Studying Music the Classical Way


studying music the classical wayClassical educators know that the quadrivium includes music as one of four core subjects along with arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. This list can strike our modern minds as puzzling. If we are to approach music as a classical subject, we need to rethink our terminology and what it really means to study music.

Today, “studying music” generally implies learning to play an instrument. But music in the quadrivium was not focused on mastering a physical object (instrument), as valuable as that can be. The ancient Greeks were not preparing kids to join the band.

By including music in the quadrivium as an essential subject for everyone, the ancient Greeks placed music within the broad category of mathematics. Just as with music, we tend to think of mathematics in practical terms—learning to calculate and solve problems. But it would be more accurate to view the quadrivium as dealing with all of math and science and, in particular, how the universe is ordered.

Music exemplifies scientific and mathematical order. For example, music can be approached as physics in the study of acoustics. Music can be approached as logic and math through the study of harmony and form. Music composition is, in many ways, akin to engineering. These are all mathematically oriented, to be sure. But for the Greeks, all of the quadrivium entailed the study of aesthetics. The ancients discovered mathematical and scientific order in the universe, and they saw that it was beautiful.

To teach classically, you must open the door to the vast experience of Beauty. We all strive to teach our students to discern Beauty, to seek it out, and to use it as a reliable guidepost to what is good and true. Thus, to study music classically is to study Beauty. Music is comprised of important principles of Beauty: form, proportion, and motion. These principles do have mathematical explanations, but experiencing them transcends our often meager sense of what math is.

A classical curriculum honors and reinforces history. What, then, happens when we study music historically? We focus our students’ attention on the path of aesthetic development throughout the stages of Western culture. All cultures express themselves through music and the arts because all people, even in the direst circumstances, seek Beauty.

The historical record of Western culture is strongly based in the arts—and this is the point I try to drive home in all of my teaching. The arts tell us what has mattered to a particular people at a particular time, whether it be Charlemagne’s Europe or American society during The Depression. The arts document how each generation has sought to find order and Beauty in the universe.

What would education be without the study of Beauty, perhaps even the goal of Beauty? We see the troubling answer in schools where music and the arts have been eliminated. We see it in a society that believes creative accomplishment is a mouse-click away. And we see it in a culture where pragmatism has set Beauty off to the side as a matter merely of individual opinion. This skewed view of Beauty impoverishes everything we study.

So how can a classical study of music become your gateway to Beauty? The first step is the simplest: listen to it. To do that you must put away all your multitasking. If possible, discard the earbuds in favor of good speakers or headphones where the full range of musical sound can be heard. Best of all, try to hear music made in real time by real people. Include in your listening the music that has earned the label “classical.” Many of us have chosen classical education because it honors the best thinking of generations before us. Give their verdict on music its due before rejecting it for something you find more automatically pleasing or comfortable.

The second step involves moving from simply listening to discerning, and this requires some study. Let music history and the history of the Fine Arts in general become the key to understanding. Whether it be the social dances done by George Washington or the power of Gregorian chant that unified Medieval Europe, the study of music history can single-handedly bring the complexities of history into focus. An historical approach to music will provide context for understanding aesthetics.

Of course we do want to encourage children to sing or learn to play instruments. It is enormously enlightening. The practice of music helps them understand that Beauty, not to mention hard-earned accomplishment, will never come from simply flipping a switch. Take them to concerts, especially youth concerts where they can sit up front and watch eager young performers struggle and sweat.

This exploration of Beauty is the goal. It has motivated me and my husband, Hank, to turn our attention to creating courses in the Fine Arts to help students and their families discover music as a key ingredient in Western cultural history. We all gain when we see music and the arts classically—as the manifestation of our constant search for Beauty. It is a key element of classical principles and values. It’s the quadrivium in action!

Originally published in The Classical Teacher Winter 2014 edition.


Dr. Carol Reynolds is a uniquely talented and much sought-after public speaker for arts venues and general audiences. She combines her insights on music history, arts, and culture with her passion for arts education to create programs and curricula, inspire concert audiences, and lead arts tours. Never dull or superficial, Carol brings to her audiences a unique mix of humor, substance, and skilled piano performance to make the arts more accessible and meaningful to all.

Discovering Music: This unique curriculum connects music with visual arts, political and economic history, and Western culture from 1600-1914. Music was recognized in ancient times as one of the seven essential subjects comprising the Liberal Arts, and music has always been central to classical education. By connecting music history to political and cultural history, we make all of history more memorable and more interesting.

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