Wednesday Quotes
Music: A Two Week Challenge
April 27, 2016

String Quartet, Prague

“Aren’t these the reasons, Glaucon, that education in music and poetry is most important? First, because rhythm and harmony permeate the inner part of the soul more than anything else, affecting it most strongly and bringing it grace, so that if someone is properly educated in music and poetry, it makes him graceful, but if not, then the opposite.” Plato, Republic III

If Plato is right, we have good reason to re-examine our habits of listening to music.

Taking the two week challenge might be in order.

For two weeks listen to no music other than pieces from the list below, or other similar music. The point is to cleanse our musical palate, and to cultivate an appreciation for and affinity to better music.

1. Great philosophers (such as Plato and Aristotle) and theologians (such as Boethius, Basil the Great, and Thomas Aquinas) are convinced that music has a real influence on moral character, as well as broader social consequences. Plato and Aristotle also emphasize its central place in the formation of the young.
2. Much of the music of our day is either banal or bad (often being, among other things, sensuous, angry, or despairing), and consequently we must make special effort to expose ourselves to good music and to experience its salutary effects.
3. There is nothing to lose, and perhaps, much to gain.

I do not make the following observation lightly. Through the years my classroom presentation of Plato and Aristotle on music has garnered a surprising variety of receptions, unlike any other matter that I teach, ranging from: “this is ridiculous and contrary to experience,” to: “this is surely true!” and everything in between. One common response among students amounts to saying this: I basically grant Plato’s points about music, but I am unwilling to change how I act. Others strongly object to the points themselves.

My own observation, based in part in my experiences in my own ongoing musical ‘conversion,’ is that music exercises a unique power over us. I would suggest that our difficulty in accepting Plato’s position, and the very vehemence of our objections to it, might be indications of the truth of his position on the power of music.

In the end it seems to me that the testimony of the wise gives us good reason to look critically at the place of music in our lives, and to be willing to make a change.

For some years I have privately offered this two-week challenge to my students; I now bring it to a wider audience in the spirit of fraternal encouragement. Please note: I am but a novice in music appreciation, and I am downright ignorant of musical theory. I have no qualifications for offering this challenge other than this: I am deeply convinced of the power of music–for good or bad–both by the arguments of great thinkers, and from what I take to be the overwhelming evidence of experience. Further, I have seen the change in my own life, and in that of others, associated with setting aside base popular music, and the simultaneous cultivation of an appreciation of higher music.

Much might be said about the proper place of music in its various forms in our lives. I think that there is a place for different kinds of music: such as sacred music, great classical music, and appropriate folk music. At the same time, there is much music that should have no place at all. Discerning just where to draw lines is not always clear. At the same time, that lines need to be drawn seems quite obvious. In the spirit of starting to cultivate a better sense for music, and of beginning to wean ourselves away from what perhaps should be left behind, this “challenge” is offered.

Bach, J.S.: Cello Suites (especially Suite No. 1 in G) [recommended performer: Pablo Casals],
Italian Concerto for piano

Haydn, F.J: Cello Concerto in C [recommended performer: Jacqueline du Pres]

Mozart, W.A.: Clarinet Quintet,
Divertimento in D Major K. 136 [first in a group collectively known as the ‘Salzburg Symphonies.’ Recommended conductor: Ricardo Muti]

Beethoven, L.: 6th or 9th Symphony

Respighi, O.: Ancient Airs and Dances

Dvorak, A.: American Quartet,
Cello Concerto in B minor

Grieg, E.: Peer Gynt Suite

Chopin, F.: Piano Concerto No. 1, op. 11,

Note: I do not include Gregorian chant as I take it to be the music of liturgical prayer, and thus it does not so much belong in music ‘to be listened to.’

The above list is nothing but an eclectic short list of some great music. Many other pieces can be used. Here are a few suggestions as to how to carry out the challenge.
1. Approach this time as an exercise in discipline, one aimed more at personal formation (ascetic) than at developing an artistic taste (aesthetic).
2. Consider listening to a few pieces over and over rather than many different pieces. Familiarity breeds deeper appreciation.
3. A more narrow focus in composers may be fitting. I am of the line of thinking–here again leaning on those who know much better than I do–that with certain composers one can never go wrong, particularly Bach and Mozart.
4. Be patient. Some pieces do not have immediate appeal; but as we come to know them better we discover their depth and richness–not unlike reality itself, or the character of a friend.
5. Any who take the challenge and are willing to share anything from their experience are warmly invited to come back and share in the comments below.

This is the third post in a series on paideia, education in Plato.

Plato (427-347 B.C.), a student of Socrates, and teacher of Aristotle, is considered one of the greatest philosophers of all time. The Republic is one of the most widely read and influential of all books.

Image: A string quartet in Prague, c. 1905, Photo by V. Donat.

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  1. Music is truly a powerful thing. It’s only in the past few years, after over ten years of being a musician myself (violin, viola, and some singing) that I’ve fully come to understand this. Playing music, even as I achieve greater and greater mastery of the instrument, never feels like a “chore” or “repetitive.” As long as I can motivate myself to pick up the instrument and start playing, my entire self is devoted to what I’m playing. Paying attention to the dynamics, adding emphasis and emotion, perfecting technique, or even simply taking pleasure in what I’m playing. It is an art that, when practiced properly, helps to perfect both body and mind: the mind in focusing, the ears in judging tone and picking out certain instruments from a group, the fingers in quickness and accuracy, the eyes in focusing on the music and coordinating with the conductor’s guides.

    A few of my personal favorites that I’ll be listening to again in the next two weeks (excluding the obvious, e.g. The Four Seasons), and for those unfamiliar or not well versed in classical music for orchestra, I do encourage you to try these as well as the pieces in the list above:

    Camille Saint-Saëns, Symphony No. 3 in C minor (Op. 78) [the “Organ Symphony”]
    Vasily Kalinnikov, Symphony No. 2 in A-major
    Gustav Holst, The Planets (Op. 32) [specifically Mars and Jupiter]
    Felix Mendelssohn, Violin Concerto in E minor (Op. 64)
    Antonin Dvorak, Symphony No. 9 (“New World” symphony)
    [modern] David Arnold, Stargate Overture – (yes, the one from the movie; the movie was “meh”, the music was amazing)
    [modern] Mahito Yokota, Credits Theme from Super Mario Galaxy 2 (yes, a rather odd choice, but it’s actually quite good)

  2. Excellent post, sir. I decided on taking up this challenge myself. I have a question too. I’ve come to accept the notion that there is such a thing as “higher” music, indeed, that art itself can be done well or poorly. I also recognize the incredible achievements of what we call “classical” music. However, it becomes apparent rather quickly that this music has a distinct western or European origin. How would you respond to the charge that what we call “classical” music, the “higher” musical form, is inherently biased in favoring ‘white’, ‘european males’ and is consciously or unconciously promoting a western imperialist hermenuetic. I tend to view its origins as mostly the historical product of an affluent Christian society, not due to an intrinsic supremecy of one race or ethnicity over another. I’d be happy to hear your thoughts.


    1. Rafael, I appreciate your question. It raises very large and important issues. Here are a couple of my thoughts. It does seem that a kind of perfection of musical development was achieved in the West that has not been achieved in other places. If we take this as given, then we can ask why this might be the case. I think that you have already pointed in the right direction regarding a key factor. Christianity is itself a boon to civilization and culture. In the West Christianity has had a unique, uninterrupted opportunity to seep into and transform the culture for almost two thousand years. This, I concur, has nothing to do with issues of race or ethnicity. On another note, I personally would not purport to know and thus stand in judgment of musical achievements of, for instance, Byzantine or oriental cultures. They presumably have treasures of which I know not. But as a westerner my focus naturally turns to my heritage to try to grow in appreciation of it. Thanks again for the comment.

      1. Thank you for the reply, Mr. Cuddeback!

      2. I would second what John says. “Europe” consists of many races, from swarthy Southern Italians, to blonde-haired, blue-eyed Scandinavians, from dark-haired (and partially Arab) Spaniards to fair-skinned Slavic tribes in the East. What “Europe” really is then, is a common cultural and spiritual heritage.

        America had at least one major black composer, William Grant Still, (perhaps, also, Louis Gottschalk in the 19th cent.) and serious black jazz composers like Duke Ellington felt they had to interact with classical music as something to learn from.

        I would have to do the research, but my instincts tell me that the rejection of classical musical culture was itself first (at least partly) a very European and neo-Marxist thing [i.e. very white (German) thinkers who in politicized-fashion, rejected their own heritage as “oppressive” and “colonial”). This, then, got picked up by, for example, black radical thinkers.

        But this is a rather modern (post-WWII) and politicized way of thinking.

  3. “I do not include Gregorian chant as I take it to be the music of liturgical prayer, and thus it does not so much belong in music ‘to be listened to.’”

    KP: Au contraire – especially the Graduals and Alleluias which are, as part of the Liturgy of the Word, meant to be be carefully listened to and meditated upon, just like the readings. But, I know what you meant. Good list, it needs to be expanded and turned into a “core listening list” required of all the students.

    1. Dr. Poterack: Thank you for the correction/clarification! It is great to be reminded that in the Liturgy chant has a privileged place. Therein our listening to God’s words is aided by the music itself.

  4. This post helped me become more aware of the music I am exposed to on a daily basis. A lot of this music is in the background – themes to movies and even radio shows, the music played in the grocery store or dentist’s office. And most of it is not of my own choosing – including the hymns at Church on Sunday (which sadly, I rarely find prayerful). If nothing else this exercise can help me be more intentional in choosing a piece of music and taking the time to listen to it. Most often, music, of any kind, becomes the backdrop to some other activity…cleaning or cooking, for example. Can I make room in my day to be still and simply listen? I am a more recent reader of your blog – so pleased to have found it!

    1. Donna, Thank you very much for your thoughtful comment. I really like your way of putting it: being more intentional in the music we listen to. Thanks again.