Some months ago I was talking with a friend about the section in the Republic in which Plato discusses the role of music in the formation of character. Plato argues, remember, that certain kinds of music tend to promote good order in the soul and the community, while certain other kinds tend to promote the opposite, and that therefore we ought to take care to listen to the right kind of music and avoid the wrong kind. My friend asked whether I agreed with the idea that some music is morally unhealthy, and, a little to my surprise, I answered immediately in the affirmative. He was surprised too; he said that most people dismiss the idea.
There was a time when I too used to dismiss such concerns, or even bristle at them, mostly, I suppose, because at the time the music being criticized was music that I liked. I am thinking of those who warned against the “evils of rock ‘n roll”, and not just against the words of the songs (which certainly often warrant a warning), but against the music itself. As the years have passed, and I have become less attached to that style of music, I find myself more willing to entertain questions about its moral worthiness.
One of the things that raises doubts in my mind about rock ‘n roll, for instance, is consideration of the kind of words that “suit” the music. Granted that one could, if one wanted to, fit any sort of words to any sort of music, it is nonetheless true, I think, that certain combinations will seem “unnatural”, with humorous effect, and certain combinations will seem “natural”. For instance, when we hear AC/DC singing about fast machines with clean motors, the preening aggression of the music seems to fit with the juvenile double entendres of the words. On the other hand, if the same music were applied to a song about summer moonlight and the beauty of daisies, the result would be comical, like something from Weird Al. My moral concerns arise from the fact that rock ‘n roll seems very well suited to express anger, rebellion, vengeance, and aggression, and poorly suited to express repentance, joy, or tenderness. There are exceptions, of course, but this is the general feeling of the music.
Another doubt is raised in my mind by the kind of dancing that the music encourages. Think of the difference between a ballroom and a mosh pit. Think of a “club”, where people crowd together on a sweaty dance floor, in the dark, and more or less dance by themselves, or at best dance at a partner. And to describe “clubbing” as “dancing” is generous, for it is basically formless, beholden to the relentless mechanical beat that dominates the music. That beat, so regular that it is almost devoid of rhythm, is the dominant feature of “clubbing” music, and to me it feels inhuman. I am not at all surprised that it fosters such an uncivilized form of dance.
On reflection, then, I agree with my spontaneous self that music has a moral aspect. Indeed, we are creatures for whom little, and nothing of significance, is without a moral aspect. Music, which engages us intellectually, emotionally, and physically, is certainly a matter of significance. The moral evaluation of this or that song, or even this or that style of music, is not a simple matter, of course, for no style is without some merit (except rap), but those of us who care about music are, I think, obliged to think about its moral influence on our own minds and hearts.
Anyway, these thoughts were brought to mind again when I recently read an article by Roger Scruton on the relationship between music and morality. (Scruton is one of those people about whom I do not know very much, but each time I read something from him I become more interested in him. If anyone cares to recommend a book or two to me, I am all ears.) He has written extensively about the philosophy and aesthetics of music, and is apparently also a minor composer in his own right. In this article he takes a thoughtful look at the principal components of music — melody, harmony, and rhythm — and how they are treated, generally speaking, in contemporary popular music. Like me, he also thinks that dance is an important correlate of music, able to teach us something about its moral value:
As I suggested earlier, musical movement addresses our sympathies: it asks us to move with it. External movement is shoved at us. You cannot easily move with it, but you can submit to it. When music organized by this kind of external movement is played at a dance, it automatically atomises the people on the dance floor. They may dance at each other, but only painfully with each other. And the dance is not something that you do, but something that happens to you—a pulse on which you are suspended. . .
It is a fairly long article, enlivened by numerous musical clips to illustrate the argument. Recommended.