How Stoicism Influenced Music From the French Renaissance to Pink Floyd
Have you ever turned to music when you were struggling with a difficult emotion, such as sadness, anxiety or anger?
Most people believe that music has some therapeutic power and confidence is increasingly supported by empirical evidence. However, there remains little consensus on precisely how or why music has the ability to influence our emotional, physical, and mental well-being.
Since ancient times, physicians and philosophers have explored the power of music in human life. Although the writings of Plato and Aristotle are more famous, another ancient school of philosophy, Stoicismcultivated an interest in the therapeutic potential of music.
Since the word “stoic” is mainly used to describe a rigid and emotionless person, Stoic musical practices would seem doomed to boredom or bizarre.
But Stoicism – the capital “S” genre – is a school of thought that is more concerned with dealing with the turbulent emotions of everyday life. This sheds a different light on their connection to music and helps explain how Stoicism positively shaped the course of intellectual and musical history.
Control what you can
Founded in ancient Athens and peaking in popularity in first-century Rome, Stoicism was developed by philosophers like Seneca, Epictetus and the Roman emperor Marc Aurelius to deal with destructive emotions such as anxiety, anger and grief through perspective-shifting exercises. The question of control is at the heart of this method. The Stoics taught that only by acknowledging and accepting what is beyond a person’s control can a person exercise maximum control over what is within their power.
It is important to note that the Stoic approach does not seek to directly suppress bad emotions, but rather focuses on reshaping a person’s worldview so that when they encounter difficulty or trauma, she is prepared to experience emotions in a less destructive way.
This perspective-taking strategy may sound familiar; the founders of cognitive-behavioral therapy, one of the most popular forms of psychotherapy today, directly borrowed from Stoicism.
In recent years – and especially since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic – interest in stoicism jumped upwith people from diverse political and economic backgrounds acknowledging the effectiveness of this ancient system for treating conditions such as anxiety and addiction.
In Turbulent Times, Neostoicism Emerges
So where does music fit into all of this?
Emerging in the wake of violence French religious wars, the Neostoics saw Stoicism as a remedy for social and political instability. They developed a repertoire of vocal music to teach the principles of the system, guiding singers and listeners to “rehearse” Stoic techniques of emotional regulation through informal musical gatherings in people’s homes.
These songs exemplified Stoic principles through music”text painting“, in which specific words, actions or concepts were conveyed musically through sound – and, sometimes, visuals – in the score.
Take an example from 1582 – “L’eau va viste”, a poem by Antoine de Chandieu set to music by Paschal de L’Estocart.
The water goes quickly flowing away, The faster the flying traffic, And the faster still passes The wind which chases the clouds away. But worldly joy The race is so tremulous, That it still passes in front of the water and the traict and the wind.
The water flows fast, Even faster the flying arrow, And even faster passes, The wind that chases the clouds, But worldly joy, Its course is so sudden, That it passes even before, The water, the arrow and wind.
Many Stoic writings, such as that of Seneca “On the shortness of life“, conjure up similar images of running water to warn against placing one’s happiness in outer comforts and securities, which, like a current, pass quickly.
L’Estocart’s musical arrangement for “The water goes fastpicks up on that quality of movement. A snowball rhythm builds with each new instance of rapid overtaking.
The river of time
Zoom in nearly four centuries, and English rock band Pink Floyd composed a strikingly similar musical reflection in their signature song “Time” from their 1973 album, “The dark side of the moon.”
The album describes all the main forces and concerns that can drive people crazy: aging, death, fear, greed and violence.
Mental health was of particular importance to the group. Their founding leader, Syd Barrett, had a nervous breakdown only a few years ago. According to Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, the album is about “life with a heartbeat”, and the band signals this by opening and closing the album with a slow, simulated heartbeat that sounds both mechanical and deeply human.
Further developing this rhythmic symbolism, the single “Time“uses many musical strategies to draw attention to the fragility of human life.
The track opens with a meandering two-and-a-half-minute instrumental introduction, slowly moving from a breathless synthesizer drone to the disorienting sound of many clocks. Then there’s a cacophony of alarms before listeners hear a click of mechanical bass that sounds like a metronome or mechanical heartbeat.
The entry of electric guitar and increasingly regular musical phrases finally set up the arrival of the vocals in the first verse: “Checking off the moments that make up a boring day / flippantly wasting and wasting the hours.”
This unusual extended instrumental introduction destabilizes the listener’s expectation of musical time and demands greater attention to the moment-to-moment sensations of its passage. The lyrics throughout the song reinforce this initial musical warning – that listeners should pay close attention to the flow of time and ensure it is used with purpose and meaning.
“The time is over. The song is over,” the lyrics conclude“I thought I had something more to say.”
An internal power reserve
These two musical examples, composed almost 400 years apart, model a central element of Stoic therapy: by meditating on the fragility of time, the Stoics do not seek to instill terror, but to reveal death and death. ephemeral as natural aspects of the human experience that can be faced without anxiety. This calm acceptance offers a release from destructive emotions like fear and longing that draw our attention to the future and the past. As recommended by Marc Aurèle“Give yourself a gift – the present moment.”
Stoicism and its many artistic echoes are easily interpreted as pessimistic because of this relentless focus on human mortality and frailty. This negative reading misses the deeply optimistic and empowering message of Stoicism that our mental freedom remains within our control, regardless of our external circumstances.
Waters made exactly this point in his defense of the humanism of “Dark Side of the Moon”, explaining that “Despite the rather depressing ending… there is a tolerance that anything is possible, that the potential is in our hands.”
Music, from this point of view, offers a means of learning the therapeutic method of the Stoics in a way that goes beyond the contemplation of philosophical words. These examples – and many others in the Stoic tradition that so aptly unite words and sounds – turn helpful Stoic advice into a therapeutic practice guided by the twists of song.
This article is republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license.