Beast or Breast? What Can Music’s Charms Soothe?


There’s a well-known saying about music having charms that can soothe a savage something. But is it a savage beast or breast?

In The Andy Griffith Show episode called “The Merchant of Mayberry,” Sheriff Andy Taylor plays an ongoing prank on a villainous store owner. At one point, as he’s trying to calm the angry man down, he enlists his deputy, Barney Fife, to serenade the store owner. He does so by quoting a popular phrase: “Like they say, ‘Music hath charms to soothe the savage beast.'” But is it a beast or breast that music supposedly soothes?

You might call the confusion over the phrase the result of a mondegreen or an eggcorn. Both are examples of people hearing one thing when the actual phrase is a bit different.

Beast or breast?

If you think about it, beast makes perfect sense. Imagine a “savage beast” fuming over something. Then imagine that same angry creature being calmed by the sound of gentle, beautiful music. No, I’m not talking about some bass-heavy pop song. But something slower moving with an actual melody might just do the trick.

It probably is not difficult for you to imagine music soothing such a beast.

The problem is the original quotation that we use from time to time doesn’t say beast.

The website discusses the mental health benefits of music as a stress reducer. And it contains the original quotation from English playwright William Congreve:

Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast. To soften rocks, or bend the knotted oak.

The Mourning Bride (1697) 

So what is a savage breast? Don’t worry: It’s essentially the same thing as a savage beast. The breast refers in this case to the chest, a poetic way of referring to an angry or aggressive heart in a person. Music would calm that heart, and in doing so, calm the person and his or her anger.

The line has been misquoted as “savage beast” for so long now that no one notices the mistake. In fact, they’re more likely to notice when you recite the line as written. But then that gives you the change to show off the fact that you might be slightly better read than the average person!

Do you usually hear the line as ‘savage beast’ or ‘savage breast’?

the authorPatrick
Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.