For the ancients, music was an integral part of education. Today, neuroscience provides new evidence as to why. It is imperative to go over the ornamental nature of music in current educational programs.
Talking about ancient music theory has become an exercise of speculation and figurative language. Trying to approach a sound phenomenon of which there is no acoustic record has been a scrupulous effort for philosophers, historians, musicologists and performers to reconstruct a temple of which we can barely glimpse supports and columns. Nowadays we speak of ancient music based on physical evidence, images portrayed in works of art and written descriptions. From these abstractions we strive to “hear” what it probably meant. In this matter, some texts by Plato and Aristotle are the references par excellence. The Greek musical modes, those systems of stairs (or scales) of musical notes, are a representation, being written in a descending way, symbolizing the direction in which sounds descend from gods to men. Currently, we have reconstructed that system, and although at a theoretical level it can be easily explained, we vaguely know how it was put into practice.
Aristotle admits in his Politics that music has an effect on people’s conduct, that it exerts a big influence on their behavior and, therefore, it must be considered in education. He begins with a record of the subjects that comprise regular education:
There are perhaps four customary subjects of education, reading and writing, gymnastics, music, and fourth, with some people, drawing; reading, writing and drawing being taught as being useful for the purposes of life and very serviceable, and gymnastics as contributing to manly courage; but as to music, here one might raise a question. For at present most people take part in it for the sake of pleasure; but those, who originally included it in education did so because, as has often been said, nature itself seeks to be able not only to engage rightly in business but also to occupy leisure nobly; for—to speak about it yet again—this is the first principle of all things. (Aristotle, Politics,1337b23-34).
Aristotle finds in each discipline a specific function, except in the case of music, a discussion that will remain until the end of the 8th. book of his Politics. From the beginning, he assigns to music a recreational quality, which, by the way, is essential for the different popular genres of all times. We are approximately fifteen centuries before the genesis of concert music, around 1600. This kind of “more complex” music does not always find its essence in amusement, although it also fulfills this purpose. As it develops, it will try to bring the modern man to the zenith of aesthetic experience by means of new technical resources and new artistic conceptions. Nevertheless, this culmination is equivalent to what Aristotle ends up considering: that music, outside the bonds of functional purposes, it raises the exaltation of the soul.
The question on how to classify music, given its versatility, endured for another thousand years: there were many doubts as to whether it should be included in the Trivium, or the Quadrivium, that is, next to grammar, dialectics and rhetoric, or arithmetic, geometry and astrology. Just five centuries ago, the tendency to exclude it from educational programs was increasing.
Paradoxically, today neuroscience seems to vindicate what ancients already knew: that music thoroughly enhances thinking skills, and it’s even pointed out that music works as an auspicious medium in therapeutic tasks for individuals of all ages. In the 21st century it is necessary to take up this discussion again, under the premise of whether music should be part of educational programs in a more structural and enlarged way, and if it should also walk with us throughout other stages of life. This reinforces the question of whether recent scientific discoveries about the cognitive benefits of music should be the basis for new public policies in the field of education and health.