Thursday, March 02, 2017

Music as a Means of Social Control

PenelopeGouk |  Ancient models: Plato and Aristotle

Anyone thinking about music and social control in the early modern period would tend to look for precedents in antiquity, the most significant authors in this regard being Plato and Aristotle. The two crucial texts by Plato are his Republic and the Laws, both of which are concerned with the nature of the best form of political organisation and the proper kind of education for individuals that lead to a stable and harmonious community.

Education of the republic's citizens includes early training in both gymnastics and mousike, which Andrew Barker defines as 'primarily an exposure to poetry and to the music that is its key vehicle.' (For the rest of this discussion I will simply refer to 'music' but will be using it in the broader sense of poetry set to musical accompaniment.) The crucial point is that within Plato's ideal society the kinds of 'music' that are performed must be firmly controlled by the law givers, the argument being that freedom of choice in music and novelty in its forms will inevitably lead to corruption and a breakdown of society. 

Plato's distrust of musical innovation is made concrete in his Laws where he describes what he thinks actually happened once in Greek society, namely that the masses had the effrontery to suppose they were capable of judging music themselves, the result being that 'from a starting point in music, everyone came to believe in their own wisdom about everything, and to reject the law, and liberty followed immediately'. (To Plato liberty is anathema since some people have much greater understanding and knowledge than others.) 

This close association between the laws of music and laws of the state exists because according to Plato music imitates character, and has a direct effect on the soul which itself is a harmonia, the consequence being that bad music results in bad citizens. To achieve a good state some form of regulation must take place, the assumption being that if the right musical rules are correctly followed this will result in citizens of good character. It is fascinating to discover that Plato looks to Egypt with approval for its drastic control of music in society, claiming that its forms had remained unchanged for ten thousand years because of strict regulation that 'dedicated all dancing and all melodies to religion'. To prescribe melodies that possessed a 'natural correctness' he thinks 'would be a task for a god, or a godlike man, just as in Egypt they say that the melodies that have been preserved for this great period of time were the compositions of Isis.' (In fact as we shall see there were similar arguments made for the divine origins of sacred music in the Hebrew tradition.) 

Perhaps thinking himself to be a 'godlike man', Plato lays down a series of strict rules governing musical composition and performance, a prescription that if correctly followed would ensure the virtue of citizens and the stability of the state, as well as the banishment of most professional musicians from society. First, Plato wants to limit the kind of poetry that is set to music at all because songs have such a direct and powerful effect on people's morals. Thus any poems that portray wickedness, immorality, mourning or weakness of any kind must be banned, leaving only music that encourages good and courageous behaviour among citizens. The next thing to be curtailed is the range of musical styles allowed in the city, which Plato would confine to the Dorian and the Phrygian 'harmoniai', a technical term for organisations of musical pitch that for the purposes of this paper need not be discussed in any more detail. Between them these two 'harmoniai' appropriately 'imitate the sounds of the self-restrained and the brave man, each of them both in good fortune and bad.' Thirdly, as well as controlling the words to be sung and the manner in which they are performed, Plato would also regulate the kinds of instrument used for accompaniment, the two most important being the lyra and the kithara. Those that are forbidden include the aulos as well as a range of multi-stringed instruments capable of playing in a variety of different modes. Finally, Plato is emphatic in stating that the metrical foot and the melody must follow the words properly for the right effect to be achieved, rather than the other way around. 

Of course these rules are intrinsically interesting, since they tell us about what Plato thought was wrong with music of his own time. However, for my purposes they are also interesting because they seem to have had a discernable influence on would-be reformers of music and society in the early modern period (that is, between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries) which I will come to further on in my paper.