Ethical Music and Change

“Plato’s concern that changes in musical conventions threaten anarchy in society has been voiced repeatedly by those who resist change, and it echoes today among those lamenting current tastes in popular music” – A History of Western Music (Burkholder, Grout, Palisca)

So I sold my music history text book in my third year of undergrad; I needed some extra dough. But recently I’ve been wanting an intro text to music history to get some bearings on what the current understanding of the musical canon in history is. So I picked up a used text book for a very fine price. I’m loving it for both it’s simplicity and clarity as well as showing me where I can investigate further details that the text doesn’t have room for.

One interesting fact: “The earliest composer known to us by name is Enheduanna (fl. ca. 2300 B.C.E), an Akkadian high priestess at Ur, who composed hymns (songs to a god) to the moon god Nanna and moon goddess Inanna; their texts, but not their music, survive on cuneifrom tablets.” So that’s awesome. The first composer that we know by name is a woman. Pretty cool.

Back to the first quote. It’s false. The claim that certain kinds of music affect one’s character has indeed been used by many thinkers. However, the authors in the text imply that it is inherently a conservative claim. Luther, and later Mattheson, argued that if music had the power to move people in secular situations, the church should have no reservations in bringing that same music, albeit with different texts, into the liturgical worship of the church. Here, Luther and Mattheson are pushing for change not resisting it, as the textbook claims. Furthermore, there is an implicit suggestion that character and music have absolutely no correlation, which further implies that the culture and situation where the music itself arises is irrelevant. And this is simply not the case.

Textbooks try to be as clear cut as possible so that the reader can nuance their ideas in their later studies. Perhaps this is okay. But I don’t think it’s okay to present an idea as fact if it is opinion.

About JoeL

I completed a Master of Music degree from McGill University. I am currently working towards an Artist Diploma also at McGill. I like to do philosophy as a hobby.

1 thought on “Ethical Music and Change

  1. I agree that if we are to say that music “moves” people or has any sort of power or purpose, we must also say that music forms character and emotion and that the kind of music being heard or performed and its associated disciplines matter. Obviously, it gets more complicated when one tries to say what the character forming traits of certain kinds of music are, and all the examples I can think of of attempts at this kind of naming *are* inherently conservative. I’m usually left stuck there. I’d be interested in any thoughts you have about moving forward on naming the relationship between character and music.

    Like

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