On the Nature of Musical Meaning and a Classical-Model Music Education – Part 1

One’s philosophy of music education will reveal many things about one’s philosophy of music.  The author holds that musical experiences ultimately point beyond the objects or experiences in themselves, in one way or another, and on toward a greater sense of objective meaningfulness, and deeper intuitions of value and order.  Therefore, one of the author’s goals in music education is to develop a model of instruction that effectively introduces students to a general, even comprehensive, knowledge of music history, theory, philosophy, performance, and assessment, while also pressing into deeper questions and pointing student inquiry back toward a greater dialogue of truth, goodness, and beauty.  It is for this reason, that the author is interested in developing a classical model of music education.  But before contemplating how to apply a classical model to music, one should first understand its nature and intent.

Historically, within the disciplines of art and music, there was a significant shift following the Enlightenment. While the Classical[1]– and Romantic-era philosophers and artists disagreed on whether we should allow a rationalistic and science-oriented view to dominate our philosophizing and artistic expressions, or whether we should focus on feelings and subjective, spiritual-like experiences, both sides largely failed to continue the (ancient) classical view that always kept in mind those most profound questions of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. This has unfortunately limited contemporary music education, at least in the U.S., to history and anthropology in and of itself, music theory in and of itself, and (most popular) ensemble performance in and of itself. Now, these are not negative things, but they are limited in so far as they do not encourage the student to ever make it back to that classical dialogue.

So what was the classical view of music? Plato and Aristotle held differing opinions concerning the arts—Plato was more suspicious, because emotional experiences often lead us astray—but both philosophers saw music as a sort of Philosophy 101. Seeing a copy of Beauty (to use Platonic language), one should not simply become enamored with the copy—it may simply be a copy of a copy. Rather, now confident in the existence of Goodness and Beauty, the experience of the imitation should beckon one to seek out the real source—Beauty, herself.

Initially, the classical model–the trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric–prepared the individual to think deeply, both artistically and systematically, and to articulate such depth of thought effectively and with eloquence.  But the idea of classical education extended beyond the trivium.  It was, in a sense, the philosophical preparation for the real task of education–wrestling with the big questions; questions involving patterns observed in the sciences, ideas formulated in the mathematics, and issues contemplated, experienced, and expressed via the arts.  In the Middle Ages, scholars progressed from the trivium (which prepared them to philosophize) onto the quadrivium (wherein they applied their philosophical skills to the scientific study of number): arithmetic; geometry (number in space); music (number in time); and astronomy (number in time and space).

Numbers were so important at this time because it was linked to the issue of cosmology. Does all of reality reduce to a unity (e.g. fire) or a duality (e.g., fire and water), etc.? The question of mathematics was understood as significantly linked to reality—and music offered significant insight into mathematics. Note then that an education of antiquity considered music to be both a foundational preparation for philosophical studies in general, as well as a specific sub-discipline of philosophy.

This interdisciplinary and more holistic approach to scholarship was perhaps best seen in the Renaissance. During the Renaissance—an era that witnessed an enthusiastic return to and exploration of classical themes and ideas—the term “Renaissance man” came to represent an individual who embodied the ideal of a classical “liberal arts” education.  Such a well-rounded scholar represented mastery and achievement across multiple disciplines of education (both arts and sciences).  Leonardo da Vinci, for example, was a master of art, science, anatomy, and mathematics.

So what would a classical model of music education look like today? A classical-model of music education will not represent a pragmatic or instrumental philosophy—wherein music education is seen merely as a means to producing musicians; that is too narrow a view. Nor will it be simply a means of producing an appreciation for the experience of music in and of itself. This is a good start, but it too is problematic if the student is never driven beyond the experience per se.

It may be tempting to reflect on the high standards of a classical model and conclude that a classical music education will therefore crank out excellent musicians. But this, frankly, is unreasonable. Music is both an inclusive and exclusive discipline. It is inclusive in the sense that anyone can learn and experience general musicianship—I genuinely believe that. However, “excellence” is necessarily exclusive; only those with certain means, gifts, time, desire, patience, tenacity, etc. will excel. Not everyone can be an orchestral instrumentalist, piano virtuoso, or opera singer; but everyone can learn, love, and experience music. Ensembles may offer an important opportunity to share glimpses of goodness and beauty with one’s community, but they must not overshadow the classical mission.

So what would a classical model of music education look like today?
. . . .

[1] Big-C “Classical” refers to the AD 1700s; “little-c” classical refers to ancient Greco-Roman philosophy.


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