Charming or Instructing? The Greeks on the Function of Music

Krystyna Bartol

As a schoolgirl I used to spend much of my spare time listening (with flushed cheeks) to the radio and watching music programs on TV. Two of the best-known local celebrities among the music critics in Poland at that time became famous for their catchphrases. Light, Easy, Enjoyable Music (“Muzyka lekka, łatwa i przyjemna”) was the name of a show hosted by a television personality who spoke the most impossibly refined Polish, to the point of pronouncing the uvular ‘r’. He introduced his audiences to popular European musicians and presented their greatest hits. Another media celebrity and Warsaw legend was known for his phrase “Music Soothes The Savage Breast” (“Muzyka łagodzi obyczaje”)[1] in a voice that was easily recognisable, and completely unsuited to radio.

Music could be “light, easy and enjoyable” – yet it could also “soothe the savage breast”. I remember the moment when I realised that the two sentiments have something in common, despite their apparent incompatibility. Both remind us that man is susceptible to the influence of music.

Can you guess which is which?

If you are not sure, you can click here for the answer:[2]

I was reminded of these thoughts years later when I began to look into Classical Greek texts that reflected on the functions of music. Generally speaking, the Greeks developed two types of theories concerning the effect of music on the listener; we can assume that each of these approaches was as old as Greek musical culture itself.

The first theory had its origin in Pythagorean philosophy. Pythagoreans saw musical intervals as mathematical proportions, which reflected, as they believed, the numerical principles that govern the movement of celestial bodies, and created the music (or harmony) of the spheres, which is metaphysical in nature, and cannot be heard by the human ear.

Music of Spheres, Max Ackermann, 1968 (then exhibited at The Renaissance Society, University of Chicago).

This theory was developed in the 5th century BC by Damon, and taken up by his pupil Plato. According to Damon, music has ethical power. This means that music can be morally useful, since particular musical modes or types of melodies encode specific ethical qualities, and can thus affect human souls, alter human moods or stimulate people’s emotions. Damon claimed that the same was true with specific styles of combining or blending melodic elements. These modes, melodies and styles can improve or corrupt the character (ἦθος, ēthos) of man; as a result, some of them ought to be used to help educate boys to become good men and good citizens.

Apollo at Olympus, Stanisław Wyspiański, 1897, pencil illustration for the Iliad (National Museum, Warsaw, Poland).

The second theory denies the moral utility of music, treating it as a morally neutral art form with a purely aesthetic nature, that provides its hearers with nothing more than entertainment, relaxation, and the pleasure which arises from the beautiful arrangement of sounds. The earliest testimony of this distinctively aesthetic approach to music is the text of the Hibeh papyrus (dated on good grounds to not much later than 390 BC): it attacks those who promote Damon’s ideas, but such an approach must have appeared earlier, perhaps as early as Democritus (c. 460–370 BC), long before it was consolidated by Epicurus (341–270 BC), who is believed to have regarded music as pure pleasure  (ἡδονή, hēdonē).

Music-Making Company on a Terrace, Dirck Hals, c. 1620 (Frans Halsmuseum, Haarlem, Netherlands).

These approaches – let’s call them the ‘moralist’ approach and the ‘formalist’ approach – appear to be poles apart. But the difference between the moralists and the formalists is not quite as clear-cut as it initially seems. Look closely at passages from the treatises on music written by two different Greek authors, “Pseudo-Plutarch” and Philodemus of Gadara. It turns out that there is a place for pleasure in ethical views on music, and a place for utility in aesthetic doctrines.

Pseudo-Plutarch – an anonymous writer of the second century AD who imitated the style of Plutarch (AD c. 46–119) – was an admirer of Plato, and shared his point of view that “the minds of the young should be moulded and modulated by music to a pattern of graceful bearing, since music is helpful for every occasion and all serious activity.”[3]

Palaestra Scene, “Painter of the Louvre Centauromachy” (column crater in red, c. 440 BC, now in the Archaeological Museum of Agrigento, Italy).

He echoes Plato in claiming that the so-called Dorian ‘mode’ (melodic structure) boasts the best moral character, since its melodies produce the effect of grandeur and dignity, as is proper for temperate men. The Dorian mode, he says, is suitable for fortifying the spirit of good men and citizens.

One passage in Pseudo-Plutarch’s work is of special importance here. Chapter 11 reports the words of Aristoxenus, a music writer and philosopher of the fourth century BC, on the subject of Olympus, who was the founder of a lofty style of Greek music. We read about his invention of the “enharmonic genus”, which is a particular intonation of the intervals within a ‘tetrachord’ (a series of four notes separated by three intervals). Pseudo-Plutarch tells us that Olympus was so struck by the beauty of his innovative melodic construction that he began to compose music in the Dorian mode that used this set of intervals. As noted above, the Dorian mode was believed to suit a morally positive attitude towards life.

Pseudo-Plutarch takes for granted that the first natural reaction to music is pleasure: Olympus admired the beauty of the melody he composed regardless of any benefit or harm it might cause (that is to say, regardless of its ethical power), but because of its aesthetic features. The author suggests that the feeling of pleasure that is caused by sound makes the human soul become dependent upon the ways in which particular sounds are put together. Since melodies contain ethical qualities, the souls of listeners gradually absorb them until these qualities settle permanently in the human soul, and begin to form its character. Thus the example of Olympus illustrates how music’s power to delight its listeners is an important (perhaps essential) value because of its effectiveness in stimulating emotions and exerting a moral influence on men. On these grounds, the ‘usefulness’ requirement can be satisfied only when an act of musical perception is also an aesthetic experience.

Philodemus (c. 110–35 BC), by contrast, was an Epicurean philosopher. He shared with Epicurus, the founder of the philosophical school situated in his Athenian “Garden”, the conviction that pleasure is the highest good and that human well-being is guaranteed by complete absence of pain. The happy life, according to the Epicureans, is life free from disturbance, i.e. living in the state of serene calmness called ataraxiā (ἀταραξία).

This brilliant man of letters moved in the most distinguished intellectual and artistic circles in Rome during the first century BC, enjoying an acquaintance with Lucius Calpurnius Piso, a statesman, member of the noble family of the Pisones, and famous bon vivant. Fragments of his treatise On Music were deciphered from charred rolls of papyri – carbonised by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 BC – that were recovered at Herculaneum (now a suburb of Naples). In this text he denies that music has any moral or practical function, since he assumes that melody is irrational (ἄλογος, alogos) and cannot influence the existing disposition of a given soul. Music, he says, does not resemble any ethical qualities: as he adds, “Music expresses moral values no more than cookery.”

Master at a richly laid table, Unidentified Dutch painter, 18th century (private collection).

Philodemus explains his position on the functions of music by using polemic against other theorists, particularly Platonising thinkers:

Some… believe that one kind of music is solemn, noble, single-natured, and pure, and that another is unmanly, vulgar, and illiberal; others term one severe and imperious, another gentle and persuasive. In either case they… attribute to music what is not there.[4]

Later he concludes: “It is not… suitable and unsuitable music that educates, but philosophy working through literary and musical training.”[5] Thus he denies that music has any ethical power in and of itself.

Yet Philodemus does not question the moral applications of the words of any songs that are sung with musical accompaniment. Music itself does not move human souls in any direction, whether morally good or bad. It can even weaken the force of the thoughts that are expressed in a song’s lyrics, since it distracts the listeners from the content of the poetic text. “To connect justice with music is absurd,” Philodemus retorts, in response to theorists who argue that music influences our soul just as diet influences our bodies.[6]

Although he emphatically opposes his Epicurean doctrine to the Platonists’ belief in the existence of musical ethos, he moderates his aesthetic extremism with the qualification that aesthetic pleasure itself has a kind of utility. According to him, we all naturally seek pleasure; once we have found it (for example, by listening to music), we achieve a state of happiness and do not need anything more. So music is not a completely fruitless occupation: pleasure generated by the qualities of sounds and their combinations is its ultimate profit.

For the Greeks, the intrinsic value of music comes from a marriage of pleasure and utility. They are inseparable – although different philosophical schools emphasised one or other of these aspects. This resulted in the appearance of conflicting orthodoxies. But in truth, as early as the Archaic Period, the fusion of both aspects was fundamental for understanding the artist’s dual function – to delight and to be useful. This position is best encapsulated in the famous aphorism κάλλιστον τὸ δικαιότατον (kalliston to dikaiotaton): what is most just is most beautiful.

Finally, let’s recall two well-known images from Greek poetry and myth. The first is from Book 9 of the Iliad, where we see Achilles “delighting his mind with a clear-toned lyre, fair and elaborate.” The poet adds: “With it he was delighting his heart… and Patroclus alone sat opposite him in silence.”[7]

Achilles Playing the Lyre before Patroclus, Gerhard de Lairesse, 1680 (Nationalmuseum Stockholm, Sweden).

Although Achilles also sang, his pleasure, it seems, was located in the lyre and its sounds. The second image depicts Orpheus, a mythical lyre player, who is taming wild animals with the sounds of his instrument.

Orpheus playing the lyre for the animals, late-16th/early-17th-cent. engraving (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands).

Oppian – the author of a didactic epic on fishing in the second century AD –  said that men are not “different at all from wild beasts, but sometimes even more terrible than lions.” So if music can, as the Greeks believed, also influence the character of men, it really must be a powerful master.

These two principles that underlie the function of music have perennially proved to be convincing. Yet we live in an age that defers less and less to old wisdom and traditional authority, and prefers to remove ancient landmarks from modern sight. But whenever we listen to music – say Shostakovich’s Waltz No. 2 from Jazz Suite No. 2 (I am very keen on this piece, but each to their own) – we find a prompt and clear answer to the question: can it really be wise to ignore the lessons handed down to us by ancient thinkers?

Krystyna Bartol is Professor at the Institute of Classical Studies, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań. She writes on Greek poetry, especially lyric, and Greek Imperial prose. She is very keen on Pre-Raphaelite art (painting as well as literature and art criticism), and sees her favourite Burne-Jones painting, The Golden Stairs, as evoking the harmony of the spheres.

Further Reading

For an outline of ancient views on the educational value of music, Warren D. Anderson’s book Ethos and Education in Greek Music. The Evidence of Poetry and Philosophy (Cambridge, MA, 1966) is still worth reading. The first volume of Andrew Barker’s Greek Musical Writings (Cambridge UP, 1984) contains valuable material on the moral and aesthetic dimensions of music as seen by the Greeks. Anyone interested in the nature and aims of musical art in the ancient world is strongly urged to look at Martin West’s Ancient Greek Music (Oxford UP, 1992), along with John G. Landels’ Music in Ancient Greece and Rome (Routledge, London/New York, 1999) and Spencer Klavan’s, Music in Ancient Greece (Bloomsbury, London, 2021).


1 It refers to William Congreve’s famous lines from The Mourning Bride (1697): Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast,/ To soften rock, or bend a knotted oak, later misquoted as “Music hath charms to soothe a savage beast.”
2 On the left is Andrzej Stopka’s caricature of Jerzy Waldorff (1910–99), a broadcaster, music critic and author of books on classical music, and on the right Lucjan Kydryński (1929–2006), the host of Light, Easy, Enjoyable Music.
3 Pseudo-Plutarch, On Music (ch. 26), transl. B. Einarson and P. De Lacy. These words are quoted from Book 3 of Plato’s Republic (401d8).
4 On Music 4.2, transl. W. D. Anderson.
5 On Music 4.17.
6 On Music 4.1.
7 Iliad 9.186–90, transl. A. T. Murray.