I’m not advocating a return to the cultish aspects of Pythagoras, or saying that music is some mystical religion or occult teaching. But rather that philosophy and aesthetics as related to music have lost their way, at least in regards to how we teach music.
In most other disciplines, they teach some basic philosophy course that lays out many aspects of it: philosophy of science, education, math, history; but no such course for music is standard. We don’t even routinely teach aesthetics, something that is at the very heart of music. (Now granted, this is from my own limited experience, but these are things I strongly feel should be standard in a musician’s education.) It is part of training a true musician. Not just one who plays or composes, but one who truly contemplates and strives to understand music.
We teach many of the tools: theory to understand its construction, history to understand its place, but we need philosophy and aesthetics to bring these together. We do not teach this. Many courses might touch on the periphery, and students might talk about it, but if we give student two of these tools, theory and history, why don’t we give them the third, philosophy?
Towards a Unification
String Theory seeks to give physics the mathematical tools to finally unify Einstein’s General Relativity Theory of gravity with the Standard Model of Quantum Mechanics, and music is in need of something similar.
Music is a fractured discipline. Not only do we have specialization by discipline (performance, composition, jazz or classical, theory, musicology), but we are still very music culturally biased (Western, non-Western, and every other culture on Earth). We are all under the umbrella of music, but are we really taught to thing about music as a whole?
Universals get a bad wrap in today’s culturally sensitive world. Fears of globalization and disappearing cultures have made us keen on preserving what makes our world a wonderfully varied and unique place. But to truly reach a unified approach to music, even with philosophy, we must first reach a unified description of music in the world, and this would HAVE to include all cultures aesthetic approach to music, non-Western theory, and how music functions culturally. These are all things that Ethnomusicology has begun to equip us with.
Once we being to understand music in the world at large more completely, we can begin to build a more complete philosophical and aesthetic base of music. We examine what are those universals that can be found in music theories, performance rituals, cultural perception, cultural function, and others.
Music is NOT a universal language, at least not yet.
When we say that, many of us are thinking of only Western music, but even in Western Civilization it’s not universal. Play a Mozart symphony for ten different people and odds are you’ll get at least five different reactions, if not ten. The only thing universal about music is that every culture on Earth has developed some form of music.
That in itself, though, is a compelling fact.
Working from there we can begin to examine the philosophical underpinnings of music in culture.
This is why the crucial first step in this process is to teach philosophy and aesthetics alongside theory and history. And it is something that should be done at the undergraduate level in college. We unify all aspects of Western music first with the proper teaching of philosophy and aesthetics to students. Really a re-unification since to the ancient Greeks and even afterwards, this was crucial to one’s education.
After that, we can begin to make strides to unify the study of all musics into our schools, and not just some one semester class of “World Musics.”