Liberal Art #7—Music

Music is a liberal art far more powerful and mysterious than most would guess.

In The Liberal Arts Tradition, Clark and Jain hasten to let us know that music is not all about singing and instruments. That is only a partial understanding of all that is contained in the discussion of music as a liberal art.

Traditionally, music had three aspects, only one of which corresponds to what we generally mean today when we speak of “music.” The other two categories are about proportionalities in the world and in human society. I think “proportionalities,” while it is a proper mathematical term, making it quite legitimate in the discussion of the quadrivium, could also be understood as “relationships.”

Think of the word “harmony.” It has a meaning in musical performance, vocal or instrumental. It involves a relationship between two different tones, but it is harmonious only if the relationship is pleasing—beautiful. The opposite word, unharmonious, certainly implies something chaotic, out of sync, displeasing. Harmonies—proportions, relations—can be expressed mathematically, and they can be found in many places.

It is from this history that we get the phrase “the music of the spheres.” This is also why Plato could say that in one sense music was the totality of education, both the beginning and the end.

Because of course, we have already discussed the way in which music—poetic understanding—is the proper mode of knowledge for young students, and as the final part of the quadrivium, it is the pinnacle of the classical curriculum, until you advance to philosophy and theology. Students come full circle, from delight in knowledge to understanding why knowledge is delightful, so to speak.

To be perfectly honest, much of the discussion in this section of the book goes right over my head. My education in mathematics was truncated at Algebra II, so when I read a sentence that says “or the differential and integral calclus, are in some way proper to Philolaus’s definition of the liberal art of music,” I just have to take it at face value, and I know I don’t fully comprehend.

But some ideas I do get. Clark and Jain make it clear that music, properly understood, is part of the pursuit of a “grand unified theory” of knowledge.

While the daunting volume of data and information today seem to dwarf the search for meaning and truth, there has never been a time when the hunger to make sense of the big picture was greater.

That, I understand. And I agree. This is the harmony that eludes us, but needs to be a part of our educational pursuits. I think I’ll do one more post to wrap up the liberal arts before moving on. I have enjoyed this book very much, and if you’re reading along, I hope you have, too!

For a much more thorough look at this section of The Liberal Arts Tradition, you will want to see what Brandy had to say about it on the Afterthoughts blog.

Copyright 2018 Karen Glass


Link to all the posts in the Liberal Arts Tradition discussion.