music is clearly anthropocentric in nature, because it turns man to himself, rather than away from himself, with the result that he becomes the appreciating center of his own emotions and experiences. Herein lies the goal of all entertainment and popular music, which must please or gratify the self if it is going to sell.11

He then cites Martin Luther as one who used such a distinction to determine what music was acceptable for sacred purposes:

Luther used the word “carnal” to describe this approach and produced his hymn books and choirbooks, so as to wean people away from it.

His music and that of the Lutheran heritage communicates a message with an Apollonian force, which allows our emotions to be enjoyed, while at the same time retaining control and mental freedom. We are relieved of the urgent requirements of our inner drives. Under Apollonian influence our emotions are viewed empathically or contemplatively in a more detached fashion, so that they might always be subject to our discretion and judgment. Since the major point of the Reformation, as of Scripture itself, was to turn man away from everything within himself as the source of hope and assurance of salvation — to the grace of God alone, earned for us by Christ Himself — it was logical for Lutherans to use Apollonian music. Man-directed Dionysian music would only confuse or contradict the message through its anthropocentric emotional forces. Just as hymns and spiritual songs with words full of Dionysian content, doting upon human experience and feelings, are incongruent with the biblical proclamation of the Gospel, so also is music that revels in Dionysian emotionalism. Thus, because music has so much influence on one’s understanding of the Gospel, Apollonian reinforcement was the obvious choice. Furthermore, this choice is just as relevant to us today, since the emotional forces in music keep on conveying their unique messages, remaining unaffected by changes in time or environment — a truly universal expression!2

Another way of categorizing this distinction more along analytical lines was espoused by music theorist Heinrich Schenker (1868-1935). Schenker argued that every element of a composition should have purpose and unity with the underlying compositional structure. Music that had other elements not tied to the structure was dishonest and manipulative. For instance, he argued that the music of Wagner was manipulative because Wagner included many elements in his compositions merely for the spectacle and their stimulative effect on the listener.3

I often use the terms “modest” and “immodest” to describe these two categories. Modest music does not draw the attention to itself. Modest music is composed, like Schenker argued, with structural unity. It is intended to express a noble affection or series of affections that communicate to the spirit of man. Immodest music contains musical elements that draw attention to themselves merely for the sake of spectacle or manipulation. This music directly targets the physical feelings of man in order to immediately gratify.

The difference between Apollonian and Dionysian music is basically what it targets in man. Apollonian music targets the spirit of man — the mind, the affections, and the will. Once the spirit is moved by such music, it may often result in some kind of physical sensation, but that is not the target; it is a result. Dionysian music targets the passions of man — the physical feelings themselves for their own sake. It artificially stimulates such feelings.

Now I will not go as far as to say that all artificial stimulation is always wrong. But a correct understanding of artificial stimulants will cause us to be guarded about their use, and we should certainly avoid them as an attempt to create a spiritual experience. Note the words of J. C. Ryle:

Another mark of growth in grace is increased spirituality of taste and mind. The man whose soul is growing takes more interest in spiritual things every year. He does not neglect his duty in the world. He discharges faithfully, diligently and conscientiously every relation of life, whether at home or abroad. But the things he loves best are spiritual things. The ways and fashions and amusements and recreations of the world have a continually decreasing place in his heart. He does not condemn them as downright sinful, nor say that those who have anything to do with them are going to hell. He only feels that they have a constantly diminishing hold on his own affections, and gradually seem smaller and more trifling in his eyes. Spiritual companions, spiritual occupations, spiritual conversation appear of ever-increasing value to him. Would anyone know if he is growing in grace? Then let him look within for increasing spirituality of taste.4

There are many ways to artificially stimulate happy feelings that have nothing to do with the spirit. Most entertainment, or at least amusement, is Dionysian. Roller coasters, fire works, dramatic arts, and music designed to amuse all target primarily the visceral parts of man to create an immediate, enjoyable feeling. I would argue that this kind of stimulation is not necessarily always wrong, but it must never be sought as a replacement for true spiritual affections.

Peter Masters argues this in his book, Worship in the Melting Pot. He calls this artificial stimulation in worship “ecstatic worship.”

Ecstatic worship is completely different [than true, biblical worship]. This aims at stirring the emotions to produce a simulated, exalted emotional state. Ecstatic worship takes place when the object of the exercise is to achieve a warm, happy feeling, perhaps great excitement, and even a sense of God presence through the earthly, physical aspects of worship such as music and movement. Among charismatics this is eagerly pursued, the programme [sic] being carefully engineered to bring worshippers to a high emotional pitch, and often to a mildly hypnotic state. In non-charismatic circles the objective is a little more modest, but essentially the same — to make an emotional impact. Worship leaders want to bypass rationality and get the feelings going by other means. They want to stir up “sensations” in order to produce euphoria.5

There are many things that people use to create artificially stimulated feelings that are meant to be a replacement for true spiritual affection, which takes much more work to develop. Alcohol is one of them. People every day try to drown away their miseries, and for a short time, they’re pretty happy. But when the artificial stimulant goes away, so does the feeling. Drugs are the same kind of thing. Pop music does the same thing. A driving rhythm or a sentimental tune can make you feel pretty good for a while, but not too long after the music stops, the feeling goes away. These are all Dionysian.

The problem with these kinds of artificial stimulants is not just that they are artificial, but that because they inherently lack depth or substance and are addictive, they leave a person needing more extreme forms to get the same feeling. So one glass or one sniff or some soft rock may create a buzz for a while, but pretty soon more doses are needed to create the same feeling.

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. Daniel Reuning, “Luther and Music,” Concordia Theological Journal 48:1 (January, 1984), 18. []
  2. Ibid., 18-19. []
  3. See Nicholas Cook, “Schenker’s Theory of Music as Ethics,” The Journal of Musicology, Vol. 7, No. 4 (Autumn, 1989), pp. 415-439. []
  4. J. C. Ryle, Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots (Camridge: J. Clarke, 1952), 89. []
  5. Peter Masters, Worship in the Melting Pot (Wakeman Trust, 2002), 23-24. []