In Book VIII of the Republic, Plato explains how the beautiful city, the kallipolis, succumbs to decay as anything else does. First, the leaders start having children at the wrong times; then the children, who are not raised properly, mature without a sense of poetry and music. Lacking this sense, they also lack a sense of proper governance.
Why might this be so? I asked my students. Why would good leaders need education in music and poetry?
The answers they offered said a lot about our times. “Music allows you to be creative,” said one.
“It’s self-expression,” said another.
“This is true, but is there more? What does it mean for Plato?” I asked. They were momentarily stumped.
I directed them to a passage in Book III:
Aren’t these the reasons, Glaucon, that education in music and poetry is most important? First, because rhythm and harmony permeate the inner part of the soul more than anything else, affecting it most strongly and bringing it grace, so that if someone is properly educated in music and poetry, it makes him graceful, but if not, then the opposite. Second, because anyone who has been properly educated in music and poetry will sense it acutely when something has been omitted from a thing and when it hasn’t been finely crafted or finely made by nature. And since he has the right distastes, he’ll praise fine things, be pleased by them, receive them into his soul, and, being nurtured by them, become fine and good. He’ll rightly object to what is shameful, hating it while he’s still young and unable to grasp the reason, but, having been educated in this way, he will welcome the reason when it comes and recognize it easily because of the kinship with himself.
Now they understood that Plato saw music education as a conduit to good taste and judgment—because, having learned to discern good craft in one sphere, one can recognize it elsewhere as well.
One can dispute this, of course. There are plenty of examples of people with musical prowess who show poor judgment in other areas of life. Nonetheless, there’s something to this idea of timing and tuning. When you learn to play or sing in tune and in rhythm, you do become more alert to form and detail. You come to sense the relationships between different parts of a work, whether it’s a sonnet, an opinion piece, or even a sentence. You may even notice when your mood is out of tune or out of step.
None of this transfer of sensibility is guaranteed. It’s possible to perform a sonata splendidly and then get into a needless argument. It’s possible to sense a flaw in a sestina but not in a policy proposal. Nonetheless, music and poetry can make a person more alert to tunings overall.
But of course music isn’t only tuning and timing. There’s tension between control and release, between discipline and abandon, between form and departure from form. You need both, but in what proportion? There’s no final formula. That’s where keen sense comes in.
Young people do not lack that sense. It’s just that many of them haven’t thought of music in that way. Why not? Much of it has to do with a popular belief in self-expression. It needs a counterbalance, and a strong one. Self-expression of a kind is important, but it’s the shaping that makes it interesting. It’s the shaping that allows works to speak to each other and to seep into the memory. It’s the shaping that allows us to carry a sensibility from one sphere into another.
This shaping, of course, requires knowledge; you must listen to many sonatas to understand what a sonata can be, or to depart from a sonata. Beethoven’s Opus 111 arises from the earlier sonatas; it could not have been composed in a void.
A good curriculum would include many works that help students understand form and shape. It would involve a great deal of listening to poetry, music, and speeches. It would not preclude self-expression, but it would lift that expression, enriching it with literature, history, mathematics, languages, and more.
Update: For more on self-expression and its pitfalls in the classroom, see Robert Pondiscio’s piece in the Atlantic.