The music of law


AT THE START of his university career almost two decades ago, this columnist thought about designing and teaching a subject called “Music and Law”. The subject would have been an interdisciplinary one that examined the similarities between music and law, and the ways in which each discipline might learn from the other. The subject was unfortunately never developed and remained an idea only, but thankfully this columnist’s love for both music and law has not diminished since the idea was born. This article is a modest attempt to re-engage with this fascinating area by reference to both Western and Chinese traditions. The column commences by outlining Western and Chinese philosophical approaches to the relationship between music and law. It then discusses the similarities between the two. Finally, it explores the question as to whether law has its own music and, if so, how.


The great philosophers of the past have discussed connections between music and law. The Greek philosopher Plato said, “Any musical innovation is full of danger to the whole state for when modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the state always change with them.” Another saying attributed to Plato is that “music is a moral law”, although Plato’s authorship of this appears questionable.

The exact meaning of Plato’s statements is not clear, although he clearly drew a connection between music and law. Another great philosopher who drew this connection was Confucius. To Confucius, music (音乐) was closely connected to rites (礼仪) and each was an integral part of achieving an orderly and harmonious society.

“The Record of Music” (乐记), which is chapter 19 of the Chinese classic The Book of Rites (礼记) and contains details concerning the life and teachings of Confucius, states that “music comes from the inside, ritual comes from the outside”(乐由中出, 礼自外作). This is generally interpreted as meaning that ritual is the external basis for governing or regulating society. Music is the internal basis for cultivating harmony between people and between people and heaven.

Music thus came to be an important part of ritual in the form of “elegant” or “refined” music (雅乐), which symbolised a good ruler and stable government and was the formal or official music of the imperial court. Like many forms of official music, however, it was isolated from external influences and subsequently became ossified and failed to evolve.

The concept of music as a key element of governing the state and maintaining harmony within society goes all the way back to the legendary Yellow Emperor (皇帝). According to legend, in 2697 BC, the Yellow Emperor requested the official mathematician, Ling Lun (伶伦又称泠伦), to create a system of music. Ling Lun did so by determining the fundamental pitches of music, known as the 12 pitches, (十二律吕) by cutting bamboo pipes of different lengths. The most important pitch was the foundation pitch, which was known as the Yellow Bell (黃鐘). It was from this pitch that the other pitches were calculated.

Importantly, each successive dynasty in imperial China recalculated the length of the Yellow Bell to align the dynasty with the laws of the universe. It has been said that the difficulties associated with this were so great that one official suggested that the length of the pipe for the Yellow Bell should be based on the measurements of the emperor’s fingers. This story prompts an amusing parallel with the saying in common law jurisdictions that “equity varies with the length of the Chancellor’s foot” (for a discussion of equity, see China Business Law Journal, volume 3, issue 5: Law or equity?).

At this point, it is interesting to note that the Chinese word for law, lü (律), consists of two parts. The phonetic part of the character [声旁] – namely the part on the right represented by the character 聿 – symbolises writing or written rules. The radical part of the character [形旁] – namely the part on the left represented by the character 彳– suggests the steps that are taken to enforce the written rules. The character is also used in the compound lü lü (律吕) to represent the 12 pitches used in ancient China. Accordingly, the relationship between music and law is embodied within the Chinese language itself.

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Andrew Godwin 2015
Andrew Godwin

Andrew Godwin is currently a member of a World Bank team that is advising a central bank in Asia on potential reforms to its mandate. He previously practised as a foreign lawyer in Shanghai (1996-2006) before returning to his alma mater, Melbourne Law School in Australia, to teach and research law (2006-2021). Andrew is currently Principal Fellow (Honorary) at the Asian Law Centre, Melbourne Law School, and a consultant to various organisations, including Linklaters, the Australian Law Reform Commission and the World Bank.