Ancient Greek philosophers had a much broader understanding of the word “music” than modern thinkers, leading to beliefs about music education that are still debated today. Music was inseparable from numbers and poetry, and the mathematical connections in particular lead Greek writers to believe music could affect the soul.
The mathematician Pythagoras discovered the numerical ratios necessary to create different consonances. He and his followers believed numbers were “the key to the entire spiritual and physical universe.” As such, musical pitches and rhythms “exemplified the harmony of the cosmos and corresponded to it” (Grout 2001, 5). This also led Greek thinkers such as Ptolemy to associate music and astronomy, since both were believed to be ordered by numbers. Separately but also of great importance to ancient Greek society, poetry was so inextricably tied to music that the Greeks did not have a word for “artful speech” without music (Grout 2001, 6).
Because the ancient Greeks believed that numbers controlled the seen and unseen world, including the human soul, they believed music could affect a person’s morals. This doctrine of ethos promoted by both Aristotle and Plato meant that the type of music people listened to would directly affect their character, since music “imitates the passions or states of the soul” (Grout 2001, 6). Therefore, censorship of certain modes would be necessary to encourage citizens to become the “right” kind of people (Abeles, Hoffer, and Klotman 1995, 4-5). Greek mythology bears many examples of heroes being able to perform great feats through music, such as Orpheus retrieving his wife (albeit briefly) from the underworld (Morford 2003, 356).
Because of the broad range of uses and effects the Greeks believed music encompassed, it played a large role in education. While gymnastics was deemed necessary to educate the body, music’s purpose was to educate the soul. However, Plato stressed that the two elements should be balanced, because “too much music makes a man effeminate or neurotic while too much gymnastics makes him uncivilized, violent, and ignorant;” only the proper balance could produce a “true musician” (Grout 2001, 6). This early emphasis on music education did not go unnoticed by medieval scholars, leading music to be included in the quadrivium, four number-related liberal arts. Of a lower order was the trivium, three verbal-related liberal arts (Abeles, Hoffer, and Klotman 1995, 5-6).
Abeles, Hoffer, and Klotman (1995, 4) note that many issues debated among ancient Greeks over the use of music in education and society are still in contention thousands of years later. Music educators still must justify the merit of studying music as more than just entertainment. With the advent of new genres of music, modern music educators must also wonder whether the Greek doctrine of ethos holds true and if they and other musicians are responsible for the positive or negative characteristics of their students.
Abeles, Harold F., Charles R. Hoffer, and Robert H. Klotman. Foundations of Music Education, 2nd ed. Belmont, CA: Thomas Higher Education, 1995.
Grout, Donald J., and Claude V. Palisca. A History of Western Music, 6th ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.
Morford, Mark P. O., and Robert J. Lenardon. Classical Mythology, 7th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.