Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Morality Of Music

I continue to think about music and art, the objectiveness of beauty and how this affects the way we think and live.  See here, here and here for my previous thoughts on the matter.

Roger Scruton has written an article titled Soul Music.  In this piece, Scruton presents the idea that music itself, not just lyrics, carries with it morality.  He begins with referring to Plato's Republic, and then says this:
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. 
 He goes on to contrast music that triggers a response to music which provides a proper object of that response, natural and unnatural rhythms,( the latter which leads automatic and autonomous movements, dancing at rather than with), the melodic and amelodic.  There is much more to the article and I highly recommend it.

Perhaps we should be more thoughtful about art and music. Can we really expect to listen to music and not be changed in some way?  We have become very timid in our society about making judgments.  If music has a moral element, if it is soul and character shaping, we would be negligent in not evaluating it.


  1. I have a slightly different perspective on this. There has often been through history a sense of moral outrage at various styles of music which have later become pretty tame and mainstream. I personally would probably draw the line at music which via the lyrics promotes racism and violence, I would also argue, as a music therapist, that many styles of music, considered unhealthy by some groups are actually a really positive channel for excpressing things that may have been expressed in a destructive way without music as a container. Conversely music can so effectively channel these sorts of energies that sometimes it prevents necessary change because people express through the music rather than address what needs to be changed, either in their lives, or in society more generally. (Especially where oppression exists.

    Raelene Bruinsma (I think anonymous is the only way I will be able to publish this, so am inlcuding my name here)

  2. Thanks for your input, Raelene. Your perspective of music channeling energy which could be used elsewhere for change is interesting. What did you think of Scruton's ideas of some forms of music being addictive and that certain rhythms promoting dancing at rather than with another?

  3. It is very possible to listen to music and not be changed in any way.

    Perhaps what needs to be evaluated is not the music but the interaction or response indivduals have. Isn't that where the moral element can really be found, not in the music. Music at its immediate level is only a reflection of the creaters and the listeners. So judgements of music no longer become about the music but is to those that create and respond.

    I take a different view on socity being timid in making judgements. Our society is quick to make judgements. It is our expression and actions based on those judgements that should be examined.

    (not from Raelene)

  4. I'm afraid I have to disagree with the idea that one can listen to music and not be changed by it in some way.

    Of course one brings one's own moral element when listening to or writing music, but music also helps to shape one's morality and choices. Did you read the Scruton article?

    Perhaps when writing about judgments, I should have stated that we in our society are discouraged from stating judgments. I speak of this generally. There are always exceptions.

  5. Speaking generally, would you agree that society has difficulty distiquishing between judgments and judging and this is what leads to the timidness of which you speak?

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  7. Thanks, Todd. I've only just had time to scan your blog and didn't see the discussion of modern music, but will take a closer look soon.

    I'd be delighted to join in the discussion. What has drawn me to the subject of music is beauty: what it is, what is it's purpose, why it repels some as well as attracts. I'll try to send you something soon.

    I don't have a twitter account, but am on Facebook.