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February 28, 2017 – MCAT CARS Passage
Question: What is your summary of the author’s main ideas. Post your own answer in the comments before reading those made by others.
“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). Music, for Plato, was not a neutral amusement. It could express and encourage virtue— nobility, dignity, temperance, chastity. But it could also express and encourage vice—sensuality, belligerence, indiscipline.
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 be listening to this stuff?” is the question in the mind of modern adults, just as “should the city permit this stuff?” was the question in the mind of Plato. Of course, we have long since given up on the idea that you can forbid certain kinds of music by law. Nevertheless, it is still common to believe that music has—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.
We don’t forbid musical idioms by law, but we should remember that our laws are made by people who have musical tastes; 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 the culture. There is no doubt that popular music today enjoys a status higher than any other cultural product. Pop stars are first among celebrities, idolized 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 (which it generally is), then we should not expect to find that our laws address us from any higher realm than that implies.
However, ours is a “nonjudgmental” culture. To criticize another’s taste, whether in music, entertainment, or lifestyle, is to assume 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 it is young people who are the principal devotees of pop music, this places a formidable obstacle in the path of anyone who undertakes to criticize pop 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, insofar 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.
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 Mozart, but not over Schoenberg; you can work to Chopin, but not to 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 it in the background. Some psychologists wonder whether this need follows the pattern of addictions; more philosophical critics like Theodor Adorno raise questions of a deep kind as to whether the human ear has not changed entirely under the impact of jazz and its musical successors, and whether music can ever be for us what it was for Bach or Mozart.
Adorno attacked something that he called the “regression of listening,” which he believed had infected the entire culture of modern America. He saw the culture of listening as a deep spiritual resource of Western civilization. For Adorno 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 the “fetish,” and to put real values in the place of fleeting desires. And there is something persuasive here that needs to be rescued from Adorno’s intemperate and over-politicized critique of just about everything he found in America. But Adorno reminds us that it is very hard to criticize a musical idiom without standing in judgment on 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 motor cars 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 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? That seems to be the received view among musicologists. Pop, they tell us, is music to be danced to, and those who judge it by the standards of the concert hall, which is a place of silent listening, have simply lost the plot. The essence of pop is not form, structure, or abstract musical relationships. It is rhythm, and rhythm is something to which you move, not something to which you listen.
Adapted from spectator.
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This was an article on Music.
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MCAT CARS Instructor.