Even apart from [its] profound connection with mathematics, music is pre-eminent among the arts for the order and clarity, the sharply defined character, of its elements. Music moves us, sometimes to overpowering emotion. It does so through well-defined structures, through an order of tones and rhythms. It is not the mere sound of drums but their rhythmic beating that stirs us. Here we come upon the central paradox of music, the paradox that defines music as a worthy object of sustained intellectual wonder: Music is the union of the rational and irrational, of order and feeling.
Ultimately, by shaping feeling, music shapes the whole human being. For a proper understanding of this, we turn to the ancient Greeks, for whom music, far from being morally neutral, played a decisive role in moral education. Aristotle’s Politics ends with an extensive discussion of the proper moral and political uses of music and the effect of music on the souls of citizens. In the Republic, Plato draws our attention to the power music has over the young. He places special emphasis on the danger of music. The severity of his critique underscores what we, in our effort to excuse or defend music, often fail to acknowledge: that music is a great power and, like any great power, can be used for great good or great evil. Why is music so emotionally powerful, far more powerful than the visual arts? Plato provides a possible answer. In the Republic, he calls upbringing in music “most sovereign” because rhythm and concord “most of all sink down into the inmost part of the soul and cling to her most vigorously.” In experiencing music, we do not behold from a distance but drink in and incorporate. Some forms of music, so Plato claims, are conducive to orderliness of soul and the love of grace and beauty; others indulge the baser passions and feed the lust for disorder and self-indulgence. Studying music as a liberal art gives students the opportunity to consider the possibility that Plato is right—that music is not limited to taste and enjoyment, but has a powerful influence on who we are and whether we are ennobled or debased.**
This leads me to the observation that we are shaped not only by music, but also by our opinions about music. It is all the more important to revisit the connection between music and moral education in a culture like ours, steeped as it is in self-indulgence and vulgarity. The study of music as a liberal art gives students an extended opportunity to scrutinize their opinions—and to confront the causes and effects of their passions.
*Note: This article has been excerpted from a longer article of the same title, published at the online journal The Imaginative Conservative.
**It is interesting to note that the Greek word for beautiful (kalos) also means noble just as the word for ugly (aischros) also means base.