“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.” Plato, Republic III
If Plato is right, we have good reason to re-examine our habits of listening to music.
Taking the Two Week Music Challenge might be in order.
What is the Music Challenge?
For two weeks listen to no music other than pieces from the list below, or other similar music. The point is to cleanse our musical palate, and to cultivate an appreciation for and affinity to better music.
A few reasons for taking the Music Challenge:
First, great philosophers (such as Plato and Aristotle) and theologians (such as Boethius, Basil the Great, and Thomas Aquinas) are convinced that music has a real influence on moral character, as well as broader social consequences. Plato and Aristotle also emphasize its central place in the formation of the young.
Second, much of the music of our day is either banal or bad (often being, among other things, sensuous, angry, or despairing), and consequently we must make special effort to expose ourselves to good music and to experience its salutary effects.
Third, there is nothing to lose, and perhaps, much to gain.
The Music Challenge in the classroom:
I do not make the following observation lightly. Through the years my classroom presentation of Plato and Aristotle on music has garnered a surprising variety of receptions, unlike any other matter that I teach. These receptions range from: “this is ridiculous and contrary to experience,” to: “this is surely true!” and everything in between. One common response among students amounts to saying this: I basically grant Plato’s points about music, but I am unwilling to change how I act. Others strongly object to the points themselves.
My own observation, based in part in my experiences in my own ongoing musical ‘conversion,’ is that music exercises a unique power over us. I would suggest that our difficulty in accepting Plato’s position, and the very vehemence of our objections to it, might be indications of the truth of his position on the power of music.
In the end it seems to me that the testimony of the wise gives us good reason to look critically at the place of music in our lives, and to be willing to make a change.
For some years I have privately offered this two-week challenge to my students. I now bring it to a wider audience in the spirit of fraternal encouragement. Please note: I am but a novice in music appreciation, and I am downright ignorant of musical theory. I have no qualifications for offering this challenge other than this: I am deeply convinced of the power of music–for good or bad–both by the arguments of great thinkers, and from what I take to be the overwhelming evidence of experience. Further, I have seen the change in my own life, and in that of others, associated with setting aside base popular music, and the simultaneous cultivation of an appreciation of higher music.
Much might be said about the proper place of music in its various forms in our lives. I think that there is a place for different kinds of music: such as sacred music, great classical music, and appropriate folk music. At the same time, there is much music that should have no place at all. Discerning just where to draw lines is not always clear. At the same time, that lines need to be drawn seems quite obvious. In the spirit of starting to cultivate a better sense for music, and of beginning to wean ourselves away from what perhaps should be left behind, this “challenge” is offered.
Suggested listening for the Music Challenge:
- Bach, J.S.: Cello Suites (especially Suite No. 1 in G) [recommended performer: Pablo Casals], and Italian Concerto for piano
- Haydn, F.J: Cello Concerto in C [recommended performer: Jacqueline du Pres]
- Mozart, W.A.: Clarinet Quintet and Divertimento in D Major K. 136 [first in a group collectively known as the ‘Salzburg Symphonies.’ Recommended conductor: Ricardo Muti]
- Beethoven, L.: 6th or 9th Symphony
- Respighi, O.: Ancient Airs and Dances
- Dvorak, A.: American Quartet, and Cello Concerto in B minor
- Grieg, E.: Peer Gynt Suite
- Chopin, F.: Piano Concerto No. 1, op. 11, and Nocturnes
Many of these pieces are available on a YouTube playlist.
Note: I do not include Gregorian chant as I take it to be the music of liturgical prayer, and thus it does not so much belong in music ‘to be listened to.’
More on how the Music Challenge works:
The above list is nothing but an eclectic short list of some great music. Many other pieces can be used. Whatever pieces you choose, here are a few suggestions as to how to carry out the Music Challenge:
First, approach this time as an exercise in discipline, one aimed more at personal formation (ascetic) than at developing an artistic taste (aesthetic).
Secondly, consider listening to a few pieces over and over rather than many different pieces. Familiarity breeds deeper appreciation.
Also, a more narrow focus in composers may be fitting. I am of the line of thinking–here again leaning on those who know much better than I do–that with certain composers one can never go wrong, particularly Bach and Mozart.
Fourth, be patient. Some pieces do not have immediate appeal; but as we come to know them better we discover their depth and richness. This is not unlike reality itself, or the character of a friend.
Finally, any who take the challenge and are willing to share anything from their experience are warmly invited to come back and share in the comments below.
- Music and the Soul: Restoring or Destroying the Inner Man
- I Have Ears
- Hearing the Way to Life
- Learning to Hear Again, Starting with Nature
On Education Mini-Series
Note: This is the thid in a short series on paideia, education in Plato. Find all the posts below!
III. Music: A Two Week Challenge
Plato (427-347 B.C.), a student of Socrates, and teacher of Aristotle, is considered one of the greatest philosophers of all time. The Republic is one of the most widely read and influential of all books.
Image: A string quartet in Prague, c. 1905, Photo by V. Donat.
Join the Community.
Become a LifeCraft Member and gain access to our online courses and exclusive content. It's FREE of charge. Period.
If you join as a contributing member, you will help make this content available to an increasing audience and enable me to spend more time in this work. I thank you in advance.
Join the LifeCraft community today and get access to:
- Man of the Household (Course)
- Woman of the Household (Course)
- Concepts Made Clear (Mini-course)
- Dinner at Home (Mini-course)
Friendship and the Conversations that Really Matter
“One must always tell what one sees.” Charles Peguy So many great conversations never happen. There is nothing like sharing insights with a friend into things that matter, and even things that don’t matter so much. But why is it so difficult? One of the great...
What Makes Home a Home
The words ‘home at last’ are uniquely powerful. The desire to be at home is so deeply rooted in us that we don’t question it. If we see these words on a tombstone we scarcely notice; or we smile and think, of course. In the end where else would one want to be? It is...
Hospitality: Finding Our Way Home
It is perhaps a sign of our times that we speak of a hospitality ‘industry.’ Rooms-for-the-night and meals away from home can certainly be bought and sold. But hospitality is something no exchange of money will ever effect. Hospitality is intimately tied with being...
Husband, father, and professor of Philosophy. LifeCraft springs from one conviction: there is an ancient wisdom about how to live the good life in our homes, with our families; and it is worth our time to hearken to it. Let’s rediscover it together. Learn more.
Music is truly a powerful thing. It’s only in the past few years, after over ten years of being a musician myself (violin, viola, and some singing) that I’ve fully come to understand this. Playing music, even as I achieve greater and greater mastery of the instrument, never feels like a “chore” or “repetitive.” As long as I can motivate myself to pick up the instrument and start playing, my entire self is devoted to what I’m playing. Paying attention to the dynamics, adding emphasis and emotion, perfecting technique, or even simply taking pleasure in what I’m playing. It is an art that, when practiced properly, helps to perfect both body and mind: the mind in focusing, the ears in judging tone and picking out certain instruments from a group, the fingers in quickness and accuracy, the eyes in focusing on the music and coordinating with the conductor’s guides.
A few of my personal favorites that I’ll be listening to again in the next two weeks (excluding the obvious, e.g. The Four Seasons), and for those unfamiliar or not well versed in classical music for orchestra, I do encourage you to try these as well as the pieces in the list above:
Camille Saint-Saëns, Symphony No. 3 in C minor (Op. 78) [the “Organ Symphony”]
Vasily Kalinnikov, Symphony No. 2 in A-major
Gustav Holst, The Planets (Op. 32) [specifically Mars and Jupiter]
Felix Mendelssohn, Violin Concerto in E minor (Op. 64)
Antonin Dvorak, Symphony No. 9 (“New World” symphony)
[modern] David Arnold, Stargate Overture – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RqTi8uD_wfA (yes, the one from the movie; the movie was “meh”, the music was amazing)
[modern] Mahito Yokota, Credits Theme from Super Mario Galaxy 2 (yes, a rather odd choice, but it’s actually quite good)
Excellent post, sir. I decided on taking up this challenge myself. I have a question too. I’ve come to accept the notion that there is such a thing as “higher” music, indeed, that art itself can be done well or poorly. I also recognize the incredible achievements of what we call “classical” music. However, it becomes apparent rather quickly that this music has a distinct western or European origin. How would you respond to the charge that what we call “classical” music, the “higher” musical form, is inherently biased in favoring ‘white’, ‘european males’ and is consciously or unconciously promoting a western imperialist hermenuetic. I tend to view its origins as mostly the historical product of an affluent Christian society, not due to an intrinsic supremecy of one race or ethnicity over another. I’d be happy to hear your thoughts.
Rafael, I appreciate your question. It raises very large and important issues. Here are a couple of my thoughts. It does seem that a kind of perfection of musical development was achieved in the West that has not been achieved in other places. If we take this as given, then we can ask why this might be the case. I think that you have already pointed in the right direction regarding a key factor. Christianity is itself a boon to civilization and culture. In the West Christianity has had a unique, uninterrupted opportunity to seep into and transform the culture for almost two thousand years. This, I concur, has nothing to do with issues of race or ethnicity. On another note, I personally would not purport to know and thus stand in judgment of musical achievements of, for instance, Byzantine or oriental cultures. They presumably have treasures of which I know not. But as a westerner my focus naturally turns to my heritage to try to grow in appreciation of it. Thanks again for the comment.
Thank you for the reply, Mr. Cuddeback!
I would second what John says. “Europe” consists of many races, from swarthy Southern Italians, to blonde-haired, blue-eyed Scandinavians, from dark-haired (and partially Arab) Spaniards to fair-skinned Slavic tribes in the East. What “Europe” really is then, is a common cultural and spiritual heritage.
America had at least one major black composer, William Grant Still, (perhaps, also, Louis Gottschalk in the 19th cent.) and serious black jazz composers like Duke Ellington felt they had to interact with classical music as something to learn from.
I would have to do the research, but my instincts tell me that the rejection of classical musical culture was itself first (at least partly) a very European and neo-Marxist thing [i.e. very white (German) thinkers who in politicized-fashion, rejected their own heritage as “oppressive” and “colonial”). This, then, got picked up by, for example, black radical thinkers.
But this is a rather modern (post-WWII) and politicized way of thinking.
“I do not include Gregorian chant as I take it to be the music of liturgical prayer, and thus it does not so much belong in music ‘to be listened to.’”
KP: Au contraire – especially the Graduals and Alleluias which are, as part of the Liturgy of the Word, meant to be be carefully listened to and meditated upon, just like the readings. But, I know what you meant. Good list, it needs to be expanded and turned into a “core listening list” required of all the students.
Dr. Poterack: Thank you for the correction/clarification! It is great to be reminded that in the Liturgy chant has a privileged place. Therein our listening to God’s words is aided by the music itself.
This post helped me become more aware of the music I am exposed to on a daily basis. A lot of this music is in the background – themes to movies and even radio shows, the music played in the grocery store or dentist’s office. And most of it is not of my own choosing – including the hymns at Church on Sunday (which sadly, I rarely find prayerful). If nothing else this exercise can help me be more intentional in choosing a piece of music and taking the time to listen to it. Most often, music, of any kind, becomes the backdrop to some other activity…cleaning or cooking, for example. Can I make room in my day to be still and simply listen? I am a more recent reader of your blog – so pleased to have found it!
Donna, Thank you very much for your thoughtful comment. I really like your way of putting it: being more intentional in the music we listen to. Thanks again.
I created a playlist with all of your recommended pieces. I was able to find all of your preferred musicians/conductors. I chose the most viewed versions with a preference for live performances. https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLk8iVO5aZjxlfGEO-TbsGngTQ7S2QxRUf
Wonderful! Thanks so much Mary!
Hi Dr. Cuddeback,
I am so enjoying your Philosophy course through the ICC. As an aficionado of classical music for decades, may I point out a few of my very favorites. Everyone must start with Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.
*Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, by Ralph Vaughn Williams
*Polonaise in B flat D.580 by Franz Schubert
*Piano Concerto #20, Andante, Mozart
*Waltz #1 by Antonin Dvorak
Anyone of these will make you believe you’ve died and gone to heaven!
And be sure to catch the movie, Amadeus, it is well worth your time.
I can only thank the radio station WQXR in NYC and Lloyd Moss and Gregg Whiteside for my love of classical music. There is nothing like it in the world!
Thank you for sharing these, Alice! I’m looking forward to some more good listening.
Dr. Cuddle back,
I am enjoying your Philosophy 101 course at ICC very much. I think you have highlighted a fascinating issue raised in the Republic regarding music. As a parent I am aware of studies regarding the benefits of playing classical music to infants for their cognitive development. I also have a special needs child with developmental and intellectual disabilities, and it is obvious that he reacts strongly to certain auditory stimuli.
That said, I am undecided how far I am willing to accept the premise that music has an inherent ability to form character. I view this as something of a chicken- egg problem. Do certain types of music (harmony- rhythm) form character of their own nature, or do musicians intentionally compose music to evoke certain emotional responses, that vary according to the listener’s predisposition? To what extent is popular music driven by social preferences- e.g., sex sells? In similar fashion, a skilled painter can use color, light and shadow to create moods in his art ranging from ecstatic joy to impending doom. Is this really anything more profound than acknowledging that art imitates reality? It seems a leap to say that art can create reality.
Two thoughts that I am struggling with in considering this theory. The explosive popularity of rock music unquestionably coincided with a sexual revolution in our society. It also coincided with an anti-war movement and the civil rights cause for racial equality. Turning to classical movement, if the movie Amadeus and written biographies are at all accurate, Mozart’s own life can be described as anything but well-ordered and moderate.
Chuck, You certainly raise some reasonable issues. Here are a couple of thoughts.
First, you wonder whether it is the case that art imitates nature but nothing more than that. Here I think experience is the main guide. There are different ways that aspects of human life can be imitated or signified. Let’s take the example of a genuflection as a sign of reverence. One might wonder whether this action simply signifies reverence, and nothing more. But in fact we use this sign not only to manifest our reverence but also to cultivate it. Similarly, various forms of good manners both manifest and cultivate what they signify. Regarding music, common practice, I think, gives evidence that people have always seen music as both expressing and cultivating the dispositions that are imitated. Martial music instills courage, or at least something like it. Sacred music instills the dispositions it signifies. Indeed, is this not in large part the reason that a certain kind of music is so important in worship?
Second, you mention that sometimes a person with less than exemplary character might make great music. My thought on that is this: just as surely as a person with less than exemplary character can have a true understanding of the moral life (even while falling short of living it), a person could be capable of making music that imitates good and profound moral states, even if he has less than exemplary character. This would especially be the case if, as in Mozart’s case, the person stands in a great tradition of a community seeking to make great music.
My final thought is that the position of Plato (and those that follow him, as I understand it) is that music TENDS to affect that soul in accord with what is imitated. This has a real effect, but it is what it is, and is not what it is not. Good music is no assurance of good character! But it seems that it can have a real, beneficial, and lasting place in pursuing the good life. Thanks again for your thoughts.
Hi Dr. Cuddeback,
I’m in your Philosophy 101 class and after last night’s class, I’m taking the challenge! I’ve long been fascinated with the “Mozart Effect” – and now to find out Socrates and Plato knew about it thousands of years ago! We’ve really lost the wisdom of the ancients. At any rate, I made a playlist last night with your selections. In addition, on the blog OnePeterFive, they have an article about building your classical musical library which I have referred to in the past. The article is here:https://onepeterfive.com/library-classical-music/. I’m working my way through the various composers listed in the article. I’m looking forward to the music cleanse challenge!
Rich, I hope you enjoy it, and thanks for sharing this helpful piece by Dr. Kwasniewski.
Hello Dr. Cuddeback
I am also taking your Philosophy 101 course through ICC and want to share a thought. I am a week behind and thus just watched the lesson 10 lecture last night. I am belatedly beginning the two week challenge and would like to offer Gabriel Faure’s “Requiem” as one of the most beautiful and inspiring pieces of orchestral/choral music I know. It is on YouTube.
Also in the spirit of fraternal encouragement, I was struck again as I listened to lecture 10, how you make this body of work sing. That is, as I struggle through reading the dialogues I find I am unimpressed and wondering what all the fuss is about, Then I find myself uplifted and inspired as your lectures unfold. Thanks to you and ICC.
Steve, Thanks very much for the encouragement, I really appreciate it! And I must say that Faure’s Requiem is certainly an old favorite of mine, though I haven’t listened to it for years. I’ll remedy that.
“Popular music helps you to forget and great music helps you to remember.” Robert Shaw, choral and orchestra conductor
I noticed that you didn’t include jazz on your list. I have listened to jazz over the years, so I have reviewed some over the past few weeks after reading Plato, and in terms of the principles you discuss, jazz has some real problems, but I’d be interested in your opinion. Its a big genre but in terms of rhythm, there a jangley type feel to it. I get the image of a swagger, or a street performer. But thats not so sufficient a description.
While much classical includes syncopation, the syncopation is jazz is more drunken, if I can describe it that way.
The improvisation also has a brutish type of quality to it. The underlying harmony is numbingly repetitive, while there is an instrument, saxophone, piano, clarinet, loudly saying their peace on top. There’s a competitive quality to the solos as well. Who can play faster, and louder.
The lyrics, when there are lyrics can be very sensual, or really silly and frivolous.
I’d be interested in your take. But thinking of your Little Richard quote, I think we may be looking, again, at the rhythm, and just where it comes from! I’m pretty sure its from the same source. Although, I have heard musicologists try to suggest that jazz was from French baroque music with its “swinging” quality of compound meter ( you would have to look what swing rhythm is).
Thanks! Any thought?
Bee, You raise a great question, and a difficult one. A quick thought here: I know a number of people who like jazz and who seem to find a certain richness in it. I must say that I have struggled to see it in a light other than as part of the decline of popular music. But please note: while I enunciate the principles in this post with confidence, that does not mean that I hold myself as most able to make concrete judgements with these principles. I do not know jazz well, and as such I withhold a further judgment about it. I am cautious about it. Thanks for the comment and your reflections.
Has anyone curated a Spotify playlist with the above mentioned pieces, particularly high quality recordings and production? Spotify is more “portable” and uses less data. If I make one, I’ll post it.
I’m also interested in psychoacoustic effects. Resonances and harmony affect our body and mind. Even physically feeling music when played live or loud. To that end, I wonder what difference being at a live event (even if blind so there’s no additional visual effects) or listening to uncompressed recordings would be as compared to hearing it compressed over YouTube/Spotify and in a small speaker or earbuds.
Dan, First, see below for the spotify link shared by James. Also, you raise a great point about how more ‘real’ and ‘direct’ contact with the music is even more powerful. Live concerts are incomparable!
Please do curated a Spotify playlist and share it!
Let’s no forget about the music before Bach. Josquin, Palestrina, Monteverdi – the list is endless. Even if you are not too keen on merely “listening” to sacred music, I figure having a Josquin Mass in the background will do no harm. A truly mind-blowing work is Johannes Ockeghem’s Missa Prolationem; the whole piece is a double canon, with the imitated parts set at various intervals from each other (eat your heart out, Bach!) Besides, there is a wealth of secular vocal, choral, and instrumental music from the Renaissance Era.
Gary, I thank you for this and very much agree. I am not against listening to sacred music. (See also the great comment above from Kurt Poterack on ‘listening’ to sacred music.) I simply sought to retain the uniqueness of sacred music as intended primarily for a liturgical setting.
I found the two week music challenge Spotify list made by Caroline Spangenberg Walker
Hi Dr. Cuddeback,
I came across your post while doing research for my masters’ thesis. I am reading through a few works on Plato, Aristotle, and Augustine, and making connections to the field of music therapy. I really appreciated both your article and also the thoughtful dialogues in the comments section: I found answers to a few questions brought up by one of my professors on qualities of music related to areas of the world. Thank you so much for this post!
Hi Julia, I am very glad to hear of this. A family member of mine has a music therapy practice, and I think it can be a powerful and beautiful thing. Blessings in what you are doing.