Music is Formative

This appendix on music appears in my longer Forming the Four Men: Formation for Christian Integration.   It outlines Platonic/Aristotelian view of music and its role in education.

Music educates emotions in harmony with the body and intellect. Writes Plato:

What about someone who works hard at physical training . . . but never touches music or philosophy? Isn’t he in good physical condition at first, full of resolution and spirit? And doesn’t he become more courageous than he was before? . . . but what happens if he does nothing else and never associates with the Muse? . . . someone like that becomes a hater of reason and of music. He no longer makes use of persuasion but bulls his way through every situation by force and savagery like a wild animal, living in ignorance and stupidity without either rhythm or grace. . . . it seems, then, that a god has given music and physical training to human beings not, except incidentally, for the body and the soul but for the spirited and wisdom-loving parts of the soul itself, in order that these might be in harmony with one another, each being stretched and relaxed to the appropriate degree (Plato, Republic, Bk III, 411c2-412).

The proper training of the emotions requires exposure to certain kinds of music. To distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate kinds, we must examine music itself.

The Power of Music in the Platonic and Aristotelian View
All art, including music, is imitative of what is, what was, or what should be. Likewise, music is an imitation, not of visible objects, but of emotional states, either in harmony or out of harmony with reason. Aristotle explains that music portrays emotional reactions—such as anger, courage, temperance, or gentleness. Emotions in themselves are neither good nor bad—but unguided emotion can quickly degenerate into lust, wrath, despair, etc. If music was not formative of character, it would not matter what music we listened to. However, music wields an incredible power over our souls. Music somehow provokes a corresponding emotion in sympathy with the imitated emotion. So music can lead us to experience emotions, those strong passions given by God, experienced by Christ, and rightly governed by reason. But some music can also lead us to feel disordered degenerative emotions.

Anyone who has experienced an emotional-intellectual conflict will admit how influential the emotions are on our intellects. Since, as Plato puts it, virtue consists in loving and hating rightly, it is very important that not only our intellects and wills, but also our powerful emotions love and hate rightly. Since men tend to like in reality what they like in imitation, they transition easily from sympathy with some emotion, to feeling the emotion themselves, and acting on it (Aristotle, Politics, Book VIII, Ch. 5, 1339b11-1340b19). We know this from experience: “sad” music makes us sad. In different cultures, both emotions and music are conditioned in part by the culture’s tradition. The minor chord has a much more dolorous effect on the western European ear than on the Asian. But each culture has its warlike, romantic, and mourning sounds; the culture’s music whets these emotions.

Music whets, even exacerbates emotions that perhaps already existed in a weaker form. In turn, enflamed emotions will desire more musical stimulus. Sad people want sad music, and the music makes them sadder. People seek music which expresses their mood and pleases it, music which “both reveals the prior bent of the soul while fostering that bent still further” (Pieper, Only the Lover Sings, 50). For these reasons it is extraordinarily important to consider the kind of music to which we give our youth access. Says Plato:

Education in music and poetry is most important . . . first, because rhythm and harmony permeate the inner part of the soul more than anything else, affecting it most strongly and bringing it grace, so that if someone is properly educated in music and poetry, it makes him graceful, but if not, then the opposite. Second, because anyone who has been properly educated in music and poetry will sense it acutely when something has been omitted from a thing and when it hasn’t been finely crafted or finely made by nature. And since he had the right distastes, he’ll praise fine things, be pleased with them, receive them into his soul, and, being nurtured by them, become fine and good. He’ll rightly object to what is shameful, hating it while he’s still young and unable to grasp the reason, but, having been educated in this way, he will welcome the reason when it comes and recognize it early because of its kinship with himself (Plato, Republic, Bk III, 401d3-402a3).

Music educates: it fosters our emotions, it stirs them, and emotions affect our choices, hence our character. Just as it matters what stories we tell our children, so it matters what music we encourage. If music is a battlefield, it is a battle worth fighting since, as Pieper notes, “music is not altered without affecting society’s most important rules” (Pieper, Only, 48). Music can manipulate emotions, and emotions can overpower reason: a society which allows emotions to govern, is a society which the world, the flesh, and the Devil manipulate like a puppet. Plato described the faults of a society (like ours) whose musicians had thrown ordered music away:

They misrepresented their art, claiming that in music there are no standards of right and wrong at all, but that the most ‘correct’ criterion is the pleasure of a man who enjoyed the performance, whether he is a good man or not. On these principles they based their compositions, and they accompanied them with propaganda to the same effect. Consequently, they gave the ordinary man not only a taste for breaking the laws of music but the arrogance to set himself up as a capable judge. . . . music proved to be the starting point of everyone’s conviction that he was an authority on everything and of a general disregard for law. Complete license was not far behind. The conviction that they knew made them unafraid, and assurance engendered effrontery (Plato, Laws, Bk III, 700e-701b).

We need formation in good music to be able to discern the difference. Just because we like a piece, does not mean it is good. Those with bad taste do not take pleasure in good music: “if he’s been brought up to enjoy the strong appeal of popular music, it’s the disciplined kind he’ll call cold and frigid” (Plato, Laws, Bk VII, 802e3-d2). A musician’s technical skill is not a guide. We must build a culture of good music “so that something of those fine works will strike their eyes and ears like a breeze that brings health from a good place, leading them unwittingly, from childhood on, to resemblance, friendship, and harmony with the beauty of reason” (Plato, Republic, Bk III, 401c3-d1).  According to Plato, music conducive to the proper formation of emotions will imitate emotions governed by reason, both in words, tune, and rhythm (Plato, Republic, Bk III, 398d).

All three parts must cooperate to represent an emotion governed by reason since “gracelessness, bad rhythm, and disharmony are akin to bad words and bad character, while their opposites are akin to and are imitations of the opposite, a moderate and good character” (Plato, Republic, Bk III, 401a3-5).

So what kind of music aids good formation?  Stay tuned . . .



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