When the Master was in the state of Qi, he heard the Shao music, and for three months after did not even notice the taste of meat. He said, “I never imagined that music could be so sublime.” (Analects, 7.14, tr. Slingerland)
When was the last time you were so rapt by an experience that for many weeks afterwards you barely noticed what you were eating? Confucius loved music — not just well-composed pieces well played, but the kind of music that goes way beyond music. I once heard an anecdote about two British conductors standing outside the concert hall after an otherworldly performance of a Mahler symphony, and after a long silence one said to the other, “That wasn’t music any more, was it?” It may be that originally the “music of the spheres” did not mean physical notes given out by the planets, but the immaterial, unearthly aftertaste of music, the thing that music points us to.
According to legend the Shao music was composed by the legendary sage-emperor Shun, whose moral purity pervaded everything he did and could be heard in his music. Confucius’ rapture was therefore caused by an encounter with ethical perfection in music. If music always expresses the ethical and spiritual states of its makers, then it is no surprise that a large part of what moves us in music is more than just what is technically music. The latter is just the surface, concealing an oceanic body of character and spirit. Confucius was that rare person who could find moral excellence so intoxicating that for a while at least mere physical pleasures were insignificant.
[The photograph above is of an inscription near the ancient city of Linzi: “Confucius enjoyed Shao music here.”]