Boethius And The Relevance Of Musical Understanding


Boethius was a Roman philosopher trained in the ancient greek traditions of philosophy and the liberal arts. He lived c.480-c.524 A.D. One of his first written works was an essay titled De Institutione Musica in four books. Out of the four mathematical disciplines of antiquity: arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy, these were considered the discipline of quadrivium, “ the fourfold path to the knowledge of ‘essences’ – things unaffected by material substance.” Although De Institutione Musica did not survive in its entirety as a complete work, and seemed to have vanished from the 6th century to the 9th, it was a very popular musical treatise in its day. Resurfacing in the late 9th century it became the basis for music philosophy and music theory throughout the Medivel, Renaissance and into the early Baroque eras. Whenever a revolution occurs in Western music, the contemporaries look to ancient greek musical thought as a grounding fail safe modus operandi. This essential musical philosophy states;

“...Music occupies an unusual position among the mathematical arts, according to Boethius, for it is related to ethical action as well as to pure reason (De inst. mus., 1, chap.1). Since human behavior is potentially influenced by music, it is very desirable to understand and control the fundamental elements of music (e.g. tonal systems, genera, modes). Moreover, music, in the form of musica mundana, is an all-pervading force in the universe – determining the courses of the stars and planets, the seasons of the year and the combinations of the elements; and as musica humana it is the unifying principle for the human being – bringing the body and soul into harmony, and integrating the rational and irrational parts of the soul and the disparate members of the body into harmonious wholes. Music is also said to be found in instruments (musica instrumentalis), which are subdivided into strings, winds, and percussion (De inst. mus., 1, chap.2)...”

This essay focuses on Boethius’s position regarding the true musician, the three categories he creates and its relevance in todays modern world.

He defines the musician as instrumentalist, composer/songwriter and the critic/judge.

Boethius separates the European classical as opposed to “popular” musician into two main underlying categories; 1) the musician who knows music through the “nobility” of mind and 2) the musician who knows music through the “physical act”.

The first has gained musical understanding through careful, rational, contemplation and the act of reason. The second gains musical understanding through physical skill developed on their instrument. He further separates the musical artist into three kinds of people; 1) the instrumentalists, 2) the composer/songwriter and 3) the thinker/critic (those who pass musical judgement on the composers and instrumentalists.) Let’s look at each of the three types of of people who comprise Boethius’s musical arts and see if they apply in today’s world of European Classical Music.

The Classical Instrumentalist

Boethius states an instrumentalist becomes a slave to their instrument due to the physical demands it requires to continually produce descent tone, pitch and rhythm. Focus is placed on the performative aspects of generating the musical nuance needed to interpret, execute and deliver a quality sound which is pleasing to the listening ear as well as accurate representation of what is given them on the musical notated page. On the other hand, he states the use of reason and thought is “totally lacking” in this type of musician. They become a slave to the mastery of their chosen instrument. In European classical music, an instrument is to a composer what a brick layer is to an architect.

Does this viewpoint still hold true today? Well, let’s consider the number of symphony musicians who flawlessly perform the most challenging works by the greatest composers spanning the Western orchestral musical repertoire. The level of efficiency and execution can be mind boggling. These trained instrumentalist have the ability to execute and perform most anything laid in front of them on their chosen instrument. Yet, when the notated music is removed, the ability to perform a musical task from their own volition seems to vanish in many cases. When asked to perform an accurate representation of a simple folk melody from memory, the task becomes a bit more difficult. When asked to create a melody or even improvise on a given set of chords changes, the classical instrumentalist’s abilities to create reasonable sounds and ideas may be even further compromised.

Many classical musicians are required to develop a basic facility to play by ear, yet when pressed into service in the field of improvisation (music created in the moment, of the moment), the sounds produced can become childishly horrible in the least and highly undeveloped at best. Many classical musicians simply state with good cause, “Do not ask me to improvise.” This is not to say that classical musicians are not trained in the 20th century performance concepts of aleatory music. Instrumentalists seem to treat aleatoric music as a more gimmicky form of performance inside a non tonal structure. Improvisation becomes much more accommodating inside an atonal structure due to the number of notes available. Chord scale theory, harmonic knowledge, melodic development and phrase structure become much less of a requirement for making musical sense.

The irony is found in the simple fact that most classically trained instrumentalists who can play the greatest, most challenging works by the most skilled composers seem to be seriously lacking in the ability to bring together enough of the basic principles in the structure of music to perform the national anthem without music or even figure out the harmonic variations on the tune “Happy Birthday”. This may be the crux of Boetheus’s statement that these instrumentalists are “...totally lacking in thought...” and without reason. A serious lack in basic musical creative thought and reason seems to be in evidence where the classically trained instrumentalists becomes something only slightly better than a live tape recorder.

The Composer

Boethius’s second type of musician is the composer. He states that this type comes to music by a “certain instinct,” not by thought or reason. Therefore, he is again separated from the music. In contemporary terms, the composer becomes like an architect of sound. He creates the overall plan (score), dispenses the working drawings (parts), checks for structural strength (musical form), makes the building aesthetically pleasing and functional (melodic lines and harmony) and completes with architectual ornamentation and decoration (articulation, dynamic, phrasing). The composer is directed by an inner guidance which does not necessarily separate as much as bond elements of the musical force in such a way as to express the spirit of art within. Those guided strictly by instinct, without the aid or development of a musical language and a solid basis of musical knowledge to back it would be like a tornado passing in the night and the next day leaving a fully assemble jet liner in its wake. Chances are unlikely this would happen anytime soon.

Although many popular songs and much secular music does not need the solid formal and educational basis found in the symphonic composers to create a memorable melody, there is a give and take. A songwriter can only advance as far as his knowledge base will allow before seeking the advice, help or services of a skilled orchestrator or arranger to develop a concept to its fullest potential. On the other hand, since the earliest days of the motet, composers have relied on secular music and popular folk melodies to weave into their compositions or in many cases as the basis of complete works.

Critic / Judge

The third type of musician Boethius describes is the one who is particularly “...suited to the art of music...” in such a way as to use reason and thought to explain all things musically related to a work, genera, concept or idea. In a contemporary sense, this type of person may be likened to the role of record producer, owner, conductor, executive producer and possibly A & R person. For example, Emet Erthehgun, owner and founder of Atlantic Records, based his whole career on an uncanny ability to hear in artists a particular something inherent to their musical sensibility, then develop, record and produce that defining aspect which other industry leaders could recognize. Many of Erthehgun’s artists came to him only after being turned down by the other leading record companies of the day. Some of the artists the Atlantic team brought to the forefront were: John Coltrane, The Allman Brothers, Crosby Stills & Nash, Neil Young, to name only a few. For the most part, these were artists who were turned down by every major label of the day.

The amazingly functional importance for this type of music entrepreneur is to feed an unending supply of new and interesting music to an ever expanding audience base. Can this type of musician be called a critic and judge? Well, only as far as personal taste and moral dictates allow.

What about the actual music critic and the role this position has assumed through out Western musical history? Since the early Romantic period, composers have written critical works regarding reviews of performances, composers and program notes for listeners. Composers such as Schumann, Liszt, Debussy, Schoenberg, Stravinsky to name a few have all had a hand at writing critical work, reviews and essays about music to offset finances and at the same time contributing an insiders view to the musical literature of the day.

Do audiences really need a play by play on the breakdown and musical worth of a composition to render a new technique foreign to the accustomed ear acceptable and palatable? Well apparently in the past, operatic/theater music has driven the expandable bounds of acceptable sounds and the use of atonal/chromatic music since the time of Monteverdi. The popular introduction of program music served as a means to further the musical cause without the visual aid of of the theater setting. Todays modern equivalent is the modern movie theater where the scoring of music plays an integral role in the emotive content shown on the screen.


In summary, the three types of musicians Boethius describes, the instrumentalist, the composer and the critic, seem to be as valid and alive today as they were in the time it was written. Was he correct in saying only the knowledgeable critic and judge are capable of viewing music with any knowledge and reason? The fact of the matter is any instrumentalist or composer seeking to advance a craft and career has to not only listen to themselves from a critical stand point and be their own best critic but they must also rely on the mentorship and viewpoint of others for help along the way. Boethius makes some interesting points, probably more unknowing than knowing in his attempt, yet reflects a certain level of naivety and separatism towards the musical act, on all levels, except that of intuition, reason and thought.