Music in Plato’s Republic

This extract is from The Republic by Plato, Book III (398-403).

Then now, my friend, I said, that part of music or literary education which relates to the story or myth may be considered to be finished; for the matter and manner have both been discussed.
I think so too, he said.
Next in order will follow melody and song.
That is obvious.
Everyone now would be able to discover what we ought to say about them, if we are to be consistent with ourselves.
I fear, said Glaucon, laughing, that the word “everyone” hardly includes me, for I cannot at the moment say what they should be, though I have a suspicion.
At any rate you are aware that a song or ode has three parts – the words, the melody and the rhythm.
Yes, he said; so as that I know.
And as for the words, there will surely be no difference between words which are and which are not set to music; both will conform to the same laws, and these have already been determined by us?
And the melody and rhythm will be in conformity with the words?
We were saying, when we spoke of the subject-matter, that we had no need of lamentations and strains of sorrow?
And which are the harmonies expressive of sorrow? You are musical and can tell me.
The harmonies which you mean are the mixed or tenor Lydian, and the full-toned or bass Lydian, and such-like.
These then, I said, must be banished; even to women who have a character to maintain they are of no use, and much less to men.
In the next place, drunkenness and softness and indolence are utterly unbecoming the character of our guardians.
Utterly unbecoming?
And which are the soft and convivial harmonies?
The Ionian, he replied, and some of the Lydian which are termed “relaxed”.
Well, and are these of any use for warlike men?
Quite the reverse, he replied; and if so the Dorian and the Phrygian are the only ones which you have left.
I answered: Of the harmonies I know nothing, but would have you leave me one which can render the note or accent which a brave man utters in warlike action and in stern resolve; and when his cause is failing, and he is going to wounds or death or is overtaken by disaster in some other form, at every such crisis he meets the blows of fortune with firm step and a determination to endure; and an opposite kind for times of peace and freedom of action, when there is no pressure of necessity, and he is seeking to persuade God by prayer, or man by instruction and admonition, or when on the other hand he is expressing his willingness to yield to the persuasion or entreaty or admonition of others. And when in this manner he has attained his end, I would have the music show him not carried away by his success, but acting moderately and wisely in all circumstances, and acquiescing in the event. These two harmonies I ask you to leave; the strain of necessity and the strain of freedom, the strain of the unfortunate and the strain of the fortunate, the strain of courage, and the strain of temperance; these, I say, leave.
And these, he replied, are the Dorian and the Phrygian harmonies of which I was just now speaking.
Then, I said, if these and these only are to be used in our songs and melodies, we shall not want multiplicity of strings or a panharmonic scale?
I suppose not.
Then we shall not maintain the artificers of lyres with three corners and complex scales, or the makers of any other many-stringed, curiously harmonized instruments?
Certainly not.
But what do you say to flute-makers and flute-players? Would you admit them into our State when you reflect that in this composite use of harmony the flute is worse than any stringed instrument; even the panharmonic music is only imitation of the flute?
Clearly not.
There remain then only the lyre and the harp for use in the city, and the shepherds in the country may have some kind of pipe.
That is surely the conclusion to be drawn from the argument.
The preferring of Apollo and his instruments to Marsyas and his instruments is not at all strange, I said.
Not at all, he replied.
Then let us now finish the purgation, I said. Next in order to harmonies, rhythms will naturally follow, and they should be subject to the same rules, for we ought not to seek out complex systems of metre, and a variety of feet, but rather to discover what rhythms are the expressions of a courageous and harmonious life; and when we have found them, we shall adapt the foot and the melody to words having a like spirit, not the words to the foot and melody. To say what these rhythms are will be your duty – you must teach me them, as you have already taught me the harmonies.
But, indeed, he replied, I cannot tell you. I know from observation that there are some three principles of rhythm out of which metrical systems are framed, just as in sounds there are four notes out of which all the harmonies are composed. But of what sort of lives they are severally the imitations I am unable to say.
Then, I said, we must take Damon into our counsels; and he will tell us what rhythms are expressive of meanness, or insolence, or fury, or other unworthiness, and are to be reserved for the expression of opposite feelings. And I think that I have an indistinct recollection of his mentioning a complex Cretic rhythm; also a dactylic or heroic, and he arranged them in some manner which I do not quite understand, making the rhythms equal in the rise and fall of the foot, long and short alternating; and unless I am mistaken, he spoke of an iambic as well as a trochaic rhythm, and assigned to them short and long quantities. Also in some cases he appeared to praise or censure the movement of the foot quite as much as the rhythm; or perhaps a combination of the two; for I am not certain what he meant. These matters, however, as I was saying, had better be referred to Damon himself, for the analysis of the subject would be difficult, you know?
Rather so, I should say.
But it does not require much analysis to see that grace or the absence of grace accompanies good or bad rhythm.
None at all.
And also that good and bad rhythm naturally assimilate to a good and bad style; and that harmony and discord in like manner follow style; for our principle is that rhythm and harmony are regulated by the words, and not the words by them.
Just so, he said, they should follow the words.
And will not the words and the character of the style depend on the temper of the soul?
And everything else on the style?
Then beauty of style and harmony and grace and good rhythm depend on simplicity, – I mean the true simplicity of a rightly and nobly ordered mind and character, not that other simplicity which is only a euphemism for folly?
Very true, he replied.

[Socrates expands on the role of the artist in the ideal State and argues that unsuitable artists should be prevented from practising their art.]

And therefore, I said, Glaucon, 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, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated ungraceful: and also because he who has received this true education of the inner being will most shrewdly perceive omissions or faults in art and nature, and with a true taste, while he praises and rejoices over and receives into his soul the good, and becomes noble and good, he will justify blame and hate the bad, now in the days of his youth, even before he will recognize and salute the friend with whom his education has made him long familiar.
Yes, he said, I quite agree with you in thinking that it is for such reasons that they should be trained in music……….
Even so, as I maintain, neither we nor the guardians, whom we say that we have to educate, can ever become musical until we and they know the essential forms of temperance, courage, liberality, magnanimity, and their kindred, as well as the contrary forms, in all their combinations, and can recognise then and their images wherever they are found, not slighting them either in small things or great, but believing them all to be within the sphere of one art and study.
Most assuredly.
And then nobility of soul is observed in harmonious union with beauty of form, and both are cast from the same mould, that will be the fairest of sights to him who has en eye to see it?
The fairest indeed.
And the fairest is also the loveliest?
That may be assumed.
And it is with human beings who most display such harmony that a musical man will be most in love; but he will not love any who do not possess it.
That is true, he replied, if the deficiency be in the soul; but if there be any bodily defect he will be patient of it, and may even approve it.

[A short discussion of the nature of pleasure.]

Thus much of music, and the ending is appropriate; for what should be the end of music if not the love of beauty?

The Dialogues of Plato, translated by Benjamin Jowett, Volume Four, The Republic, edited by M Hare & DA Russell, Sphere Books Ltd., 1970, Book III (398-403), pp.165-171.

44 thoughts on “Music in Plato’s Republic

  1. Boris

    Interesting theory. Hard to follow, sometimes. But my argument against Plato: should music always be of use to us? I mean, the main purpose of music is having fun… isn’t it?

    1. Barry Mitchell Post author

      That might be, but I would say that that is a very modern idea. Many theorists have argued that music can have a good or bad effect on people and so that it must be more than just fun.

    2. Bibiana Silveira

      i believe the idea – translated to modern dialogue – is that music is a language of communication, not only through lyrics, but through rhythm and melody as well. and it should be used to communicate the ideals of the rulers, much in the way music is used in movies to help establish an emotional connection with the viewer.

  2. Dr. Lynn Job, composer

    Indeed, as Barry Mitchell intimated, a superfluous non-chalant use of music as purely visceral stimulation “pure sensory fun” for individual, non-community use is a modern concept and application. At the roots, sound art remains serious communication which can certainly result in fun, entertaining application at times, but by design has much deeper affect (as also discussed in the Baroque Era) and profound impact on all aspects of a human being’s body and thought — whether that human is aware of it or not — both for edification and destruction. Caution and education in this art form is greatly recommended and sadly wanting in modern Western culture (except perhaps among some now studying clinical music therapy).

  3. Josh Kelsey, student

    Dr. Lynn,

    You made a strong point: “At the roots, sound art remains serious communication”

    I am presently compiling research to advocate improved music education for U.S. public schools. The premise of my argument is proof to the correlation of participation in school music groups and GRADES, GRADUATION RATES, AND ATTENDANCE. My abstract is something like:

    “Greek philosophers emphasized the role of music in building character and taming irrational youth. Today, music literacy and knowledge have nearly disappeared among average Americans. America consumes iPods full of unimaginative, over-commercialized music while symphony orchestras and opera companies, like the New York Philharmonic, are facing “a record $4.6 million deficit”(Jones). Likewise, families who sing or play music together are very rare.
    Reports underline tremendous scholastic advantages musical students have over non-musical students (Gallup). Music literacy has flourished in Japan, partly due to the Suzuki Method. I conclude that our federal and state governments must commit to advancing music education in public schools (Music-for-All). Deeper awareness of the disparity between America and other developed nations, a commitment to music in schools, and the nation-wide implementation of affordable programs and materials, including Japan’s Suzuki Method, will enhance culture and enrich our children’s lives.”

    If you are able to read this, I would appreciate any feedback you may have to offer. :c)


    1. Steven Kraska

      Yes i agree with Barry, this is an very interesting point and I do believe that it has some definite truth to it. (However, I suggest in your report you leave out the part where Socrates bumps out all stringed instruments and non warlike beats :P) As a college student I now find it appalling how much my musical education was neglected. I do think that giving children a way to express themselves through a variety of instruments will help decrease drop out rates. I wish you luck.

  4. Mary-Kate

    Good discussion! I believe that all the deep inner working of mankind are intricately woven together and interconnected. Everything we know is based upon sensory perception of reality. (Aristotle) Rock music and rap etc…which obviously requires great talent distorts the beauty of true music and appeals directly to our senses….hence the name ‘rock n’ roll’. I believe that a prevalence of music of this nature has lead society to focus too heavily on the senses. It is about feeling good and emotions. The use of the intellect which is employed listening to classical, Gregorian chant, polyphony etc… is diminishing. I think it is partly to do with a very lazy attitude and dominant desire for immediate self-gratification (lack of self-discipline) that has crept in. The privacy of the home and freedom of speech has been replaced by so-called sexual liberation which has been fueled by the kind of music presented to children today.Call back the classical saith I!

    1. Barry Mitchell Post author

      I think there is a problem with music in so far as it can easily become quite superficial and to some extent still “work”. Unlike other disciplines such as say philosophy or history, where there is no superficial philosophy, history etc. To this is added the effects of commercialisation as ultimately business men are only concerned about making money. Thus what will sell becomes the basis for a superficial aesthetic. There seems to be less and less appreciation of music as an art in its own right, driven by its own imperatives. Now with many rock bands once they find the money making formula they never change or develop. I suspect that if many of todays bands are still together they will be playing exactly what they are playing now. But as Beethoven said, art must always move forward.

      1. frustratedhypocrite

        Hi Barry — I know this is a very old comment but I just encountered it tonight and it got me thinking. I agree with much said here but disagree with your assertion that “there is no superficial philosophy”. I’d say all the quantitative work out there is exactly that. As you say with music, it “works” but it’s predictive rather than expository about the good. Still, interesting stuff. Being subjected to “bad” music makes me feel very ill and usually leads to an anger that wells up inside me.

  5. A.J.

    I don’t know that I could agree that there is no superficial philosophy or history, but perhaps what you were getting at is that they’re both (or so I believe) based in objectivity, and so, if they are to be valid, they shouldn’t be superficial. That I agree with whole-heartedly.

    The tricky notion though, and I think the major distinction, is that music, as opposed to being an internalization of the external like philosophy and history, is an externalization of the internal. This is especially true of writing music, but I believe it is also true to an extent in listening to music. People seem to have a tendency to listen to music that they believe expresses who they are or what they’re feeling. At this point one could argue that it becomes cyclical (i.e. listening to a sad song makes one sadder, so they listen to more sad songs etc.) but at the root of it, I think music, at least in the modern sense is primarily expressive.

    I agree that music can be appreciated in an intellectual sense, but I think I agree with Plato that its roots are in something a bit deeper and more basic.

    “And will not the words and the character of the style depend on the temper of the soul?”

  6. J

    The key here is that music is the first step in the education of the philosopher. That is, music excites a desire in us (good music anyway). Secondly, it enables the soul or rather, it habituates the soul to harmonious relations with its other parts – reason, desire and the will. Consequently good music (equivalent in modern terms would be classical) conditions the potential philosopher’s soul to act in right relation/harmony and feel pleasure in the good things…

  7. Evolvefire

    “When modes of music change the fundamental laws of the state change with them.“

    In his famous work Laws, Plato could have been wr
    Qiting about our modern age when he stated: “Through foolishness they, the people, deceived themselves into thinking that there was no right or wrong in music –that it was to be judged good or bad by the pleasure it gave…. As it was, the criterion was not music but a reputation for promiscuous cleverness and a spirit of law-breaking.” –Plato

  8. Jim

    That “at the roots, sound art remains serious communication” and music as fun is a modern idea is partially wrong, since Sextus Empiricus considered as that and he is not a modern author.

  9. Celeste

    “And therefore, I said, Glaucon, musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the *soul*,” — the SOUL not the sound! bad typo!

  10. Anonymous

    This is a topic which is close to my heart… Cheers! Exactly where are your contact details though?

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  14. Nina

    I was wondering if any of you knows what a tenor lydian and a bass lydian scale is? Is it perhaps aeoloian, locrian or mixolydian scales? He does not mention these (which, to me, is also peculiar)…

    1. Thiago

      Hi Nina… you can read the Ron Miller Book on harmony and you will understand why – but I will try to save you time: There is no Mixolydian harmony. Mixholydian is a combination of the Ionian harmony (221), followed by a Dorian harmony(212) – 2 semitones of distance. Aeolian means Dorian (212)+ Phygian (122) harmonies 2 semitones away. Locrian means Phrygian (122) + Lydian (222) 1 semitone away. The basis of harmony is that there are centers of gravity inside the 12-tone octavec. Later you notice that the Tritone is a strong center itself, and that’s where you get the concept of harmony inside the 12 tone system. It splits them into 2 groups. And the lydian interval is so relaxed because it basically resolves on the Tritone. You will see that what we know as a Lydian scale is actually a Lydian harmony + Ionian Harmony with 1 semitone of distance. 2 Lydians combined forms the octave and the whole-tone scale which provides the most space of all scales. If you ever play the perfect 4th you change the root automaticaly: the minor 2nd strongly resolves in the root. Think about it. Plato is doing nothing but undermining the idea that music needs laws for years to come. Victor Wooten is the new Plato people. I was laughing when I was reading this.

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  24. Gabriella Knox

    Plato believed that right kind of music would help harmonize the soul. However, it had to be the ‘right’ kind of music. So, I believe Plato also thought that the wrong kind of music would ruin a person’s soul even more.

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  29. Nik Beeson

    So, to be clear, for Plato… you can only play Dorian and Phrygian.
    No lyres, no ‘curiously harmonized’ instruments, and no “complex systems of metre’…
    and “unsuitable artists should be prevented from practising their art.

    It’s total musical fascism.
    Basically Plato saw music, and songs, as a form of propaganda to develop a certain kind of character. The rest should be purged.
    Persian music, Indian music, Balinese music, semi-tonal music, twelve-tone music, dissonnance of any kind, Afro-Cuban music, most contemporary composition, sound art and electroacoustic music, blues in a minor scale, most jazz, etc, etc…
    Purge them all.

    Thank the gods The Republic never came into existence.
    What a horrible dry musical purgatory it would be.

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