Standing In for the Muses

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The classics have survived through time and reached us in silence. The words of the Greek epics, lyric poetry, myths, and speeches remain, but we can never hear or experience them exactly as the Greeks themselves did; we are not even certain how the letters and words of the language itself were pronounced. Yet, we do know that the Greek language was musical and that the stories of the ancients were experienced in song. These stories were considered music, –  μουσική – an art broadly conceived to include categories that we may struggle to understand as music; and music itself was paideia. The stories acquired the strength of paideia in the medium of music. If we are not experiencing the classics in sound, as music, are we missing something in the silence? Are we missing part of the logos of the artifact? And is there a way to recover this musicality, and hence a greater part of the logos?

Nuances exist between Plato and Aristotle in their conceptions of the role of music in education; however, both agreed that music was a means to attaining goodness. Music had the power to stimulate the emotions, and so could influence character. Athletics were for the formation of the body as music was for the formation of the soul. In imitating the emotions in its movement, music could habituate the soul to associating virtue with pleasure and vice with pain. Emotions, not intellect, first influenced character; to liberally paraphrase Plato and Aristotle, character was believed to be mysteriously formed as the soul poetically encountered story through music. 

While music for the Greeks was the art over which the Muses presided, much was categorized as music long after the Muses were thought to have gone silent. The word poetry, in English and ancient Greek, comes from the word ποιέω, to make or to build. The epics issued from the Muses through Homer, but the work of the poets was painstakingly crafted by mere mortals, yet still considered music and paideia in the Classical Period. One reason may be that poetry, plays, and speeches had all the elements of music – content, words, and rhythm/melody. When we read (silently) the classics, we experience the first two of this Trinitarian union – the story as content and the words; but, in omitting rhythm and melody, the music eludes us; and, if we agree with Plato and Aristotle, so does the mystery. 

If we are to recover this musicality, we need to broaden our understanding of music. In the ancient experience, rhythm and melody came from the craft of the poet, but also from the musicality of the Greek language itself; what has been preserved as stress accents were more likely pitch variations which would have been heard as musical intonations. In addition, each literary genre had a dialect considered appropriate to it. As Mozart’s native language was German but he chose Italian for his operas, so would an ancient poet choose the Greek dialect that was most appropriate for the performance of his work. Still today, each language has its own musicality and cadence. Though we may not hear it, we have pitch and intonation in English – try saying the word “no” as you would to a child with her hand in the cookie jar, then again, as the question, “no?”  When we read aloud, in any language, this is to some degree music.

We can begin the work of experiencing the classics as music by simply reading them aloud. We should read aloud in the original language if we are able; ancient Greek is accessible to those with the desire to learn it and it is the road that leads closest to the music the Greeks experienced. If we are not yet able to read in the original language, translations exist which are intended to be read aloud, and we should seek out these translations. For those who are already reading aloud, memorize sections of the text, with the goal of reciting them for others. Speak and listen to the text while memorizing and make decisions on cadence, words to stress, and where it would be appropriate to lower or raise the voice, as a chanter of a hymn in church matches meaning with melody. Spoken words are embodied, and changes in musicality will imbue words differently with emotion and even meaning.

The classics were music, and we, too, can experience them as music—poetically, through our voices, and in community. Experiencing the musicality of the classics, even imperfectly, should lead us eventually towards the originals, but can also train us to see the power of musicality more broadly in our paideia. A few weeks ago, I was outside with my children on one of those beautiful Virginia spring days when the sky is just so blue, and, looking up, I pointed at the sky and exclaimed, “Oh, look at the sky!” My daughter said, “You sound just like Heidi!” As soon as she said it, I knew she meant Johanna Spyri’s Heidi, though it has been years since I read that story aloud to them. Somehow Heidi was embodied in my voice, in certain words expressed a certain way. The voice of Heidi was my own, yet in that moment, it was Heidi’s voice and logos that proclaimed the beauty of the spring day. What a mystery.

Author Monique Neal lives in Richmond, Virginia with her husband and homeschools their four children. She graduates from the CiRCE Apprenticeship Program in 2021 and is a student of ancient Greek through Accademia Vivarium Novum.

Note: Guest bloggers share their own thoughts as classical educators and learners and do not represent ClassicalU.com or Classical Academic Press. If you are interested in writing guest blog content, please contact us with your name, connection to classical education, and ideas for a blog post.

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