It all begun in Ancient Greece, when people were ceaselessly debating about the meaning of education and how to optimize it. Contrary to our varied curriculum nowadays, they resolved to devote their time to solely four ‘subjects’: drawing, gymnastics, the science of letters (so reading and writing) and music.
It’s not surprising that then, as well as now, some were skeptics as to whether studying music is worthwhile, and if so to what avail. In response to such hasty judgement, philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle strove to make its fruitfulness as clear as crystal.
But before we get as far, we should clarify what school meant to the ancients (which should still be the case today although, alas, it’s not). In their conception the word scholē (σχολή) stood for leisure, leisure to cultivate one’s spirit, to better oneself and to create oneself beautifully. For them education was an end in itself, not a mere tool towards any kind of menial office. One would study out of genuine pleasure, to enlighten one’s mind and to liberate the soul. Quite a long way from what it has become, right?
Given their appreciation of education, the role of Music becomes clearer. Music was the discipline that would give one leisure. It would teach one patience, how to be alone with oneself, how to mull over things guided by harmonious sounds and at the same time it would delight and relax the spirit, hence rendering it a perfect method to enjoy as well as improve oneself. And what is Music, if not a human endeavor to escape the mechanic life in pursuit of the divine? Music, like divinity, is an end in itself, thus teaching us how to raise our soul higher than our monotonous day-to-day existence. And it is precisely now, when people know nothing but work and money that we need to learn the art of living.
And, above all, music forms our character. We grow surrounded by it, we take refuge in it whenever we’re in a bad disposition and we avail ourselves of it in order to experience enjoyment and forget our quotidian problems whenever possible. All the same, the type we indulge in is also of momentous importance. A rather illustrative tripartition of the soul was made by Plato, them being logical, spirited and appetitive. Now depending on which of these three the music refers to, that one develops most and you consequently form a character that tries to lead a life as much in accordance with that part of your soul as possible.
Nevertheless I cannot deny that the way in which it is taught in schools presently has to a great degree distanced itself from its original goals. What is to be done?
There complexity engendered licence, and here disease; whereas simplicity in
music was the parent of temperance in the soul; and simplicity in gymnastic of
health in the body. (Plato, The Republic)
Musical training is a more potent instrument
than any other, because rhythm and harmony ﬁnd their way into the inward
places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making
the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated
ungraceful; and also because he who has received this true education of the
inner being will most shrewdly perceive omissions or faults in art and nature. (Plato, The Republic)