Sages from the Ages: What’s Music and What’s It Good for, Anyway?
06 Saturday Oct 2012
Music has been around a long time. Most folks just play it and/or listen to it and enjoy it. But some folks think about it, talk about it. This has been going on for a long time. Sometimes it’s interesting to look back and see what the sages from the ages thought about music and the role of music in human society way back then (of course, their music sounded much different from our music. You wonder what they would have thought of, say, Beethoven 9, or 4’33” or Patsy Cline or Sgt Pepper or Orange Blossom Special or the Vienna Vegetable Orchestra….
Although we don’t have much more than some bits and pieces of ancient Greek music notation, we know that it was an important part of their society (lots of pots with pictures of music being performed, e.g.). Heck, think about where our word music came from… (hint: what did they call those daughters of Zeus….?). The Greeks – read: Pythagoras – were very much into theory – how did this this sound/music/harmony thing work? “The music of the spheres” was not about chord changes; it was how the world/universe was put together, how things were constructed.
Plato, like Confucius, looked on music as a department of ethics. He was anxious to regulate the use of particular modes because of their supposed effects on men. Plato was into perfection (he would have loved the modern CD and audio editing); after all, the ‘real world’ was just flickering images on the wall of the cave, while the real and perfect world of ideas went on outside. “Music echoes divine harmony,” he said. Rhythm and melody imitate the movements of heavenly bodies, thus reflecting the moral order of the universe. Earthly music, however, is suspect. Plato distrusted its emotional power. Music must therefore be of the right sort; the sensuous qualities of certain modes are dangerous and a strong censorship must be imposed. Plato was worried that people would break the rules or step out of line (ethos); basically, be naughty musically speaking. He probably would have had big trouble with rock n roll. Imagine this Greek at a heavy metal concert…
Aristotle made a distinction between those who have only theoretical knowledge and those who actually play music. He said that folks who don’t perform can’t be good judges of the performances of others (I wonder if that would apply to football announcers. Howard Cosell wouldn’t have agreed…).
St Augustine (354-430), who was attracted by music and valued its use in religion, was fearful of its sensual element and anxious that the melody never take precedence over the words. That whole Apollonian/Dionysian conflict that we talked about in these pages earlier…
St. Thomas Aquinas said that the basis of music is mathematical; it reflects celestial movement and order. Luther: music should be simple and direct, an aid to piety. Like a chorale, I suppose. Calvin was cautious and fearful, warning against sensual or chaotic music. The text was all. Another guy not to take to a rock concert.
This takes us up to the Age of Enlightenment. Descartes was a fan of simple melodies, so that the music would not produce imaginative, exciting and hence immoral effects. Kant ranked music as the lowest in his hierarchy of the arts. What he distrusted most about music was its wordlessness; he considered it useful for enjoyment but negligible in the service of culture. Ah, come on, Emmanuel. Give us a chance. Hegel preferred vocal music to instrumental; another one who thought of wordless music as subjective and indefinite. The essence of music for him was rhythm (I’ll buy that). Deep down, we agree, man is, first and foremost, a drummer.
Closing sage quote: Aristotle: “It is not easy to determine the nature of music or why anyone should have knowledge of it.”
Time to stop thinking about it and just do it. Then you’ll see.
The works of Plato, the ancient classical Greek philosopher, appear to contain a hidden musical code, a British academic has claimed.