This essay will open with several important quotes from The Laws by Plato, for example: “It is least acceptable when someone asserts that music should be judged by pleasure. If there should exist somewhere such a music, it should be sought as the least acceptable; what should be sought as serious is music that contains a resemblance to the imitation of the beautiful1”.
There is another very interesting quote related to the definition of good music, namely, the Athenian stranger points out that the best music is the one that “pleases the man who is distinguished in virtue and education”2.
These passages represent some of the Plato’s views on music, its evaluation, as well as importance for the city. Moreover, they can give us a good idea about Plato’s understanding of musical education. First, one should say that this philosophical dialogue places emphasis on the importance of music for the development of a person.
The Athenian stranger acknowledges that a person, “who is finely educated will be able to sing and dance”3. These skills have to be among the attributes of a person. Nonetheless, the main function of musical education is to channel or control the passions of an individual who must act a responsible citizen of the state. This is one of the reasons this text frequently makes connections between music and virtue.
This discussion presented by Plato focuses on the effects of music on an individual, rather then skills. Furthermore, this philosophical work does not accept purely aesthetical view on art, and pleasure, which a person derives from it, is not the main criterion.
Musical education must not focus only on performing skills; more likely, its purpose is to teach people to understand harmony and subsequently become harmonious. In this context, such term as harmony can be interpreted as the agreement of opinion, action, and feeling.
Hence, one can argue that music cannot be separated from moral education. This is one of the most important claims made in this dialogue. Nevertheless, this text does not identify the specific strategies of achieving the goals set by the author.
Moreover, such utilitarian interpretation of music may not be accepted by modern educators and musicians. Certainly, Plato’s dialogue does not focus only the music; however, this art occupies a very important place in this work.
The second important aspect is the selection of music which is suitable for young people. The first quote presented in this essay can tell us much about the Plato’s views on musical education. This statement implies that the educators have to develop methods of assessing this art and decide what kind of music can be accepted or rejected.
Judging from this dialogue, the selection of musical pieces must be entrusted to more or less elderly people who have achieved a significant status in the community and whose moral reputation cannot be questioned.
This argument has very significant implications for musical education since it implies that not every kind of music is appropriate for educational purposes. The dialogue does not explain how these assessors of music will be trained and selected. Although, it is not explicitly stated by the author, this dialogue suggests musical education has to be under control of the state.
This claim can certainly be disputed by contemporary readers of The Laws. The main issue is that this work does not explain who will educate the educators. This drawback can undermine Plato’s approach to musical or any other education.
It should also be noted that at the time this dialogue was written musical education was closely tied to poetry4. This is one of the reasons why the discussion in the Laws often focuses on chorus singing. Thus, the educators must carefully choose the songs and verses that are suitable for the chorus.
The Athenian stranger argues that these songs must be imitation of “noble”5 and good things. Again, this argument indicates that musical education must not be separated from morality and citizenship.
According to this dialogue, the music has to represent a “close imitation of the beautiful”6. This statement suggests that there are some criteria for judging the aesthetic value of music. Yet, they are not properly specified. Therefore, modern day teachers can surely disagree with some Plato’s views on musical education. The key issue is that there are not strictly defined criteria distinguishing good music from bad music.
Overall, the ultimate goal of musical education is to raise a person who is able to tame his/her passions and who always strives to rely on reason and arguments, rather than force or violence.
Any form of aesthetic education must be subjected to the needs of the state and welfare of the citizens. This philosophical work tells us very little about the needs of an individual, and his/her emotional life. It is quite likely that The Laws will be criticized in the modern age of individualism.
Admittedly, the ideas expressed in this treatise can surely be disputed by modern educators and musicians. There are several reasons for possible criticism. First of all, the author does not identify the specific criteria according to which one can evaluate music in terms of its appropriateness for educational purposes.
For instance, one can point out that it is difficult to determine what kind of instrumental music can be appropriate for a young person. Secondly, the critics of Plato’s approach can argue that the evaluation suggested in The Laws is entirely subjective. Furthermore, modern composers and performers do not always reject purely aesthetic perspective of music.
This work that we have discussed is aimed at connecting musical and moral education. It strives to single out the social roles played by music. This issue still remains interesting to modern musicologists and educators. Despite the fact that many arguments put forward in The Laws cannot be accepted nowadays, the questions raised by the author are still of great importance to educators.
First, one still has to determine the goal of musical education, especially if we are speaking about children or adolescents. More importantly, many critics and performers still debate about the selection and evaluation of musical pieces, especially it is necessary to decide whether they are suitable for educational purposes.
To some extent, this debate can be traced to this work by Plato. Finally, we need to mention the main claim advanced in this philosophical treatise, namely the importance of musical education of the life of the community and virtuous behavior.
Lippman, E. A History of Western Musical Aesthetics. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.
Plato. The Laws. Translated by Thomas Pangle. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1988.
1 Plato, The Laws, trans. Thomas Pangle. (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1988), 50
2 Ibid, 39
3 Ibid, 34
4 Lippman, E. A History of Western Musical Aesthetics. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994), 10.
5 Plato, The Laws, 53
6 Plato, The Laws, p 50