Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Soul Music — Roger Scruton on Music and Morality

Soul Music

Saturday, February 27, 2010

How we describe pop music proves that we find moral significance in music. How do we tell what music we should and should not encourage?

“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). And Plato is famous for having given what is perhaps the first theory of character in music, proposing to allow some modes and to forbid others according to the character which can be heard in them. Plato deployed the concept of mimesis, or imitation, to explain why bad character in music encourages bad character in its devotees. The context suggests that he had singing, dancing, and marching in mind rather than the silent listening that we know from the concert hall. But, however we fill out the details, there is no doubt that music, for Plato, was something that could be judged in the same moral terms we judge one another, and that the terms in question denoted virtues and vices like nobility, dignity, temperance, and chastity on the one hand, and sensuality, belligerence, and indiscipline on the other.

Plato’s argument targeted not individual works of music or specific performances, but modes. We don’t exactly know how the Greek modes were arranged; they conventionally identified styles, instruments, and melodic and rhythmical devices, as well as the notes of the scale. Without going into the matter, we can venture to suggest that Plato was discriminating between recognizable musical idioms as we might discriminate jazz from rock, and both from classical. And his 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 listen to this stuff? Thus question modern adults, just as Plato asked, “Should the city permit this stuff?” Of course, we have long since given up on the idea that you can forbid certain kinds of music by law. We should remember, however, that this idea has had a long history, and has been a decisive factor in the evolution of the Christian churches, which have been as censorious over liturgical music as over liturgical words, and indeed have hardly distinguished between them.

Soul Music — The American, A Magazine of Ideas

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