“Music, once admitted to the soul, becomes a sort of spirit, and never dies.” ― Edward Bulwer-Lytton

I may not get what to read once admitted to the soul like. May once here seem a conjunction and if it may seem like that I guess I may read it like maybe a conditional phrase something like if? Or may once here seem like an adverb and maybe an adverbial phrase placing information on when?

  • 1
    The meaning, once a clue has been given to us, becomes clear. Once you have learned how to ride a bike, the skill remains with you all your life.
    – TimR
    Jul 16, 2015 at 11:43
  • 1
    Once bitten, twice shy.
    – TimR
    Jul 16, 2015 at 11:50

4 Answers 4


Once has many meanings but in this case it's a conjunction - it links to a subordinate clause. Once this has happened, then that will happen.

A quick line on meaning. 'Once' in this context is used to identify either a pre-requisite for something: "Once you pay me, I'll send you the goods" or, as in this case, to link a more abstract cause and effect: "Once you've joined the ELL community, you'll never be lost for words again."


We are considering the italicized phrase, and the bold word in particular:

“Music, once admitted to the soul, becomes a sort of spirit, and never dies.” ― Edward Bulwer-Lytton

At first, this looked to me like a prepositional phrase, with 'once' acting as the preposition. After asking a question on English SE and doing a little research, it's clear that this is actually a subordinate clause, with 'once' acting as a subordinating conjunction.

The Wikipedia article organizes subordinate clauses into three groups: noun clauses, adverbial clauses, and adjectival clauses. Adverbial clauses start with a subordinating conjunction, and the whole clause acts as an adverb. This example is an adverbial clause.

I view the clause as modifying "music", indicating which music "becomes a sort of spirit" (music that has been admitted to the soul). Alternatively, one could view the phrase as modifying "becomes", indicating when the music "becomes a sort of spirit" (after being admitted to the soul).

  • It's an adverbial clause modifying "becomes". It tells when music becomes a sort of spirit. Jul 16, 2015 at 8:31
  • @BrianHitchcock I don't really know how that clause could modify 'becomes'. It's the music that's admitted. That being said, I'm trying to classify 'once', not the whole clause.
    – DCShannon
    Jul 17, 2015 at 19:50
  • It's a tough one. I didn't think a "when" clause could modify a noun. Music, when it has been admitted to the soul, becomes... Music, on Thursday, becomes.... If "when" is adverbial, then "once" is adverbial. Jul 18, 2015 at 8:33
  • @BrianHitchcock Updated the answer. Mostly agrees with you now.
    – DCShannon
    Jul 20, 2015 at 17:40
  • So I guess it seems like a subordinate clause, once (subordinating conjunction here[?]), and an adverbial clause. I think adverbs modify verbs, adjectives and other adverbs. So I guess once admitted to the soul seems like an adverbial subordinate clause modifying a verb becomes? So may I read it like Music, when admitted to the soul. . . not Music, if admitted to the soul. . .? I thank you, DCShannon and Brian Hitchcock.
    – saySay
    Jul 22, 2015 at 0:49

"once admitted to the soul" derives from "when it is once admitted to the soul".


It is easier to see how these phrases are functioning if the sentence is structured in a more standard way, without ellipsis (shown in parens).

Music, once admitted to the soul, becomes a sort of spirit, and never dies.

Music becomes a sort of spirit, and (it-spirit) never dies, once (it-music- is) admitted to the soul.

The main clause is: Music becomes a sort of spirit.

To more directly answer the original post, the 'phrase' in question is neither a phrase, nor a conjunction. It is a subordinate elliptic adverbial clause. This clause is functioning adverbially to establish time relations to the other verbs. Viewed in the standard sentence order (above) it modifies the second clause's verb 'to die' as a time sequence, and the first clause's verb 'become' to say when the action happens.

The word 'once' and the clause itself are not modifying the subject of the main clause (as suggested in another answer), at least not in my opinion. Adverbials modify the meaning of verbs, not nouns. Music is the subject of the first and last clauses, and spirit is the subject of the second clause. At the clause and sentence level (S+V+C) there are grammatical relations between the subject, verb and complements phrases that do produce meaning but it is not an adverbial modification.

The words and and once are subordinating conjunctions as DCShannon has already indicated. Mostly because of the ellipsis, the other two clauses are fragments or dependent clauses.


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