Thursday, February 23, 2012

Moral Music: Guest Blogger A. Clapham

“Moral Music”
- A. Clapham

There’s a story from Greece that Athena, goddess of wisdom, took up an aulos (for a picture, look here: ), and began to play. The instrument, however, gave the goddess a flushed expression, as it took a lot of force to play it effectively. Not wanting to tarnish her looks, she tossed the aulos aside, and a satyr named Marsyas stumbled upon it. He became a master at the instrument and soon challenged Apollo to a music contest. Apollo, also a deity associated with wisdom, was the patron god of the arts, and he was known for his skill at the lyre, a stringed instrument resembling a modern-day harp. It is a mistake to challenge the gods – a wild act of hubris. Even Achilles, a demi-god himself, was almost killed by a lowly river-god during the Trojan War. But Apollo accepted the challenge with two stipulations: the Muses, the goddesses of artistic inspiration, would judge the contest, and the winner could do whatever he wanted to with the loser. Marsyas foolishly accepted, and he lost. As a punishment for challenging him, Apollo tied Marsyas to a tree and peeled off all his flesh.

This may seem like a strange story to have in mind when thinking about the philosophy of music, but Plato certainly had it in his mind when he wrote his political work, Republic. This text was written in a highly original way: as a dialogue between people, who try to figure out what “justice” is and what the ideal city would be like. In Book III there is a curious section where Socrates, the main character, tells his friends that certain instruments and certain songs should be banned from the perfect city. Among those things rejected from the city is the satyr’s trademark instrument: the aulos.
There are many theories about why Plato bans certain types of music from the city, and the fact that he wrote so little about music does not help turn speculation into something solid. But the interpretation I would like to offer is something that is foreign to a modern mind: music and justice have something to do with each other. Ordinarily, we do not think that the type of music we listen to has any bearing on our moral character. For example, if a group of people listen to blues music, we don’t naturally infer a certain moral superiority or inferiority; so we may wonder why Plato would think this way. I propose that we look at a key feature of justice in the Republic, the opposition to “overreaching,” which will help us understand why Plato thought of justice and music together, and why the myth of Marsyas is so relevant to his political thought.

In some ways, classicists find the notion of justice in Plato’s writings to be just as elusive and controversial as music is, but the advantage of talking about this ancient notion of justice is that we have much more to say about it because Plato wrote quite a bit on the topic. Scholars generally agree that “moderation” is a key feature of justice in the Republic, which is in opposition to an often-used word pleonektein, the effect of continually trying to outdo others by getting and having more and more. In fact, a theme throughout the book is how overreaching can cause disastrous effects, not only for the individual, but for the entire city. And this desire to outdo others is the exact cause of injustice in Book 1 (359c).

As it turns out, the exact type of music the character, Socrates, praises in Book III is music that inspires moderation in people: “Leave me, then, these two modes, which will best imitate the violent or voluntary tones of voice of those who are moderate and courageous, whether in good fortune or in bad” (399c). Now, we can see why the other instruments are banned: they do not inspire moderation or courage. Furthermore, the meaning of the myth should become clearer: certain types of music have an association with wild and brash behavior. Even Apollo, who does not play the aulos himself, hears the flute music and overreacts when he wins the competition. He is unjust to Marsyas because he acts out of anger and impulse. So much for the god of wisdom. The makers of the myth must have thought that certain kinds of music just bring out the worst in us, while other kinds have a positive impact on our actions. And this message seems to be one that Plato endorses.

Yet, in order to hold this kind of view, one must have a certain perspective on music and what it does to the listener. Here, Peter Kivy, a philosopher who specializes in music, is helpful. In his book, “An Introduction to the Philosophy of Music,” he argues that Plato believes that music actually causes the person to have the emotions that the piece represents: “Plato can be taken, and was, by many, to have claimed that, in general, melodies have the power to arouse emotions in listeners by representing the manner in which people express them in their speech and exclamations” (16). That is to say, if a person hears a piece of music that is particularly angry, then that person will become angry, and the music has the power to do this because it imitates the speech of angry people.

Some of the larger issues here, such as whether or not lyrical music actually causes us to have the emotions that music represents, cannot be answered in this short space, mainly because they are still issues that are debated among philosophers today. But, I think that the idea that music actually causes us to have the emotions it represents does not seem intuitive. We would find it strange if a friend pointed to someone on the street and said, “That girl is an angry person because she listens to punk music.” A more typical way of thinking about music for modern people is to think of it as a kind of disinterested activity, where a person is either refined or uncultivated if he or she listens to a certain type of music. So instead we might hear our friends say of someone, “That girl has good taste, she listens to classical music.”

If music, however, is a disinterested activity, where listening to a particular piece or genre only reflects on a person’s taste, then the link between music and justice seems to be broken. If we remove the moral component from music, then talking about the “music of a justice society” seems absurd, after all, we don’t think of justice as a matter of taste. If someone does something good, we don’t comment on how refined their sense of justice is, we simply say they are moral or good or just.

Perhaps there is a way to save this link between justice and music. If music does not directly cause emotions in us, it at least represents those emotions in some capacity. Maybe the ability to recognize and appreciate different emotions in music has something to do with our ability to sympathize with others. If we assume that the emotions are “in” the music, then a person with a refined musical taste would have a greater ability to sympathize with people than with others who do not have
such complex and deep musical palates. An argument could be made, from this perspective, that a just person is one who can sympathize well with others, and having a refined taste in music could help with his or her being a more just person.

But before we discard pop music in favor of Borodin and Rimsky, we should consider that if it is true that a person has a great skill in recognizing the emotions in music this does not mean that that ability automatically translates to an ability to recognize emotions in people. People express themselves differently than music expresses itself. People can express themselves through music, but this is a technical means of expression. At this point I am reminded of the Muses from the Greek myth I began with. They have the best musical palates of any living creature, and they rightly recognized Apollo as the master of music over Marsyas. Yet, they did not make a peep when he tortured the poor satyr. Thus, this story, though it is old, has a deep resonance for the ancients and for ourselves, and the relationship between music and justice is just as complex and elusive as the meaning of the myth.

The translation of Plato comes from G.M.A. Grube’s edition of the “Republic.” For more information about the Philosophy of Music, Peter Kivy’s book is highly accessible. There is also a helpful article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ( [search “music”]). For more information about Plato’s “Republic” the Cambridge Companion series puts out an edition specifically on that dialogue, and there is also a more broad collection of essays on Plato’s thought, though neither has an article on music. For more information about Greek myth, I recommend Ovid’s great poem “Metamorphoses,” which is our primary source for many of the myths that we know about today. Edith Hamilton also has a book called “Mythology,” which is helpful for anyone interested in what are considered the “canonical myths” in the Western tradition, though the majority of these will be found in Ovid.


  1. I love this article. I'd never given any thought to the matter. I'm really curious to know why you think music can't cause us to have emotions. Isn't that why we listen to music? I know if I'm having a rough day, I'll listen to some happy music, and my mood will change almost instantly.
    On another note, I think it's a really interesting matter to explore whether people who have a wide variety of musical tastes are able to sympathize with a wider range of people. I think there might be something to that; shared musical taste gives politically neutral common ground. (but plato might disagree!)

  2. I really enjoyed reading this! I have a question similar to Ami's. While it doesn't make sense to me to say “That girl is an angry person because she listens to punk music," it does seem intuitive to say "She is feeling mellow because she is listening to smooth jazz" or "She is feeling angry now because she is listening to an angry punk song." The example you included concerns a person "being an angry person," which seems to be a more permanent (or at least dispositional) cognitive state. The second two options describe a state of mind at a time and not a person's general emotional attitude. It's these latter options that *do* seem to be influenced by music.

    So, what do you say to someone who says "I feel happy because I just listened to some dixieland jazz?" Are they just mistaken about what caused their mental state? If so, why do they feel happy after listening to this music?

    Finally, do you think lyrics are part of music? If so, then it seems obvious that music can affect our emotions. If I listen to some Bob Dylan, the lyrics might make me feel inspired or melancholy. Politically charged music might get me motivated to make a difference or even be informative.

    I don't really know anything about philosophy of music, so I am interested to hear what you have to say.