Music and Our Cultural Decline: Roger Scruton’s Conservative Response




Readers of Roger Scruton’s work will know that he writes incessantly on the aesthetics of music. To a big extent, Scruton’s work on music is an effort to grasp its nature and that means as an finish in itself, free from any social or political considerations. But Scruton’s work additionally shows a discerning sense of the methods music pertains to tradition. Music reveals an awesome deal about those that produce it. It may possibly profit listeners (and hurt them as properly) particularly insofar as they’re a part of a group whose self-understanding is formed by the music’s that means. Right here I exploit Scruton’s primary philosophy of music as developed in The Aesthetics of Music (1998) and Understanding Music (2009) as a backdrop in opposition to which to discover his ideas on the connection between music and tradition.

What’s Music?

Scruton proceeds in a Socratic method, assuming that one ought to start by striving to grasp what one thing is earlier than launching into questions of analysis—whether or not aesthetic or cultural. To distill Scruton’s view, music shouldn’t be mere sound, however (a) an occasion of organized sound, the place (b) the intention to speak one thing by way of (c) conventional “grammars” of tonal improvement makes it doable for (d) a listener to expertise (e) motion in a metaphorical house and (f) to sympathize with imagined expectations and fulfillments, thereby present process in his or her personal soul (g) varied motions equal to the tonal actions expressed by the composer.

What does this imply? It implies that music is constructed from “tones”—not from sound in its uncooked materiality. Tones are sounds deliberately organized in such a approach as to create an imaginary house. “Area” is in fact a metaphor right here; the house wherein musical expression takes place shouldn’t be an actual house. However metaphor, based on Scruton, is totally important to music. Sounds don’t actually transfer as music “strikes.” They don’t “rise” and “fall.” “But that is how we hear them after we hear them as music.” Once more, uncooked sounds are usually not “unhappy” or “agitated” or “sensuous” or “elegant,” however music definitely may be. Music happens within the context of a musical tradition, the place composer and viewers alike take part within the transformation of sounds into objects of tonal house that categorical motion and invite interpretation based on a conventional “grammar” (one other metaphor) of expectations.

The methods wherein sound is organized in order to create music are quite a few: pitch, melody, concord, and dynamics are all of curiosity to Scruton. So too is rhythm, and in reality the breadth of Scruton’s therapy of rhythm in his later Understanding Music means that he finds it significantly important. He dwells particularly upon the intimate connection between rhythm and human life. Rhythmic phenomena in music appear to him to derive from two forms of basic human phenomena: these of speech and of bodily actions. In different phrases, speech reveals stresses, accents, meters, and groupings, simply as rhythms in music do. Equally, bodily motions corresponding to dance, bodily work, strolling, marching, and different human actions, contain stress and measure. “Our personal life speaks to us by way of the sound,” Scruton writes. Rhythm conveys one thing “intimately related to processes that we all know in ourselves.”

Moments like this in Scruton’s philosophical evaluation of music assist us to see why music may need ethical significance, even when no precise phrases or textual content are concerned. Music attracts listeners into an imaginary house the place our our bodies in addition to our minds are sympathetically engaged in motions. Music stirs us to understand and even to be (at the very least momentarily) what the composer has set in movement. However as quickly as we enter the area of human actions, as music the truth is does, we enter an area that admits of a number of modes of study. We are able to surprise not solely about what music is, but in addition about its aesthetic worth. Or we are able to inquire into its ethical and political worth, insofar as people in movement are additionally a priority in these domains. Scruton is all in favour of all these modes of evaluating music, however I wish to focus now particularly on his evaluation of the connection between music and Western political tradition and on his ideas about an acceptable conservative response to the unhappy decline that has occurred in our musical style over current many years.

Music and Political Tradition

By political tradition I imply one thing a lot broader than mere political establishments and legal guidelines within the formal sense. In The Republic, when Plato’s Socrates contends that the methods of music can’t be altered in a metropolis with out altering additionally the “biggest political legal guidelines” (nomoi), he doesn’t imply solely written legal guidelines, but in addition the unwritten norms of residing, methods of understanding and methods of appearing that make a folks what they’re. One other solution to categorical this in Greek is to talk (additionally ambiguously) of the “structure” (politeia) of a folks—not (or not merely) its authorized preparations, however its entire way of life. The query, then, is how music relates broadly to the norms and “constitutional” make-up of a folks.

Is music a producer or a product of cultural patterns? The reply should certainly be each. When the traditional Ionian peoples produced music, they produced “Ionian” music, a method that mirrored their mushy, idle, and drunken tendencies. Likewise, the Dorians produced “Dorian” music: austere and bellicose in spirit. In these circumstances, the causal arrow factors from cultural norms to the music a folks creates. However the relationship goes the opposite approach too, as evinced by the truth that one among Socrates’ chief considerations in Plato’s Republic is to outfit main residents with modes of music that domesticate braveness and moderation.

One of many many virtues of Scruton’s work on music is that he retains the causal arrow pointing each methods and thus helps readers perceive how important music is, each as an expression of our cultural character and as a pressure that may “domesticate” (or fail to domesticate) the souls of its listeners.

Scruton on Western Music and Tradition

Let me illustrate, beginning with Scruton’s insights into the way in which western tradition has affected music. Like all cultures on the planet, the West used music (and nonetheless does) to accompany varied actions: worship, dancing, marching, laboring, commemorating. Music on this context is “an expression of the sentiments and hopes of the individuals.” However one thing regularly occurred within the West that produced a brand new mode of understanding. From music as an accompaniment to dancing and singing got here music as a spotlight for silent listening, the apply of sitting in a live performance corridor to listen to a musical efficiency. How and why this occurred is considerably mysterious. In Scruton’s phrases, “music appeared to satisfy its future by liberating itself from its worldly makes use of, whereas persevering with to allude to them in ever extra refined and ever extra suggestive gestures.”

The causes of this shift from musical accompaniment to instrumental efficiency may be positioned typically in adjustments within the political tradition of the West—within the elevated leisure and wealth which are a precondition of what Scruton refers to because the “tradition of listening.” As Scruton factors out, “artwork is the product of leisure; leisure the product of security.” So too with listening: Listening takes time; orchestras and live performance halls value cash. Thus, solely with adjustments within the political and financial tradition of the West (the beginning of sovereignty after Westphalia, the rise of commerce and business, and the gradual progress of Liberalism) would the tradition be positioned to create a brand new sort of music (orchestral music) and a brand new sort of viewers (live performance goers).

However the causal arrow goes the alternative approach as properly. And Scruton has profound issues to say in regards to the cultural impact this new excessive artwork had on those that skilled it. The change occurred, he factors out, simply as faith was starting to lose its emotional grip amongst educated Europeans. And classical music’s “posture of aesthetic distance promised an alternate path to the that means of the world.” It might be an understatement to say that classical music at its greatest can have an ennobling impact on its listeners. The impact is plainly one among transcendence, not solely from the remoted self to group, and from the disorderliness of the world to the orderliness of summary musical motion, but in addition and in the end from the mundane to a way of the divine. The expertise is, at its greatest, writes Scruton, “so overwhelming that solely non secular language can describe it.”

Revolution and Decline

However then got here the revolution. Between the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, we start to listen to of what Leonard B. Meyer calls a “disaster of tonality.” Composers corresponding to Mahler, Wagner and Richard Strauss had pushed the bounds of tonality to date that it grew to become unclear the way it may go additional.

The response from some composers was that it couldn’t, they usually started to flirt with different methods of organizing music, consciously rejecting the tonal conventions that had ruled musical composition for millennia. The consequence was, initially “free atonality,” in items corresponding to Schoenberg’s musical melodrama “Pierrot Lunaire” (1912), Berg’s opera “Wozzeck” (1917-1922) and, ultimately “serialism,” together with particularly 12-tone serialism or “dodecaphony” in items corresponding to Schoenberg’s “Variations for Orchestra” (1928) wherein all twelve notes of the chromatic scale are sounded with equal regularity with the intention to forestall the emphasizing of anyone be aware. To make sure equal regularity, composers employed “tonal rows” consisting of all twelve notes in a selected order, repeated and developed all through a composition in such a approach as to keep away from ever suggesting even the trace of a tonal middle or key.

Admirers of Schoenberg incessantly liken his invention of dodecaphony to Einstein’s improvements in physics, significantly his Basic Principle of Relativity; and Schoenberg appears to have invited the comparability. “I’ve made a discovery,” Schoenberg as soon as advised a buddy, “which is able to make sure the supremacy of German music for the subsequent hundred years.”[1]

However what for Schoenberg appeared a promising new approach of organizing melodic and harmonic expression, would appear to later serialists far too timid a break not solely from the outdated musical order, however particularly from the bourgeois tradition that created it. What was wanted was a whole serialization of all features of music: pitch, length, timbre, rhythm, and some other parameters a composer may consider. The consequence was what Pierre Boulez known as “integral serialism,” which was intentionally meant to create a “magnificent scandal” that may “shock the slim tastes of the concert-going public.” Boulez as soon as described himself as “300% a Marxist-Leninist” and later “referred to as for a bomb to fall upon the Opera, its ceremonial and all its works.”[2]

Serialism is a case of a revolutionary motion creating its personal type of revolutionary music. However as Scruton argues with nice talent, it was destined to fail, as a result of the tonality it rejects shouldn’t be merely standard, as if it had been “arbitrarily devised and imposed by fiat.” Fairly it’s grounded in properties of the physics of sound and unmistakably resonates with the human soul. Mockingly, as arduous as Boulez and others tried, they may by no means change the human response to their music: in opposition to all odds, listeners would proceed to listen to tonal or quasi-tonal occasions “in” serial music, even when these had been intentionally averted.

Pop Music

Sadly, serialism shouldn’t be the one type of musical revolution. A lot much less articulate however equally subversive of political and musical tradition are some types of pop music that the youth tradition of Britain and America has embraced over the previous three or 4 many years. Scruton analyzes this at some size in an article entitled “Youth Tradition’s Lament,” the place he maintains that youth tradition as we speak is inherently transgressive, ever making an attempt to be “radical, disconcerting, infuriating, disorienting, and lawless,” ever selling carefree intercourse, and the rest that includes “no value when it comes to training, ethical self-discipline, hardship, or love.”

The pop-music revolution is wrongly understood, Scruton believes, as “a response to oppression, a voice by way of which freedom, life and revolutionary fervor cry from the catacombs of bourgeois tradition.” “Solely years in a college may persuade somebody” that youth tradition is oppressed. As a substitute, youth tradition as we speak is the official public tradition. Nobody can criticize it and emerge unscathed.

The pop-music revolution is absolutely about transgression for the sake of transgression, Scruton believes. However this makes for some severe issues in terms of musical expression; for to articulate clearly and artfully the transgressive impulse can be to succumb to the very orderly world one desires to transgress. If “grownup music” presupposes self-discipline, research, and excellence, then youth music can’t exhibit these traits. It should be undisciplined, unschooled, and base.

Scruton’s thesis is that on the non secular middle of recent youth tradition “is a void, which it regularly tries to fill, with out success, and regularly bemoans, with attribute inarticulateness.” We’ve fallen a great distance from Wagner, Mahler, and Strauss. And the issue is overwhelming majority of our tradition listens to music of little to no aesthetic worth, forsaking the ennobling and even transcendent results of music, forsaking the sense of ordered group that may be woke up in such music, and settling as a substitute for vacancy.

What’s a Conservative to do?

After all, pop music shouldn’t be uniformly dangerous, as Scruton factors out. There’s a world of qualitative distinction between “She Loves You” by the Beatles (which Scruton likes) and REM’s “Shedding My Faith” (which he doesn’t). Right here, Scruton encourages readers to not observe the lead of Frankfurt Faculty theorist, Theodor Adorno, whose Marxist views rejected all popularly oriented music, even refined and significant music by composers like Rodgers and Hammerstein. Scruton refutes Adorno by providing surprisingly contemporary and compelling musical analyses of songs from the Nice American Songbook with the intention to present their sophistication.

Acknowledging such sophistication, Scruton rejects the nostalgic, backwards look that refuses to search out something to affirm in life as we at present realize it (musical and in any other case). As a lot as one might love Vaughn Williams, one should agree with Scruton, I believe, that we not reside in that idyllic English panorama. And it’s an act of pure fantasy, not conservatism, to fake that we do. As a substitute, Scruton factors to a handful of 20th century works that (in contrast to REM’s “Shedding my Faith” and equally corrosive songs) help the custom of tonality and affirm life somewhat than rejecting it. Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms provides a superb instance, as does Britten’s Struggle Requiem. Such works, Scruton insists, are usually not fairly as uncommon because the pessimists recommend.

And but such items are not basic to our constitutional make-up. We who hearken to them as we speak are eccentric, and Scruton is aware of this. Thus his last thought on the matter of music’s decline is far more nuanced than merely pointing to a couple life-affirming works. A “nice job,” he says, “lies earlier than the artwork of sound” and it’s as follows:

The duty of recovering tonality, because the imagined house of music, and of restoring the non secular group with which that house was crammed. . . . A musical equal of 4 Quartets is required, a rediscovery of the tonal language, which may even redeem the time.

That is one way of life within the current musical wasteland. We await a redeemer of some form, whereas having fun with the sizable retailer of excellent music we nonetheless possess.

However this doesn’t exhaust Scruton’s response. His can be an lively and worldly conservatism—as removed from the musical “Benedict possibility” as one can get, and gleaming with Christian charity because it tries to redeem what resists redemption. Right here is the place he most decisively components firm with Adorno, whose blanket rejection of well-liked music additionally abandons the challenge of training well-liked tastes. Scruton’s strategy is somewhat to “acknowledge the favored idioms, however convey them into the fold of the aesthetic.”

This implies listening to and publicly criticizing the music of our time, judging its aesthetically profitable and failing features. To close out all modern music with out discriminating shouldn’t be sufficient. We should try to re-educate well-liked tastes by critique. Scruton thus refuses to desert our declining musical tradition to itself. “We should redeem the dialect of the tribe,” he writes, even when it includes what for true music lovers will really feel like fasting. Once more, suffused with charity, Scruton’s strategy recommends itself not solely as a conservative posture in the direction of our musical tradition however as a response to our declining political tradition as properly.


[1] See Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt, Arnold Schoenberg, Edith Temple Roberts and Humphrey Searle, trans. (New York: Grove Press, 1959), p. 132 and 277; Edvin Østergaard, “Composing Science: Exploring the Kinship Between Artwork and Science,” Interdisciplinary Science Evaluations 31, no. three (2006), p. four; and Kirke Mecham, Imagine Your Ears: Lifetime of a Lyric Composer (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015), p. 157.

[2] Dominique Jameux, Pierre Boulez, Susan Bradshaw, trans. (Cambridge: Harvard College Press, 1991), pp. 74, 158, and 156.

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