Monday, May 4, 2015

Music In Classical Education (part I)

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.  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 readily available extensive historical evidence and so much peer reviewed and vetted cognitive research 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 ) Which makes it frustrating when otherwise intelligent people continue to degrade Music as an extra-curricular. Why do some continue to ignore these facts and regard Music as if it were merely some market driven commodity for entertainment with no more value than soda, junk food or video game?

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.

Adapted from

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