Plato and Music

In my Plato Republic course, one topic of discussion was the music that Plato selected for the guardian/warriors.  In particular, there was some debate as to whether the modes he chose were appropriate. 

Briefly, Plato was convinced that listening to music in various modes would form the soul and would cultivate and encourage certain virtues and activities.  Most in the class were willing to sign on to this claim.  The more controversial question was whether Plato had really selected the best modes for the purposes of cultivating bravery in the soul of the guardians.

I am, sadly, musically illiterate and so am not capable of really treating this point with much care.  Fortunately there are some students in the class that know more then enough about music.  Dan is one of those students, and also one who thought Plato’s choice of modes was, shall we say, odd.

To sort this out, Dan has compiled 4 songs, one in each of four modes.  He admits that he stacked the deck a bit here with his choices, but still it is telling that songs like “Scarborough Fair” would be in the same mode as Plato’s warrior music!

By way of reminder, Plato had his warriors listening to the Dorian and Phrygian modes only.

In addition to Dan’s “playlist” below, click here for a website that offers some discussion and some examples.  In fact, there is a sidebar where you can listen to the same made up tune in all the different modes.  Dan’s playlist seems like a knock-down argument against Plato’s choices, but when I listen to the same tune in the various modes it is not as obvious (at least to my tin ears).

You can download the songs below.  If you don’t want to do that, go to my blog.  I have embedded the songs there (you don’t have to download them).  But post comments here (that way all comments are in one place).

Ionian Mode-track-1

Lydian Mode-track-02

Dorian Mode-track-03

Phrygian Mode-track-04

This entry was posted in Uncategorized on by .

About Kleiner

Associate Vice Provost and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.

7 thoughts on “Plato and Music

  1. Huenemann

    Thanks, Dan and Harrison, for putting this all together. I like Plato’s idea about different sorts of music shaping the soul in different ways. But I’m not sure that he was right to think of these modes as presenting the relevant differences. I’m with you, Harrison — the same tune played in different modes did not shift my soul very much. But certainly different genres seem to matter — I wonder whether “modes” and “genres” amounted to the same in Plato’s day.

    I did see a documentary which showed a tank crew in Iraq psyching themselves up for a battle. They were listening to Metallica, I think, not Simon & Garfunkle.


  2. Kleiner Post author

    Huenemann and I were just talking about this, and we both agree that Plato must have thought that certain modes were best suited for certain genres. It is silly to think he had songs like Scarborough Fair in mind.

    Here might be the relevant questions:
    1) Was it the case that most marches and battle hymns, in Plato’s time, would have been composed in the Dorian and Phrygian modes?

    2) If we were to review some battle hymns from the last few hundred years, do they tend to be in the Dorian or Phrygian mode, or in the Ionian or Lydian? Huenemann and I also wondered what mode some of the Star Wars songs are in, particularly the heroic song at the end of the original Star Wars (when they are receiving their medals).

    3) Can an argument be made that it is better for battle hymns to be composed in the Dorian/Phrygian (Plato’s view), or can we make an argument that it is better for them to be composed in the Ionian/Lydian? In other words, can we somehow demonstrate that one of those modes somehow makes the battle hymns more effective in producing the desired effects in the soul?
    To take one of Dan’s examples in particular, why did Williams compose the Olympic anthem in the Ionian? Would it be even better in the Dorian? As Huenemann put it in our conversation, might Plato hear that Olympic anthem and say, ‘Great guardian song, why in the world did you put it in the Ionian?’


  3. Dan

    It’s worth mentioning that I stacked the deck in my selection of these recordings. I agree with Huenemann. “Genre” is most important. So let’s unpack the term “genre.” Genre really refers to the way in which one chooses to combine the different components of music. In truth, the harmonic, rhythmic, textural, structural, lyrical, and timbral devices- as well as the tempo and meter- used by each of these artists are just as important as the melodic mode. Music from different regions and times place these elements of music in differing hierarchical orders. Western music focuses primarily on harmony (from the Renaissance on, anyway), Indian music traditionally focuses primarily on melody (think of all the semitones possible on a sitar!), and African music focus primarily on rhythm. My objection to Plato comes from an ear steeped in the Western tradition. In my opinion, it is much easier to harmonize effectively in Ionian or Aeolian modes (major or minor) to create whatever effect is desired (slothful OR heroic). But I’m considering harmony (which is important but not necessarily centrally important to a lute player) to be the most important component. Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler all created heroic effects not in Dorian but in Ionian modes. But of course Plato speaks from a totally different context. If one were to speak to a Hindustani musician (a classical musician from northern India), they might have a greater appreciation for Plato’s assessment because they, like Plato, are primarily concerned with melody.

    In the end, it’s difficult for a Western mind to divorce itself from harmony, and harmony functions much more effectively in Ionian and Aeolian modes.


  4. Kleiner Post author

    It is interesting that Plato would not have been equally concerned with harmony, since the notion of harmony is so central to everything he is saying about the just city and soul.


  5. Dan

    That’s a great point, Harrison. In my opinion, Plato would most like have resonated most completely with the music of Bach or Mozart- the two composers who arguably achieved the greatest balance, proportion, and harmony, without delving into romanticism and excess emotionality. But the Western harmonic system wasn’t developed until 2000 years after Plato’s death. Everything prior to the Renaissance was primarily monophonic (one melody) or polyphonic (multiple simultaneous melodies), so he couldn’t have really had a very developed harmonic perspective, I suppose. Battle hymns from the last several centuries would probably primarily be again in Ionian or Aeolian modes, because harmonic progression works much more smoothly in these modes (Battle Hymn of the Republic is in Ionian, for instance). Before harmony became the central focus of the West all modes were pretty much fair game, but as composers began to focus more on the vertical (simultaneous) relationship between pitches than the horizontal (successive) relationship between pitches, the Ionian and Aeolian modes stuck out as being most conducive to harmonic progression. This is why almost everyone, regardless of their degree of musical literacy, is familiar with the terms major and minor (Ionian and Aeolian). but only musicians and a philosophers are familiar with the terms Dorian, Phrygian, or Lydian.

    It is certainly perhaps the case that most battle hymns in Plato’s time were in Dorian or Phrygian. Again, my ear has been tainted by the West. And if battle hymns were to be composed monophonically or polyphonically, then certainly a convincing argument could be made for Dorian or Phrygian modes to be used. But harmonically, these modes are very awkward and this awkwardness might get in the way. If Williams had written the same piece in Dorian, perhaps the melody would have been more fierce, but once the harmony was tagged on I think it would have been a mess.

    It’s worth noting that Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony (Eroica means heroic) is in E-flat Major. Or Ionian. I can’t think of a piece that Plato would have approved of more.


  6. Kleiner Post author

    I think there are reasons to believe that Plato would have wanted his battle hymns to be monophonic. First of all we have his ongoing emphasis on simplicity in the training of the guardians. Excessive complexity in the music might, one could say, risk raising up the motley crew of chaotic appetites.
    We might also read into Plato some of the early Christian reflections on music, Augustine in particular (his De Musica). Augustine’s theory of music was not so concerned with actual music-making, he was much more concerned with fidelity to number and the role of music as an ‘art’ (recall that Plato divides education into gymnastic for the body and arts for the soul). The music needed to be simple and monophonic in order that right beliefs about Divine simplicity be cultivated in the hearts of believers.

    In short, Plato might accept that the forbidden modes are ‘more conducive to harmonic progression’, but argue that the moral messages contained in those modes is much too dangerous. Better to have monophonic hymns that communicate simplicity, and the Dorian and Phrygian modes are best suited for this (as Dan suggests above). Augustine puts it in terms of the relationship of music to number, and the relationship between number and the eternal. ‘Music, it seems, is but a prompt to have us transport ourselves to eternal numbers, where God is more fully found than in the empirical qualities of the temporal world.’ (De Musica). Boy does that sound Platonic!


  7. Michael

    Have not read all replies so excuse me if I’m repeating but Plato’s Dorian and Phryfgian were not our church mode Dorian and Phrygian. In fact, it would be extremely difficult to reconstruct these Greek modes. So these would not be the same scales



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s