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| The American
How we describe pop music proves that we find moral significance in music. How do we tell what music we should and should not encourage?
How we describe pop music proves that we find moral significance in music. How do we tell what music we should and should not encourage?
“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). And Plato is famous for having given what is perhaps the first theory of character in music, proposing to allow some modes and to forbid others according to the character which can be heard in them. Plato deployed the concept of mimesis, or imitation, to explain why bad character in music encourages bad character in its devotees. The context suggests that he had singing, dancing, and marching in mind rather than the silent listening that we know from the concert hall. But, however we fill out the details, there is no doubt that music, for Plato, was something that could be judged in the same moral terms we judge one another, and that the terms in question denoted virtues and vices like nobility, dignity, temperance, and chastity on the one hand, and sensuality, belligerence, and indiscipline on the other.
Plato’s argument targeted not individual works of music or specific performances, but modes. We don’t exactly know how the Greek modes were arranged; they conventionally identified styles, instruments, and melodic and rhythmical devices, as well as the notes of the scale. Without going into the matter, we can venture to suggest that Plato was discriminating between recognizable musical idioms as we might discriminate jazz from rock, and both from classical. And his 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 listen to this stuff? Thus question modern adults, just as Plato asked, “Should the city permit this stuff?” Of course, we have long since given up on the idea that you can forbid certain kinds of music by law. We should remember, however, that this idea has had a long history, and has been a decisive factor in the evolution of the Christian churches, which have been as censorious over liturgical music as over liturgical words, and indeed have hardly distinguished between them.
Moreover, it is still common to believe that styles of music, and individual works of music, have—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. It makes perfectly good sense, and is often profoundly illuminating, to describe individual works, and also styles and idioms, in terms of the virtues and vices of people. The first movement of Elgar’s Second Symphony is undoubtedly noble, and if the nobility is in a measure flawed this too is part of its moral character.
We know of music that is good-humoured, lascivious, gentle, bold, chaste, self-indulgent, sentimental, reserved, and generous: and all those words describe moral virtues and vices, which we are as little surprised to find in music as in human beings. Our ways of describing music give incontrovertible proof that we find moral significance in music—and it would be surprising if this were so and we did not also believe that people should be encouraged to listen to some things and discouraged from listening to others. For our characters are shaped by the company we keep, and those who rejoice in the company of crooks and creeps are likely to become crooks or creeps themselves. It is difficult, therefore, to disagree with Plato’s view that music has a central role in education, and that musical education can go badly wrong in ways that impact on the moral development and social responses of young people.
And even if we don’t forbid musical idioms by law, we should remember that people with musical tastes make our laws; and 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 culture. There is no doubt that popular music today enjoys a status higher than any other cultural product. Pop stars are first among celebrities, idolised 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, then we should not expect to find that our laws address us from any higher realm than that implies.
A Non-Judgmental Democracy
However, although we make moral judgments, we are ever more hesitant to express them. Ours is a “non-judgmental” culture, and its hostility to judgment arises from the democratic belief in human equality. To criticize another’s taste, whether in music, entertainment or lifestyle, assumes 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 young people are the principal devotees of pop music, this places a formidable obstacle in the path of anyone who undertakes to criticize pop music 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, in so far 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.
Adorno (1903-1969) had come as a refugee from Nazism to America, where he enjoyed the usual privileges granted by American universities to European intellectuals, and where he repaid his hosts in the usual way, by writing criticisms of America that seethe with venom and contempt.
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 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but not over Arnold Schoenberg; you can work to Frederic Chopin, but not to Richard 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 pop in the background. Some psychologists wonder whether this need follows the pattern of addictions; and more philosophical critics like Theodor Adorno raise deeper questions as to whether listening has not changed entirely with the development of the short-range melodies and clustered harmonic progressions typical of songs in the jazz tradition. Adorno (1903-1969) had come as a refugee from Nazism to America, where he enjoyed the usual privileges granted by American universities to European intellectuals, and where he repaid his hosts in the usual way, by writing criticisms of America that seethe with venom and contempt. His target was what he and his older colleague Max Horkheimer called “mass culture,” the principal manifestations of which he found in the Hollywood movie and in jazz.
For Adorno, music lies at the heart of modern civilization, and the destiny of music is a kind of indicator of the moral, spiritual, and political health of a society. His adverse judgment of the culture of American capitalism was influenced by his broadly Marxist perspective on the modern world. But it focused first of all—and indeed, almost to the exclusion of all other indicators—on the aesthetic tastes prevalent in America, and in particular on the music that we now know as the American Songbook. The harmonic and melodic language of that “book” has penetrated to the very bones of our civilization, and when we listen now to a jazz standard by Cole Porter, George Gershwin, or Hoagy Carmichael, we are struck most of all by the innocence of the idiom—the last time, perhaps, that old-fashioned, monogamous marriage was celebrated in our music!
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 listen to this stuff?
Adorno attacked something that he called the “regression of listening,” which he believed had infected the entire culture of modern America. Adorno’s concern was not with isolated works of music, but with an entire musical culture. He saw the culture of listening as a deep spiritual resource of Western civilization, one whose effects he laboured unsuccessfully to express. In some way, 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 “fetish,” and to put real values in the place of fleeting desires. So Adorno thought. And something deep and persuasive lives here, something that needs to be rescued from Adorno’s intemperate and over-politicized critique of just about everything he found in America. In searching for Adorno’s meaning, we should set aside his un-nuanced and unjust criticism of jazz, and of the tradition of popular song that arose from it. Instead we should look at what is happening in our musical culture now, and in particular we should try to figure out how we might plausibly criticize pop music in general, and particular styles and songs in particular, for the things that they are, and independently of their causes and effects.
Not that we can entirely disregard the causes and effects of pop. Adorno reminds us that it is very hard to criticize a whole musical idiom without standing in judgment of 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 motorcars 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 and curmudgeonly 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? I want at least to cast some doubt on that idea. Here is an example: “Alice Practice,” from an outfit called Crystal Castles.
Surely there are relevant things to be said about this which have a bearing not only on its value as music, but also on the moral condition of those who enjoy it without a problem. Older people tend to react negatively to this foregrounding of an excited female voice, regarding it as pornographic (though the lyrics, such as they are, seem to be more about death and drugs than sex). But that feature is not what is most striking to the musical ear. It is surely noticeable that the piece has no melody, equally noticeable that it is harmonically impoverished—most noticeable of all, the sounds responsible for what there is of rhythmic impetus are electronically made and do not reflect the body rhythms of the person producing them. These sounds, and the meter that they establish, are profoundly alien to the natural rhythms of the human body or to the expectations of the human ear. We are dealing with a kind of machine-made music which has been detached from the traditional source of music in human life, and in the impulse to dance and sing in company. The voice is suspended on electric wires, like the corpse of a galvanised frog.
Someone might reply that the quality of a piece of music lies in what it provokes in the listener. Alice (let’s call her that) aims to excite powerful emotions, and succeeds in doing so; in this sense the music is successful. (Just look at the Google entries for “Alice Practice,” and follow the blogs of the fans, and you will be astonished at the impact of this piece.) Maybe, if Crystal Castles had used the old techniques of melodic, harmonic, and rhythmical order, they would have produced something banal and uninteresting. So why not praise them for achieving the only thing that they set out to achieve, which is to awaken the sleeping giants of lust and rage?
It is important to recognize that there are two ways music can provoke a response: either by triggering it, as laughter is triggered by tickling, or by providing a proper object of it, so as to inspire a reflective form of sympathy. Mood-changing drugs have strong psychic effects, both pleasant and unpleasant. But they work differently from art and music: they do not address our powers of understanding and rational reflection, and are dangerous for that very reason, in that they set up addictive pathways which bypass critical reflection. If that is how Crystal Castles aim to work, then why do we not regard their music as we regard mood-changing drugs—as something which ought to be subject to legislative control, exactly as Plato suggested?
Here is a piece of music that induces an effect which has nothing to do with its quality as music, and which indeed bypasses every form of musical understanding: “The Laughing Policeman.”
This works like tickling, an infectious laughter without an object—laughter without amusement, comparable to the hurt without a cause that is invoked by Alice. Needless to say, the laughter provoked by the laughing policeman is quite unlike the laughter provoked by Mozart’s wonderful music at the end of the second act of The Marriage of Figaro, in which the harmonic progressions take up the situation of the protagonists and gradually topple everything in Figaro’s favour. Mozart’s music makes you laugh, by virtue of its intrinsic quality as music. You won’t get it if you do not respond to the musical joke, which arises within the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmical order that you hear. In responding to the Mozart you are laughing at and also with the music; in listening to “The Laughing Policeman” you are laughing at nothing, just as when someone is tickling you, and you are not laughing with the music either, since it is not the music that is laughing. The difference here is a topic in itself, and I will leave it to settle in the background as I return to the foreground of musical understanding.
The Nature of Rhythm
I have suggested that there are three elements of musical organization, in all three of which “Alice Practice” is defective. But I want now to say more about each of them, since they will help to give us some purchase on the realm of pop music. We are often told that rhythm is of prime importance in pop, that it is music to dance to, and that those who judge it by the standards of the concert hall, a place of silent listening, have simply lost the plot. This 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, of the nature of rhythm. The first thing you hear in the example from Alice is a painful slicing of time by an electric cheese wire. And this reminds you, or ought to remind you, that rhythm is not the same thing as measure. It is not just a matter of dividing time into repeatable units. It is a matter of organizing it into a form of 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 complaints that might be made against the worst form of pop apply also to the lame attempts at dancing that it generally produces—attempts which 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 sliced up and atomised like the sounds that set Alice in motion. If you want to see an example of this kind of dancing—in which people are the victims and not the producers of dance—you need only look at the video of “Alice Practice” on YouTube.
I want to contrast Alice with an example of real rhythm from an early pop song. I will take one you will all know: “Heartbreak Hotel.”
You will notice here that the rhythm is generated internally, by the melodic line, and that it is generated by the voice alone: the backing then joins in, and it does so not by measuring out the bar lines and slicing up the time sequence, but by taking up the pulse of Elvis Presley’s voice. Measure, here, is not imposed upon the melodic line like a grid, but precipitated out from it, making virtual bar lines in the ear, as we respond to the syncopation of the voice. There is no violent drumming, no amplified bass, none of the devices which—I am tempted to say—substitute for rhythm in so much contemporary pop.
Here is another example of the phenomenon that I have in mind, this time purely instrumental.
This is the opening of “Lay Down Sally” by Eric Clapton, in which you hear rhythm generated on acoustic guitars, with neither voice nor drum kit, but generated so effectively that you are moving with the music before the drum kit comes in, and do not as a result suffer that sudden invasion, that capturing of the body by the pulse, that is the grim apology for rhythm in so much synthetic pop today. Such examples are a million miles from the piece “Bleed” from the Swedish death metal group Meshuggah.
Metal is, of course, an idiom all to itself, which is by no means typical of the pop scene. There is much to admire in the virtuosity of the drummer in that example, though I doubt whether you could say that he has “got rhythm” in the manner of Elvis. Until organized melodically, rhythm tends to reduce to measure, whereas, when organized melodically, as in the examples from Elvis and Clapton, it is raised to the level of gesture and movement. The difference here is not material; it is phenomenological—a difference in how repetitions are heard. In the one case they are heard as regular beats, like the pulse of a machine; in the other case they are heard as repeated movements, of the kind that our bodies produce when running, walking, or dancing. A simple way of appreciating the difference here is to listen to an 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 varies slightly with each change of partner, and the excitement builds with every closure of the melodic line.
The phenomenology goes a little deeper than that implies. The rhythm in the Meshuggah piece 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 and Scottish reels. The “withness” of the reel was noticed and commented upon by Friedrich Schiller, who regarded what he called “English” dancing as confirming the connection between beauty and gentility. His words are worth quoting:
The first law of gentility is: have consideration for the freedom of others, The second; show your freedom. The correct fulfilment of both is an infinitely difficult problem, but gentility always requires it relentlessly, and it alone makes the cosmopolitan person. I know of no more fitting image for the ideal of beautiful relations than the well danced and multiply convoluted English dance. The spectator in the gallery sees countless movements which cross each other colourfully and change their direction wilfully but never collide. Everything has been arranged so that the first has already made room for the second before he arrives, everything comes together so skilfully and yet so artlessly that both seem merely to be following their own mind while never impeding the other. This is the most fitting picture of a maintained personal freedom, which respects the freedom of others.1
It is undeniable that, for many if not most young people, the experience of “withness” is absent from their dancing, which typically involves neither complicated steps nor formations.
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 enamelled 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 shrivelled from joining in: but the sight of their doing so is an embarrassment, all the greater when they themselves seem unaware of this.
That is not yet a criticism, of course, but it is moving us towards recognizing what seems to me an important truth about pop music, which is that 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. As an extreme contrast, which I hope might nevertheless drive the point home, I give you another example: the little rhythmical cell, beautifully shaped by the melodic line, from which Antonin Dvořák constructs the scherzo of the New World Symphony.
Thanks to melodic order, this cell can be used as a building block, added, divided, multiplied in counterpoint, to generate a rhythmical excitement which, in my view, has no real equivalent in modern pop.
Of course, that example comes from the concert hall, from music to be listened to, in which rhythm has been emancipated from the demands of the dance floor and incorporated into complex contrapuntal reasoning. Nevertheless, it is still rhythm—rhythm generated within the music, and setting it in a motion of its own. Maybe this is a good place to make a philosophical point. When we hear a piece of music, we hear a sequence of sounds: one sound, and then another. Usually these sounds are pitched, and melody depends upon playing different pitches in succession. When we hear a melody, however, we don’t just hear a succession of pitched sounds. We hear something else—namely, a movement between those sounds. The melody begins on one note, continues through its successors in a goal-directed way, and ends on another note. This is something we hear, even though nothing in the physical world actually moves. The movement may even go on while no sound is heard—as in the theme from Ludwig von Beethoven’s Third Symphony, last movement.
Sounds exist in the physical world: they are real objects, admittedly of a distinctive kind, but as real as colors and rainbows. Sounds are studied by physics, and obey the laws of motion that govern all other entities in space and time. Animals hear them: animals also discriminate sounds on the basis of their pitches. They hear successions of pitched sounds. But they don’t hear melodies. Birds, who create sequences that we hear as music, do not, in my view, hear them as music: for this kind of hearing involves imaginative capacities that no bird has. Movement is in part a causal idea. To hear the melody move from C to E flat, say, is to hear the E flat as called into being by the C—a virtual force operates between the notes, bringing each into being in response to the last, and driving them all onwards to closure. Yet there is no such force in the material world of sounds, in which there are only sequences. Here is an interesting example: the opening of Johannes Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto, in which a sequence on the horn calls into being an answering phrase from the piano.
There is no causal interaction between these sounds in the actual world—the first sequence is played on the horn, the second on the piano. Yet the second is called forth by the first, in the simplest and most compelling manner. Later in the same concerto Brahms hands fragments of melody alternately to piano and orchestra, and the virtual force runs through the fragments binding them into a single melody in a striking way.
I mention these points because I think we should bear in mind that we don’t make music merely by producing sounds, and that there is indeed a danger, inherent in the very art of music, that it might at any moment collapse into sound—to become a sound effect, whose purpose is to produce responses in something like the way that The Laughing Policeman produces laughter, without drawing our attention to what can be heard and imagined in the rhythmic and melodic line. The collapse of music into sound is, in fact, happening all around us, both in the world of pop and in the concert hall, and I am making a case for condemning it, since the sound effect is not a new kind of music but a loss of music.
That brings me to melody. Defining melody is one of the unfinished tasks of musical aesthetics, and I can here only give a few hints. It is a good starting point to remark that a melody has a beginning, a middle, and an end: but this is true only in a general sense. A melody that begins with an upbeat (like so many English folk songs) does not have a clear initiating boundary: you can hear the upbeat as inside or outside the melody, but the boundary somehow disappears behind it. Many melodies tail off without a clear conclusion—for instance, the great theme of the first movement of the Sibelius Violin Concerto.
And to say that all melodies must have a middle says nothing at all.
Traditionally, melody has been the fundamental principle of the 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 melodies, which often are built from repeatable elements, but which also show remarkable elaborations, as in the seemingly endless melodies of the Indian raga or the Gregorian chant. The American Songbook exhibits a new kind of melody, shaped by jazz rhythms and jazz harmonies, and many of its tunes have endured to become known all over the world. By contrast, very little is emerging from 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 rhythmical backing and banal sequence of chords. This example from Ozzy Osbourne illustrates what I have in mind: no point in copyrighting this tune, though no point in suing for breach of copyright either.
More frequent still is the melody on one note, which might suddenly shift pitch by a third when changing harmony, but otherwise stays put, relying on the backing to keep going. Here are the Kooks in “Ooh La.”
By repeating a single note, they elide the melodic line into the rhythm, which is itself reduced to a regular pulse that has little or no musical force. I invite you to look out for this device, since it occurs countless times in contemporary pop. By these devices—stock phrases and repeated notes—a pop musician can avoid the real challenge of melody making, which is to produce the virtual movement that will propel the melody onwards, whether or not to a conclusion.
Melodies are of many kinds, and we should not criticize pop just because it does not obey the rules of a tradition to which it does not belong. Baroque composers wrote melodies; but these melodies tend to be very different from anything that we would, today, call a tune. Here is an example from J.S. Bach—“Erbarme Dich” from the St. Matthew Passion, a beautiful melody that begins with an upbeat, and proceeds through one half-closure after another, as though it might go on for ever.
Here all boundaries are weak, and the melody can be subdivided in countless ways, to permit multiple elaborations in the course of the aria. Yet it involves melodic thinking of the highest order. It is neither a theme nor a tune, but an unbroken melisma, which throws out spores around itself as it grows. In many ways the history of melody since Bach has been a history of retraction—a steady concentration of the elements as the melisma is curtailed to sonata-form themes, expanded again to the broad melodies of the Romantics before being boiled down into motifs and melodic phrases. Yet in all this we observe intense musical thinking, as composers strove to avoid banality, to make melodies and phrases which attract the sympathy and stir the heart. The great question for the critic of pop is whether pop involves any similar attempt at melodic invention.
The ‘Regression of Listening’
Adorno attacked something that he called the “regression of listening,” which he believed had infected the entire musical culture of modern America. And, however exaggerated his critique of the American Songbook may strike us as being now, there is no doubt in my mind that this “regression” is exactly what we hear in the kind of pop that I have just been discussing. Please note that I am not talking of the words. I am talking about the musical experience, which has become truncated, embryonic, reduced to an external pulse and often surrendered to the machine. 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.
Before moving on, I should say a word about harmony. The Baroque repertoire reminds us that there is musical movement of a subtle and all-engrossing kind which involves little or no melody, and only a weak rhythmic pulse, but in which everything is invested in harmonic progressions—and such music can come across as profoundly meditative, in the manner of this extract from a Bach cello suite: nothing but broken chords growing out of and into each other, but with a kind of compelling movement that entirely captures the ear.
One of the triumphs of the listening culture is in the evolution of music in which melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic progressions move hand in hand. Harmonies are not just chord sequences on which melodies are imposed, but adventures of their own, compelled by the melodic line and in their turn compelling it. For some reason, Adorno did not notice that the jazz idiom belongs squarely in this tradition, that the elementary sequences of blues and New Orleans jazz were very soon adapted to a new kind of melody making, in which once again quite complex harmonies seem compelled by complex melodies, even though both are short-breathed and move quickly to closure. Here is a celebrated example: “Round Midnight,” by Thelonious Monk.
Now it won’t have escaped notice that, in the examples I have given, harmonic progressions usually have little or nothing to do with the melodic line. This is very obvious in the Ozzy Osbourne case, where the melody is carried by the harmony and has no life of its own, the harmony itself being a slushy sequence of triads. Not all pop is like this of course; sometimes there is real harmonic inventiveness, as in Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and some instances of heavy metal. The purpose of my examples has not been to condemn pop music and pop culture outright, but to make comparisons. And the point of these comparisons is twofold: first, to persuade the pop fan that they are possible, even within the world of pop; secondly, to show that comparison leads inevitably to judgment, and judgment, in its turn, to a moral evaluation.
The Judgment of Non-Judgment
To be non-judgmental is in fact 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 the age of mechanical reproduction. 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.
Changes in musical culture go hand in hand with changes in the laws, since changes in the laws so often reflect pressures from culture.
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 formation, with the spirit recorded so eloquently by Schiller, 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 neighbour rather than over and against him.
If we go back for a moment to what I earlier said about rhythm and melody, we will recognize that, whatever we wish to say about the moral character of music, it is bound up with the movement that we hear in music. This movement is a mark of life, and we respond to it by making sympathetic movements of our own, as when we dance with the music, or sway along with it while listening. Movement in music arises internally to the musical line, and is there only in so far as it is heard there by the imaginative ear. But there is another kind of movement that we receive through music: movement that is not in the music, but imposed upon it, by an external pulse that has no intrinsic connection to the melodic line. Such a movement may be communicated through the music, but it arises externally, in the beats and hums of a machine, in the pulse of an electronic device, in the shouting of a voice, or in the provocative sound of Alice in a state of self-disgusted arousal.
Very little is emerging from 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.
As I suggested earlier, musical movement addresses our sympathies: it asks us to move with it. External movement 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 atomises 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, like Alice on her wires.
Only rational beings dance, and in the normal case they do so by way of putting their personality and their freedom on display, in the manner described by Schiller. When you are in the grip of an external and mechanised 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. 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.
Whatever we wish to say about the moral character of music, it is bound up with the movement that we hear in music. This movement is a mark of life, and we respond to it by making sympathetic movements of our own, as when we dance with the music, or sway along with it while listening.
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 makes room for the other as someone whom you are with. Lewdness is at the other, but not with him or her, since it is an attempt to cancel the other’s freedom to withdraw. And it is very clear that these traits of character are displayed in 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. To put it in the language that I have been using: you are learning to be at, not with, the people whom you meet. I don’t see any reason to doubt that.
Now dancing is not just moving, nor is it moving in response to a sound, a beat, or whatever. Animals can do that, and you can train horses and elephants to move in time to a beat in the circus arena, with an effect that looks like dancing. But they are not dancing, any more than birds are singing. To dance is, in its true social form, to move with something, conscious that this is what you are doing. You move with the music, and also (in old-fashioned dances) with your partner. This “moving with” is something that animals cannot do, since it involves the deliberate imitation of life radiating from another source than your own body. That in turn demands a conception of self and other, and of the relation between them—a conception which, I would argue, is unavailable outside the context provided by language use and first-person awareness.
I have argued that there are discriminations to be made within popular music, and that they concern those very dimensions of musical significance—rhythm, melody, and harmony—which make music in all its forms so important a mirror of human life. There is plenty of tuneful popular music, and plenty of 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 popular music, 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 which 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 Edward 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 the American Enterprise Institute. He is a writer, philosopher, and public commentator, and has written widely on aesthetics, as well as political and cultural issues.
Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.
Friedrich v. Schiller, “Kallias or Concerning Beauty: Letters to Gottfried Keller,” in J.M. Bernstein ed., Classic and Romantic German Aesthetics, Cambridge 2003, 173-4. (The author has slightly changed the translation.)
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