The Shorthand of Emotion: Music at St. John’s College

In the beginning, there were drums. Then, there were the chants sung in medieval abbeys, and then, harmony, and the great composers of the 18th and 19th centuries. As St. John’s students, we discover all of that in our music program. The first song we learn, in our freshman chorus, is often medieval. The first song I remember learning at St. John’s was a song of joy, a festival song from perhaps the Renaissance that I no longer remember the name of. I do, however, remember the steady beat underlaying the song as we sang it together, the way I could feel the music flow through me, the way the tensing and relaxing of my muscles, the tapping of my feet, the same shifting of my classmates around me kept time.

I have never been a musical person, even though I wanted to be. From an early age, I was fascinated by music, I craved it, yet I remained tragically, absolutely tone- and rhythm-deaf. I can’t carry a tune, I can’t sing in-key, I can’t dance, and I can’t play an instrument. Still, I still managed to enjoy and even succeed at, my music classes at St. John’s. It turned out that, here, none of that was a prerequisite for success, and even less so for learning.

At St. John’s, learning is valued above a relatively arbitrary concept of success, always. Here, music is studied the same way as everything else: with a spirit of democratic, egalitarian inquiry. The aim is not to prove oneself to be the best singer or musician, nor to secure a prime solo or coveted spot on an orchestra. Rather, Johnnie music students aim to develop their own knowledge, and understand how humanity’s practice of music has progressed from our early days until now. The music curriculum, with both practical and theory components, is part of the freshman and sophomore year curriculum that is studied by all students. And in the St. John’s music course, no matter what your background, you are sure to learn something.

For those of you not accustomed to the college’s way of doing things, the idea of studying music may call up some specific preconceptions. It might seem archaic and dry, time devoted to lines and notes and the mystery of what exactly is a chord, a key, and a half-step, or perhaps lofty and out-of-reach. You might think, like I did, that music just isn’t for you. But that’s not the way of St. John’s. In music, as in everything else we teach, we choose to do things differently than the norm.
If you come in knowing nothing of music, you will leave with practical knowledge. You will learn to read sheet music; you will learn the meanings of different keys and the moods they convey. You will learn if your voice is most suited to a soprano, alto, tenor, or bass part.

For those who came in with some musical knowledge, as well as for the former group, you are still likely to learn more. You will learn the complicated mathematics behind what makes a progression of notes pleasing to the ear. You will learn how humanity started off with simple melodies and the pentatonic scale, and later developed other scales and more complex harmonies, and you will learn to analyze music as if it were a piece of text like any other.

Everybody has something they can get out of this course. Music students at St. John’s build the knowledge base necessary to dissect great musical pieces with the same sharpened analytical mental scalpel that we take to works of history and philosophy at the seminar table. Examples of those pieces include Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, and Bach’s St. Matthew Passion – the second is also a seminar “text”, unique in the seminar reading list for being an audio piece.

The music curriculum may seem a little out of place in the rest of the St. John’s program. For a start, everything else lasts three or four years, but chorus only lasts one year on the Annapolis campus, and music theory tutorials one year on both campuses. The “texts” studied in music are so different to the books used in other classes. It is also probably the most artistically based part of the curriculum. Visual arts, photography, painting, sculpture, and more are of course present at St. John’s – and popular among the student body – but they are generally not required subjects.
Extracurricular music opportunities are, of course, also available. Johnnies are encouraged to pursue their passions both in and out of class, and music is no exception! Instruments are available for student use, and you can often here someone playing the piano when you walk through the halls of classroom buildings. There also many student groups, such as orchestra, string quartet, Thursday Night Singers – a folk and sea shanty group – and twice yearly, the campuses come together for Collegium, a showcase of student musical performances.

Some might question what purpose music serves to a philosopher, a historian, a scientist, to any other student of St. John’s. The answer is, of course, that serves a great purpose, a necessary one. From our freshman year seminars on works of philosophy by the Ancient Greeks, we at St. John’s are concerned with becoming seekers of virtue. A great part of virtue, we are taught, is beauty. We interrogate the nature of beauty; we wonder at its shape. But what, truly, can be more beautiful than music? Music has existed from the very start of humanity, from the first melodies of our Neolithic ancestors, to delight the senses and inspire the spirit, as it continues to do now.
From the earliest works of Plato that we study, to Aristotle, Augustine, and Kant, we will find much that still rings true to our modern minds. The questions that these philosophers ask us to consider are some that still haunt us now: what does it mean to live a good life? How do I be the best person I can be? Is there such a thing as the divine? The answers we can find in music are just as enduring. We see a form of beauty, and how it relates to other things we have studied: mathematics, sense perception, even theology.

Some of the authors we read, and some Johnnies who agree with them, say that mathematics is a universal language of the world. It governs the motions of the planets, the turn of the earth, the rhythms of the seasons, the very shape of the heavens. The handwriting of this language appears in music, too. Despite the distinction we might like to draw between something as technical as mathematics and something as driven by creativity as the arts, music is at its core a form of applied mathematics. The sounds that please our ears are those that fulfill certain equations, such as how many steps apart on a scale they are.

“If music be the food of love, play on,” Shakespeare once said. At St. John’s, music is food for the mind and soul of our students. Coming out of their music classes, our students have learned about a topic they might not have considered at all otherwise. Their minds are opened to a wider perspective, and, at St. John’, we aim in everything to broaden and strengthen the minds of our students. The music curriculum at St. John’s has something to help everyone, no matter their background, interests, or goals.

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