Scruton on Musical Ethics and Aesthetics

In his recent essay “Music and Morality” English philosopher Roger Scruton discusses Plato’s belief that “traits of character are displayed in music and dancing.”

Music, for Plato, was not a neutral amusement. It could express and encourage virtue— nobility, dignity, temperance, chastity. But it could also express and encourage vice—sensuality, belligerence, indiscipline. Plato’s concern was not so very different from that of a modern person worrying about the moral character, and moral effect, of Death Metal, say, or musical kitsch of the Andrew Lloyd Webber kind.

What Scruton is addressing is not even lyrics or performance styles, but how the basic elements of melody and rhythm are handled in modern compositions. He also examines changing audience behavior. In this respect he agrees with German intellectual Theodore Adorno, albeit for his views on musicology rather than economics. Scruton refers specifically to the “regression of listening” in which “long-range musical thought” and enjoyment have been replaced by fetishism and post-modern fragments of pulsating noise. Unlike older popular tunes that were based on classical and jazz motifs, “beat” has drowned out melody. It is not even real rhythm, as can be found in Strauss waltzes or Caribbean steel bands. “Rhythm is not the same thing as measure,” he observes. “It is not simply a matter of dividing time into repeatable units. It is a matter of organizing sound into movement, so that one note invites the next into the space that it has vacated.” The new pop “beat” changes our behavior, since it no longer invites us to dance with other people but encourages us to dance at each other, in the same way that music becomes a form of acoustic aggression rather than participation.

Contemporary entertainment batters the audience with images, sounds and concepts with increasingly little opportunity to reflectively evaluate them. New technology has made these experiences ubiquitous and insistent. Even more important is the fact that today’s ethos has reversed assumptions about human art and interaction. That is why it is hard for the candid observer “to criticize a musical idiom without [also] standing in judgment on the culture to which it belongs.” A nonjudgmental response, Scruton believes, is really out of the question. Such “tolerance” becomes a bullying assertion that squelches honest discourse about culture. Not surprisingly, the new compositions of our ideologically-driven society display an increasing irrationality. With each beat of a pounding tempo they demand total “submission” of the audience. Listeners have become both captive and atomized.

Scruton is rightly concerned with the deterioration of aural culture. But his advice is not negative or unconstructive: “There is plenty of tuneful popular music, and plenty of popular music with which one can sing along and to which one can dance in sociable ways.”

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