Music’s Address

Music’s Address April 17, 2014

“Music,” writes Roger Scruton (Soul of the World, 175) “addresses us from beyond the borders of the natural world” and thus “requires us to respond to a subjectivity that lies beyond the world of objects, in a space of its own.” It’s one of the intimations of a world outside the natural world describable by science.

But music is made of sounds, and sounds are vibrations, physical events. Scruton of course knows this, but his point is that there is something more to hearing music than there is to hearing sounds. Music is irreducible to the sounds that make it up.

Music addresses us, and invites us to “sympathy” – to “move with” the music (163). Scruton elaborates, “When you do dance to music, you understand the music as the source of the movement that flows through you. You are moving in sympathy with another intentional being, another source of life. Yet the thing you are dancing with is not alive, even if it is produced by someone alive. The life in the music is there by virtue of the fact that you can dance with it. The life in the music is the power to elicit a parallel live in you, the dancer. To put it another way: the life in the music is an imagined life, and the dance one way of imagining it. . . . You don’t listen with a piece of music; you listen to it. But the ‘withness’ of the dance is reproduced in listening. In some way you move with the music as you listen to it, and this movement is, or involves, a movement of sympathy. Listening is not the same as dancing: but it is more like dancing than it is like hearing” (165).

This is why, Scruton argues, what we listen to is important. He thinks Adorno went to far in his dismissal of the music of mass culture, which rejected jazz, the fusion of jazz and art music in Gershwin and Stravinsky, and musical theater. But Scruton agrees with Adorno that “the ways of listening were altered by the rise of the mass media” (150). 

He compares mass music to pornography, suggesting that both lend themselves to objectification, addiction, and the marginalization of I-You address: “In disco music, for example, the focus is entirely on repeated rhythmical figures, often synthesized digitally and without any clear musical performance, in which musical arousal is brought to an instant narcissistic climax and thereafter repeated. There is neither melody nor harmonic progression, but mere repetition, demanding no effort of listening and divorced from any relation with the external world. . . . The music is machinelike, not in its sound only, but in its mode of production and in its bypassing of all interpersonal relations, to focus on the pure stimulus and pure response. It is a music of objects, from which subjects have been excluded” (151).

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