So I try not to publish posts of this length, but I recently had an essay assignment to respond to this quote by Aristotle that says music "imitates the passions or states of the soul, such as gentleness, anger, courage, temperance, and their opposites. Music that imitates a certain passion arouses that same passion in the listener. Habitual listening to music that rouses ignoble passions distorts a person's character. In short, the wrong kind of music makes the wrong kind of person, and the right kind tends to make the right kind of person." Now I realize this quote is probably heavily edited for modern readers and paraphrased and I don't know where the professor got this quote from (shady...), but the prompt was interesting enough because it addressed a lot of the things i care about right now and the essay kind of came together on its own (fitting the stream of consciousness style I try to adopt for this blog) Anyways, without further ado this is me battling the master philosopher Aristotle himself!! >:) jk Aristotle is scary.
A Response to Aristotle’s vision of Music’s Influence
Musical influence and a person’s quintessence have as little and much to do with each other as a forest and the tree that grows in it. Propounding a theory evocative of the chicken-egg/egg-chicken scenario, Aristotle creates a paradoxically true statement that changes meaning and veracity depending on the reader’s perspective. In my understanding of music and music’s power, a person’s listening tendencies do not always align with their essential beliefs. Whether music has moral connotations is unequivocal, as evidenced by religious hymns and the Medieval prevalence of Gregorian chant. Indeed, morality and religion has been an integral progenitor of music since primeval times. Even so, the question of Aristotle’s truth is debatable. What makes a person right or wrong is solely dependent on the culture’s view of moral constraint. While Aristotle was correct in saying music comes from the passions and emotional complexity of human beings, he seemed to overestimate the former’s structural effect on the human psyche.
In his original quote, Aristotle insinuates the deleterious effects of music that could stimulate “ignoble passions”. In his implication Aristotle equates the mental state of a person’s well-being and sense of morality with the character of music habitually consumed. Making such a radical statement today would generate a distinctive divide in general consensus with those who approve citing the music selection of mass murderers like the Columbine shooters and the soundtracks of violent first-person war games as proof of the insidious nature of “wrong” music. Diametrically opposed, supporters of musical expression might cite the haunting melodies of Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead, or the irrefutably melancholic story of 19th C. Romantic composer Schumann’s lifelong battle with mental illness and eventual demise. Dark stories and dark music are as comparably deleterious to a person’s mental health as the night sky. What Aristotle asserts in his statement is not a widely accepted notion in modern times. With the emergence of the newest sciences of psychology and sociology in the past century, the human psyche has been examined more thoroughly and its nature debated more profusely than most topics of the 20th and now 21st C. From this generation-spanning discussion, explicit sides have developed on crucial subjects, and in the case of music and mental stability, the nature vs. nurture debate features most prominently.
While genetic predispositions provide evidence to debase Aristotle’s claim in the essay quote, biology has more to say about music’s influence than the philosopher’s preferred “nurture” stance. Cognitive psychology and neuroscience have established preferences of people based on their cultural upbringing, showing that even young infants will identify with their culture’s music as opposed to another’s. This predisposition not only showcases the power of enculturation even at such a young age, but also showcases the inherent ethnocentric perspective present in Aristotle’s original statement on “wrong” and “right” music. Even in the case of his description of “ignoble passions”, an inevitable cultural bias is evident. Ignoble passions as viewed by the Ancient Greeks could have applied to the glut of sexual lyricism in modern pop or the overwhelmingly prevalent apathy of millennial teenagers. So in modern terms Aristotle’s argument in the provided quote would have indisputably fallen on the “nurture” side as the philosopher emphasizes the sculpting power of music on a person’s ethical disposition. Unfortunately, the predominant argument of the “nurture” side of the debate stems from the belief in a person’s self-will and positive potential, reflecting the humanist perspective that was first popular amongst philosophers and composers in the Renaissance. “Nature” on the other hand has provided various studies of established scientific results identifying the genetic and biological makeup of “wrong” people. This includes the extensively corrupted minds of serial killers who possess depressed amygdalae, the portion of the brain responsible for empathy and emotional responses. In these cases, the culturally universal taboo of society like murder is a biological imperative rather than an ethnocentric understanding of the “wrong kind of person”.
Listening fervently to “bad” music can no more turn a person irreversibly bad than can listening to “good” music turn a person irreversibly “good”. Even if it did, multiculturalism ensures that people outside of that listening culture would interpret the natures of good and bad differently than those residing within it. Objectivity is needed in determining the moral value of music in an individual’s life but cannot come from the listeners themselves as aforementioned cultural preferences could pollute their evaluations. Ultimately, objectivity in a world of relativism cannot be reached. Instead the topic of musical influence should be reconsidered altogether. Music and individual natures are two too complex subjects to be linked coherently into one contiguous strand of A to B. It is like connecting a strand between LOVE and HATE and disregarding the myriad of emotions in between. Indisputably, music can influence a person’s mental state. It can evoke feelings of euphoria, sadness, innocence and even humor. But that’s all they are: feelings, ephemeral states of mental excitement that do not reflect a person’s ability to distinguish from right and wrong. In the end, the effective shaping of a person’s psychic constitution and fate into realms of relative “wrong”ness and “right”ness evinces the illogical and fallacious conclusion of an ancient philosopher born over 2000 years ago.
So what do you guys think? Is Aristotle right? Wrong? Where does the evidence point? In any case, music is wonderful and probably helpful therapeutically too, or maybe not. I sometimes pretend I'm powerful and an outgoing person while listening to rock anthems.