If Music Be Food For Citizenship

HomeArticlesIf Music Be Food For Citizenship

Aristotle and America

As Aristotle observed in Book 8 of his Politics, the education of children is the preeminent concern of the state, for the cultivation of the youth determines the continuity and stability of the political regime (1337a10-18).1 Education therefore should not only correspond to the political type of regime, e.g., a democratic education for democracies, but it also should correspond to the regime’s peculiarities as established at its founding. Thus a democratic education – the equivalent of the contemporary citizenship course – is not sufficient for Aristotle; rather, what would be required is an American citizenship course that is at the center of a school’s curriculum.

However, one of the biggest obstacles to this type of citizenship education is the looming threat of the state: the replacement of a genuine exploration of what constitutes American citizenship for state propaganda. Aristotle himself recognized this problem, as he stated that “the excellence of the state is of course caused by the citizens’ excellences and their share in its governance” (1332a33-34).2 One of purposes of education, perhaps its primary one, is the cultivation of intellectual and moral excellence of citizens who, in turn, will promote an improved political regime. In other words, the regime exists for the education of its citizens instead of education existing for the sake of the regime.

Recognizing that the state does not have a monopoly over excellence or knowledge, Aristotle rejects a pedagogy that merely parrots the clichés and myths of the regime; rather, the state must realize that standards of excellence and sources of knowledge exist outside of it and consequently its children should learn from them in order to make the state better. For example, the United States had codified slavery and segregation, but, when civil right leaders looked outside the state for the notion that all citizens should be afforded equal rights and then were able to persuade their fellow citizens of this idea, the republic had become a better regime. By appealing outside of the state, civil right leaders were able to educate the people to have better characters and thereby make the republic a better state.

Of course, the pendulum can swing too far in the other direction. When nothing is revered, valued, or respected about the state, its traditions, and founding, then there is no common standard for citizenship. When the American Founding Fathers are only dismissed as racist, misogynist, or economic elites; when representative government and the free market are automatically written off as forms of structural oppression; and when values like liberty, civility, and toleration are perceived as types of inauthentic existence; then the question needs to be asked what constitutes a citizen – what is held in common – in the state? Is the state then nothing more than a cauldron of subjective whims and differing opinions where nothing of value can be learned?

This is not to ask for an education where, say, the American Founding Fathers are placed upon a god-like pedestal; but it does not mean either that they are viewed solely as swindlers, fanatics, and exploiters. Certainly we can learn from the American Founders and even respect and admire them, while at the same time recognizing their faults and shortcomings. That the state does not have a monopoly over excellence and knowledge does not mean that the state has no possession of them whatsoever.

The state thus is placed in a paradoxical position. On the one hand, the state must draw upon its own reservoirs to educate children about their peculiar history, while, on the other hand, the state must be open to standards of excellence and sources of knowledge outside of itself, for these are places where citizens can learn about the regime’s shortcomings in the hope that they will seek to improve it. Aristotle recognized that a critique of the state was necessary, and could only come from a place outside of it, but he would disagree with those who think that the purpose of such a critique is the promotion of self-esteem rather than the start of a common project for all citizens to make the regime better.3

But with regards to the American polity, the question is to which state are we referring: federal, state, or local? Which of these forms are best for human flourishing? And is Aristotle’s Politics even an appropriate guide for us, as he wrote only about the polis and would reject both the state and federal forms of government as proper sites for political and pedagogical excellence?

What I will argue is that Aristotle’s conception of education as a common endeavor is necessary for the cultivation of a federal citizenship with the example of music pedagogy. Although this cultivation is a common one for all citizens, it should be administered – contrary to Aristotle’s recommendation – in an assorted of manners, such as state and non-state schools, private tutorials, and even home-schooling, because of the peculiar nature of our regime. In other words, the scale of instructing and receiving education should be at the most humane and effective level possible, i.e., the local, but its standards should be determined federally. As Tocqueville pointed out, this is one of the great geniuses of the American polity: the centralized administration of authority and the decentralized nature of its administration.4

The federal account of educational standards is probably not controversial in such subjects as mathematics, the natural sciences, and, as I will argue later, music. But with regards to the question of citizenship, or more broadly the social sciences and humanities, the matter becomes questionable, as some would argue that the United States was originally a con-federal government rather than a federal one and we should return to our origins. I am sympathetic to this endeavor, but I do not think it is practical in the foreseeable future: it may exist as a theoretical possibility but not as practical one. In the meantime, we should address the reality at hand, whether we comfortable or repealed by it, and try to make the regime better, which includes federal citizenship.

Secondly, to have common standards at the federal level does not preclude additional requirements at the state or local level. It is even possible to imagine that these additional requirements may conflict with some of the federal standards (again, most likely in the social sciences and humanities), and, over time, modify what these federal standards should be. Such an education may prompt citizens to ask the questions about size and scale and their commensurability with human flourishing. Given that the administration of education adopts a variety of forms here in the United States, there is no reason to see why additional perspectives could supplement federal ones.

The need for a common understanding of what it means to be a citizen of the federal government is therefore crucial because it is a reality in which we exist. Other than adopting philosophies of progressivism or utilitarianism, popular culture references, or simply commerce, we need an understanding of citizenship based on human excellence and flourishing if we desire continuity and stability in our regime. Aristotle’s account of education provides a possibility of such a path. This does not mean we have to accept all his recommendations, especially as he was writing for the polis and a not large republic, but his understanding of education as cultivating a common endeavor for all citizens can be a remedy to the current situation of fragmentation and can be adopted at the local level where most education transpires.

National Standards, Local Administration

If Aristotle is correct, then what should be the form of the state’s educational institutions? For Aristotle, the answer is a public educational system supervised by the state: private schools and local arrangements, such as home-schooling, should not be permitted. Furthermore, extra-circular activities also should be done in the public system, for education is not merely academic training for Aristotle but also the cultivation of habits with an eye towards excellence. In short, all pedagogical activities should be done and supervised in a public system.

Such a recommendation is not desirable in the United States, given its peculiar founding, government, and history. Education initially was a private affair; or if public, was controlled locally in this country. Also, the fact that most public schools arose in the United States to Americanize, i.e., Protestantize, Catholic and Jewish immigrants makes Aristotle’s case for an exclusive public education look more like state propaganda. Given the uniqueness of the American history, this specific recommendation of Aristotle would produce more backlash than benefit.

Of course, Aristotle himself recognized that different regimes required different forms of education given their unique founding, traditions, and history, so it is not inconceivable that Aristotle would accept private education in this country given the country’s peculiarities, especially when compared to Artistotle’s own time, such as the American federal, instead of unitary, state and America’s philosophy of liberalism rather than the political thought of the polis. But what we can learn from Aristotle that may be applicable to our regime is the notion that “Since there is a single end for the state, it is evident that education must be necessarily one and the same for all” (1337a23-26).  In other words, national standards are crucial for any regime, if it wants to cultivate a common citizenship among its children. Theory aside, the reality is that the United States exist as a single entity in world politics and national standards of education are required if being a citizen of the federal republic will mean anything significant.

Legislation like No Child Left Behind is a step in the right direction. Like some people, I have grave reservations about the specifics in this law as well as its implementation and evaluation system, but the notion of a common national standard seems to follow the Aristotelian path, albeit for a large republic. If we truly want to promote a common citizenship among our populace, especially as our country becomes more pluralistic, then we need to revisit the notion of national standards, while allowing a plethora of ways for our children to reach them, in order for the continuity and preservation of our regime.

Being an advocate for national standards for education therefore does not necessarily translate into a national administration of such an education. Given the federal nature of our government and our tradition of local education, I would support a myriad of ways of educating our children according to national standards: public schools, private schools, and even home-schooling. Because of the size and diversity of our regime, it may be more harmful to implement a standardized administration of education rather than one that is sensitive to the peculiarities of certain local traditions. Still, national standards are required if we hope to create a sense of commonality in the citizenship for our children.

Music as a Starting Point

But what should be these national standards? Let me propose that music should be one of the core components. Now at first music may seem a strange subject to start with – wouldn’t mathematics, science, or rhetoric be a more suitable choice to begin? The utilitarian features of these disciplines are self-evident: everyone needs to read, write, and count to function in society, and science is especially prized in our society because we need it to manipulate nature for our greater material comfort. But what does music provide other than amusement of smiles and well-wishes? What value does music have in and of itself? And how does it relate to citizenship?

In the Politics, Aristotle lists music as one of the four things that children customarily learn (the other three are gymnastics, letters, and drawing), and it belongs to the sweetest of things of nature for them to learn (1337b23-28). Music not only provides a type of pleasure when we are at rest, but it habituates the soul accordingly to the mode performed, e.g., Phrygian harmonies make people inspired, Mixed Lydian produces a state of grief and apprehension. It renders the character of the soul a certain quality, as Aristotle states, and thus it should be left to the state to make sure that music’s imprint upon our children’s souls is good and proper instead of disorderly and vulgar.

But I would like to add something that Aristotle has neglected to mention about music: it also precedes rhetoric and mathematics in a child’s learning. Children respond to and, in a limited sense, understand music before they can read, write, and count. In other words, music is a child’s first encounter with thought. One of the reasons I suspect that music has been disregarded by most school districts – usually music is the first to be axed in school budget cuts – is that we see music through the lens of a tradition of emotionalism or romanticism instead of conceiving it as a mode of rational thought like mathematics or rhetoric. This is not to deny the emotional potency of music, but we should recognize its intellectual characteristics, too (I won’t even elaborate upon the relationship between music and other disciplines, such as music and mathematics or music and language, as these topics have been thoroughly explored elsewhere).5 It falls upon us to determine what type of thought we want our children to first encounter, and that first mode of thought is usually music, whether we recognize it or not.

The pedagogy of music in the United States suffers from the same problem as other subjects in this country: the absence of national standards. Unlike Great Britain or Canada, where national standards are established according to grade and ability, the United States has a plethora of standards for music reflecting its diverse educational system. Recently, educators in this country have been adopting national standards for music (based on the Canadian model), but progress has been slow and entirely voluntarily.

There is, however, a private organization that has national standards for music: the National Music Teacher Association (NMTA).6 For those who advocate national standards in education, they might have difficulty accepting a private organization providing these standards for musical education. But again, Aristotle may be receptive to the idea of a private organization providing national standards, given the peculiar nature of our regime where we have created considerable space for non-state institutions, such as private schools, to exist. What may matter more to someone like Aristotle is whether there is an agreed upon set national standards rather than from where they came.

According to NMTA, there are five areas in which the student must demonstrate competency: theory, ear training, sight reading, performance, and technical ability. A brief look at each category will show that music is as intellectually rigorous as the sciences and mathematics and as emotional in its persuasion as rhetoric and literature. Thus, the tradition in which music should be understood is one that is both intellectual and emotional as opposed to simply the latter.

Theory is the language of music: without it, one is illiterate. Of its many elements, the core features of theory are 1) rhythm: the ability to count time; 2) melody: the recognition of how time and sound proceed linearly; and 3) harmony: the understanding of the simultaneous combinations of sound and time. The underlying commonality to these elements is the ability to count time. In this sense, music resembles mathematics, except that it uses sound rather than numbers as the designation of how to count.

If theory resembles mathematics, ear training, sight reading, and performance are similar to rhetoric. The activities of listening, reading, and performing are the same for both music and rhetoric. In order to perform, the student needs technical skills, which is the fifth area of musical competency (rhetoric’s equivalent would be voice training for public speaking). Thus, the MTNA’s standards require students to count and to communicate in such a manner that are not only physically and mentally demanding but must also be done beautifully.

To these competencies, I would add content (which is implied in theory). To say whether composer X is superior to composer Z or why I like compositions A as opposed to B requires more than a technical understanding of theory or the abilities of close listening, sight reading, and performance. It also requires an understanding of the historical and social context of the composition or composer – something which only content and tradition can provide, and this helps make the student receptive to beauty. Aristotle thus seems to be correct when he says that music is not only the sweetest of things but it also leaves a permanent imprint on the child’s soul.

Why the Left and Right are Both Wrong

In this sense, music as a mode of thought is able to combine the features of both mathematics and rhetoric in a single form that can be pleasing to the soul. The inability to recognize this leads some to think of music as a type of irrational emotionalism or erotic passion rather than as a disciplined, intellectual, and beautiful mode of thought. This portrayal of music as passionate and irrational comes not only from the political and cultural Left but also from the Right. But this conception of music is nothing more than a form of sentimentalism that romanticizes a non-existence past.

For example, in The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom described students addicted to rock music because of its barbaric appeals to sexual eros. According to Bloom, the deleterious effect of rock music is the destruction of a student’s proper passion, a genuine eros, for anything, much less for the art and substance of liberal education. The sexual frenzy of rock music is part of a broader cultural phenomenon which has witnessed the abolition of sexual mores and norms, with consequences spilling over into the family life and the cultivation of children. Our present age, characterized by therapeutic pop psychology and an ethic of self-indulgence, creates children who are self-centered with “flat-souls,” interested more in their careers and their own enjoyment than citizenship and liberal education. Music is too often the manifestation and making of this “flat soul” where concern of anything else besides oneself is absent.

Being part of that generation which Bloom described, I will grant there is much to his analysis that rings true. I will concede that rock music (and hip-hop) generally is revolting in its artificiality of emotions and appeals to sexuality, as it was in earlier generations, whether in medieval drinking songs as later composed by Carl Orff or compositions by Rousseau. However, there are also aspects of popular music that are celebratory. Some songs provide a social critique, which can lead to more thoughtful inquiry; others express the sheer exuberance of living and are just fun, capturing something of the beautiful.

Instead of classifying all popular music as corrupting, we should distinguish those aspects that are soul-flattening from those that are not. To make these evaluations, we not only need to look at the content of the song but also its technical aspects of rhythm, melody, and harmony. Not only do I think such an approach would be a more accurate and effective way to reach and to understand our students, but it has the added benefit of avoiding self-righteousness, such as Tipper Gore or grumpy grandparents.

With respect to music, my sense is that Bloom, and others like him, want to romanticize a past that never existed and then use it to bemoan and bewail about the travesties of today. Even in classical music we see this. The latest manifestation of this tendency can be seen in the recent controversy over the YouTube Orchestra, whose members auditioned on the web and later played at Carnegie Hall after two days of rehearsal. Also, there is rising concern about the increasing incorporation into classical music of popular music’s marketing techniques, like talent contests and cross-overs. According to these critics, classical music has become a follower and victim of fashion in order to make itself heard in contemporary culture. Instead of praising these efforts, they condemn them as trying to take the “classical” out of classical music.

But I would remind those who are opposed to making classical music relevant to the Internet generation that there is no such thing as a fixed repertoire. True, classical music is not subject to the whims of the weekly pop chart: its hits are decade-long but they are just as susceptible to shifts in culture and society; its practices and norms developed over centuries, but they are as subject to change like anything else. The notion of the conductor directly addressing the audience before a concert or to be seated for no more than two hours would have shocked people a century ago. To conceive of a certain type of music as fixed and everything thereafter as being corrosive and corrupt is not to engage in scrutiny but a type of sentimentality about the past and a contrived tradition. There never was Arcadia.

All music evolves from what audiences preferred listening to, conductors and performers enjoyed playing, composers wanted to write and their sponsors wished to support, and what technology happened to be available at that time. For example, until recently, most classical music was listened to live. A tradition developed that was subject to credentials and change and that comes to us today. When compared to classical music, popular music is an infant still finding its way. We should give popular music time to develop before we reject it outright. To do otherwise is to misunderstand how all music, whether classical, popular, or other, develops and sustains itself over time and how it effects, both positively and negatively, children.

Some on the Left wants to embrace popular music entirely and disregard classical music as a form of structured oppression. This view is also in error: taste in classical music is highly complex that involves audiences and players, composers and conductors, sponsors and the technical availability in a tradition that spans centuries. Just because something is more difficult to grasp does not necessarily make it oppressive: it just makes it more difficult, as doing calculus or reading Shakespeare is more difficult than doing algebra or reading Danielle Steele. These things may be used in an oppressive manner, as Hitler did with Wagner’s music, but it does not make the thing itself inherently oppressive.

From both of these perspectives of the Left and the Right, we see a conception of music as primarily irrational or emotional and, therefore, as having negative consequences for citizenship: conservatives want to claim popular music makes us selfish while liberals argue that classical music is a form of white man brainwashing. But both of these vantage points are wrong because their assumptions are incorrect. As I have pointed out earlier, music is primarily a rational and intellectual discipline, more akin to mathematics and science than to art and literature. Once we see music in this light, we will be able to determine rationally instead of romantically whether these claims about the effects of self-centeredness and victimhood are correct.

The emotional potency of music makes it unique because it bridges both the intellect and the sentiment in a synthesized moment. Music can be both rational and beautiful simultaneously – something which few other fields of study can claim. By appealing to both their reason and emotion at the same time, music has the ability to unite people as part of the whole, like when a national anthem is played, at a religious service, or even at a rock concert.7 It this power that music possesses – the rational and emotional expressed at once – that makes it crucial in the cultivation of children into good people and citizens. Children’s first intellectual encounter with the world is usually through music, for they can listen to music before they can read, write, or count. It is critical that we make sure that such an initial encounter is correct for the education and citizenship of the child.

Now what is such a correct encounter, what type of music should children first come into contact, will depend upon a number of considerations: from the child itself to the type of regime, from the state of the culture to the musical knowledge that teachers themselves possess. The point I wish to underscore is that we need to reconceptualize music, no longer viewing it as secondary to the education of our children because its content is emotional or irrational. In fact, it is the opposite: music should be the center of both our children’s education and the education of our citizens. Once we realize that music is more than the food of love, we will see that its nourishment lasts as long as our minds and as large as our hearts can accept it.



1. All in-text citations of Aristotle are from Loeb Classical Library edition. Aristotle. Politics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1932). Translations are mine own.

2. This distinction between the cultivation of the excellent citizen and the excellent person who, in turn, becomes an excellent citizen is also underscored in Book III, chapter 4 of the Politics.

3. Aristotle would reject progressive accounts of education, such as Rousseau’s Emile, Montessori’s The Montessori Method, and John Dewey’s Democracy and Education in favor of liberal education (1338a32-34).

4. Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America, 271-72 (New York: Vintage Classics, 1990).

5. For more about the affinity between mathematics and music, refer to Bloch, Ernst. Essays on the Philosophy of Music (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985); Jim Henle, “Classical Mathematics,” The American Mathematical Monthly 103: 1 (1996): 18-29; and Alison Motluk, “Can Mozart make maths add up?” New Scientist 15 (203): 17. For the relationship between music and language, refer to Sacks, Oliver. Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (New York: Knopf, 2007); Patel, Anirruddh. Music, Language, and the Brain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

6. The MTNA website is http://www.mtna.org/.

7. The power of music to create community by appealing to both a person’s intellect and emotions is one of the reasons why totalitarian states have adopted music for their political ends. This does not mean that music is inherently totalitarian or even advocates a support of the state; but, it does suggest that the social potency of music is its ability to create a community, political or otherwise.


This was originally published with the same title in Anamnesis on October 25, 2011.

Lee Trepanier

Written by

Lee Trepanier is a Professor of Political Science and University Pre-Law Advisor at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan. He is author and editor of several books and also is the editor of VoegelinView (2016-present) and editor of Lexington Books series Politics, Literature, and Film (2013-present).