Nationalism in Music

0 Conversations

Music coming from the different parts of the world is immediately identifiable as to its origin. Reels, Ragas, Rock and Roll, Rachmaninov—who could confuse these?

The British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams claimed, "The art of music above all the other arts is the expression of the soul of a nation"

Chicken, egg

But does the culture at the music's origin give its character to the music, or does the music give its character to the culture? This is a philosophical question, and as with most philosophical questions our primary reference point is the writings of Plato.

Plato's recommendations for education in his ideal Republic are very specific on the influence of music. He is however hopelessly self-contradictory.

To start with, we see immediately a problem that was to be common among philosophers through the centuries. Plato greatly admired Pythagoras, the philosopher who first showed in detail the mathematical relationships expressed in harmony. Plato may have been an able mathematician, but he baulked (like many a philosopher after him) at working out the details for himself. Thus we have, in his most influential work The Republic, the following abject disclaimer from his mouthpiece, Plato's Socrates, on the subject of which modes and which rhythms to permit in the ideal State:

Socrates: I am not an expert in the modes, I said; but leave me one which will fittingly represent the tones and accents of a brave man in warlike action [etc] ...
Glaucon: ... but what kind of life each rhythm is suited to express, I cannot say.

Socrates: Well, we shall consult Damon
[a famous musician] on this question, which metres are expressive of meanness, insolence, frenzy, and other such evils, and which rhythms we must retain to express their opposites.

This passage has bedevilled musical theory ever since. Plato favoured the Dorian and Phrygian modes (among those in use in the Greek world), as they (seemingly) expressed the Dorian and Phrygian ethnic characteristics: warlike manliness, steadfast endurance, and the like, rather than the effeminacy and luxury that Plato despised in the Ionians and Lydians.

In recent centuries, certain styles of music, genres we would call them rather than modes, have been similarly discouraged or outlawed in paternalistic states, including jazz in 1930s Ireland.

Bookmark on your Personal Space

Conversations About This Entry

There are no Conversations for this Entry



Infinite Improbability Drive

Infinite Improbability Drive

Read a random Edited Entry

Written and Edited by


h2g2 is created by h2g2's users, who are members of the public. The views expressed are theirs and unless specifically stated are not those of the Not Panicking Ltd. Unlike Edited Entries, Entries have not been checked by an Editor. If you consider any Entry to be in breach of the site's House Rules, please register a complaint. For any other comments, please visit the Feedback page.

Write an Entry

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. It has been compiled and recompiled many times and under many different editorships. It contains contributions from countless numbers of travellers and researchers."

Write an entry
Read more