12. What Is Music?

Music is a science of the phenomena of Love in application to harmony and rhythm.

Plato (427–347 BC), Symposium, 187b

Music does not exist.

Sextus Empiricus (2nd century. AD), Against the Musicians

The two quotations above are representative of the difficulty philosophers have always had in defining and classifying music. When Plato joins “science” and “love” in his definition of music he is telling us that very early philosophers had already recognized that music had both rational and non-rational characteristics. This “split-personality” would be given new labels by early Church philosophers, who divided music into “Speculative” and “Practical.”

By the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance we find still new names in the expression, “the art and science of music,” as we see, for example, in the 14th c. theorist, Marchetto of Padua,

Music is an art [ars] both admirable and delightful; it resounds in heaven and on earth…. Moreover, music is that science [scientia] which consists in numbers, proportions, consonances, intervals, measures, and quantities.”

Lucidarium, I, 5, ii, iii

In spite of the difficulty in defining music, nearly all early philosophers understood music to be something very powerful, made more significant by the fact that it was the only art you could not see and therefore often associated with religion or the divine. Some tried to investigate deeper into the very nature of music and found the definition of music in its function, as for example, “to soothe.” Others found the definition of music in its ability to be a special language of the emotions. Some more specifically found music to be a special form of Truth representing the emotional or experiential aspects of man. Still other philosophers found the definition of music in its physiological properties. Music is difficult to define, in part because it is all of the above.

The focus of the present essay is on those early philosophers and musicians who attempted a broad general definition of music. We begin with the earliest large body of philosophical discussion of music, the writings of Plato, 427 – 347 BC, which in turn are mostly a record of the dialogs of his teacher, Socrates.
When one considers all the discussion of music by Socrates one is struck by how modern sounding the problems are and how similar are the values of the highest art music. In Socrates’ ideal world, music meant live performance, not something found on paper or taken on a conceptual level. It was performance listened to by quiet, contemplative listeners. Both composer and performer were inspired not by “rules of art,” but by divine inspiration. The purposes of the music were love of beauty and to move the emotions of the listeners, something music could do since it represented a form of Truth and because listeners had a genetic understanding of music. One cannot help but wonder how different our world today would be if we knew only music which would have been found appropriate by Socrates.

Socrates was a performer late in life and a composer as well. With this in mind, perhaps we can understand his curious interpretation of a dream as meaning he should concentrate on philosophy. “I had imagined that this was only intended to exhort and encourage me in the study of philosophy, which as been the pursuit of my life, and is the noblest and best of music.” [Phaedo, 60c]

Judging by the writings of Plato, 427 – 347 BC, there seems to have been a consensus that the role of music in education was to form the character of the child. It was an idea which seems to have been not only widely shared but an idea already long held. From Plato’s perspective, indeed from the perspective of nearly all early Greek philosophy, the key word is the “soul.” The Greeks often used the analogy of the string instrument, the lyre, to illustrate the relationship of body and soul. One can see the lyre, as a material object like the body, but music is unseen, like the soul. They added to this analogy the word harmony, using it to express not only the unity of the various elements of music, but also to express the soul in its ideal state. Plato believed music was given to man by the Gods for this purpose, and not for the more common use of it as entertainment.

Harmony, which has motions akin to the revolutions of our souls, is not regarded by the intelligent votary of the Muses as given by them with a view to irrational pleasure, which is deemed to be the purpose of it in our day, but as meant to correct any discord which may have arisen in the courses of the soul, and to be our ally in bringing her into harmony and agreement with herself.

Timacus, 47d

It follows, therefore, that Plato introduces the core of the ideal educational system with the following statement.

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.

Laws, 795d

Another idea found in the writings of Plato was also carried down for centuries, although it took on somewhat of a life of its own. In Alcibiades I (108d), Plato makes the statement, “Musically is the very name for correctness in the art of music.” We believe that the intended emphasis was exactly what Plato wrote, on “the art of music,” not the science of music. We think Socrates meant that “musically,” when applied to correctness in the art of music (meaning performance, of course) was a reference to the aesthetic values so often found in Plato’s writings, that music is Truth, that it is inspired and that it is intended to create an emotional catharsis in the listener, not entertain him. In a word, we believe that correctness in the art of music, was an idea closely related to philosophy itself. We believe it must be the same idea Socrates had in mind when he uttered the otherwise curious statement that “philosophy is the noblest and best of music.”

Aristotle, b. 384 BC, perhaps the most rational man who ever lived, had to confess, “It is not easy to determine the nature of music.” [Politica, VIII, 5, 1339a, 14ff] Indeed he avoids attempting to define what music really is and, instead, makes his focus the uses of music. He acknowledges the powers of music but wonders if it is possible to obtain its benefits by listening, rather than by playing. His block here was the fact that in his day performers were slaves.

Aristotle did accept the idea that music should be included in the schools for the purpose of developing character. The logic in this he found from his own experience, that the emotions experienced through music are very similar to the real emotions and can therefore shape the young listener.

The emotions] 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 [music] our souls undergo a change.

Politica, 1340a, 21ff

It is interesting that he specifies that the children are not to be taught music just to understand it, but also to be able to actually perform it. [Politica, 1340b, 31ff] In another place he testifies again, “No doubt after a man has learned music his soul has undergone a certain change.” [Prior Analytics, II, xxvii]]

The next influential person who struggles to define music is St. Augustine, of the 4th century, in a little known book, “On Music.” Augustine begins by asking, “Where is music?” Is it [1] in the sound itself, [2] in the perception of the listener, [3] in the performer, or [4] in the memory? Regarding the first, he suggests that everyone would accept the possibility of a sound, such as a drop of liquid, existing where there is no listener to hear it. The second, of necessity, requires the first.

Number three, the performance, Augustine does not consider as fundamental as the first two, for we can hear music in our minds where there is no sound or performance at all. This kind of listening is, of course, closely related to the fourth, memory. The subject of memory was of great concern by the early philosophers because not only could you not see music, there was no notated form and it “disappeared” when the performance was concluded. Thus for it to be considered as existing necessarily depended on memory. We find this point stressed by Aristotle’s student, Aristoxenus, who was born c. 379 BC.

For the apprehension of music depends on these two faculties, sense-perception and memory; for we must perceive the sound that is present, and remember that which is past. In no other way can we follow the phenomena of music.

The Elements of Harmony

At this point Augustine suddenly thinks of a fifth possible answer to the question, “Where is Music?” Here he refers to a view which can be found in several other places in his works, the possibility of a kind of innate template for judging music.

I believe, while we were discussing these things, a fifth kind appeared from somewhere, a kind in the natural judgment of perceiving when we are delighted by the equality of numbers or offended at a flaw in them.

On Music, VI, iv

Due to the paranoia of the Church on the subject of “the emotions,” music had been officially classified by the Church as a branch of mathematics and thus for the next 1,000 years all music treatises would be written by mathematicians and not by musicians. All this is by way of introducing the next influential writer on the definition of music, the famous mathematician, Boethius, 475 – 524 AD. Boethius made an argument which would influence music education until the present day, that knowledge of Music is more important than performing Music.

For it is much better and nobler to know about what someone else fashions than to execute that about which someone else knows; in fact, physical skill serves as a slave, while reason, rules like a mistress. Unless the hand acts according to the will of reason, it acts in vain. How much nobler, then, is the study of music as a rational discipline than as composition and performance!

De elementis philosophiae, I, xxxiv

This division of Music in to the knowledge of Music as opposed to performing Music continued to be a division still very much with us today. Aurelian of Reome, in his “Musica Disciplina” (c. 843 AD) contributed to the prejudice which also still exists that playing an instrument is a mere skill and that the performer should not even be called a musician; he is rather just named after his instrument, he is a flute player, etc. Aurelian acknowledges that music has the power to move the emotions of men, but in speaking of the musicians themselves his emphasis is on conceptual knowledge.

Musician and singer seem to differ as much as teacher and pupil…. And the singer seems to stand before the musician like a prisoner before the judge.

Musica Disciplina, VII

One of the most interesting late Medieval writers was an Englishman, Roger Bacon, b. 1214, who studied in both Oxford and in Paris. In discussing “audible music” he makes the following comment,

For accent is a kind of singing; whence it is called accent from accino, accinis [I sing, thou singest], because every syllable has its own proper sound either raised, lowered, or composite, and all syllables of one word are adapted or sung to one syllable on which rests the principal sound. Thus length and shortness and all other things required in correct pronunciation are reduced to music.

The Causes of Error, XVI

This is a very interesting discussion for several reasons. First, these thoughts come at the end of at least 2,000 years during which poetry was sung. When Bacon says “every syllable has its own proper sound either raised, lowered, or composite,” we wonder if there was a commonly recognized, but now lost, tradition in the performance of sung poetry. Did the text, perhaps, “compose” the music? We also find fascinating his statement, “For accent is a kind of singing.” This comment, 700 years before our age, reminds us that among ancient peoples singing preceded language. Can we not see a trace here of that distant period when pitch fluctuation preceded, and perhaps turned into, the sounds we call consonants?

It is Bacon’s recognition of a category of music which he calls “visual music” which is also very interesting. The ancient Greek philosophers never discussed this topic at length, but there are sufficient hints in their descriptions of choral performance to suggest that the inevitable movements by the singers were thought of not as a kind of dance, but as the part of music you could see.

A writer who heralds the Renaissance was Johannes de Grocheo. In his “De Musica” (c. 1300) his definition of music is extraordinary: that music is a principal means of the intellect explaining itself. Also significant here is a writer who finally gives some significance to performance. Grocheo presents some new classifications practiced by “the men in Paris,”

  • Civic or simple music, which they call vulgar [vulgus: of the masses] music,
  • Composed or regular music by rule, which they call measured music.
  • Ecclesiastic music, designed for praising the Creator, made from the first two and to which these two are best adapted.

In the late Renaissance, in the “Musica” (1537) of Nicholaus Listenius, a student at Wittenberg when Luther was teaching there, we find an entirely new goal in the definition of music, one which combines the musicality of the Renaissance with the old catharsis principle found in the “Poetics” of Aristotle. In his Foreword, Listenius provides a moving review of the purpose and virtue of music.

Many great and serious reasons are established by learned and intelligent men, for all men of genius particularly free princes, must be versed in music and habituated to it. It influences souls to humanity, suavity, even-temper; it restrains all immoderate affections, grief, wrath; it represses violence and obscene desires, for it calms them; as in sounds and songs, so in all the actions of life we may conserve harmony.”

Listenius clearly dates himself in the Renaissance by stating that the knowledge of music consists of three kinds: theoretical, practical and poetic. Here he is thinking of the meaning left with the listener when the performance is concluded. This he calls “total performance.”

Poetic is that which is not content with just the understanding of the thing nor with only its practice, but which leaves something more after the labor of performance, as when music or a song of musicians is composed by someone whose goal is total performance and accomplishment. It consists of making or putting together more in this work which afterwards leaves the work perfect and absolute, which otherwise is artificially like the dead.

The point Listenius makes here is of the greatest significance. He means the performer makes the compositions come alive through the addition of his own feelings, as opposed to merely playing the notes on paper. One often still hears music critics say, “Just play what the composer wrote” (that which is on paper). Curiously, in music’s cousin, drama, where there is also a written form and a performance form, no one has ever said, “Just speak the lines the author wrote!”

With the arrival of the Baroque Period, discussions of the definition of music begin to look quite different. The German, Johann Mattheson, as a composer himself, defines the goal of actual music as that, “which would through the instrument of the ears please the sense of hearing which dwells in the soul, and would thoroughly move or stir the heart or soul.” [Der vollkommene Capellmeister, (1739), I, ii, 24]

With the expression, “move the heart,” Mattheson epitomizes the Baroque itself, a period of fervent search for how music affects the emotions. We find this same emphasis in the definition of music by his famous French contemporary, Marin Mersenne,

The song, or air, is a derivation of the voice, or of other sounds, by certain intervals either natural or artificial, which are agreeable to the ear and to the spirit, and which signify joy, or sadness, or some other passion by their movements.

Harmonie universelle (1636) III, ii, 1

The Baroque Period, with its concentration on the emotions in music, put an end to the old scholastic ideas of earlier Church music. Now hardly ever do we hear the term “speculative music” and it is very rare when someone wants to define music as a science. Indeed, we begin to see the contrast between thinking and feeling familiar to us through our knowledge of the Left and Right Hemispheres of the brain. The Englishman, Roger North, seemed to understand this. He specifically contends that music does not stimulate the rational or conceptual side of man, as we see in the final sentence when he concludes his definition of music by adding that the two primary purposes of music are to please and to communicate emotions.

Therefore in order to find the criteria of Good Music we must look into Nature itself, and the truth of things. Music hath two ends. First to please the sense, and that is done by the pure Dulcor of harmony, which is found chiefly in older music … Secondly, to move the affections, or excite the passion; and that is done by measures of time joined with the former [the affections]. And it must be granted that pure impulse, artificially acted and continued, hath great power to excite men to act, but not to think.

North laments a serious shortage of singers available for church choirs and for this reason he recommends that perhaps the time has come to admit female singers into the choir. This exclusion was based on I Corinthians 14:34 “As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silence in the churches.”
“One might without a desperate solescisme maintain that if females were taken into the choirs instead of boys, it would be a vast improvement of choral music, because women come to a judgment as well as voice, which the boys’ do not arrive at before their voices perish…. But both text and morality are against it; and the Roman usage of castration is utterly unlawful, and a scandalous practice where it is used.”
The fascination with the role of emotion during the Baroque Period, not to mention the leaving behind of the rational processes, led some to return to thinking of a divine connection in music. The Englishman, Sir Thomas Browne, found the divine even in popular music.

For myself… even that vulgar and tavern music, which makes one man merry, another mad, strikes in me a deep fit of devotion, and a profound contemplation of the first composer. There is something in it of divinity more than the ear discovers: it is an hieroglyphical and shadowed lesson of the whole world, and creatures of God.”

In the 19th century this “divine connection” takes the form of a return to the ancient discussion of the soul and of the spiritual qualities of man. For example, Robert Schumann once observed, “Music is to me the perfect expression of the soul.” And Wagner wrote, “Music is the revelation of the inner vision of the Essence of the world.” [Ellis, Wagner’s Prose Works, V, 108] And George Bernard Shaw once agreed, “You use a glass mirror to see your face; you use works of art to see your soul.”

And so the definition of music comes full circle. After having been side-tracked by the Church’s emphasis on the science of music, music was once again something speaking from and to the soul. Since this return to ancient values was also accompanied by such great music during the 18th and 19th centuries, it makes it even more unimaginable that in the 20th century composers and music educators would elect to return to the discredited notion of making music a mathematical science, or an art synonymous with concepts. Future music teachers will be hard pressed to explain the 20th century.

A great deal of additional information on this subject can be found in my book, Ancient Views on What is Music.