Music has a body.
Or, as Jeremy Begbie argues in the latest Books and Culture, the expression of music is inseparable from corporeality.
Music making and music hearing are ways we engage the physical world. Even in the case of electronically generated music, the body is often involved through, say, a keyboard, and patterns of vibrating air are mediated through physical speakers. The physical things we involve ourselves with in music have ultimately arisen through the free initiative of God’s love—they are part of the ordo amoris.
Yet the Church, Begbie points out, has been reticent to acknowledge and value this corporeal aspect:
Sadly, this is often just where the church has been most hesitant about music. It is not hard to trace a double tendency marking much thought about music in the Christian West: a proneness to doubt the full goodness, and with it sometimes the full reality, of the physical. The outcome is that music, along with the other arts, has frequently been seen as fulfilling its highest function insofar as it denies, shuns, or leaves behind its own materiality.
Of course, as he proceeds to point out, this problem isn’t entirely the Church’s. Schoenberg, who see music strictly as a vehicle for ideas, has a distinctively “disembodied” sound that often fails to resonate with his embodied audiences.
Yet Begbie highlights Platonism as one culprit in the trend toward devaluing the corporeality of music:
This twin tendency surfaces prominently in the ancient Greek tradition, not least in some Platonic music theory: as part of this material world, music can be of serious value only insofar as it directs our attention to the ideal and enduring harmonies beyond the material.
But for Plato, music is probably better viewed as a means of restoring the physical–and hence, the political–realms to their proper functioning. It’s for this reason that the education that he commends in The Republic has music at its core. Plato recognizes that the material realm (in its current state) is an unruly realm, and it is music that helps redeem it.
***One minor critical point that doesn’t fit the above. Unfortunately, his essay takes a turn toward understanding music through the relationship between individuals and a group. It’s unfortunate not because what he has to say is wrong or uninteresting, but because it’s connection to the foregoing section is left unclear. The omission is disappointing since I think the two problems–corporeality, that is, and the relationship between individuals and community–are closely related.