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Aristotle on the Purposes of Music

As in most things, so on the subject of music, Aristotles ideas are more

down to earth than Platos. For him, music is useful not only in
education and in ritual, but also as entertainment and relaxation, so long
as its use does not become excessive and distracting. Besides the ethical
benefits music can impart, Aristotle recognizes a purely aesthetic
pleasure (he calls it enthusiasm) foreign to Platos scale of values.
However, he cautions against too professional an attitude, which can
only compromise the free mans status.

Our chief inquiry now is whether or not music is to be put into education and what
music can do. Is it an education or an amusement or a pastime? It is reasonable to reply
that it is directed towards and participates in all three. Amusement is for the purpose of
relaxation and relaxation must necessarily be pleasant, since it is a kind of cure for the ills
we suffer in working hard. As to the pastimes of a cultivated life, there must, as is
universally agreed, be present an element of pleasure as well as of nobility, for the
happiness which belongs to that life consists of both of these.
We all agree that music is among the most delightful and pleasant things, whether
instrumental or accompanied by singing, so that one might from that fact alone infer that
the young should be taught it. For things that are pleasant and harmless belong rightly not
only to the end in view but also to relaxation by the way. But since it rarely happens that
men attain and keep their goal, and they frequently rest and amuse themselves with no
other thought than the pleasure of it, there is surely a useful purpose in the pleasure derived
from music, and the young must be educated in and by it.
And the teaching of music is particularly apt for the young; for they because of their
youth do not willingly tolerate anything that is not made pleasant for them, and music is
one of those things that are by nature made to give pleasure. Moreover there is a certain
affinity between us and musics harmonies and rhythms; so that many experts say that the
soul is a harmony, others that it has harmony.
We must now return to the question raised earliermust they learn to sing
themselves and play instruments with their own hands? Clearly actual participation in
performing is going to make a big difference to the quality of the person that will be
produced; it is impossible, or at any rate very difficult, to produce good judges of musical
performance from among those who have never themselves performed. And all that we
have been saying makes it clear that musical education must include actual performing;
and it is not difficult to decide what is appropriate and what is not for different ages, or to
find an answer to those who assert that learning to perform is vulgar and degrading. Since,
as we have seen, actual performance is needed to make a good critic, they should while
young do much playing and singing, and then, when they are older, give up performing;
they will then, thanks to what they have learned in their youth, be able to enjoy music
aright and give good judgments. What is needed is that the pupil shall not struggle to
acquire the degree of skill that is needed for professional competitions, or to master those
peculiar and sensational pieces of music which have begun to penetrate the competitions
and have even affected education. Musical exercises, even if not of this kind, should be
pursued only up to the point at which the pupil becomes capable of appreciating good
melodies and rhythms, and not just the popular music such as appeals to slaves, children,
and even some animals.
We reject then as education a training in material performance which is professional
and competitive. He that takes part in such performances does not do so in order to
improve his own character, but to give pleasure to listeners, and vulgar pleasure at that. We
do not therefore regard it as a proper occupation for a gentleman; it is rather that of a paid
employee. Inevitably the consequences are degrading, since the end towards which it is
directedpopular amusementis a low one. The listener is a common person and
influences music accordingly; he has an effect on professionals who perform for him; the
music which he expects of them, and the motions which they which they have to make to
produce it, affect detrimentally their bodies and their minds.
We say then, in summary, that music ought to be used not as conferring one benefit
only but many; for example, for education and cathartic purposes, as an intellectual
pastime, as relaxation, and for relief after tension. While then we must make use of all the
harmonies, we are not to use them all in the same manner, but for education use those
which improve the character, for listening to others performing uses both the activating and
the emotion-striving or enthusiastic [faculties].
Any feeling which comes strongly to some, exists in all others to a greater or lesser
degree: pity and fear, for example, but also enthusiasm. This is a kind of excitement
which affects some people very strongly. It may arise out of religious music, and it is
noticeable that when they have been listening to melodies that have an orgiastic* effect
they are, as it were, set on their feet, as if they had undergone a curative and purifying
treatment. And those who feel pity or fear or other emotions must be affected in just the
same way to the extent that the emotion comes upon each. To them all comes a pleasant
feeling of purgation and relief. In the same way, cathartic music brings men an elation
which is not at all harmful.

Aristotle, The Politics, trans. T.A. Sinclair, revised and re-presented by Trevor J. Saunders
(Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, rev. ed. 1981), 307-16. The 1962 translation copyright the
Estate of T.A. Sinclair, 1962. Revised translation copyright Trevor J. Saunders. Reprinted by
permission of Penguin Books Ltd.

*orgiastic: Arousing or causing unrestrained emotion; frenzied.