The Trivium and teaching music in 2014

This essay has as its subject the Trivium and what we can learn from it in 2014.  I believe that rekindling interest in this system of learning which was the standard for three thousand years will not only be of the greatest importance in the short term but also in the long term perspective.  The generalized lamentation of the disastrous collapse of standards in academic institutions the world over has prompted me to consider what system was used before, and what the potential benefits of its revival could be for humanity at large.

I will describe the Trivium and the Quadrivium on three levels, the classical, esoteric and modern.  Afterwards I will attempt to analyze several musical phenomonen using the tools of the Trivium.  In the closing I will make suggestions for implementing this methodology in the official curriculum and in private teaching.

As a professor at the Ecole Normale de Paris for 34 years I have taught students from over 30 different countries.  The majority of these people were of above average intelligence and artistic capacity.  The vast majority had outstanding pianistic ability.  Most became my students in a kind of post-graduate context and should have been expected to have assimilated more than a rudimentary knowledge of the functioning of music as a very real language and a means of expressing vividly the loftiest ideas and aspirations of the human soul.  Unfortunately, I must concede that not only are the vast majority not fluent in basic elements of musical grammar and syntax, whether in the harmonic, melodic or rhythmic spheres, but were almost totally unaware of the existence of basic formal procedures which are the building blocks of all musical structures.

This is not merely lamentation but a sober call to the reality of the situation and an attempt to remedy the cause of this indeed lamentable state of affairs.

Actually this problem cannot be solved on the level of higher education but should be addressed at the beginning of formal education.  The root of the problem is an absence of the tools of learning not only music but anything.  It should be obvious that the method of learning anything is the same and should be to a high degree systemized and understood until it becomes as it were, second nature.

The Trivium is a method which was developed in the ancient mystery schools of Mesopatamia and Egypt and later adopted by the Greeks, Romans and medieval schools.  ‘Trivium’ is a latin word  which indicates a threefold path to the truth.  Tres, tri means three and via, way, pathy, road.  Already before the splendor of ancient Egypt, the sages realized that real understanding of truth is the only way to empowerment. The key concept is understanding.  Information and knowledge are prerequisites to understanding but in no way sufficient as we can easily see in our world which is drowning in information and starved for real content and wisdom.

The why is in the method and this why connects to places of thought, emotion and action.The Trivium is composed of Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric, in that order, and are tools for learning how to think and express that thought.  The Quadrivium is composed of Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy in that order and is the art of measurement.  Arithmetic, numbers, geometry numbers in space, music, numbers in time, and astronomy numbers in time and space.  As we see there are seven tools and these are indeed the ancient seven liberal arts, liberal connoting freedom.  The role of the Trivium and Quadrivium is to bring our five senses into harmony with the truth.  Thus seen, thinking and learning are names for the process of bringing ideas to consciousness as exemplified by the Socratic method , whereby the teacher stimulates the learner’s awareness by asking searching questions.  These questions should clarify values which reflect the good inherent in the universe.  These values are not man-made but absolute, eternal and universal.  As Plato and Socrates asked: What is the good life? What is beauty?  What is truth?  This perspective of education rejects the consumerism and vocationalism that shape contemporary society.

The classroom should never become a therapeutic center for emotional or behavioral adjustment.  It must remain a place of lecture, discussion, demonstration, experiment and most of all, mastery of content.

It is absolutely necessary to embrace such a philosophy of education in order to become an effective teacher.  This teaching philosophy inquires into the principles of reality, knowledge and value.  It is a rational approach in contrast to the materialistic, scientific or emotive approach.  It does not provide answers as much as it questions answers.  This idealistic approach originated with Plato some 2,500 years ago and emphasizes spiritual and moral reality as the primary explanation of the universe.  Truth and values are seen as absolute and universal.  Knowledge is in the mind and is to be brought to the conscious level through introspection.  Only the mental and spiritual are ultimately real and the universe is an expression of a highly generalized intelligence and .which Aristotle called the “Unmoved Mover”.

I would like to compare the classical terminology with the esoteric and the modern terminology.

Classical                Esoteric                     Modern

1)Grammar           Knowledge                Input

2)Logic           Understanding                   Processing


3)Rhetoric      Wisdom                               Output

The order of the steps is extremely important and the system cannot function in any other order.  All of these subjects are based on questioning and identifying causal factors.  Without “why” there is no power.

Human beings communicate with words which are symbols of ideas about reality.  The essence of their form is expressed in thneir definition.  The world is made up of words and if you know the words that the world is made of, you can make of it whatever you wish.”  Terence McKenna. We forget that God spoke the world into existence.  Each word has a logical or intellectual dimension in its thought content contained in its definition.

There is also a psychological dimension, for example the difference between “house” and “home” is readily apparent.  The logical dimension of a word is desirable in legal documents where clarity and precision of meaning are requisite.  The psychological dimension of language is in its emotional content expressing nuances, images,  and emotions spontaneously associated with the word.

This is why poetry is so difficult to translate.  The substance of a composition may be translated perfectly in the logical dimension from one language to another.  Translation is seldom satisfactory in the psychological dimension.

Grammar gives expression to all states of mind and soul, cognitive, volitive,emotional, in statements, questions, wishes, prayers, commands, exclamations.  In this sense grammar has a wider scope than logic; and so does rhetoric which communicates all these to other minds.

Logic is concerned with all operations of the intellect, with rational cognition, not with volition or the emotions.  Logic and rhetoric are also arts of composition and they have in common disposition and invention.  Invention is the art of finding reasoning for discourse and disposition is the art of properly arranging the materiel.  In logic, disposition includes definition, division, the framing of propositions and the relating of them..

In Rhetoric, disposition is the proper ordering of the parts of a composition, body and conclusion according to the principle of unity, coherence and emphasis.  Rhetoric judges which one of a number of equivalent grammatical symbols for one idea is best for communication in the given circumstance, for example, a steed or a horse.  Grammar deals with only one sentence, with one thought.  Logic and rhetoric deal with extended discourse,with relations and combinations of thought.

To look again at the Trivium from the modern point of view we will call grammar “input”.  It is gathering data from an eclectic array of sources without pre-judging it.  We ask the questions who, what, when and where.

The processing stage logic or understanding, is comprised of three basic steps: filtration, correlation and analysis.  Our evaluation enables us to understand why or what is the meaning, reason or purpose.

The outputis rhetoric or wisdom.  This enables speech and action based upon knowledge that one has gathered and understood.  This is how understanding is effectively propogated so that real and positive change can be created.

The esoteric interpretation is Knowledge, Understanding and Wisdom.  This scheme is already present in the tree of life from the Kabbalah and is crowned by “Kether”:unity, consciousness or non-duality.

Thanks to these language tools which enable us to think, reason and express we can approach the Quadrivium which contain the subjects of Arithnetic:numbers, Geometry, numbers in space, Music, numbers in time, and Astronomy, numbers and time in space.  Let us examine some aspects of the measurement of time in space, or in other words, Music.