Roger Scruton: Understanding Music: Philosophy and Interpretation (Hardback)

Continuum, 2009 (244pp)

03 March 2010 2 stars

Understanding Music: Philosophy and
InterpretationAesthetics is political. And all interesting aesthetic writing is motivated by a clear political agenda.

It is important to remember this when reading Roger Scruton's two-part anthology of philosophical writing, Understanding Music. (The first part supplements the earlier Aesthetics of Music and the second is a series of critical essays on individual works or groups of works.) That is because his analytic methodology applies rigorous logic to seemingly common-sense assumptions to generate universal claims. As any analytic philosopher will tell you, the assumptions made at the outset of an argument are rather like the axioms in mathematics: you can say that parallel lines never meet, or you can just as easily say they do; so long as your axioms are consistent the mathematics will be valid.

Scruton has chosen his assumptions so that the right political answers drop out at the end. Make no mistake, there is a formidable intelligence at work here: the aesthetic system has been rigorously constructed and offers many valuable insights into Western art music. But for someone like me, coming from the opposite side of the political spectrum, this is a book to be argued with. What follows, then, is an outline of how Scruton's political position reveals itself through his aesthetic and interpretative writing, and my argument with it.

So what is Scruton's political agenda? He holds that art – and music in particular – is a 'repository for emotional knowledge' that teaches us how to feel and how to act rightly. Simply put, music provides emotional and moral instruction; it teaches us how to live for ourselves and as part of a collective. It is therefore the state’s duty to provide access to high culture. Firstly, because it encourages so-called 'perfectionism', what Aristotle called 'eudemonia', by giving the individual the opportunity for self-improvement as part of their life-project. And secondly, because it can lead to cross-cultural understanding inside the modern plural state as well as between countries. The latter is possible through the belief that the great art of, for example, Islamic and Christian cultures share a set of core values despite their outwardly differing manifestations. Indeed, Scruton would say that in order to produce great art it is necessary to have strong moral convictions and that almost certainly means you have to be religious.

The basis of Scruton's musical aesthetics is what he calls 'acousmatic space'. Put Brahms's F minor cello sonata on your CD player, sit down, close your eyes and listen. Although we are conscious that the sound is being produced by the vibrations of objects (strings) in the physical world, we also hear the cello part, for example, as a continuous 'line' moving up and down in space. Each sound in this acousmatic space is a 'pure event' that can be divorced from its physical cause and perceived, or 'intended' in philosophical terms, as a mental object. By asserting that consciously following the movement of these pure sound objects in acousmatic space is the essential component of all musical experience, Scruton is able to draw the conclusion that listening to tonal Western art music in a hushed auditorium is 'paradigmatic' of musical consumption in general.

Roger ScrutonNow that a universal phenomenological basis for music has been identified, Scruton can ask the traditional aesthetic questions of how meaning and value are generated. He insists that expression is a result only of the 'aesthetic experience' and resides only in the 'musical line' and the 'structure' that it elaborates. Any, what we might call, 'extra-musical' meanings, such as those established by convention, resemblance to real-world sounds, images, or referencing other (musical) artworks, are excluded from this pure aesthetic site. What is expressed in a piece of music is then precisely 'what we understand when we understand it as music.' And its worth is determined by its 'communicative power'; it has value only insofar as it expresses something.

The difficulty here is that musical expression cannot be translated into verbal expression. Scruton overcomes this by borrowing a powerful analogy from Wittgenstein: that of facial expression. A face can express particular states of mind – anger, confusion, happiness and so on; but it can also express something recognizable even if the precise meaning is indeterminate. Wittgenstein claims that we understand music in this second 'intransitive' sense: we recognize the expression even if the exact nature of the emotion felt by the expresser is ambiguous. Scruton argues that the intransitive facial expression draws us into empathetic speculation so that we 'come to "know what it’s like" to have a face like that.' Music, if thought of in this way, is inviting a similarly empathetic response from the auditor: what emotional state might the fictive person who 'speaks' the music have?

Like Adam Smith and David Hume, Scruton is a sentimentalist, believing that emotions – as opposed, for example, to reason (Kant) or the internalization of existing laws (Freud) – form the basis of action. And so music, because of its ability to invoke the emotional states of others, can provide moral guidance. Taking his cue from German idealists like Hegel and Fichte, Scruton believes that the self is formed through emotional interaction with other people: we rationally reflect on how people respond to the emotions we express and modulate our response to their response accordingly. Through this emotional dialogue we are able to '"realize our freedom" as responsible members of a shared public order', as a subject among subjects.

What music offers is an 'invitation' to share in the unfolding emotional state of the other via the empathetic potential discussed above. By choosing, as Scruton metaphorically puts it, to 'move' mentally with the emotional gestures of the music, we can learn what it is like to experience the world through another subjectivity, while simultaneously discovering more about ourselves. There is then a moral burden on the composer: merely reproducing musical effects that are guaranteed to provoke a pleasant response tempts us towards 'the community established by pretence'. The composer must write music that allows the individual to feel what it is like to be an emotionally functional member of an ideal community.

As this, I hope fairly faithful, sketch of the argument presented in the first half of the book shows, all of the elements fit together nicely to yield the desired function for art. But every step raises a raft of possible objections.

Let us start with 'acousmatic space'. Here Heidegger's critique of Husserl's phenomenological method is apposite: as soon as we start to analyze the way in which something like music appears to the mind we have already distorted the actual experience beyond recognition. And indeed many of the most powerful musical experiences are those in which the sound as 'pure event' (a dubious notion in any case) disappears from consciousness altogether. When engrossed in the second act finale of Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro for example, it is possible to get so caught up in the drama that one forgets about the orchestra or about the fact that the characters are even singing. Something similar often happens when listening to a strophic song that tells a story: the music serves as a carrier for the words, and as we enter into the world of the story the music fades out of immediate awareness. So it is problematic to take as the norm the analytic way in which musicians are trained to listen in a symphonic concert.

Roger ScrutonMore contentious is the claim that the meaning of music lies only in the 'aesthetic experience'. Now I would be the first to complain that much recent music scholarship has focussed almost exclusively on social context and on the significatory aspect of the music and tended to ignore what makes music (or art in general) unique: its ability to arouse an emotional response. But those affective meanings cannot be divorced from the semiotic and institutional aspects of a piece of music. When Beethoven has a bass explicitly address the audience in the finale of the Ninth Symphony it cuts against the institutional expectations of the symphonic concert. That the bass sings using the recitative style borrowed from opera introduces various associations that are convention-dependent.

Also, emotional content itself is significatory: it is clear, for example, that melancholia carried a number of historically specific connotations in the court of Elizabeth I. Further, we cannot dismiss the formalists out of hand: we might disagree with Adorno that form is the primary mode of meaning, but nevertheless in genres where there is the expectation of a certain formal structure, artists will deliberately subvert it (or not subvert it) in order to communicate with the audience.

And this underlines the point: we cannot universalize musical experience because it is always implicated in a network of meanings that cannot simply be cut away to reveal a pure object of 'music itself'.

But the most troubling feature of Scruton's aesthetic system is the injunction that art should instruct its audience how to feel and how to act. In the critical writing that comprises the second part of the book, music, and particularly opera, is valued only if it can be interpreted as constitutive of a broadly Christian community. If Scruton were saying that he is a Christian and he personally valued these aspects of the works under consideration, then that would be fine.mHowever, since the phenomenological, analytic philosophy in the first half of the book presents universal criteria for judging music, he is actually telling us what we should and shouldn't listen to, and, presumably, what works can be responsibly programmed by state-funded orchestras and opera companies.

In practice we do live in a Rawlsian society in which there are a number of basic principles, like certain human rights for example, that most reasonable people can agree on. But this does not mean that art needs to take on the authoritarian function of perpetuating eternal truths. In fact, I would argue that the best art of the past two centuries challenges aesthetic and moral certainties, opening up a space of potentiality, multiplying the available ways of being in the world. Far from telling us how to feel and how to act, it can provoke us into thinking through for ourselves how inherited ethical frameworks might be contested.

Schoenberg by SchieleThe chapter on Janácek and Schoenberg is an example of how Scruton's totalizing aesthetic system causes him to miss the point of some Modernist works. For Scruton, Schoenberg's music, for which we will take Erwartung as exemplary, is not audience-centred. The music is deliberately designed to be too difficult for the audience and instead of the community they crave, the work is aimed only at the alienated individual. It is therefore not expressive of their 'emotional needs'. I would argue, however, that expressing the audience's emotional needs is precisely what Erwartung tries to do. What the music presents is the pure soul of a suffering woman whose extreme alienation mirrors that experienced by the individuals in the audience. The soul, as the essence of the human being, is put forward by the opera as the basis for a new community but the difficulty of achieving that in the modern fragmented world is indexed by the struggle necessary to apprehend the underlying unity of the music.

Schoenberg's strategy, then, is quite different from the one Scruton wishes to see: rather than portraying the ideal on stage, he shows the true nightmare of modernity and makes us aware of the immense intellectual effort required to overcome it. In order to understand Erwartung, the listener has to learn to perceive music in a new way, thereby demonstrating the possibility within himself for change. While Erwartung might be progressive in technical terms, by positing the existence of a soul and the possibility of utopia, it is much closer to Scruton’s own reactionary outlook than he seems to realize.

The irony is that Scruton sees Janácek's operas as models of how a tonality reinvigorated by folk melody can conjure up an idyllic peasant community. In fact, they are much more disruptive than Erwartung to the sort of universalized morality that forms his idea of Christianity.

He is right, I think, to point to the way in which the music in Jenufa and Kát'a Kabanová, characterized as it is by repetition and slowly evolving lines, manages to capture the way the freedom of the individual grows out of the collective will. He is also right about the sympathy with which the respective heroines are drawn. However, I must disagree when he claims that the punishment the women receive for their non-marital sex is depicted as necessary to restore equilibrium to the society. In Jenufa it is hardly a transcendent spiritual law that seeks vengeance, but a man-made code that serves only the interests of the male hierarchy.

What is so disturbing about the opera is that, when her stepmother tries to wrest control back from this hierarchy by murdering Jenufa's illegitimate baby, it is figured as morally ambiguous. We know it is wrong, but the music tells us that it is selfless act done out of love for her stepdaughter. In an inversion of the Christian story, the stepmother sacrifices herself – handing herself over to the authorities, undoubtedly to be punished by death for the murder – so that Jenufa is redeemed and can go on to live a normal life. The opera subverts the Christian/male order by suggesting that women who are imprisoned by its tyranny might be justified when they commit desperate acts of infanticide. In common with many Modernist works, the opera poses an unresolved dilemma which the audience must work out for themselves.

Scruton's rigorously constructed aesthetic system is able to offer some fascinating insights into the repertory it takes as paradigmatic. The chapter on the link between Classical/Romantic tonality and rhythm, and that on the expression of emotion are particularly worthy of attention. However, by insisting that moral didacticism is art's primary function, Scruton misses what is most interesting about Modernist works. If an acknowledged great artist like, say, Schoenberg did not to adhere to what the critic believes are universal/natural laws of music, surely the critic's task is not to condemn the result as immoral but to ask why and what it is the artist is trying to communicate. Otherwise he is simply misunderstanding music.

By Marc Brooks

Photos: Roger Scruton courtesy of


KurtagRelated articles:

Book Review: György Kurtág: Three Interviews and Ligeti Homages
Book Review: The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross
Book Review: Daniel Barenboim's Everything is Connected: the Power of Music