Review: The Aesthetics of Music

by Tom Ingram

Looking at Roger Scruton’s political credentials, it’s easy to imagine him as some kind of slobbering reactionary, the philosophical equivalent of Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath. I was quite disheartened when I saw this, because I had already committed myself to reading The Aesthetics of Music and wasn’t eager to subject myself to a 500-page book that would be more accurately entitled Bitching About Schoenberg. Luckily for everyone, Roger Scruton is not nuts; he just has some bad philosophical odours here and there. A quick glance through the preface was enough to set my mind at ease. Whatever else he may be, Scruton is a real philosopher and a real musician interested in making a real contribution to the field of aesthetics, and though he ultimately comes down against the Schoenbergian tradition, he gives Schoenberg his due as a composer.

As Scruton notes in the preface, music is extremely important to the philosophy of art, but it has been under-served by the great philosophers. On the few occasions they do turn their attentions to music, many of them (e.g. Kant) only show their ignorance and apathy. The fanciest pre-20th century thinkers to remark on music are Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Boethius, and all of them are writing about something so removed from our experience of music it hardly seems relevant (as I recall, Augustine’s treatise never mentions pitch). Whole aesthetic philosophies have crumbled because their creators never bothered to consider how music fits into their scheme. The 20th century saw a proliferation of aesthetic philosophies and therefore a large number of works on the aesthetics of music from various perspectives, but we have seen very few accounts as complete as Scruton’s and his work would be valuable for this alone, even if it was completely incoherent.

He begins by making the distinction that will underpin most of his arguments throughout the book: the distinction between sound waves, sound, and tone. Sound waves are the physical phenomenon of vibrations in the air (or in some other medium). Sounds are acoustic experiences: they are caused by sound waves, but they are inside your head. Tones are certain types of sounds that have been organized by an imaginative mind. Tones are what music is made of. Presumably it’s possible to hear tones without any sound waves at all, as when I hear a piece of music in my head. When I hit an altissimo G on the clarinet and my dog howls, she is responding to the sound of the instrument, but does not hear the tones that make up Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, K.622. Sound waves are the territory, sound is the map, and tone is the science of cartography.

This seems like a simple distinction, but its implications are enormous. It is ultimately a large part of Scruton’s grounds for condemning serialism: the order that serialist composers impose on their music is not a musical order of tones, but an intellectual order of sounds that is not, and often cannot, be comprehended musically even by the most trained listener.

Chapter 2 focuses on tonal organization and concerns itself with questions of identity: how is it that a melody can be passed seamlessly from one instrument to another and yet remain the same? Tones seem to act upon each other in ways that aren’t explained the sounds in which we hear them. “This virtual causality is sometimes perceived as physical relations are perceived: namely, as law-like and inevitable. More often, however, the order that we hear in tones is an order of action: one tone does not merely give rise to its successor; it creates the conditions which make the successor a right or appropriate response to it” (p.79, emphasis original). Considering these questions forces a digression into the philosophy of metaphor, which is important to the understanding of music.

Indeed, certain metaphors would seem to be central to the understanding of music, to the point that Scruton argues that a hypothetical “person who heard and grouped adjacent sounds in ways that are quite different from those described in Chapter 2” would not be hearing music, but some other form of temporally organized sound (p.95). This passage reminded me of a vaguely Schenkerian theory professor trying to coax the definition of music as “organized sound in time” out of a group of first-year students.

The next chapter deals with ontology, especially the questions “What is a work of music?”, “What is the relationship between a work and a performance of the work?” and “How are arrangements and versions of a work related to the work itself?”. Scruton comes to some fairly commonsensical answers to these questions and dismisses the topic quickly. Next comes the juicy part: the discussions of representation, expression, and emotion. Here Scruton shows that music is not, in general, a representational art form, and that certain examples (the cuckoo calls of Beethoven or Daquin, the church-bells of Mussorgsky) are mere edge cases. Rather, it is an expressive art, which means that it carries a metaphorical emotional meaning that cannot be easily put into words. For Scruton, listening to music is an act of sympathy with certain experiences, and therefore there is no substitute for actually experiencing it. In this respect it is like all art, though it does not submit itself to description as nicely as literature does.

Perhaps the weightiest chapter in the book is the one on tonality. Scruton discusses features of tonal music and music in an “extended” tonality like that of Scriabin, Barber, and others. He then goes on to discuss atonality and serialism, arguing that it is impossible to replace the musical order of tonality. It is possible to write music that carefully avoids specifying a tonic, but this is still understood from a tonal point of view—it just fails to make sense from that point of view. This is why, he says, there is no closure in atonal music, and endings can only be marked by a gradual fading away or a dynamic accent.

Next Scruton discusses form and content, building his theory of musical meaning, which seems fairly strong. He then goes on to examine different types of musical analysis and argue that analysis is inseparable from criticism. He considers Schenker’s music theory in detail but ultimately rejects it. He also argues, not very convincingly or in very much depth, against New Musicologists like Susan McClary.

All this is written in a compelling, human style, though Scruton is plagued by occasional fits of whimsy and the influence of his word of the day calendar. Interested non-philosophers like myself will find it easy to understand but very dense and slow going. Little pre-existing philosophical knowledge is necessary, though it is helpful to be acquainted with Kant’s philosophical system and possibly the aesthetics of Benedetto Croce. Much more important is knowledge of classical music—both theory and the repertoire. Books and articles on aesthetics are often suspiciously short on examples, but Scruton makes liberal use of illustrations from the standard repertoire. Not all of them are necessary, but it is more helpful to have too many than not enough.

One of the most attractive features of Scruton’s account is that he addresses the concerns of a Hanslick while still including a place for emotion in music. The chief reason why people react so violently to the Hanslickian idea that music is not about emotions is that it completely misrepresents music as they understand it. The theory seems constructed to rule out a priori the appreciation of composers Hanslick didn’t like (e.g., Tchaikovsky, whose violin concerto he trashed). Scruton restores emotion to its proper place in music, which is not necessarily the place that we would naively expect it to be. Yet he takes quite seriously the philosophical issues raised by Hanslick in the course of what is essentially a critical hissy-fit.

The final chapters contain the infamous “critique of modern popular music” touted on the book’s back blurb. Having benefitted from Scruton’s rigorously worked out theory of music, we are then obliged by politeness to sit through his grumbling about the kids these days with their skateboards and their pogo sticks. I find myself agreeing with Scruton about the fact that aesthetic taste is morally important (though I disagree on the extent to which this is so). However his substantive judgments on popular music are not only wrong, but horribly misinformed.

His three specific examples of “vacuous” popular music are U2, REM, and Nirvana. He calls U2 “empty” (p.384), and I’m inclined to agree. He mocks an REM rhythm guitar part transcribed into classical notation (yes, and Bach looks pretty funny in tablature, too) and complains about the nihilism of Nirvana. These are the only recent pop groups mentioned in the book (aside from a passing name-check of the Beatles), and that is the problem. No one claims U2 or REM as a musical influence. REM broke up not too long ago, and not a single person cared. Nirvana is a different story, but they’re empty and nihilistic for the same reason Schoenberg is. I might reasonably indict classical music if I only mentioned Paganini, Smart, the Chopin piano concertos, and Milton Babbitt.

Scruton seems to make too much of his argument about the moral value of taste when he asks us to consider the culture of people who dance to a Praetorius gavotte. He then contemptuously invites us to “listen to a track by Nirvana, and imagine the mores of people who can dance to that” (p.391, emphasis original). I can imagine the mores of a sixteenth-century German aristocrat being quite repulsive indeed. And I know people who would dance to Nirvana—not always the brightest knives in the shed, but decent folk. Patrons of high art have always been rich and powerful, which means people with sophisticated tastes are more likely than average to be mass-murdering robber barons. The “man of wealth and taste” is, in fact, a literary cliche. Consider Alex. Consider…no, we don’t need to go there.

He conflates “competence” with composing in a style in which certain things are valued highly: harmony, counterpoint, (certain types of) rhythm (p.381-4). The competent composer is one who develops themes, writes polyphonically, and uses syncopations in the vocal line—which we all know U2 doesn’t do:

It’s not hard, if you actually look, to find examples of counterpoint and harmony being used effectively in rock music (which is largely what the not-especially-hip Scruton is talking about when he says “pop”). However, arguing against rock music because it doesn’t contain enough counterpoint is like arguing against Dickens because he doesn’t have enough spaceships. “Syncopations in the vocal line” is not an aesthetic value. Aesthetic values are more general things like “unity in variety” that can be construed in many different ways (which is why we can accept both Macbeth and Glengarry Glen Ross as good plays).

That there has been a musical decline over the last century is too obvious to argue. I will not and cannot deny it. However, Scruton misunderstands the dynamics of the decline in an important way. Rather than a complete and across-the-board descent into barbarism, music has split off into “high” and “low” forms. The high forms became increasingly dominated by academics who abandoned first their audience and eventually the practice of composing music entirely.* Music of this sort expired its last breath in 1957, when Sibelius died, and now we’re stuck with its evil, perverted ghost. This is Beethoven’s fault, a fact which is obvious on a moment’s reflection.

Conversely, the “low” forms diversified and flourished, and though their boom has partially ended, they still hold sway over the popular music of today. It’s best to think of rock and roll as a musical equivalent of the short humorous poems of Dorothy Parker. No serious person will pretend they have any great insight, but they’re not bad—at least, not in isolation. When all the modern poets worth speaking of are Dorothy Parkers, then you’ve got a problem. However, the problem is on the end of the “high” poets, who have failed to keep up their end of the bargain.

As serialism and its successors wormed their way farther and farther up their collective ass, the musical culture was deprived of intelligent music that doesn’t involve shouting into the piano strings or throwing softballs at the audience. The ideal solution is not clear, but a Platonic ban on rock music and its successors is clearly not it.

I could write endless paragraphs on the childish repugnance of the book’s final chapters. However, I can probably summarize it by telling you that Allan Bloom is cited at one point. Even here, though, Scruton makes some important points that almost compensate for the cringe-inducing main thrusts of his arguments. His critique is easily detachable from the rest of the book, which contains much of value. I want to be clear that I absolutely recommend this book to anyone seriously interested in music and aesthetics. I just urge you to be on your guard for the final section and, most importantly, do not let Scruton’s frankly revolting ideas about culture and politics unduly cloud your judgment of the theory outlined in the bulk of the book.


* Of the two composers who are most active at my university, one creates rule-based computer programs for generating musical compositions, and the other creates strange soundscapes that, whatever you think of them, could hardly be described as music in the sense that most people understand it. Objectively, neither one can be said to compose music. [return]

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