Today being Mozart's 250th birthday, I thought it would be an opportune time to reflect on the cultural phenomenon of music. Why is it that babies like Mozart?
I've commented that a musician shouldn't been seen as a philosopher, nevertheless music does have philsophical and ethical implications. As Plato reflects in Book IV of the Republic,
When modes of music change, the laws of the State always change with them.
Music forms the soul and human souls are the foundation of the state. Note that it is the music, not the lyrics that form the soul. Many American conservatives get caught up in disputing the decadent lyrics of today's music (half the time you can't make out what the singer's mumbling anyway) and completely neglect the actual music, which has a far more formative effect on the listerner's soul.1 In sixth century A.D. the Christian philosopher Boethius wrote The Principles of Music in which he said,
music is related not only to speculation, but to morality as well, for nothing is more consistent with human nature than to be soothed by sweet modes and disturbed by their opposites. Thus we can begin to understand the apt doctrine of Plato, which holds that the whole of the universe is united by a musical concord. For when we compare that which is coherently and harmonious joined together within our own being with that which is coherently and harmoniously joined together in sound—that is, that which gives us pleasure—so we come to recognize that we ourselves are united according to the same principle of similarity.2
In other words there is an analogy implicit in the music itself with which the soul resonates. And it is not a purely conditioned response. In some sense we emerge from the womb ready to receive such beauty. This is why babies like Mozart.
Is Our Tonal System Arbitrary?
Another question occurs to me: is the Western musical scale unique or an accident of history? Did Pythagoras in the fifth century B.C. construct an arbitrary harmonic system or uncover a fundamental cosmic reality, something as objective as math or physics that springs out of the very nature of the universe (or at least human nature)?
Some modern composers have claimed it is arbitrary and attempted to replace the traditional scale with their own creation. For example, as Robert R. Reilly writes,
In the 1920s, Arnold Schoenberg unleashed the centrifugal forces of disintegration in music through his denial of tonality. Schoenberg contended that tonality does not exist in nature as the very property of sound itself, as Pythagoras had claimed, but was simply an arbitrary construct of man, a convention. This assertion was not the result of a new scientific discovery about the acoustical nature of sound, but of a desire to demote the metaphysical status of nature.3
The product was of course atrocious. Perhaps it was popular among the educated (read: indoctrinated) elites, but didn't catch on with the "uneducated" many, let alone with babies.
From this historical failure, it might be concluded that any departure from the traditional tonal system is bound to fail. The argument is less than mathematically (ala Pythagoras) convincing. A musician and student of mine observed that he has heard traditional gypsy music that uses half-tones similar to twelve tone, and that it "works." I wonder if the problem with Schoenberg was not so much his system, but the rebellious spirit that animated it. As Reilly observes, his "assertion was not the result of a new scientific discovery about the acoustical nature of sound, but of a desire to demote the metaphysical status of nature."
It seems to me mathematically possible to change the tonal system in obedience to the tradition. For example, why is middle-C the frequency it is? It could theoretically be shifted without destroying the proportions on which Pythagoras built his system.
Not being a musician myself, I can claim no authority on this matter, but I would be fascinated to hear from anyone who knows more.
1. Hence the rather oxymoronic character of "Christian" rock.
2. As quoted in Reilly, p. 14.
3. From Reilly, p. 15.
Robert R. Reilly, "The Music of the Spheres, or the Metaphysics of Music," Intercollegiate Review 37:1 (Fall 2001), 12-21.