Music and Morality

"The ways of poetry and music are not changed anywhere without change in the most important laws of the city." So wrote Plato in the Republic (4.424c). 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. "Should our children be listening to this stuff?" is the question in the mind of modern adults, just as "should the city permit this stuff?" was the question in the mind of Plato. Of course, we have long since given up on the idea that you can forbid certain kinds of music by law. Nevertheless, it is still common to believe that music has--or can have--a moral character, and that the character of a work or style of music can "rub off" in some way on its devotees.

We don't forbid musical idioms by law, but we should remember that our laws are made by people who have musical tastes; Plato may be right, even in relation to a modern democracy, that changes in musical culture go hand in hand with changes in the laws, since changes in the laws so often reflect pressures from the culture. There is no doubt that popular music today enjoys a status higher than any other cultural product. Pop stars are first among celebrities, idolized by the young, taken as role models, courted by politicians, and in general endowed with a magic aura that gives them power over crowds. It is surely likely, therefore, that something of their message will rub off on the laws passed by the politicians who admire them. If the message is sensual, self-centered, and materialistic (which it generally is), then we should not expect to find that our laws address us from any higher realm than that implies.

However, ours is a "nonjudgmental" culture. To criticize another's taste, whether in music, entertainment, or lifestyle, is to assume that some tastes are superior to others. And this, for many people, is offensive. Who are you, they respond, to judge another's taste? Young people in particular feel this, and since it is young people who are the principal devotees of pop music, this places a formidable obstacle in the path of anyone who undertakes to criticize pop in a university. This is especially so if the criticism is phrased in Plato's idiom, as an analysis and condemnation of the moral vices exemplified by a musical style. In the face of this a teacher might be tempted to give up on the question of judgment, and assume that anything goes, that all tastes are equally valid, and that, insofar as music is an object of academic study, it is not criticism, but technical analysis and know-how that should be imparted. Indeed this is the line that seems to be followed in academic departments of musicology, at least in the Anglophone world.

Ours is a "nonjudgmental" culture. To criticize another's taste, whether in music, entertainment, or lifestyle, is to assume that some tastes are superior to others. And this, for many people, is offensive.

The Question of the Moral Character of music is also complicated by the fact that music is appreciated in many different ways: people dance to music, they work and converse over a background of music, they perform music, and they listen to music. People happily dance to music that they cannot bear to listen to--a fairly normal experience these days. You can talk over Mozart, but not over Schoenberg; you can work to Chopin, but not to Wagner. And it is sometimes argued that the melodic and rhythmic contour of pop music both fits it for being overheard, rather than listened to, and also encourages a need for it in the background. Some psychologists wonder whether this need follows the pattern of addictions; more philosophical critics like Theodor Adorno raise questions of a deep kind as to whether the human ear has not changed entirely under the impact of jazz and its musical successors, and whether music can ever be for us what it was for Bach or Mozart.

Adorno attacked something that he called the "regression of listening," which he believed had infected the entire culture of modern America. He saw the culture of listening as a deep spiritual resource of Western civilization. For Adorno the habit of listening to long-range musical thought, in which themes are subjected to extended melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic development, is connected to the ability to live beyond the moment, to transcend the search for instant gratification, to set aside the routines of the consumer society, with its constant pursuit of the "fetish," and to put real values in the place of fleeting desires. And there is something persuasive here that needs to be rescued from Adorno's intemperate and over-politicized critique of just about everything he found in America. But Adorno reminds us that it is very hard to criticize a musical idiom without standing in judgment on the culture to which it belongs. Musical idioms don't come in sealed packets, with no relation to the rest of human life. And when a particular kind of music surrounds us in public spaces, when it invades every café, bar, and restaurant, when it blares at us from passing motor cars and dribbles from the open taps of radios and iPods all over the planet, the critic may seem to stand like the apocryphal King Canute before an irresistible tide, uttering useless cries of indignation.

Do we then give up on pop music, regard it as beyond criticism, and the culture expressed in it as a fact of life? That seems to be the received view among musicologists. Pop, they tell us, is music to be danced to, and those who judge it by the standards of the concert hall, which is a place of silent listening, have simply lost the plot. The essence of pop is not form, structure, or abstract musical relationships. It is rhythm, and rhythm is something to which you move, not something to which you listen.

That is certainly a fair response to the more curmudgeonly forms of criticism, but it raises a question of profound importance in the study of music, which is that of the nature of rhythm. Many of the most successful types of pop today (DJ music, for example, or synthetic products like Crystal Castles' "Alice Practice") are computer generated. In such pieces you do not hear rhythm, but rather a slicing of time by an electric cheese-wire. Rhythm is not the same thing as measure. 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. This is exactly what goes on in dancing--real dancing, I mean. And the complaints that might be made against the worst form of pop apply also to the lame attempts at dancing that generally are produced by it--attempts that involve no control of the body, no attempt to dance with another person, but at best only the attempt to dance at him or her, by making movements that are sliced up and atomized like the sounds that provoke them.

A Simple Contrast Is Provided by the eightsome reel. Nothing could be more metrically regular than this, but there is an audible sense of transition between sections as the gestures change--sometimes the hands are in the air, sometimes around the middle of the body; sometimes the legs are freely crossing, at other times more inclined to stamp. The melody is slightly varied with each change of partner, and the excitement builds with every closure of the melodic line.

The rhythm in Heavy Metal, or in the DJ music, is shot at you; the rhythm in the reel invites you to move with it. The difference between "at" and "with" is one of the deepest differences we know, and is exemplified in all our encounters with other people--notably in conversation and in sexual gambits. And the "withness" of the eightsome reel reflects the fact that this is a social dance, in which people move consciously with others. The human need for this kind of dancing is still with us, and explains the current craze for salsa as well as the periodic revivals of ballroom dancing.

Metal is shouted at its devotees, and the loss of melody from the vocal line emphasizes this. Not that melody is entirely absent, of course; it is allowed in with the guitar solo, which is often a poignant reflection on its own loneliness--the ghost of the community that has vanished from this harshly enameled world. The world of this music is one in which people talk, shout, dance, and feel at each other, without ever doing those things with them. You dance to Heavy Metal by head-banging, slam-dancing, or "moshing" (pushing people around in the crowd). Such dancing is not really open to people of all ages, but confined to the young and the sexually available. Of course, there is nothing to forbid the old and the shriveled from joining in, but the sight of their doing so is an embarrassment, all the greater when they themselves seem unaware of this.

In other words, what seems like rhythm, and the foregrounding of rhythm, is often in fact an absence of rhythm, a drowning out of rhythm by the beat. Rhythm divorced from melodic organization becomes inert; it loses its quality as gesture and hence loses the plasticity of gesture. Mechanical and computer-synthesized beats collapse into sound effects and cease to wear the human smile that can be heard in all true dance music, from the steel bands of the Caribbean to the waltzes of Johann Strauss.

Melody has been the fundamental principle of the traditional popular song; it is what makes it possible to memorize the words and to join in the singing. All folk traditions contain a repertoire of song-melodies, built from repeatable elements. The American songbook is similar, though using the new melodic and harmonic language that arose out of jazz, and many of its tunes have endured to become known all over the world. By contrast, there is very little emerging from contemporary pop that shows either melodic invention or even an awareness of why melody matters--that is to say, an awareness of its social meaning and its ability to give musical substance to a strophic song. Countless pop songs give us permutations of the same stock phrases, diatonic or pentatonic, but kept together not by any intrinsic power of adhesion but only by a plodding measure in the background and a banal sequence of chords.

This Returns Me to Adorno's attack on the "regression of listening." This surely accurately describes the way in which contemporary pop--from Crystal Castles to Lady Gaga--is received by its devotees. I am not talking of the words. I am talking about the musical experience. It is surely right to speak of a new kind of listening, maybe a kind of listening that is not listening at all, when there is no melody to speak of, when the rhythm is machine made, and when the only invitation to dance is an invitation to dance with oneself. And it is easier to imagine a kind of pop that is not like that: pop that is with the listener and not at him. There is no need to go back to Elvis or the Beatles to find examples.

Faced with youth culture we are encouraged to be nonjudgmental. But to be nonjudgmental is already to make a kind of judgment: it is to suggest that it really doesn't matter what you listen to or dance to, and that there is no moral distinction between the various listening habits that have emerged in our time. That is a morally charged position, and one that flies in the face of common sense. To suggest that people who live with a metric pulse as a constant background to their thoughts and movements are living in the same way, with the same kind of attention and the same pattern of challenges and rewards, as others who know music only from sitting down to listen to it, clearing their minds, meanwhile, of all other thoughts--such a suggestion is surely implausible.

Likewise, to suggest that those who dance in the solipsistic way encouraged by metal or indie music share a form of life with those who dance, when they dance, in disciplined formation, is to say something equally implausible. The difference is not merely in the kind of movements made; it is a difference in social valency, and in the relative value placed on being with your neighbor rather than over and against him. The externalized beat of pop is shoved at us. You cannot easily move with it, but you can submit to it. When music organized by this kind of external movement is played at a dance it automatically atomizes the people on the dance floor. They may dance at each other, but only painfully with each other. And the dance is not something that you do, but something that happens to you--a pulse on which you are suspended.

When you are in the grip of an external and mechanized rhythm your freedom is overridden, and it is hard then to move in a way that suggests a personal relation to a partner. The I-Thou relation on which human society is built has no place on the disco dance floor. Plato was surely right, therefore, to think that when we move in time to music we are educating our characters. For we are learning an aspect of our embodiment as free beings.

And he was right to imply that embodiment can have virtuous and vicious forms. To take just one example, there is a deep distinction, in the matter of sexual presentation, between modesty and lewdness. Modesty addresses the other as someone whom you are with. Lewdness is pointed at the other, but is certainly not with him or her, since it is an attempt to impede the other's freedom to withdraw. And it is very clear that these traits of character are displayed in music and dancing. Plato's thought was that if you display lewdness in the dances that you most enjoy, then you are that much nearer to acquiring the habit.

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. All this is obvious. Yet there is growing, within pop, another kind of practice altogether, one in which the movement is no longer contained in the musical line but exported to a place outside it, to a center of pulsation that demands not that you listen but that you submit. If you do submit, the moral qualities of the music vanish behind the excitement; if you listen, however, and listen critically as I have been suggesting, you will discern those moral qualities, which are as vivid as the nobility in Elgar's Second Symphony or the horror in Schoenberg's Erwartung. And then you might be tempted to agree with Plato that if this music is permitted, then the laws that govern us will change.

Roger Scruton is a resident scholar at AEI.

Photo credit: iStockphoto/blackred

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