Those who parent or spend much time around little children know that they are capable of teaching their elders valuable lessons. It’s now cliché. The Internet is full of reflections on how kids can teach us to be fearless, to be lighthearted, and to live in the moment, among many other exhortations stemming from the innocent, active characters and imaginations of youth.
This is all well and good, though usually a bit fluffy. A question my four-year-old often asks me suggests the lessons of youth can be far more intellectually stimulating and penetrating.
“What is this song about, daddy?” My daughter routinely asks me this when we listen to music — driving in the car, while cooking dinner, or while relaxing on Sunday afternoons. If it is pop music, or any music with words that tell a story, the answer is pretty easy. “It’s about love.” “It’s about a break-up.” “It’s about something silly.” Those three answers probably encapsulate the entirety of Taylor Swift’s musical repertoire.
Yet when we’re listening to classical music, or other instrumental music like jazz or blues, the answer is a bit more complicated. What are J.S. Bach’s violin concertos “about”? Or Ludwig von Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony? Or Frederic Chopin’s “Polonaise N°6 l’heroique”? Sometimes there is an answer. Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Ballet” tells a story, as does other instrumental music. In most cases, however, there is no simple answer as to what the composer — or even the musician(s) playing the music — is thinking or seeking to communicate.
Breadth Versus Narrowness In Music
What is music “about”? The very nature of the vast majority of popular music, with its lyrics, stories, and brevity, reduces songs to a fairly limited horizon. A pop musician’s songs are fundamentally about him: his love life, his break-ups, his efforts to redefine himself. We can often relate to these things. Who hasn’t been in love, had a bad break-up, and subsequently sought to revise one’s image? But that’s about the extent of it. One may connect such music to a particular location or moment in one’s life, but it is still “that place or time I connected with that pop song about _____.”
Composers like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Joseph Haydn, and Johannes Brahms created music that speaks much deeper to our souls, capable of elevating them to a million different vistas. This has been borne out by the research: studies have suggested that classical music expands the brain’s spatial temporal reasoning, improves memory, heightens productivity, and even strengthens empathy. Other instrumental forms of music have also been found to reduce stress. These songs can play in the background of a million activities, adding weight or intellectual stimulation to daily life. They become whatever we want or need them to be about.
It is not just about music that lacks words. Other recent studies have shown that individual people’s brains experience music in the same way, suggesting that there is indeed an objective dimension to determining good music. This would explain the general consensus among the world’s great musicians and music critics that some music (like that of Bach and Miles Davis) is more beautiful, more creative, more open, more instructive. The more one experiences good music, the more one develops an ear for good symphonies, good piano concertos, good jazz solos. This is something even the ancients understood.
What Kind of People Will Your Music Create?
A recent article in New Oxford Review cites Plato’s “The Republic,” where the Greek philosopher argues that the highest education must begin with education in gymnastics (i.e., physical activity) and music. Musical education is “most sovereign,” because “rhythm and harmony most of all insinuate themselves into the inmost part of the soul and most vigorously lay hold of it in bringing grace with them: and they make a man graceful if he correctly reared.”
Music has powerful effects on the development of the virtuous person. Plato continues: “the man properly reared on rhythm and harmony would have the sharpest sense” for what is a “fine product of craft” and what isn’t. Moreover, “due to his having the right kind of dislikes, he would praise the fine things; and, taking pleasure in them and receiving them into his soul, he would be reared on them and become a gentleman. He would blame and hate the ugly in the right way while he’s still young, before he’s able to grasp reasonable speech.”
Someone who has grown up listening to fine music, especially when young and malleable, will be more capable of enjoying the good, true, and beautiful, while also more discerning of what is dull or ugly. By implication, some music is good and inculcates virtue, while other music is mediocre (or even bad), and inculcates vice.
Plato in “The Laws,” Book Two, posits that “the figures and melodies which are expressive of virtue of soul or body, or of images of virtue, are without exception good, and those which are expressive of vice are the reverse of good.” Here we can compare, for example, the moral divergence between George Fredric Handel’s “Messiah” and Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.”
Learning to Love What Is Good
Plato’s greatest student, Aristotle, affirmed and expanded on his “ethics of music.” Aristotle in Book Eight of “Politics” recognizes that good music has several positive effects. It provides some of the greatest pleasures, though one must avoid the temptation of making amusement in music an end in itself, in the process neglecting the higher spiritual activity music should accomplish.
It also engenders true leisure, which is not, contra contemporary cultural opinion, a dulling of the mind watching hours of television, but the regeneration of the intellect via contemplation. Finally, music is an agent of moral instruction, instilling such virtues as patience, as one slowly and purposefully develops an ear for good music, appreciating the complexity and integration of instruments, or the progression of a symphony or jazz composition.
Appreciation of good music is itself a talent that requires its own practice. It is not enough to simply have ears — research has shown that formal training in music affects one’s own musical preferences. Plato asserts: “music must be judged by pleasure, but not the pleasure of any chance listeners.” This is an important corrective to our current age, where so much of music has degenerated into the simplest beats and rhymes, often with messages that are juvenile or dehumanizing. For example, there isn’t anything affirming the dignity of the human person in Cardi B’s megahit “Bodak Yellow.” As the Christian philosopher Boethius argued: “music is part of us, and either ennobles or degrades our behavior.”
This is not to say that pop music has no value or should be rejected wholesale. But it should be kept in its proper place within our lives, lest we lose the imaginative, restorative power that great music, properly consumed, can elicit. Gorging on nothing but Top 40 hits, our collections of ’80s pop, or old classic rock LPs is a bit like eating nothing but Snickers and Twizzlers. It goes down good, but it’s not true sustenance.
Too much of it will not only deaden the palette, but sicken and weaken the body. Great music cultivates greatness in the soul, as my four-year-old’s question helped me understand. “What is this song about, daddy?” With the best music, I’m not entirely sure — but it should be about truth, beauty, and even perhaps when our souls are truly elevated, divinity.