We often think that no student should emerge from college not knowing the great works of Western literature. But does the same apply to the pinnacles of Western music? Should students should be required to know Beethoven’s Eroica symphony the way they are required to know Hamlet? The problem is that while we can argue that knowing the great works of Western literature is essential to understanding humanity, society, and so on, it does not seem possible to make the same argument for musical works that have no programmatic content.
Peter Kivy attempts to connect music to an understanding of humanity by considering music’s social function. Music, he argues, has been a social ritual and a force of social cohesion in every culture we know of. To perform chamber music, or to attend a concert, is to take part in a social ritual. This social ritual increases social cohesion amongst its participants. Kivy takes this as a justification for music education: “Thus, there would seem to be, in this enormous and unique socialising power of music, ample justification for our requiring the educated person not only to be acquainted with the literary totems of his or her tribe, but with the musical ones as well.”1
It’s not obvious to me why being a tool of social cohesion justifies music as something people should be acquainted with. Sporting competitions, too, are a tool of social cohesion: sports fans of all political stripes unite to support their national teams in international competitions. Yet we would hardly think that a knowledge of the most popular national sports is a necessary part of a great education. Furthermore, the social cohesion argument seems to justify being acquainted with any music that serves the function of social cohesion, and hence does not seem to justify being acquainted with what we consider to be the greatest musical works. Is the Eroica Symphony any greater a force for social cohesion than a simple, inane, but admittedly rousing tune like God Save the Queen? I doubt it.
Kivy had himself earlier recognised the need to distinguish music from other pursuits like sports, and he rightly related it to music’s place in the category of pursuits we call “arts and letters”.2 That music falls in that category, and baseball doesn’t, must at least be part of the reason (if there is one) why music should be part of any good general education, while baseball needn’t be. And I think that is because we think of the pinnacles of the arts as different kinds of accomplishments from the victories of a sports team or sportsperson. The amazing feats of physical and mental endurance in sports differ from the creations of artists in that the latter seem to represent, somehow, the potentialities of the human mind. And if this is closer to the essential ingredient (if there’s one) that would make any field of human endeavour an obligatory part of a general education, then it would be more explicable why we should think that students should be acquainted with the musically “great” works rather than the works that can stimulate the most social cohesion, for the great works do seem to present the extremes of the mind’s potential. Kivy, I suspect, might be a little too hasty with his conclusion that “there must be something else about a work of art besides its merely being a great work of art that I think justifies its inclusion in a proper liberal arts education”.3 At least one of his justifications for the above statement is unconvincing. He points out that we tend to feel that “serious” rather than “comic” literary works should be included in the canon of general education, and argues that it’s because “serious” literary works teach us more about “questions of deep and abiding concern” like God, evil, freedom, justice, and so on.4 But imagine this: if the only literary works we had were comic works, would we not still feel that some of them should be included in a general education? Isn’t it just that whether a literary works deals with serious issues is a bonus factor that would make it a better candidate for a canonical work in a general education, but what is essential is something else? Here’s another question to pump our intuitions. Do we feel that the masterpieces of so-called abstract art has less of a right to be included in a general education than the masterpieces of representational art? I think not, which is why I think that if there is to be a reason for including art, it is not something reliant on its association with “serious” questions.
I’m also not comfortable with the idea that music that is suited for private consumption would not be justifable inclusions in music education. Now, I’m not entirely sure there is any solo music that really should be played only in private. (Were there any composers who intended some of their solo works not to be performed in public?) But I have an intuition there are pieces that are more suited to public sharing, and others that are more suited to private rumination on the part of the solo performer. We might think here of a distinction between more “intimate” music, like Bach’s cello suites, and something like the Eroica. Are we then going to say that in music education, more “private” music should be passed over in favour of more “public” music? My intuitions rebel strongly against this notion; they want all great music to be included, public or private. Thus we return to the problem of justifying being acquainted with not just any music, but with great music. There is no such problem about the standard justification of including Hamlet in general education, for one could make a plausible argument that the greatness of art works correlates with the lessons they provide about humanity.
Suppose my idea that an important factor is the display of intellectual achievement in great works of art, rather than their social functions or representational content, has a grain of truth in it. Why should we think that people should know about intellectual achievements? Perhaps because these achievements are as much a part of humanity as the supposed “knowledge” that creators of representational art and literature convey to us. And perhaps we focus on intellectual achievements rather than achievements of mental and physical endurance, because it is the mind that is peculiarly human — many animals can doubtless surpass the feats of mental and physical endurance displayed by our greatest mountaineers, but none of them have a chance at surpassing the intellectual feats of our greatest artists.
Another possibility, of course, is that us music-lovers are simply wrong in our intuitions about the value of music education.
1. Peter Kivy, “Music and the Liberal Education”, in The Fine Art of Repetition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 28.
2. Ibid. 13.
3. Ibid. 15.
4. Ibid. 18.