Are there prizes for titles and dust jackets? If so, Spence Publishing should win them both for All Shook Up . I don’t know when I’ve seen a philosophy book covered by a more colorful dust jacket or graced with a snappier title. Carson Holloway is a political scientist teaching at Concord College in West Virginia, and the jazzy cover and hip title are appropriate for his highly readable plea for cultural reform through proper music education.

Believing that music has a natural power “to move the soul,” Holloway argues that it can either “aid or impede not only our quest for a decent social order but also our striving for the goods in which we find our fullest happiness.” This is accomplished by the ability of certain music to inculcate a predilection for rational thought and moral behavior. Since a free society requires citizens able to exercise self-control through reason, education in and cultivation of such music is necessary to a free society’s health. With it a society thrives. Without it a society disintegrates.

This is an ancient belief, and after an initial chapter of contemporary cultural diagnosis, Holloway turns to Plato and Aristotle for the foundations of his argument. Thinking that early training in appropriate music can habituate a youth to a life of moderation and virtue, Plato argues that music should be a fundamental part of a boy’s education. After a chapter on Aristotle’s views on music, Holloway turns to shorter discussions of the views of Hobbes, Locke, and Montesquieu. He gives full chapters to Rousseau’s and Nietzsche’s thoughts on music and closes by returning to the present situation, focusing on the debate over the impact of popular music on the lives of American youth. Although here his primary analysis concerns arguments made by Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind and by Robert Pattison in The Triumph of Vulgarity , for several pages Holloway also takes me to task for arguments I have made in this journal about the nature of music.

I’m flattered that Holloway noticed, and he both quotes me accurately and presents my position fairly. In writing about the supposed “Mozart effect” (FT, March 1999), I argued that music does not have the power to shape character or influence the will, and that Plato was wrong when he claimed that training boys in a particular kind of music would make them adopt certain patterns of behavior and particular dispositions. Holloway suggests that I misunderstand Plato and set up straw arguments against him, while also misrepresenting music’s character.

Holloway may have a point. I may misunderstand Plato. Since I’ve changed my mind several times on elements of Plato’s thought, I can’t say that I won’t change it again. But our primary disagreement isn’t over Plato (although I will return to him later). Rather, it is over the fundamental premise of Holloway’s book.

Does music indeed have a natural power to move the soul? We need to be clear about what we mean when we speak of a “natural power.” If I take a match, light it, and hold my palm over the flame, I will be burned. It doesn’t make any difference what mood I’m in at the moment, whether I happen to be of European or Asian descent, if I like or dislike matches, or if I want to be burned or not. If I hold someone else’s palm to the flame, he, too, will be burned. And if there were some horrible tragedy in which many of us became trapped in a burning building, all of us exposed to the fire would be burned as well.

We can say that fire has the natural power to burn. And we can say that oil has the natural power to float on water and that streptococcus has the natural power to make us ill. To say that music, too, has a “natural power” is to argue that music has in itself the power to affect listeners in a way similar to fire’s power to burn, or oil’s power to float, or a bacteria’s power to sicken. It has to affect things with the same kind of inevitability; it has to affect people in predictable ways regardless of particular circumstances.

But music simply isn’t like that. One listener might experience the opening E-minor chorus of the St. Matthew Passion as conveying deep grief. A second might be simply bored. And a third”to whom the conventions of eighteenth-century European art music are foreign”might find the piece incomprehensible. If this music possessed a “natural power,” it would have the same effect upon all listeners. It would move all listeners in the same way that a match scorches all palms. But that doesn’t happen.

Let us consider a few areas of recent research. Gilbert Rouget is one of France’s leading ethnomusicologists and has studied the role of music in religious trance. Despite the views of many practitioners who believe that the music itself produces ecstatic trance states, Rouget concludes that the trance is induced only when the communicant has made a prior decision to enter into a trance. After that decision is made, music is used, along with a constellation of other devices, to support the altered state and socialize it within the particular community. The conclusion of Rouget’s research and analysis is that music itself has no power to affect behavior.

To cite another example, psychologists have long been curious about the possible relationship between heavy metal music and juvenile delinquency. Speculating that listening to such music contributed to delinquency, the American Medical Association in 1989 published an advisory to physicians suggesting that they question their adolescent patients’ music preferences as an early sign of possible social dysfunction. Yet a 1993 study showed that while youth who preferred heavy metal music reported significantly more delinquency than youth with other musical tastes, there was no clear evidence that a preference for heavy metal music by itself significantly contributed to that delinquency. Instead, the researchers found that youth who were already prone to hypersexuality and manipulative and amoral behavior, and who had low parental supervision, found heavy metal music congenial to their psychological condition. The music did not have the power to affect the youth’s behavior, but it did give youth a vehicle for self-expression.

Holloway is not unaware of issues like these. Yet his treatment of the “power of music” demonstrates insufficient concern for the complexity and nuance the subject requires. For instance, he gives Rousseau’s reflections far too much credence (most modern musicians agree with Jean-Philippe Rameau, Rousseau’s contemporary, that he was a combination of talented tunesmith, musical ignoramus, and outright fraud). Moreover, some of the recent studies to which Holloway refers in support of his thesis are cited incompletely (such as Rouget’s work) and others are dealt with too uncritically.

All in all, the best recent research simply does not support the notion that music has a “natural” power to affect human behavior. Listening to a particular kind of music does not throw all its hearers into a trance any more than heavy metal music transforms its listeners into sociopaths. Likewise, there is no evidence that training in a particular kind of music will produce a person of predictable qualities and capacities. (Interestingly, there is one area of life in which music apparently has the ability to affect some people’s behavior: grocery shopping. Several studies have found that faster paced music tends to make American shoppers walk down the aisles more quickly than slower paced music. But even in this case, the effect is not universal.)

Which brings us back to Plato. It is useful to remember that Plato was writing about music against a background of stylistic change. Sometime in the decades before his birth, music in Athens apparently went through a transformation somewhat similar to what happened in Italy at the turn of the seventeenth century. The music of an older generation was challenged by that of a newer generation, with the former generation calling the latter’s music vulgar, vacuous, and theatrical, while the latter described the older music as outdated, unimaginative, and dull. Pherecrates, writing in the fifth century b.c., made this conflict the subject of a play. His Chiron , which has survived only in fragments, consists of a contest between the two musics, the old and the new, the classical and the modern, the noble and refined and the vulgar and complex. When Plato writes about “simple” music nurturing a lasting love for order, his comments must be understood as those of a social conservative who thinks of the music of the past as a permanent repertory, responds to the innovative art of his own age as incomprehensible, and lashes out at the new art as socially destructive. He wants the older, “noble” music. He forbids the chromatic Lydian mode. Arising as it did from oriental influences across the Aegean, it was seen by Plato as soft and lazy (a typically Greek prejudice toward the Persians). Much more suitable for education in his view is the native-born Dorian mode, manly and brave. Against this background, it makes sense to think of Plato”in his musical tastes at least”as a nativist reactionary.

Plato apparently believed that a return to the older kind of music would be instrumental in reinstating the ancient virtues. And I suspect that Holloway thinks so as well. But while Plato was fairly specific in the kind of music he believed would accomplish his goal (the Dorian and both species of the Phrygian), Holloway is less precise. Having devoted an entire book to the notion that our society can be transformed by the cultivation of the “right kind of music,” Holloway is strangely mute regarding just what that music might be.

This is unfortunate. For Holloway’s thesis to be taken seriously it needs to move beyond a review of past opinions about music and society to a prescription of precisely what music (which keys, rhythms, meters, forms, tunings, ensembles”even pieces and performances) will assist in society’s redemption. Mozart’s music, perhaps? But which Mozart? The Mozart of Cosi fan tutte or of La clemenze di Tito ? Or should it be Gregorian chant? But if so, should it be the elaborate chant of Cluny or the purged repertory of the Cistercians? Should we listen to the cantatas of von Webern or the twelve-tone works of Stravinsky? Or maybe the hyper-individualistic works of Cage? Or simply Amy Grant’s latest CD? Which music shall we choose?

I think Holloway doesn’t say because he can’t. And he can’t because there simply isn’t such a repertory. There is no piece of music that will itself cause any person to choose virtue over vice if that person does not begin by wanting to be virtuous, just as there is no repertory that will dispose children to hunger and thirst for righteousness. Holloway is an engaging and thoughtful writer. But his argument for the social and moral importance of music is but one more performance of an ancient fashion show for an emperor with no clothes.

Michael Linton is head of the Division of Music Theory and Composition at Middle Tennessee State University.

Articles by Michael Linton

Loading...