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

Readers of Roger Scruton’s work will know that he writes frequently on the aesthetics of music. To a large extent, Scruton’s work on music is an effort to understand its nature and meaning as an end in itself, free from any social or political concerns. Yet Scruton’s work also displays a discerning sense of the ways music relates to culture. Music reveals a great deal about those who produce it. It can benefit listeners (and harm them as well) especially insofar as they are part of a community whose self-understanding is shaped by the music’s meaning. Here I use Scruton’s basic philosophy of music as developed in The Aesthetics of Music (1998) and Understanding Music (2009) as a backdrop against which to explore his thoughts on the connection between music and culture.

What is Music?

Scruton proceeds in a Socratic manner, assuming that one should begin by striving to understand what something is before launching into questions of evaluation—whether aesthetic or cultural. To distill Scruton’s view, music is not mere sound, but (a) an instance of organized sound, where (b) the intention to communicate something via (c) traditional “grammars” of tonal development makes it possible for (d) a listener to experience (e) movement in a metaphorical space and (f) to sympathize with imagined expectations and fulfillments, thereby undergoing in his or her own soul (g) various motions equivalent to the tonal movements expressed by the composer.

What does this mean? It means that music is constructed from “tones”—not from sound in its raw materiality. Tones are sounds intentionally organized in such a way as to create an imaginary space. “Space” is of course a metaphor here; the space in which musical expression takes place is not a real space. But metaphor, according to Scruton, is absolutely essential to music. Sounds do not literally move as music “moves.” They do not “rise” and “fall.” “Yet this is how we hear them when we hear them as music.” Again, raw sounds are not “sad” or “agitated” or “sensuous” or “sublime,” but music certainly can be. Music occurs in the context of a musical culture, where composer and audience alike participate in the transformation of sounds into objects of tonal space that express movement and invite interpretation according to a traditional “grammar” (another metaphor) of expectations.

The ways in which sound is organized so as to create music are numerous: pitch, melody, harmony, and dynamics are all of interest to Scruton. So too is rhythm, and in fact the breadth of Scruton’s treatment of rhythm in his later Understanding Music suggests that he finds it particularly significant. He dwells especially upon the intimate connection between rhythm and human life. Rhythmic phenomena in music seem to him to derive from two types of fundamental human phenomena: those of speech and of bodily movements. In other words, speech exhibits stresses, accents, meters, and groupings, just as rhythms in music do. Similarly, bodily motions such as dance, physical work, walking, marching, and other human activities, involve stress and measure. “Our own life speaks to us through the sound,” Scruton writes. Rhythm conveys something “intimately connected to processes that we know in ourselves.

Moments like this in Scruton’s philosophical analysis of music help us to see why music might have moral significance, even when no actual words or text are involved. Music draws listeners into an imaginary space where our bodies as well as our minds are sympathetically engaged in motions. Music stirs us to perceive and even to be (at least momentarily) what the composer has set in motion. But as soon as we enter the domain of human movements, as music in fact does, we enter a space that admits of multiple modes of analysis. We can wonder not only about what music is, but also about its aesthetic value. Or we can inquire into its moral and political value, insofar as humans in motion are also a concern in these domains. Scruton is interested in all these modes of evaluating music, but I want to focus now especially on his assessment of the relationship between music and Western political culture and on his thoughts about an appropriate conservative response to the sad decline that has occurred in our musical taste over recent decades.

Music and Political Culture

By political culture I mean something much broader than mere political institutions and laws in the formal sense. In The Republic, when Plato’s Socrates contends that the ways of music cannot be altered in a city without altering also the “greatest political laws” (nomoi), he does not mean only written laws, but also the unwritten norms of living, ways of understanding and ways of acting that make a people what they are. Another way to express this in Greek is to speak (also ambiguously) of the “constitution” (politeia) of a people—not (or not merely) its legal arrangements, but its whole way of living. The question, then, is how music relates broadly to the norms and “constitutional” make-up of a people.

Is music a producer or a product of cultural patterns? The answer must surely be both. When the ancient Ionian peoples produced music, they produced “Ionian” music, a style that reflected their soft, idle, and drunken tendencies. Likewise, the Dorians produced “Dorian” music: austere and bellicose in spirit. In these cases, the causal arrow points from cultural norms to the music a people creates. But the relationship goes the other way too, as evinced by the fact that one of Socrates’ chief concerns in Plato’s Republic is to outfit leading citizens with modes of music that cultivate courage and moderation.

One of the many virtues of Scruton’s work on music is that he keeps the causal arrow pointing both ways and thus helps readers understand how significant music is, both as an expression of our cultural character and as a force that can “cultivate” (or fail to cultivate) the souls of its listeners.

Scruton on Western Music and Culture

Let me illustrate, starting with Scruton’s insights into the way western culture has affected music. Like all cultures in the world, the West used music (and still does) to accompany various activities: worship, dancing, marching, laboring, commemorating. Music in this context is “an expression of the feelings and hopes of the participants.” But something gradually happened in the West that produced a new mode of understanding. From music as an accompaniment to dancing and singing came music as a focus for silent listening, the practice of sitting in a concert hall to hear a musical performance. How and why this happened is somewhat mysterious. In Scruton’s words, “music seemed to fulfill its destiny by freeing itself from its worldly uses, while continuing to allude to them in ever more refined and ever more suggestive gestures.”

The causes of this shift from musical accompaniment to instrumental performance can be located generally in changes in the political culture of the West—in the increased leisure and wealth that are a precondition of what Scruton refers to as the “culture of listening.” As Scruton points out, “art is the product of leisure; leisure the product of safety.” So too with listening: Listening takes time; orchestras and concert halls cost money. Thus, only with changes in the political and economic culture of the West (the birth of sovereignty after Westphalia, the rise of trade and industry, and the gradual growth of Liberalism) would the culture be positioned to create a new kind of music (orchestral music) and a new kind of audience (concert goers).

But the causal arrow goes the opposite way as well. And Scruton has profound things to say about the cultural effect this new high art had on those who experienced it. The change occurred, he points out, just as religion was beginning to lose its emotional grip among educated Europeans. And classical music’s “posture of aesthetic distance promised an alternative route to the meaning of the world.” It would be an understatement to say that classical music at its best can have an ennobling effect on its listeners. The effect is plainly one of transcendence, not only from the isolated self to community, and from the disorderliness of the world to the orderliness of abstract musical movement, but also and ultimately from the mundane to a sense of the divine. The experience is, at its best, writes Scruton, “so overwhelming that only religious language can describe it.”

Revolution and Decline

But then came the revolution. Between the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, we begin to hear of what Leonard B. Meyer calls a “crisis of tonality.” Composers such as Mahler, Wagner and Richard Strauss had pushed the bounds of tonality so far that it became unclear how it could go further.

The response from some composers was that it couldn’t, and they began to flirt with other ways of organizing music, consciously rejecting the tonal conventions that had governed musical composition for millennia. The result was, initially “free atonality,” in pieces such as Schoenberg’s musical melodrama “Pierrot Lunaire” (1912), Berg’s opera “Wozzeck” (1917-1922) and, eventually “serialism,” including especially 12-tone serialism or “dodecaphony” in pieces such as Schoenberg’s “Variations for Orchestra” (1928) in which all twelve notes of the chromatic scale are sounded with equal regularity in order to prevent the emphasizing of any one note. To ensure equal regularity, composers employed “tonal rows” consisting of all twelve notes in a chosen order, repeated and developed throughout a composition in such a way as to avoid ever suggesting even the hint of a tonal center or key.

Admirers of Schoenberg frequently liken his invention of dodecaphony to Einstein’s innovations in physics, particularly his General Theory of Relativity; and Schoenberg seems to have invited the comparison. “I have made a discovery,” Schoenberg once told a friend, “which will ensure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years.”[1]

But what for Schoenberg seemed a promising new way of organizing melodic and harmonic expression, would seem to later serialists far too timid a break not only from the old musical order, but especially from the bourgeois culture that created it. What was needed was a complete serialization of all aspects of music: pitch, duration, timbre, rhythm, and any other parameters a composer could think of. The result was what Pierre Boulez referred to as “integral serialism,” which was deliberately intended to create a “magnificent scandal” that would “shock the narrow tastes of the concert-going public.” Boulez once described himself as “300% a Marxist-Leninist” and later “called for a bomb to fall upon the Opera, its ceremonial and all its works.”[2]

Serialism is a case of a revolutionary movement creating its own form of revolutionary music. But as Scruton argues with great skill, it was destined to fail, because the tonality it rejects is not merely conventional, as if it were “arbitrarily devised and imposed by fiat.” Rather it is grounded in properties of the physics of sound and unmistakably resonates with the human soul. Ironically, as hard as Boulez and others tried, they could never change the human response to their music: against all odds, listeners would continue to hear tonal or quasi-tonal events “in” serial music, even when these were deliberately avoided.

Pop Music

Unfortunately, serialism is not the only form of musical revolution. Much less articulate but equally subversive of political and musical culture are some forms of pop music that the youth culture of Britain and America has embraced over the past three or four decades. Scruton analyzes this at some length in an article entitled “Youth Culture’s Lament,” where he maintains that youth culture today is inherently transgressive, ever trying to be “radical, disconcerting, infuriating, disorienting, and lawless,” ever promoting carefree sex, and anything else that involves “no cost in terms of education, moral discipline, hardship, or love.”

The pop-music revolution is wrongly understood, Scruton believes, as “a response to oppression, a voice through which freedom, life and revolutionary fervor cry from the catacombs of bourgeois culture.” “Only years in a university could convince someone” that youth culture is oppressed. Instead, youth culture today is the official public culture. No one can criticize it and emerge unscathed.

The pop-music revolution is really about transgression for the sake of transgression, Scruton believes. But this makes for some serious problems when it comes to musical expression; for to articulate clearly and artfully the transgressive impulse would be to succumb to the very orderly world one wants to transgress. If “adult music” presupposes discipline, study, and excellence, then youth music cannot exhibit these traits. It must be undisciplined, unschooled, and base.

Scruton’s thesis is that at the spiritual center of modern youth culture “is a void, which it continually tries to fill, without success, and continually bemoans, with characteristic inarticulateness.” We have fallen a long way from Wagner, Mahler, and Strauss. And the problem is that a vast majority of our culture listens to music of little to no aesthetic value, forsaking the ennobling and even transcendent effects of music, forsaking the sense of ordered community that can be awakened in such music, and settling instead for emptiness.

What is a Conservative to do?

Of course, pop music is not uniformly bad, as Scruton points out. There is a world of qualitative difference between “She Loves You” by the Beatles (which Scruton likes) and REM’s “Losing My Religion” (which he does not). Here, Scruton encourages readers not to follow the lead of Frankfurt School theorist, Theodor Adorno, whose Marxist views rejected all popularly oriented music, even sophisticated and meaningful music by composers like Rodgers and Hammerstein. Scruton refutes Adorno by offering surprisingly fresh and compelling musical analyses of songs from the Great American Songbook in order to show their sophistication.

Acknowledging such sophistication, Scruton rejects the nostalgic, backwards glance that refuses to find anything to affirm in life as we currently know it (musical and otherwise). As much as one may love Vaughn Williams, one must agree with Scruton, I think, that we no longer live in that idyllic English landscape. And it is an act of pure fantasy, not conservatism, to pretend that we do. Instead, Scruton points to a handful of 20th century works that (unlike REM’s “Losing my Religion” and similarly corrosive songs) support the tradition of tonality and affirm life rather than rejecting it. Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms supplies a good example, as does Britten’s War Requiem. Such works, Scruton insists, are not quite as rare as the pessimists suggest.

And yet such pieces are no longer fundamental to our constitutional makeup. We who listen to them today are eccentric, and Scruton knows this. Thus his final thought on the matter of music’s decline is much more nuanced than simply pointing to a few life-affirming works. A “great task,” he says, “lies before the art of sound” and it is as follows:

The task of recovering tonality, as the imagined space of music, and of restoring the spiritual community with which that space was filled. . . . A musical equivalent of Four Quartets is needed, a rediscovery of the tonal language, which will also redeem the time.

This is one way of living in the present musical wasteland. We await a redeemer of some kind, while enjoying the sizable store of outstanding music we still possess.

But this does not exhaust Scruton’s response. His is also an active and worldly conservatism—as far from the musical “Benedict option” as one can get, and gleaming with Christian charity as it tries to redeem what resists redemption. Here is where he most decisively parts company with Adorno, whose blanket rejection of popular music also abandons the project of educating popular tastes. Scruton’s approach is rather to “recognize the popular idioms, but bring them into the fold of the aesthetic.”

This means listening to and publicly criticizing the music of our time, judging its aesthetically successful and failing aspects. To shut out all contemporary music without discriminating is not enough. We must attempt to re-educate popular tastes by critique. Scruton thus refuses to abandon our declining musical culture to itself. “We must redeem the dialect of the tribe,” he writes, even if it involves what for true music lovers will feel like fasting. Again, suffused with charity, Scruton’s approach recommends itself not only as a conservative posture towards our musical culture but as a response to our declining political culture as well.

[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 Art and Science,” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 31, no. 3 (2006), p. 4; and Kirke Mecham, Believe Your Ears: Life of a Lyric Composer (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015), p. 157.

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