Posts Tagged ‘Plato and Music’

Plato on Music Education, pt. II: Standards

August 22, 2013

Plato on Music Education:  How American Idol is Destroying America (pt. II)

            If choral singing is to be universal, the obvious question then is, what are all these citizens going to sing?  As Plato discusses, the Greek poets generally wrote their songs to please their audience and themselves.  They might challenge accepted beliefs, or worse, they might repeat some of the old myths about gods committing adultery or deceiving each other or destroying good men out of petty rage.  Plato felt that the poets should not be allowed to write words that were not morally uplifting.  Furthermore, he was concerned with the music and rhythms, lest they be too wild and lead to uncontrolled, ungraceful and intemperate dancing.  When the poets wrote to please the crowd, the unlearned mob will pick the best music based solely on what gives them pleasure at the time.  However, nothing should be judged based primarily on pleasure, unless it has already been established that it neither serves no higher purpose, nor causes any harm.[1]  Since music is to serve very important functions besides being pleasant, it is these qualities that must take precedence:  “As they aim at the noblest kind of song, they will also have to aim not at a music which is pleasing, but at one which is right.[2]  By “right” Plato here means artistically correct, with the rhythms and tone matching the content and so on, as well as being morally and intellectually correct in content.  For this to be, the common Greek practice of letting the audience choose the winner must be dismissed.  Instead, Plato mentions with approval the Egyptian practice of direct government control to allow or ban certain songs, tunes, and rhythms according to what was deemed fitting for the community and pleasing to the gods. [3]   In music, as in everything else, only those who have experience and knowledge can really judge what is done rightly or not; therefore, the only proper judges of music must be those with the education and the years necessary.  Plato writes:

The standard by which music should be judged is the pleasure it gives—-but not the pleasure given to any and every auditor.  We may take it that the finest music is that which delights the best men, the properly educated, that, above all, which pleases the one man who is supreme in goodness and education.  And the reason why we say judges in such matters need goodness is that they require to be equipped not only with wisdom, but particularly with courage.  A judge who is truly a judge must not learn his verdict from the audience, letting himself be intimidated into it by the clamor of the multitude…  To tell the plain truth, the judge takes his seat not to learn from the audience, but to teach them, and to set himself against performers who give an audience pleasure in wrong and improper ways.[4]

            Plato considers proper judging of musical performances to be supremely important, because he considers character to be important, and music is the primary character education for the children of citizens in his proposed society.  Enjoying wrong and bad things will corrupt the individual.[5]  Learning true standards of judgment will enable one to enjoy truly good performances, and be mentally and morally improved as a result. 

            But how so?  This sounds like something between snobbery and nonsense in today’s ears.  How could enjoying bad music possibly corrupt the soul?  Well, either there are standards of judging good and bad music, or it is simply a matter of personal pleasure.  Plato believes there are standards that an educated listener will note, that an uncultured person cannot.  An article from Scientific American seems to argue much the same thing.[6]  This article discusses the research of postdoctoral scholar Joan Serrà and his colleagues, who examined such qualities as timbre, pitch and loudness of popular music over the last six decades.  They found that the variety of popular music appears to have shrunk:  more recent songs are less original in how they shift notes or keys, variations in volume have largely vanished and so on.  In short, they argue, popular music has become blander, more homogenous, as every would-be hit follows in the well-worn paths set by earlier hits, seeking primarily to be much the same, but louder than what went before.  Plato points to other qualities that he feels should be in good music, but which are often lacking in music that plays to the untutored audience:  consistency of form and content, grace and harmony, and so on.  When it comes to music, I am probably not much better than those uneducated boobs Plato decries; in addition to having been a poor student of music, I suffer from lifelong tinnitus which is slowly rendering me deaf (the same thing got Beethoven, so at least I’m in good musical company; and perhaps that explains why I am drawn to his music).  But while I may not have the auditory acuity or training to hear music as skillfully as my children (both professional musicians and music majors), I do understand writing; and the standards of “good music” that are being suggested here are not unlike the standards of “good writing:” varieties of expression (vocabulary, good command of syntax and grammar), coherence of form and content (a sad poem should not have a bouncy rhythm, etc.) avoidance of clichés, and so on.  We generally admit that there are objective standards whereby we can judge verbal writing; why not music? 

            The contrasting argument is that if I enjoy it, it is good to me and that is all that matters.  Those NPR snobs who say Mozart is better music than Kid Rock are just trying to put us down.  Who cares if all the music sounds the same, if I like it?  By the same argument, who says The Old Man and the Sea is a better book than Fifty Shades of Grey?  Or that Inherit the Wind is a better movie than Saw IV?  Who cares about anything other than the pleasure it gives, regardless of whether it was created by skillful craft and original artistry versus simple rote imitation of other people’s creations?  It is certainly possible to deny standards of judgment in esthetics; people do so all the time.  And insofar as the “Marketplace of Ideas” is manifest in the actual marketplace, the fact is that so-called “mediocrity” sells. 

To be continued…..

[1] Laws, book II, 667-670

[2] Laws, book II, 668b (italics author’s)

[3] Laws, book II, 656d-657b

[4] Laws, book II, 659a-b

[5] Laws, book II 656a-c

[6] John Matson, “Is Pop Music Evolving, or Is It Just Getting Louder?”  July 26, 2012 (