Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Music in a Classical Education part 1

When Dorothy Sayers advocated for a return to the traditional methods of Medieval Education in her public speech "The Lost Tools of Learning." (1943) , she was referring to a tradition steeped in the works of the 6th century Scholar and Roman Statesman Anicius Manlius Seuerinus Boethius.

Boethius is the most significant figure in the transmission of the Classical Learning into the Latin West.  For over a 1,000 year span, his works were the most widely disseminated and utilized as authoritative texts in Classical Education.  This is in large part due to the efforts of the 10th century scholar Gerbert d'Aurillac (Pope Sylvester II), who organized the familiar classical curriculum on Boethius works, Fundamentals of Arithmetic, Fundamentals of Music, Psuedo-Boethius Geometry, as well as the Calcidius Commentary on Plato's Timaeus.  While this history is intimately known by Classics scholars, it is often missed entirely by many schools who desire to provide a Classical Education. 

Take a moment to read Boethius best known work, The Consolation of Philosophy for it is the essential handbook for Classical Education.[* here is a great introduction to Boethius 101]  It is a guide for how to think about issues, how to think clearly and deeply with a heart and mind toward understanding Nature and our role in it,  how those forces impact and influence our decisions and the strategies we employ to overcome faulty reasoning from our emotional likes and dislikes.  It is understanding that harmony between our individual Rights and our Obligations to our community and nature. Education after all is primarily a Philosophical quest.  It is perpetual questioning to arrive at understanding.

Music's Classical Pedigree

Classics scholars know from surviving epigraphical and paleographical evidence as well as contemporary written accounts, such as those written by Boethius, that the ancient epics and plays (Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneid, Beowulf, Sophocles, Euripides, Ovid, Mesmodes) were sung and accompanied by instrumental music. 

In Boethius, Music is the primary voice of Lady Philosophy.  This is because in the Classical tradition, music is known to influence human behavior AND it can be measured and manipulated.  It is the conduit to understanding the Cosmos (The "Good Order").  The Western tradition of classical education holds that those without Music lack true understanding and are doomed to be passive reactors to the whims of its power.  In the Holy orders of the Catholic Church and in the theology of MartinLuther,  it is the voice of prayers because in their traditions God is the creator of the Cosmos. The 12th Century German Saint and Doctor of the Church, Hildegard von Bingen takes this tradition further in her morality play, Ordo Uirtutem in which all of the parts, from the "Soul" to the "Virtues" are singing roles.  The ONLY voice without song is the Devil - who bellows and shouts without true understanding trying to sway the weary soul to the false goods of wealth, power, and prestige.
In his treatise De Musica, the influential classical scholar, Saint Augustine of Hippo writes that anything dealing with sound is the study of Music.  On its basic level we have all experienced the power of music on our emotions from the rhythm of a dripping faucet, taking cues as to when to shift gears in our manual transmissions, judging emotion or meaning (satire or serious) by tone of voice.  These are all extremely basic musical elements, but they provide the starting point in the Classical Study of Music.

Pythagoras demonstrating Ratio in Sound via the Tectratys 
While I cannot use this time to provide a basic understanding of leitmotiv technique and how music influences the meaning of a text, emotions, philosophical concepts et al.  (which it so often does by referring our minds in one direction as the text moves in another) it has always been understood as an essential component of Classical Education.  The active engaged practice of music exercises the mind to understand these nuances.

Think about it another way.  If Music did not have power and importance, why do movies, tv shows, commercials, and especially political ads routinely exploit its power?  Would the meaning of a political ad change if the timbre of the speakers voice were different, if the music sounded "happy" during a negative attack ad?  I do not want any of our students to grow up ignorant of this and to have their minds swayed by "shiny objects" without substance.

It is for this reason the mind requires active participation in instrumental and vocal music.  The exercise of which tunes the mind into these nuances, these complex and layered cues of timbre, pitch, rhythm, harmony, dynamics, contours, expression complex textures.  Just as the weight lifter cannot hope to gain muscle through reading about weight lifting, so too is it true with the musician athlete.

There exists extensive and readily available historical evidence as well as peer reviewed scholarship and vetted cognitive research which supports the findings of these 2,500 year old assertions as to the value and power of music. (refer here for a brief list of sources http://www.christianmcguire.com/2016/05/music-advocacy.html )
Rather than being reduced to the status of extra-curricular to academic study or as some mere market driven commodity for entertainment (possessing no more value than soda, junk food or video games?)  Modern cognitive research in Music confirms the underlying concept of Harmonia which was always so central to the Ancient understanding of Life and Education. 

Music is the Core of Classical Education

Understanding Music, how it is produced, its effects upon human motivations, and how this power is utilized has been the greatest source for the development of the Physical and Behavioral Sciences.  Since Pythagoras first applied ratio to sounds, understanding Music is the clearest window into knowing the Whole of Nature. It is the voice of Philosophia of which scholars in the Ancient Greek traditions stressed its importance.  It is why the ancient epics, plays, and prayers were sung and accompanied by instruments.  Its influence and effect on humans is now confirmed by modern research in Cognitive Science. All of the STEM fields are indebted to this tradition of Understanding Music.

We know music in many ways: singing, instruments, theory.  It can motivate us, inspire us, annoy us, compel us to buy, or vote for a certain candidate.  The Language Arts are indebted to the Understanding of Music.   For whatever is conveyed in the best Rhetoric can be supported or undermined through its learned application.

For the classical mind: Rhetoric and Music only lead to Virtue when they are in accord with the Cosmos. Or In the words of Lady Philosophy
...I call to my aid the sweet persuasiveness of Rhetoric, who then only walketh in the right way when she forsakes not my instructions, and Music, my handmaid, I bid to join with her singing, now in lighter, now in graver strain. Consolation of Philosophy Book II.

Related Articles:
Science Appreciation and the Study of Music:
For a brief description on the Pythagorean origins of music, here is bassist and vocalist, Esperanza Spalding


  1. This short introductory paper provides a glimpse into the mathematical side of this early development of music http://www.pages.drexel.edu/~jjn27/mathandmusic.pdf

  2. When I think about the level of Mathematics utilized by Musicians and Engineers, compared to that used in business: well...
    "A certain amount of math is required to be an accountant, but only the very basics. If you are aware of the principles involved in addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, you already have enough math knowledge to be an accountant. There is limited algebra involved, but nothing more. There is no need to know integrals, differentials, or any other complicated mathematics properties and/or equations.

    Accountants will spend more time concerning themselves with information such as tax laws, financial records, and other fiscal terms. They will memorize the basic accounting formulas they need to know, and refer to them when they are completing their work. Almost all accounting work is now done on computers and Excel spreadsheets, which means even less math work for accountants.

    As long as you are an organized individual, pay great attention to detail, are able to handle a great deal of work in a short space of time, and do not have a problem crunching numbers, you will do just fine as an accountant. The notion that an accountant needs to be some sort of mathematics genius is completely false. Maths students have a deep understanding of complex mathematical principles, and have the ability to problem solve and use deductive reasoning in a theoretical/abstract manner. None of these qualities are necessary in accountants."

  3. Question: Do the majority of human beings tend to "think" with the Brain, the Heart or the Gut?
    - What behavior do we see modeled on "Reality TV"? Are those behaviors ethical? Does any serious minded successful business model itself on the antics displayed on shows like "The Apprentice?" "Big Brother?", "Survivor?" "Jerry Springer?"
    Are the big decisions (be it Government, Industry, small business, local politics, board meetings, etc.) made with the greater good in mind, or are they decided by those who have learned how to manipulate the decision-makers for their own gluttonous ends.
    It seems un-satiated appetites overwhelms the ability many have in reaching a higher level intellectual and emotional quotient - those very faculties of the brain and heart required for objective analysis and reflection. Without that awareness ethical consideration and compromise is impossible.
    So what is the solution?
    Education is rooted in the premise that, "The Un-examined Life is Not Worth Living."
    This quote, attributed to Socrates, is found in Plato's "Apology." Throughout Plato's works, he recognizes the ignorance the majority of his fellow citizens had regarding the motivations of their own lives. Tastes and prejudices are particularly singled out. He recounts how politicians, poets, artisans are able to do things without really knowing why, without the ability to explain.
    In many ways when we listen to music we often find we like things without really understanding why. Given that speech, prose, and poetry are all delivered through sound (the primary faculty of music), history is full of examples where inspiring speeches given--purposefully designed to inspire a crowd. It is only those armed with the power of analyses who are capable of dissecting those works to discover whether or not it contains substance.
    This is one of the primary benefits to the exercises in this class. To draw an analogy from Harry Potter, elements of this course could be thought of as your first level of Defense Against the Dark Arts. When combined with Logic and Rhetoric, it is designed to tune your awareness to the messages of flatterers, advertisers, demagogues,
    It also is a benefit to broaden your awareness of all sorts of music in the world. A key to understanding the values of cultures and subcultures outside your own experiences.
    And now for my Final Thought: Why do we go to school. Certainly not simply to spend $xx,xxx to get a piece of paper that says we have a 4 year degree. And most certainly not to put in minimum effort simply to get a "passing" grade. Who benefits from that? The Student paying the money or the Institution taking it in? Employers and your local community want to see results of your education rather than the piece of paper.