Is Music Essential in a Liberal Education?

August 5, 2020 | By Hannah Loomis

SJC Santa Fe’s Small Chorus performing at the Lensic Theater, 2017

“Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful.”

- Plato, Republic

The study of music is an integral part of the St. John’s undergraduate Program. In Santa Fe, for example, students spend the spring semester of freshman year learning to sing together, and then study music history and theory for the entire sophomore year. But why do Johnnies consider music such an important part of their education? Santa Fe tutors John Cornell and David McDonald explored that question, and more broadly the role of music in a liberal arts education, as part of a recent summer lecture and conversation series.

The evening began with a brief lecture by Cornell; afterwards he was joined by McDonald for a conversation revolving around his provocative argument that “we moderns do not believe in the soul; which may be connected to the fact that we do not believe in music—not in a serious way.” Cornell claims that though everyone listens to music, we no longer believe in its power to help form a person’s character or live a happy life.

These days, Cornell suggests, there is a tendency to apply scientific principles to music—to attempt to break it into measurable parts, analyze it, and reduce it to functions within the brain—without recognizing the power it has to change our core. According to Cornell’s talk: “Today we show how music is an effect of neural rhythms and circuits, an adaptive feature of the survival machine.” It becomes something we observe and test through experiment, rather than something we experience within ourselves. Cornell connects this development to a shift in thinking that occurred around the beginning of the Renaissance.

At that time the study of music moved from the liberal arts quadrivium that included arithmetic, astronomy, and geometry to become part of the trivium of rhetorical arts. As McDonald puts it, music moved “away from trying to represent something about what is in the cosmos or being in the service of God, toward representing human emotions.” Cornell elaborates by saying it was believed that music should no longer be a “mathematical imitation of the cosmos” but rather “an accessory to the expression of language;” this became especially important on stage, where music was expected to be seizing and cathartic. “It’s a renaissance that’s breaking the mold right at the moment that the new science and a whole new vision of human possibilities is on the horizon,” Cornell says.

McDonald and Cornell have both noticed changes over time in students’ readiness and eagerness to study music. One change is that fewer students arrive knowing how to play an instrument, sing, or read a score, which poses a challenge to learning. But the bigger obstacle may be in persuading students that music is actually worthy of study; that it can be something beyond entertainment. McDonald attributes that in part to the ubiquity of music: “You turn on the figurative faucet of your cell phone and there’s the music.”

So, why is it important to study music? In answering that question, McDonald goes so far as to call music the secret heart of the Program. He suggests that music has the capacity to unify the rational and the nonrational within a person. “If you have a disincarnate rationality that just kind of cooks along in a calculative mode but it can’t connect to your emotional and community life—and what some people would call the poetic or spiritual side of things—then all you have is a refined calculating engine . . . the music program epitomizes some vision of what it would mean to be a full person.” One could argue that this is a key aim of the Program: to develop unified, fully educated people.

The reasons for studying music may, in fact, be similar to those of studying the Great Books. As Cornell puts it, “I think all great works, not just music, are a question of learning: ‘Where in the circle do I situate myself to get into the heart and mind of that creator?’” Our understanding and taste can be educated, he suggests. This not only gives us an appreciation for depth of thought and expression; it may also help satisfy our yearnings for meaning in the world. (Or at least bring us into closer contact with it.) Still, the question remains: why study music rather than just listen to it? To that Cornell says: “I think we should listen and bask in its power. But I think everything that you learn—in terms of theory, the history of innovation, even of the artists’ lives and some of the cues they give you about what they’ve written—all of that simply makes you a better listener.”

It may seem strange to suggest that listening to music could benefit from further study; after all, it’s something we all do naturally. But learning about music “makes the listening into a deep event, rather than running the risk of being bewildering,” according to Cornell. “I have hated composers that are now my favorite, and that has to do with a little bit of study.”

Cornell and McDonald’s conversation uncovered many challenges inherent in today’s musical landscape. The excellence and ready availability of recording and broadcasting technologies means music has evolved from a rare, in-person experience to something entirely ubiquitous. While listening to more complex music may necessitate acquiring special knowledge, paying close attention, and developing one’s taste, the result may be a greater capacity for being affected in a significant way. Perhaps the reward for the listener—much like that of studying the Great Books—is a deepening of the soul so many of us long for.

This summer the Annapolis and Santa Fe Graduate Institutes joined together to host a 10-part online lecture and conversation series. The first Santa Fe event featured a short talk titled Music in Liberal Education by tutor John Cornell, followed by a conversation between Cornell and tutor David McDonald, which included their responses to questions submitted by the audience.