Why listen to, and study, music

I was cleaning out my emailbox today and found a long forgotten bit of recommended reading from TC. It’s a wonderful reflection on the place of music and purpose of the study of music in the liberal arts education - which is, arguably, an education in life. Two money quotes:

Even apart from this profound connection with mathematics, music is pre-eminent among the arts for the order and clarity, the sharply defined character, of its elements. Music moves us, sometimes to overpowering emotion. It does so through well-defined structures, through an order of tones and rhythms. It is not the mere sound of drums but their rhythmic beating that stirs us. Here we come upon the central paradox of music, the paradox that defines music as a worthy object of sustained intellectual wonder: Music is the union of the rational and irrational, of order and feeling.


Beautiful music pleases and sometimes challenges us with its intelligence, depth, and complexity. It does not please for the moment, but invites endless re-experience and return. The more we listen, the more we hear. And the more we study the music, the more reason we have to find it beautiful. Music unfolds in time and exhibits a delightful play of forces or tensions. In music, the question of beauty comes down largely to this perception of how musical forces conspire to form a whole.† These forces or tensions are at work in the familiar major and minor scales, and in the chords of harmony. Great musical works exploit these tensions to the fullest. That is why they are both maximally ordered and emotionally potent, why, as we say, they are beautiful.

Here’s the whole thing.

Email this Post


  1. judi wrote:

    Wow, this is a great essay. It makes me sad when schools drop art and music from the curriculum because they are “too expensive” or to “concentrate on the basics.” As this author points out, music is “the essential liberating art.” Or, as we used to sing in a round at Girl Scout campfires:
    All things shall perish from under the sky
    Music alone shall live
    Never to die…
    So of all the “manmade” arts, music is the closest to The Eternal.

  2. RF wrote:

    Great article/essay, Douglas. I tuaght school for 15 years and music was always a very important part of the curriculum. The junior high I taught at had 80 in the band and 40 in the chorus. Today that band is about 25 and the chorus is little more than a quartet. Why? No Child Left Behind.

    What’s sad about that is the fact that teachers, who are in danger of losing their jobs or being transferred or banished to a school far, far away, now teach the test, spend a certain number of minutes a day on the buzz topic of the day, and point toward a standardized test that is totally unfair to students. Music is frivilous and not necessary. I blame this for the general lack of good music these days.

    We are lucky that sg has stayed as good as it is. Many children will leave high school not knowing anything about music except what they hear on the radio (gasp!). It’s sad that so many bought into this bogus concept.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked * Please note: Comment moderation is enabled and may delay your comment. There is no need to resubmit your comment.