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Echoing in Celebration: The Studying of Beauty and Harmony in Music

Echoing in Celebration: The Studying of Beauty and Harmony in Music

"We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands of itself as least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in a mysterious act of vengeance."

The Glory of the Lord by Hans Urs von Balthasar
Quoted in Beauty for Truth’s Sake by Stratford Caldecott

Classical, Christian educators see the goals of education as a passionate pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty. Instruction in beauty must include instruction in music.

People in ancient times had a very different understanding of music than we do today. Music had a vital role in a classical education. In fact, the ancients regarded the study of music as a study of numbers. They divided education into seven liberal arts and subdivided them into three language arts—the Trivium—and four arts of number—the Quadrivium. The Trivium trained students in the arts of Grammar, Dialectic and Rhetoric, while the Quadrivium trained them in Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy, and Harmony (music).

The ancients included music with the arts of number because they focused musical study on harmony. The Pythagoreans and later students studied the ratios between notes that were played together to form chords. Even more foreign to our modern minds is the fact that the ancients linked music to the virtues. In fact, Plato argued in The Republic that music is critical to the development of a rightly ordered, harmonious soul:

And therefore, I said, Glaucon, musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated ungraceful: and also because he who has received this true education of the inner being will most shrewdly perceive omissions or faults in art and nature, and with a true taste, while he praises and rejoices over and receives into his soul the good, and becomes noble and good, he will justify blame and hate the bad, now in the days of his youth, even before he will recognize and salute the friend with whom his education has made him long familiar.

This passage might seem like a stretch for our modern society since we no longer think about imparting graces to our children through education. Even as Christians, we have forgotten the idea of education as a way of instilling virtue in our children. We should be more concerned than the ancient Greeks were with training up children who “praise,” “rejoice over,” and “receive into their souls the good” and “hate the bad” so that they can become noble and good. We should teach them to love the things that are worth loving.

In Scripture, it is clear that God desires beauty in music and worship. The Psalms were set to music in order to give glory to the Lord. David played the harp to soothe Saul’s troubled soul. Scripture teaches us that music should be an important part of our children’s education.

I can imagine that you are already asking many questions about music education. How can I incorporate music education into an already packed schedule? How can I teach a subject about which I know so little? Will my kids even like classical music?

Over the past twenty-five years that I have been home educating, I have learned that young children are usually more receptive to new or foreign ideas than are older children or adults. When your children are small, train them to sit still and listen to music. I like Classical Music for Dummies because it is truly written for people like me who had very little music training. The CD includes music from all of the major periods of music—Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern. The text contains a listening guide that provides a written commentary on each section of the music. It will tell you the exact minute and second that a new strain of instruments begins to play and will help you recognize transitions in the music from one theme to the next.

In our home, we began listening to music while we were doing other schoolwork. We listened to classical music while doing handwriting and copywork and while drawing maps. Many of my friends incorporate their listening time into family dinners. Mom or Dad simply announces the composer and the piece and then plays the music while the family eats. However, don’t always relegate music to a background activity; it is also good to train children to sit still and listen closely. Periodically, I would have my boys sit still and shout out the names of instrument families as those instruments began playing: “I hear the trumpets. The flutes just started playing.” Young children can be asked to draw a picture of the music or can be asked to tell you how the music made them feel—happy, sad, frightened, etc. (Learning to sit still to complete an activity is a benefit in and of itself).

Older students can be encouraged to research a particular composer and write a brief biography or to write a short essay—say 500 words—about the characteristics of the major periods of musical composition. They, too, must practice sitting still and listening to the entrance of musical instruments and the shifting themes of longer pieces. Listening chronologically is helpful for older students who need to get a sense of the major focuses of art and music throughout history. Throughout their high school years, I like to have students keep a timeline that includes all of their subjects—music, art, literature, philosophy, science, and history—so that they have a finished product with the major hallmarks of world history when they graduate.

As Plato notes, it is also important to focus on the social graces. I like to expose my boys and their friends to “high culture” events during high school. Each year, we dress formally and meet for dinner in a more formal atmosphere. We have etiquette lessons and practice the arts of manners and conversation while eating politely. Then, we attend a cultural event such as a Shakespeare play or an opera. In order to make this a meaningful experience, students should study the background of the opera in advance. Particularly if you plan to attend an opera in a foreign language, it helps to know the storyline in advance. The more comfortable students are with a work, the more the more receptive they will be during a live performance.

Throughout all of these activities, remember the importance of music to worship. When the Israelites returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the temple, they celebrated their homecoming with music: “And at the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem they sought the Levites out of all their places, to bring them to Jerusalem, to keep the dedication with gladness, both with thanksgivings, and with singing, with cymbals, psalteries, and with harps” (Nehemiah 12:27). For us, too, the culmination of education should be celebration. Every time we learn something new, our families should echo in celebration of God. Let us give them the gift of music that they may give it back in praise to Him.

Leigh A. Bortins is author of the recently published book The Core: Teaching Your Child the Foundations of Classical Education. In addition, Ms. Bortins is the founder and CEO of Classical Conversations, Inc. and host of the weekly radio show, Leigh! At Lunch. She lectures about the importance of home education nationwide. She lives with her family in West End, North Carolina. To learn more, visit her website,, or her blog.

Copyright 2012, used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in the November 2012 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine. Read the magazine free at or read it on the go and download the free apps at to read the magazine on your mobile devices.

Publication date: December 13, 2013