43. Good Music Promotes Good Character

It is quite regrettable that none of us now knows what constitutes Musica moralis.

Johann Mattheson (1681–1764)

The Greek word, “ethos,” had to do with character. In a play or oration it meant establishing the character of the individual as it is seen by the observer, as opposed to the actor’s actions. The original Greek meaning was “the place of living,” or what we might think of as “the person inside.” From this one can understand that in the context of ancient Greek education this word meant the education of the character of the student. In English the definition sometimes given for “ethos” is “theory of living,” a typical modern practical definition. It is from this meaning that the English word “ethics” derives.

The almost exclusive use of music for the purpose of forming the character of the student was an educational principle believed in and acted on for thousands of years. And yet, what music teacher in our time will dare speak of this subject in class? How many music teachers today make this priority number one in the selection of repertoire for their students to study and perform?

The present essay looks at the ancient discussion of this topic. The following essay deals with music and manners, which we take to mean the student’s actions after his character formation has taken place.

Of the ancient Egyptian people who pre-date the ancient Greeks, our primary record is the tomb paintings. Very little literature exists, but references by the later Greeks give us a few clues regarding the use of music in that earlier society. It is an important question for it appears that much of the character of the ancient Greek society, including music, came from Egypt. Strabo, for example, writing during the first years of the Christian Era, says that the Egyptians instructed their children with music established by the government and that musicians were in charge of the development of character in the young.

The musicians in giving instruction in singing and playing the lyre or aulos considered this virtue as essential, since they maintain that such studies are destined to create discipline and develop the character.1

Once the Egyptians arrived at their educational principles, including those relative to character formation, sources tell us the government prohibited any further changes or additions. Plato (427–347 BC) mentions that this was true for all the arts, including music. Speaking of Egypt, in his Laws he reports,

Long ago they appear to have recognized the very principle of which we are now speaking — that their young citizens must be habituated to forms and strains of virtue. These they fixed, and exhibited the patterns of them in their temples; and no painter, no other representative artist is allowed to innovate upon them, or to leave the traditional forms and invent new ones. To this day, no alteration is allowed either in these arts, or in music at all. And you find that their works of art are painted or molded in the same forms which they had ten thousand years ago; — this is literally true and no exaggeration, — their ancient paintings and sculptures are not a bit better or worse than the works of today, but are made with just the same skill.2

We can assume Plato to be a good source here as he personally studied in Egypt for nineteen years. His discussion of the history of music practice in Greece implies that he had some knowledge of its earlier history as well as we can see in his first sentence,

Let us speak of the laws about music, — that is to say, such music as then existed, — in order that we may trace the growth of the excess of freedom from the beginning.3

He begins with a brief history of some of the musical forms associated with the cult-religious practices and then becomes considerably more animated when he speaks of the audience.

All these forms and others were duly distinguished, nor were the performers allowed to confuse one style of music with another. And the authority which determined and gave judgment, and punished the disobedient, was not expressed in a hiss, nor in the most unmusical shouts of the multitude, as in our days, nor in applause and clapping of hands. But the directors of public instruction insisted that the spectators should listen in silence to the end; and boys and their tutors, and the multitude in general, were kept quiet by a hint from a stick. Such was the good order which the multitude were willing to observe; they would never have dared to give judgment by noisy cries.

From this it is already apparent that Plato believed that the greatest period of Greek music, culturally speaking, was already past. He blames the musicians, composers and performers themselves, for this decay and squarely places the blame on them for seeking to please the audience without any perceptions of the subsequent danger to their art.

And then, as time went on, the [singing] poets themselves introduced the reign of vulgar and lawless innovation. They were men of genius, but they had no perception of what is just and lawful in music; raging like bacchanals and possessed with inordinate delights — mingling lamentations with hymns, and paeans with dithyrambs; imitating the sounds of the flute on the lyre, and making one general confusion; ignorantly affirming that music has no truth, and, whether good or bad, can only be judged of rightly by the pleasure of the hearer. And by composing such licentious works, and adding to them words as licentious, they have inspired the multitude with lawlessness and boldness, and made them fancy that they can judge for themselves about melody and song. And in this way the theaters from being silent have become vocal, as though they had understanding of good and bad in music and poetry; and instead of an aristocracy, an evil sort of theatrocracy has grown up. For if there had been a democracy in music alone, consisting of free men, no fatal harm would have been done; but in music there first arose the universal conceit of omniscience and general lawlessness; — freedom came following afterwards, and men, fancying that they knew what they did not know, had no longer any fear, and the absence of fear begets shamelessness. For what is this shamelessness, which is so evil a thing, but the insolent refusal to regard the opinion of the better by reason of an over-daring sort of liberty?4

The ancient Greeks also placed great emphasis on the use of music to form the character of the young. In a widely quoted definition, Plato wrote,

Education has two branches, — one of gymnastic, which is concerned with the body, and the other of music, which is designed for the improvement of the soul.5

For Plato it was in this area of the improvement of the soul where he found the great value of music education. The importance of the educational value of this mysterious art of music, which could not even be seen, was first based on an idea shared by other early philosophers, that while the other senses, smell, touch, taste and sight all seemed to be a form of information outside the body and therefore accessible to discussion, music seemed to enter through the ears to affect us inside the body reaching the heart, meaning our feelings. Second, since the feelings heard in the music were by nature so similar to those felt in the heart, it followed that an educational pedagogy based on imitation, or modeling, held the promise of improving the character of the listener. This was why Plato sensed the great power of music.

Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other…. he who has received this true education of the inner being will most shrewdly perceive omissions or faults in art and nature, and with a true taste, while he praises and rejoices over and receives into his soul the good, and becomes noble and good, he will justly blame and hate the bad.6

It followed, demonstrating the significance Plato gave music education, that he recognized the value of the teachers, urging the state to find the best teachers, even importing them from other lands and providing them with houses and good pay. Children, Plato contends, should attend whether or not the parents approved.

Regarding the actual music to be used in education, we unfortunately are without much detail, not only because no music from this period survives, as there was yet no notation system and because Plato had very little technical knowledge of music, a fact he readily admitted.7 He did believe it should be simple, rather than complex8 should have virtue9 and above all have verisimilitude.10 This last quality, that music must be True, was illustrated by Plato in analogies meaningful to his audience. For our time Truth might better represent music which is genuine, as opposed to the constructed music of the educational publishers. “No trickery,” says Plato!11

On the other hand, Plato was very clear about the kinds of music which were not appropriate for use in music education. Popularity is not a criteria12 and not just whatever kind of music the students want.13 Indeed he speaks at length on the bad educational influence which comes from popular music.14 Four hundred years later one of the last of the ancient Greek philosophers, Philodemus (1st century AD), still reflected this basic contention. “Music”, he wrote, “which is devoid of significance naturally equates with disorderliness and lack of restraint.”15

It would appear that the old basic educational values regarding the use of music continued for some time. Plutarch (46–119 AD) recalled that the Greeks “were so careful to teach their children music,”

for they deemed it requisite by the assistance of music to form and compose the minds of youth to what was decent, sober, and virtuous; believing the use of music beneficially efficacious to incite to all serious actions.16

Strabo, writing at about the same time, mentioned the divine connection, “they also attribute to music the upbuilding of morals, believing that everything which tends to correct the mind is close to the gods.”17

Athenaeus, a source of very extensive information in the older Greek civilization, as evidenced in the following by his reference to Damon of Athens, the teacher of Socrates, dwells on the fact that the ancient Greeks were very selective regarding the quality of the music used for forming the character of the young.

Music contributes also to the exercise and the sharpening of the mind; hence all Greeks as well as those barbarians [those who do not speak Greek well!] with whom we are acquainted make use of it. With good reason Damon of Athens and his school say that songs and dances are the result of the soul’s being in a kind of motion; those songs which are noble and beautiful produce noble and beautiful souls, whereas the contrary kind produce the contrary. Whence also came that witty remark of Cleosthenes, the ruler of Sicyon, which reveals his cultivated mind. For, as they say, after seeing one of his daughter’s suitors dancing in vulgar posture he declared that he had “danced away” his marriage, probably believing that the young man’s soul was also vulgar. For, whether in dancing or in walking, decency and dignity of bearing are beautiful, whereas immodesty and vulgarity are ugly. For this reason, in fact, from the very beginning, the poets arranged dances for freemen, and they used the dance figures only to illustrate the theme of the songs, always preserving nobility and manliness in them…. But if any one arranged his figures with undue exaggeration, or when he came to his songs said anything that did not correspond to the dance, he was discredited.18

Strabo also confirmed this, saying of them, “that music was ever accounted among them the best, which was most grave, simple and natural.”19

One of the characteristics of the ancient Greek philosophy of music education was their belief that if the child’s character was formed early through the appropriate music, his character became “set for life.” Plato once wrote regarding how this affected the child’s music preferences later on.

And if a man be brought up from childhood to the age of discretion and maturity in the use of the orderly and severe music, when he hears the opposite he detests it, and calls it illiberal; but if trained in the sweet and vulgar music, he deems the severer kind cold and displeasing. So that while he who hears them gains no more pleasure from the one than from the other, the one has the advantage of making those who are trained in it better men, whereas the other makes them worse.20

This subject is also mentioned by Plutarch. He writes that Aristoxenus (b. c. 350 BC), a pupil of both the Pythagorean School and of Aristotle, spoke about the value of music in forming character in some books which are now lost, but were known to Plutarch. Plutarch passes on to us, from these lost books of Aristoxenus, a discussion regarding the lyric poets, who were before Socrates. The he tells about Telesias the Theban was meant to demonstrate that proper lessons once learned become part of the character and cannot be easily changed.

Now that the right molding or ruin of ingenuous manners and civil conduct lies in a well-grounded musical education, Aristoxenus has made apparent. For, of those that were contemporary with him, he gives an account of Telesias the Theban, who in his youth was bred up in the noblest excellences of music, and moreover studied the works of the most famous lyric poets, Pindar, Dionysius the Theban, Lamprus, Pratinas, and all the rest who were accounted most eminent; who played also to perfection upon the aulos, and was not a little industrious to furnish himself with all those other accomplishments of learning; but being past the prime of his age, he was so bewitched with the theater’s new fangles and the innovations of multiplied notes, that despising those noble precepts and that solid practice to which he had been educated, he betook himself to Philoxenus and Timotheus, and among those delighted chiefly in such as were most depraved with diversity of notes and baneful innovation. And yet, when he made it his business to make verses and labor both ways, as well in that of Pindar as that of Philoxenus, he could have no success in the latter. And the reason proceeded from the truth and exactness of his first education.21

Aristotle (384–322 BC), the great philosopher who followed Plato, not only believed in the use of music to form the character of the young, but he believed that of the five senses hearing (music) is the only one which can affect character.

Why is it that of all things which are perceived by the senses that which is heard alone possesses moral character? For music, even if it is unaccompanied by words, yet has character; whereas a color and an odor and taste have not.22

This seems to have been an ancient idea. The 5th century BC historian, Herodotus, quotes Xerxes, the 5th century BC king of Persia as declaring,

Mark my words: it is through the ears you can touch a man to pleasure or rage – let the spirit which dwells there hear good things, and it will fill the body with delight; let it hear bad, and it will swell with fury.23

For Aristotle the means by which music education affects character lies, as in the case of the experience of Tragedy, in catharsis. When we hear emotions in music our feelings move in sympathy.

Rhythm and melody supply imitations of anger and gentleness, and also of courage and temperance, and of all the qualities contrary to these, and of the other qualities of character, which hardly fall short of the actual emotions, as we know from our own experience, for in listening to such strains our souls undergo a change. The habit of feeling pleasure or pain at mere representations is not far removed from the real feelings.24

The key in making this work, according to Aristotle, was in the selection of the highest music. Only certain kinds of music produce the catharsis with the empathy and introspection (pity and fear) necessary to character formation.

We accept the division of melodies…into ethical melodies, melodies of action, and passionate or inspiring melodies, each having, as they say, a mode corresponding to it…. In education the most ethical modes are to be preferred, but in listening to the performances of others we may admit the modes of action and passions also. For feelings such as pity and fear, or, again, enthusiasm, exist very strongly in some souls, and have more or less influence over all. Some persons fall into a religious frenzy, whom we see as a result of the sacred melodies — when they have used the melodies that excite the soul to mystic frenzy — restored as through they had found healing and purgation. Those who are influenced by pity and fear, and every emotional nature, must have a like experience, and others in so far as each is susceptible to such emotions, and all are in a manner purged and their souls lightened and delighted. The purgative melodies likewise give an innocent pleasure to mankind.25

Specifically it is the style of the Dorian people (not the “Dorian” of the later Church modes) that he finds most effective.

But for education the ethical modes should be used, such as Dorian…. All men agree that the Dorian music is the gravest and manliest. And whereas we say that the extremes should be avoided and the mean followed, and whereas the Dorian is a mean between the other modes, it is evident that our youth should be taught the Dorian music.26

In another place he mentions the Dorian and other peoples’ music with regard to their character.

Even in mere melodies there is an imitation of character, for the musical modes differ essentially from one another, and those who hear them are differently affected by each. Some of them make men sad and grave, like the so-called Mixolydian, others enfeeble the mind, like the relaxed modes, another, again, produces a moderate and settled temper, which appears to be the peculiar effect of the Dorian; the Phrygian inspires enthusiasm. The whole subject has been well treated by philosophical writers on this branch of education, and they confirm their arguments by facts.27

This same effect happens in viewing paintings, he says, but to a lesser extent. “Even still the young should be taught to look at [only] the best art.” However, in the case of music Aristotle still recognized a lower role for Music as well.

Such are the modes and the melodies in which those who perform music at the theater should be invited to compete. But since the spectators are of two kinds — the one free and educated, and the other a vulgar crowd composed of mechanics, laborers, and the like — there ought to be contests and exhibitions instituted for the relaxation of the second class also … A man receives pleasure from what is natural to him, and therefore professional musicians may be allowed to practice this lower sort of music before an audience of a lower type.28

No early writer addresses this topic with more heartfelt passion than the great historian Polybius (200–188 BC). He departs from his description of the internal wars of the period 220–216 BC to give a fervent testimonial to the very practical role music plays in shaping the character of entire peoples. It is an important testimonial to the educational use of music by the ancient Greeks. The reader will notice here again the emphasis on quality music. “I mean true music,” as Polybius calls it. “Why, Polybius asks, did the savage character of the Cynaethans so far surpass all the other Greeks of that period in cruelty and lawless behavior”?

My own opinion, he writes, is that they were the first and indeed the only people among the Arcadians to have abandoned an institution which had been nobly conceived by their ancestors, and was studied by all the inhabitants of Arcadia in their relation to their natural conditions. I am referring here to the special attention given to music, and by this I mean true music, which is a blessing to all peoples, but in the case of the Arcadians, a necessity. We should certainly not accept the suggestion of Ephorus, who threw into the preface to his history a sentence that was quite unworthy of him, to the effect that music was introduced among men merely for the purpose of beguiling and deceiving one another. Nor should we imagine that the Cretans and the Lacedaemonians did not have good reason for substituting the use of the aulos and of rhythmic movements in place of the trumpets in their military operations. In the same way the early Arcadians knew what they were about when they gave music such an important place in their public life that not only boys but young men up to the age of thirty were obliged to study it constantly, even though in other respects they lived under the most austere conditions. For it is a fact that is well-attested and familiar to all that Arcadia is almost the only nation in which the boys are taught from their earliest childhood to sing in measure the hymns and paeans in which they commemorate, according to their traditions, the gods and heroes of particular localities.

Later they learn the measures of Philoxenus and Timotheus, and every year in the theater there are keenly contested competitions in choral singing to the accompaniment of professional aulos players, the boys taking part in the events which are suitable to their age and them men in what is called the men’s festival.

And in addition to these occasions, it is their custom all through their lives to entertain themselves at their banquets: they do not listen to hired performers but create their own music, each man being called upon for a song in turn. They are not at all ashamed to admit that they are completely ignorant of other studies, but in the case of singing nobody can claim to be untaught because everybody is obliged to learn; nor can they say that they know not how to sing, or excuse themselves from performing, for this would be considered a disgrace among them. Besides this, the young men practice marching melodies on the aulos while they are on parade, perfect themselves in dances, and give annual displays in the theaters, all these activities being carried on through the patronage of the state and at the public expense.

In introducing these practices I do not believe that the ancestors of the Arcadians thought of them as luxuries or extravagances. On the contrary, they saw that personal manual labor was the general lot, that the life of the people was toilsome and hard, and that as a natural consequence of the country’s cold and gloomy climate the character of its inhabitants was correspondingly austere. The fact is that as mortal men we adapt ourselves by sheer necessity to climatic influences, and it is this reason and no other which causes separate nations and peoples dwelling widely apart to differ so markedly in their circumstances, their physique and their complexion, as well as in most of their customs. So it was with the intention of softening and tempering the stubbornness and harshness of nature that the early Arcadians introduced the practices I have described. Beside this, they inculcated the habit for men and women alike of holding frequent social gatherings, sacrificial ceremonies, and dances performed by young men and girls, and exerted themselves by every possible means to humanize the hardness of the national character through the softening and civilizing influence of such institutions.29

Athenaeus confirmed the point Polybius was making.

But the people of Cynaetha came at the end to neglect these customs [the use of music in education], although they occupied by far the rudest part of Arcadia in point of topography as well as climate; when they plunged right into friction and rivalry with one another they finally became so brutalized that among them alone occurred the gravest acts of sacrilege.30

By the end of the period of ancient Greece (beginning c. 200 BC) the “Golden Age” was far behind and all hallmarks of society’s cultivation were in decline. Accordingly there must have been those who were arguing that the emphasis on using music to develop character in students was no longer valid. Some people were beginning to think of music as mere entertainment and Strabo attacks this philosophy, represented by the Alexandrian writer Eratosthenes (276–194 BC).

Why, even the musicians, when they give instruction in singing, in lyre playing, or in aulos playing… maintain that these studies tend to discipline and correct the character.31

With the beginning of the Christian Era, the Church assumed the role of character formation and officially cast out all the old Greek philosophical ideas about music as being merely “pagan.” The Church transferred music into the field of mathematics, as far removed from its natural role in communication of feeling as possible. Nevertheless, by the 4th century some Church fathers had begun to adapt the old Greek idea of ethos as part of the ideals of church music, although as we can see in the writings of St Jerome (340–420), and St John Chrysostom (347–407 AD), now the Church takes the position that it is the words of the Church music which are important, not the music itself.

We have a remarkable discussion of the topic of using music for character formation by Boethius (475–524 AD), a famous mathematician and author of one of the most important medieval treatises on music, De institutione musica.32 Because of the importance of this philosopher still today, we wish to call the reader’s attention to four very significant arguments by Boethius.

First, he elevates music above the other liberal arts with respect to its sole role in affecting character (“morality”). Here he quotes the standards given by Plato,

Plato holds that the greatest care should be exercised lest something be altered in music of good character. He states that there is no greater ruin of morals in a republic than the gradual perversion of chaste and temperate music, for the minds of those listening at first acquiesce. Then they gradually submit, preserving no trace of honesty or justice — whether lascivious modes bring something immodest into the dispositions of the people or rougher ones implant something warlike and savage.

Second, he makes the intuitive conclusion that we ourselves are somehow made in the likeness of music. Indeed a group of physicists working with Dr Hans Jenny in Switzerland have been studying the fact that all our organs produce specific pitches. One of the physicists has concluded that we look as we do as a species due to the combined influence of this internal “harmony” and gravity.

Third, on the basis of the second idea, it follows that his explanation of how music affects character is solidly based on ancient Greek philosophy, pagan or not. His statements, such as this one which implies ignoring the position of the Church, had the result, on another occasion, of the pope arranging for his murder.

Fourth, after stating his belief that “no path to the mind is as open for instruction as the sense of hearing” when rhythms and modes reach an intellect through the ears, they doubtless affect and reshape that mind according to their particular character, he concludes that “there is no greater ruin of morals in a republic than the gradual perversion of music” (something which requires no better witness than our own time.)

Since the human race has become lascivious and impressionable, it is taken up totally by representational and theatrical modes. Music was indeed chaste and modest when it was performed on simpler instruments. But since it has been squandered in various, promiscuous ways, it has lost its measure of dignity and virtue; and, having almost fallen into a state of disgrace, it preserves nothing of its ancient splendor.

By the early Renaissance in Italy we continue to find writers emphasizing the role of music in building character. Pietro Vergerio, an important humanist and professor of logic in 1391, wrote a treatise, De ingenuis moribus, in which he recommends the study of both the theory and practice of music “as an aid to the inner harmony of the soul.”33

Vittorino da Feltre (1396–1415), who established an humanistic school in the court of Gianfrancesco Gonzaga in Mantua, was a strong believer in the Greek ideals of music having a beneficial effect on character, and for this purpose he introduced music at meal times for his students.34

Jacques de Liege in Paris, one of the most famous representatives of the ars antiqua, author, in about 1313, of Speculum Musicae, contended that all art must be judged on moral grounds,

For though art is said to be concerned with what is difficult, it is nevertheless concerned with what is good and useful, since it is a virtue perfecting the soul through the medium of the intellect.35

And it was from this perspective that he found “modern music” (“ars nova”) to be a harmful influence on the character of man.

For, if I may say so, the old art seems more perfect, more rational, more seemly, freer, simpler, and plainer. Music was originally discreet, seemly, simple, masculine, and of good morals; have not the moderns rendered it lascivious beyond measure?36

With the arrival of the High Renaissance we find renewed interest among leading philosophers in the role of music in character formation. The important critic of music, Vincenzo Galilei (1533–1591), father of the famous Galileo Galilei, began his Fronimo (1584) by reflecting on his admiration for the views of the ancient civilizations on the virtues of music with respect to character development.

Music was esteemed to be of such power and virtue by the ancients that it was their opinion that our very souls were harmony, and that sweet and suave harmonies were in this manner inspired to temper uncontrolled emotions so that they should not be discordant with one another. Therefore they took care to introduce good professors of that science, and to honor them with every kind of honor as being useful in their Republics; for the Egyptians never allowed their system of music to be changed by even one note, and just as they had established it, so they continued to accept it for more than ten thousand years, according to their calendar, because they were sure that they could not change the rules and laws of music without serious damage to the body politic.37

One of the foremost intellectual influences in Paris in the late Renaissance was the group of poets known as the Pleiade. Their music specialist, Pontus de Tyard, wrote a treatise on music in which he testifies on behalf of the ethical impact of music.

Among the ancients music served as an exercise to temper the soul to a perfect condition of goodness and virtue, exciting and appeasing, by its native power and secret energy, the passions and emotions, as the sounds were carried from the ear to the spiritual parts.38

In Germany, Martin Luther also commented on the ability of music to affect the character. He seems to have noticed this first in the quality of people he knew who were also musicians. We may presume that it was his recognition of this purpose of music which fostered his frequent recommendation that music be part of the school curriculum.

I have always loved music. Those who have mastered this art are made of good stuff, they are fit for any task. It is necessary indeed that music be taught in the schools. A teacher must be able to sing; otherwise I will not as much as look at him. Also, we should not ordain young men into the ministry unless they have become well acquainted with music in the schools… Music is a beautiful and glorious gift of God and close to theology. I would not give up what little I know about music for something else which I might have in greater abundance. We should always make it a point to habituate youth to enjoy the art of music, for it produces fine and skillful people.39

During the German Baroque Period we find Johann Mattheson (1681–1764), who was not only a very prolific writer on a wide variety of musical subjects, but an experienced singer, performer on organ and harpsichord and respected composer. For all of Mattheson’s pleas that the purpose of music was to move the emotions of the listener, he appears to have been reluctant to go beyond this to the ancient Greek concept of character development. He appears to want to believe that music can change character, and appears to accept the basic logic, but nevertheless he hesitates,

Besides it is quite regrettable that none of us now know what constitutes “Musica moralis.” If ethical, or moral philosophy, which concerns the inner man, were only well cultivated; then morals, or ethics which concern the extrinsic, would function better.40

Almost as if he is afraid to stand for what he believes, Mattheson lets another speak in his place, quoting the author Lohenstein. Then Mattheson quickly adds, this is “a statement which can arouse to deeper insight.”41

The eyesight, the sense of smell, the sense of taste and the sense of touch serve the body; but only the sense of hearing is reserved for the soul and our morals.

It is interesting to find, among all the debates on the nature and role of church music during the Baroque, one important composer, Jan Pieters Sweelinck (1562–1621), held an aesthetic of music still firmly rooted in Plato. In a letter to the Burgomasters and Aldermen of Amsterdam of 1603, Sweelinck reflects,

So great is the correspondence between music and the soul that many, seeking out the essence of the latter, have thought it to be full of harmonious accords, to be, indeed, a pure harmony. All nature itself, to speak the truth, is nothing but a perfect music that the Creator causes to resound in the ears of man, to give him pleasure and to draw him gently to Himself. This we recognize at a glance in the excellent arrangement, the splendid proportions, and the orderly movements and revolutions of the celestial bodies.42

Among the English philosophers of the Baroque Period there are also some interesting comments on the subject of music’s impact on character. Thomas Mace (1613–1709), a very important writer on music theory and criticism, left a discussion of country church music, in which he holds the lack of the use of music in the education of the young to be the cause of his complaints regarding discipline.

For if children be once truly principled in the grounds of piety and music when they are young, they will be like well-seasoned vessels, fit to receive all other good things to be put into them. And I am not only subject to believe, but am very confident, that the vast jarrings, the dischording-untunableness, over-spreading the face of the whole earth, might be much rectified, and put into tune sooner this way, than by any other way that can be thought upon.43

John Milton (1608–1674) is considered by the English to be their greatest poet after Shakespeare. He also makes reference to the ancient Greek assertion that music can change one’s character or manners. In the poem Arcades, like Mace, he also attributes to music the ability to raise man above disturbing influences.

Such sweet compulsion doth in musick lie,
To lull the daughters of Necessity,
And keep unsteady Nature to her law,
And the low world in measured motion draw
After the heavenly tune, which none can hear
Of human mold with gross unpurged ear.44

Finally, the purpose of music emphasized by the ancient Greeks, is now lamented by the famous Jonathan Swift (1667–1745), best remembered today for his Gullivers’s Travels.

True music being a certain Divine-Magical-Spell, against all diabolical operations in the souls of men. But how little this is taken notice of, believed, or regarded by most, is grievous and lamentable to be thought upon.

The foregoing constitutes a remarkable 3,000 years of testimony by some of civilization’s greatest minds regarding the role of music in forming character. Why, after 3,000 years, is this subject no longer discussed?

Who or what is otherwise responsible for the formation of character today?

In American society we have a constitution framed specifically for separating church and state. Thus the church is without influence in the schools. Their influence is limited to the church itself and upon the students who choose to attend. But, as we have seen too often in the news, the church has its own problems with character formation.

The influence of the government is not wanted by the schools, only its money is welcome.

Parents, whose interest in character development should begin with the prenatal period, too often tend to leave the rearing of their children to the schools.

And so, as a last resort, character development falls to the school. If music education can do this, its focus must lie in the development of the experiential side of the child. This is the side of the personality where character formation must lie, not on the rational side of the personality. The ancients were right about that. Music education should approach this through a focus on the emotions, in helping the child to come to know himself in that half of his personality. Nothing can do this like music and music teachers, provided only the highest quality classical art music is used.

But professional music educators, shortly after the mid 20th century, elected to abandon all prior philosophy and experience in the field of music education. Why?

First, under the fear of “accountability” music educators have created a system of music education based on “concepts.” But whatever is “conceptual” or “rational” about music, is not music at all. Of course it is easy to grade concepts, but what about the students? Students want the actual experience with music, they want to perform music and learn how to perform music. Students, every last one of them, love music even before beginning school. But music educators are not offering what the students are interested in, so the students ignore their classes and go home and teach themselves to sing, to play a keyboard instrument and to compose.

Second, instead of following the ancient advice that only the highest quality music should be used in education, music educators have lowered the quality of the music they use to the lowest common denominator. We regard it as largely a last attempt to make music education more “popular” with the students.

The past fifty years have also seen a broadening of the repertoire used in the schools to include “world music.” These exponents say, “all music is equal.” The great masterpieces of European art music are now just one more choice on the buffet table. Let the student pick whatever he is interested in. But this is like an astronomy teacher placing before the student the completely wrong theories of Ptolemy, Kepler and others in addition to the known scientific facts of today and saying, “students, pick the theory you like best.” It makes a mockery of the ancient notion that society should pass on to the next generation the best of what it has learned.

What, then, has been the result of American music education over the past fifty years?

Have we created a more sophisticated music culture in America? Or is it becoming lower?

Is music education in the public schools now viewed by the parents and public as being representative of Art or entertainment — or commerce?

Are school music budgets growing larger? Is public support stronger?

As it turns out, contemporary clinical brain research has proven that musically “we are what we eat,” that is, our brain is physically changed by the music we listen to. So the ancient philosophers were correct and the music the students hear in school will become part of a permanent record in their minds.

Perhaps if we are observant enough, we may rediscover the ancient values in music education by way of the Far East. Shinichi Suzuki has observed,

Teaching music is not my main purpose. I want to make good citizens.45


  1. Quoted in Lise Manniche, Music and Musicians in Ancient Egypt, (London: British Museum Press, 1991), 41 ↩︎
  2. Laws, trans., B. Jowett (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1953), 656d. Most, if not all, of the writings of Plato are assumed to be information he was passing down from an earlier generation, from Socrates. ↩︎
  3. Laws, 656d ↩︎
  4. Ibid., 700ff ↩︎
  5. Ibid., 795d ↩︎
  6. Republic, 401d ↩︎
  7. Ibid., 400 ↩︎
  8. Laws, 812b ↩︎
  9. Republic, III, 397c ↩︎
  10. Laws, 668c ↩︎
  11. Ibid ↩︎
  12. Republic, III, 307c ↩︎
  13. Laws, 656f and 659d ↩︎
  14. Ibid ↩︎
  15. Anderson, Ethos and Education in Greek Music (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966), 153 ↩︎
  16. Concerning Music ↩︎
  17. The Geography of Strabo, trans., Horace L. Jones (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960), X.3.10 ↩︎
  18. Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae, XIV, 638 ↩︎
  19. Concerning Music ↩︎
  20. Laws, 802 ↩︎
  21. Quoted in Plutarch in Concerning Music ↩︎
  22. Problemata, 919b.26 ↩︎
  23. The Histories, VII, 37 ↩︎
  24. Politica, 1340a.19 ↩︎
  25. Ibid., 1342a ↩︎
  26. Ibid., 1342a,27 and 1342b.14 ↩︎
  27. Ibid., 1340a.40 ↩︎
  28. Ibid., 1342a.17 ↩︎
  29. The Rise of the Roman Empire, IV, 20 ↩︎
  30. Athesnaeujs, Op. cit., XIV, 626 ↩︎
  31. Strabo, The Geography of Strabo, trans., Horace L. Jones (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960), I.2.3 ↩︎
  32. see Boethius, Fundamentals of Music, trans., Calvin Bower (New Haven: Yale University Press ↩︎
  33. Nan Cooke Carpenter, Music in the Medieval and Renaissance Universities (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1958), 40 ↩︎
  34. Ibid., 44 ↩︎
  35. Quoted in Strunk, Source Readings in Music History, 184 ↩︎
  36. Ibid.,189 ↩︎
  37. Trans., Carol MacClintock (Neuhasen-Stuttgart: Hanssler-Verlag, 1985), Preface to the Readers, 27 ↩︎
  38. Solitaire Second ou Discours de la Musique (Lyons, 1552), quoted in Frances Yates, The French Academies of the Sixteenth Century (London: University of London, 1947; Nendeln: Kraus Reprint, 1968), 41 ↩︎
  39. Quoted in Buszin, Walter E., and Martin Luther. “Luther on Music.” The Musical Quarterly 32, no. 1 (1946): 85. http://www.jstor.org/stable/739566 ↩︎
  40. Johann Mattheson, Der vollkommene Capellmeister (1739), trans., Ernest Harriss (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1981), I, v, 33ff ↩︎
  41. Ibid., I, iii, 26, The source for Lohenstein he gives as Arminio, II, 90 ↩︎
  42. Quoted in Gertrude Norman and Miriam Shrifte, Letters of Composers (New York, Knopf, 1946), 3 ↩︎
  43. Thomas Mace, Musick’s Monument [1676] (Paris: Editions du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, 1966), 12 ↩︎
  44. The Works of John Milton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1931–1938), I, 74 ↩︎
  45. Reader’s Digest, November, 1973 ↩︎