The Moral Character of Music

Does music shape not only our souls but the laws of a nation? Roger Scruton believes so:

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.


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