Wherein the ancient Greeks enjoyed tasteful music, but wished the kids would turn their noise down.
I love music—not enough to invest in a good sound system, or to have built up an enviable library of recordings, but enough that I’m almost constantly listening to streaming music. While my tastes are fairly eclectic, what you’ll hear most often from my cheap Echo Show speakers is classical or jazz, either of which is generally discussed in its media like Scott Meyer’s description,
(My friend) subscribes to a magazine about jazz and jazz musician(s). From what he says, most of the articles seem to be about jazz’s waning popularity and the difficulty jazz musicians have finding enough work to pay their bills. The magazine is called Downbeat, which seems fitting.
Contrary to such a pessimistic view of separating “cultured” music from the rest of society (and then watching it die), the ancient Greeks fully incorporated music into all aspects of their culture—although perhaps not to the horrifying extent of having western Europeans prancing around singing Swedish pop songs to a contrived story.
Master of the Pan Flute
Music, dance and poetry (as well as other things like history and science) were believed by the Greeks to be inspired by the Muses, who both sang and danced for the gods on Olympus and exacted terrible vengeance on any mortal who challenged their artistic supremacy. Orpheus, whose beautiful singing persuaded Hades and Persephone to release his wife from the underworld (and then lost her again when he looked back to make sure she was following him to the surface), was the son of the Muse Calliope. Gods were also associated with particular instruments: Apollo played the lyre (which he also taught Orpheus to play) and Athena played the aulos (a kind of flute).
Perhaps no musical myth is more important for modern listeners, however, than the story of the nymph Syrinx escaping the satyr Pan by being turned into reeds, which Pan then used to form what we call the Pan flute. This matters to children of the latter 20th-century because this is the instrument of Zamfir, Master of the Pan Flute™, whose TV commercials featured an almost irresistible blend of pastoral beauty and tootling covers of 60s–70s movie themes. I say almost irresistible because I can’t say I ever debated, “Let’s see, The Clash or Zamfir…which record shall I buy? Screw it…I’ll just go with Boxcar Willie” (although, for the record, my father actually bought a Boxcar Willie album).
Ya Got Trouble Right Here in Athens City
Music was so essential to Greek society that it was one of the primary study areas in schooling. Music was played during religious rituals and festivals, as part of the entertainment during symposia, and even for providing signals when traveling and fighting. The centrality of music meant that it needed a solid structural basis upon which the different types of music could be constructed. The 6th-century BCE philosopher Pythagorus of Samos, with his love for numbers, discovered the three intervals which form the foundation for Greek musical theory and, by extension, the basis for what we now think of as early Western music.
Unfortunately for the Greeks, however, the youngsters weren’t content to keep listening to Mom and Dad’s Dionysian dithyrambs. Like pompadour-wearing rock-around-the-clockers, later generations of classical Greeks favored new forms of music. Plato, in full “you kids get off my Parthenon” mode, complained,
Our music was once divided into its proper forms…It was not permitted to exchange the melodic styles of these established forms and others. Knowledge and informed judgment penalized disobedience. There were no whistles, unmusical mob-noises, or clapping for applause. The rule was to listen silently and learn; boys, teachers, and the crowd were kept in order by threat of the stick…But later, an unmusical anarchy was led by poets who had natural talent, but were ignorant of the laws of music…Through foolishness they deceived themselves into thinking that there was no right or wrong way in music, that it was to be judged good or bad by the pleasure it gave. By their works and their theories they infected the masses with the presumption to think themselves adequate judges. So our theatres, once silent, grew vocal, and aristocracy of music gave way to a pernicious theatrocracy…the criterion was not music, but a reputation for promiscuous cleverness and a spirit of law-breaking.
So we see that complaining about new music is an ancient and hallowed tradition. Fortunately, the definitive statement about young people and music has been made for our edification and character development:
Image: “Orpheus Instructing a Savage People in Theology and the Arts of Social Life” by James Barry (1791) (Source).