The Four Temperaments and Music


My sister has been informing me of the fun conversations floating around the Catholic blogosphere lately about the Four Temperaments. Connie Rossini, who has written books about parenting children with different temperaments, was recently featured on Little Catholic Bubble and it has sparked a lot of discussions between my sister and me about our own temperaments (for the record: I’m a sanguine/choleric… or a choleric/sanguine. The two are pretty much equal).

If you’d like to find out what temperament you are, there are plenty of quizzes online. Try: OSPP, Truity, or TemperamentQuiz to get you started.

As I was pondering my temperament today, it was as if a small little dust bunny of trivia suddenly wafted out from behind a row of forgotten class notes and caught my attention. “Wasn’t there something in Boethius about balancing your temperament with music?” My mind frequently takes a vacation to the Land of Esoteria. Want to come along?

What are the four temperaments? 
The theory of the four humours was developed by Hippocrates, who believed that the liver produced four primary liquids, which he used to identify and treat illness: blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm. People would have these various humours in different proportions.  If your dominant humour was blood, you were sanguine. Yellow bile was choleric, black bile was melancholic and phlegm was phlegmatic. This division was used to explain a theory of four dominant personality types, each of which was under the influence of one’s primary and secondary humours.

Who was Boethius? 
Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (how’s that for a name?) was a 5th century philosopher. In the classical world, this meant someone who studied logic and the classical works of Plato and Aristotle, but it also meant someone who studied law, virtue ethics, mathematics and the natural sciences. Philosophy was the love of all wisdom… if only it was held in such esteem today! Among Boethius’ works was a mathematical treatise on music, which combined Pythagoras’ theories of mathematical harmony in music with Plato’s theories of how the different musical modes affect the soul which, in turn, affects society.

Plato’s Theory of Music
The two premises that are most important for us in this theory are:

  1. like is attracted to like
  2. music has the power to produce either harmony or discord

In the first book of De Institutione Music, Boethius sums up Plato by saying:

 “Plato…said that there is no greater ruin for the morals of a community than the gradual perversion of a prudent and modest music. For the minds of those hearing the perverted music immediately submit to it, little by little depart from their character, and retain no vestige of justice or honesty. This will occur if either the lascivious modes bring something immodest into the minds of the people or if the more violent modes implant something warlike and savage.”

For Plato, music holds persuasive power not only over our emotions, but on our entire character and thus the fabric of society, which relies on harmony in order to function. He explains that the different modes of music (e.g. Thrygian, Lydian) contain different qualities which are able to excite or calm us and that peoples who have different temperaments will be drawn to their like in music (Boethius says this is where the modes get their names: from the people they are most like).

Thus, in order to seek out harmony we must not only train ourselves in the music proper to our temperament, but also learn how different musical modes affect our mood, for better or for worse. Boethius tells us that: “The power of the musical discipline was so evident to the ancient students of philosophy that the Pythagoreans would employ certain melodies when they wanted to forget their daily cares in sleep, and, upon hearing these, a mild and quiet slumber would fall upon them. In the same manner, upon awakening, they would purge the stupor and confusion of sleep with certain other melodies; for these ancients knew that the total structure of our soul and body consists of musical harmony.”

If Plato (and consequently Boethius) is correct, then the music we listen to affects not only ourselves, but society as a whole and even our laws. I wonder what sort of society we’d live in if we limited ourselves to the Dorian and Phrygian modes, per his suggestion in the Republic? What would happen to rap music?!

What does this have to do with the Four Temperaments? 
In the 9th century, Gregorian Chant had been categorized into eight modes, which are different from the seven-mode system a lot of us musicians are familiar with. A brief Wikipedia search found this division:

Modes 1 and 2 are the authentic and plagal modes ending on D, sometimes called Dorian and Hypodorian.
Modes 3 and 4 are the authentic and plagal modes ending on E, sometimes called Phrygian and Hypophrygian.
Modes 5 and 6 are the authentic and plagal modes ending on F, sometimes called Lydian and Hypolydian.
Modes 7 and 8 are the authentic and plagal modes ending on G, sometimes called Mixolydian and Hypomixolydian.

There have been many different ways to classify how these eight different modes make us feel, or what sort of personality they reflect. Guido d’Arezzo mapped them from serious (mode I) to perfect (mode VIII), with things like sad, happy or angelic in between. Because many people believed that music affects and plays upon the temperament of the hearer, humorists saw in the eight-mode system an easy map for using music to balance and support the humours:

four  humours
From Fish Eaters– check out the fascinating article!

According to this system, a person with a choleric/sanguine temperament such as myself would feel particularly influenced by modes III-VI. Which mode I should listen to  would depend on if I wanted to strengthen my humours (modes III and V) or decrease them (IV and VI). If I aspire to increase or decrease any of the other humours, by this theory I can just pick which mode will do that! You can see, though, how this would be a useful tool in the liturgy: choosing appropriate modes to set the tone for the season, especially during penitential times and feasts. Come to think of it, I wonder if playing music in mode VIII will improve my melancholic toddler’s mood?? I’m going to have to try that…

For your listening pleasure, here are some mode samples I found on Youtube:

  1. Mode I
  2. Mode II
  3. Mode III
  4. Mode IV
  5. Mode V
  6. Mode VI
  7. Mode VII
  8. Mode VIII

So… “Wasn’t there something in Boethius about balancing your temperament with music?” I think the answer to this is… yes. Sort of? While Boethius did have a theory of musical modes and how they affected temperament, it wasn’t until centuries later that the eight modes were developed and then mapped to the four humours, which is what I was getting at this whole time.

I feel that I should add at the tail end of all of this that I realize there aren’t actually four humours being churned out by my liver. I realize that being sanguine doesn’t mean I actually have more blood. I try not to place too much importance on things like personality profiles because at the end of the day, we all have choices to make about how we act and what sort of person we’d like to be; but, something like the Four Temperaments or Meyer’s Briggs can give some insight into our self and others, at least on the base level of emotion. And it’s fairly accepted as common sense that music affects our moods, so why wouldn’t there be a correlation between music modes and emotions?

What do YOU think? What temperament(s) are you? Do you like listening to things in “your” modes? How do the different modes make you feel? 

Thanks for joining me on this little jaunt! Now I’m gonna go listen to “my” modes and hopefully feel nice and balanced.




  1. this is fascinating! part of my formation with the sisters in nashville was learning about the temperaments and how that affects our spirituality and also learning the different chant modes. but no one ever made the connection between the two!!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s