Music and morals

March 30, 2010

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.

18 Responses to “Music and morals”

  1. Roger Scruton is terrific. His The Aesthetics of Music, which I read recently and discussed here, is the best book I’ve come across on the subject, and the only one to provide a plausible account of how music can carry a “meaning” other than the contents of the score. He’s also very good on the history of philosophy (particularly his books on Kant and Spinoza, otherwise not favourites of mine). Anything he writes is worth reading – including his political philosophy, which I often disagree with – for his admirably lucid writing and clearly laid-out ideas.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Alright, that book is going onto my list — my LibraryThing list, as it happens. 😉

  3. Jim Says:

    I, too, like Scruton. ‘Conservatism’ is quite good, if a little idiosyncratic in its Toryishness. I’m fond of collections of essays, and his ‘Gentle Regrets’ is a really neat set of meditations on divergent stuff. He has also, if memory servers, written an opera it would be neat to have your opinion on.

    At the same time, he did live in self-imposed exile in the US for awhile as a protest over the British ban on fox-hunting, so he can be occassionally eccentric.

  4. cburrell Says:

    Heh. Somebody else also recommended Gentle Regrets to me, and I just scooped it up from a bookstore where it was on sale. I think I am going to like it.

    I wonder if that opera has been recorded. I don’t think it has.

    What? The British banned fox-hunting? What is more British than fox-hunting? Yet more evidence that all is not well in the motherland.

  5. Todd Says:

    Hi, I’m a first-time visitor. Thank you for bringing up the topic of music and morality! We seem to be in agreement about a lot of this! Although I’m not Catholic, I am interested in the works of Roger Scruton and also in William “Kirk” Kilpatrick, former Boston College professor. (Apparently he has since retired.) Kilpatrick, in his book “Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right From Wrong”, includes a chapter on “Music and Morality”. I wish I had read it earlier. He brings up some critical points about the influences of pop music upon youth.
    I plan to read Roger Scruton’s books sometime.

    Do you plan on follow-ups to this post? I’m really interested in the subject — I deal with it all the time.

  6. cburrell Says:

    Welcome, Todd. Thanks for your comment. I cannot say that I have heard of Kilpatrick, but there are a great many people of whom I have not heard, so that is no mark against him.

    The topic of music and morality does not come up very often around here, but recently there have been a couple of related discussions. The effect of atheism on music came up for some discussion and debate not long ago, and a few months ago I wrote about a book exploring the relationship between truth — including moral truth — and beauty. Those might interest you.

  7. Anonymous Says:

    I agree 100% with your article’s thesis.

    What do you think about the relationship between music and liturgy? Some music played at liturgies in many churches today is not suited to the religious meanings that the liturgies convey.

    And, what about the phenomenon of “Christian rock”?


  8. cburrell Says:

    Yes, I thought of both of those things too, when I was reading Scruton’s article. He himself makes reference to the Church’s historic vigilance regarding the kind of music permitted in the liturgy, and of course our current pontiff has stated again and again that certain kinds of music are appropriate for liturgy, and certain kinds inappropriate. I agree with that.

    The “Christian rock” phenomenon certainly intersects with these arguments. The attempt to combine hard-hitting rock with the Gospel can easily tip over into comedy. (Think of Stryper.) The incongruity increases as the violence and aggression of the music increases, which is why something like “Christian death metal” has a prima facie absurdity about it. Bands toiling in those troubled waters tend, in my limited experience, to tailor their subject matter to those elements of Christianity which “suit”, as least to some extent, the music. Thus one has songs about the beheading of John the Baptist, or about leprosy, for example. Nothing wrong, per se, with writing songs about such things, but the limited expressive potential of the music means that it is difficult, if not impossible, to present the Gospel broadly using such means.

  9. […] a fascinating discussion that touches on several topics that have come up here from time to time: music and morals, and music and the sacred, for instance. Each time I hear Arvo Pärt speak I am more impressed by […]

  10. Cesar Torres Says:

    See I have to disagree with the whole conception about rock n’ roll being agressive and it’s hard to show happiness, or tenderness. See the generalization of rock is evil can be applied to so many other genre’s even country. But people just focus on the extremes of rock and think every other genre is better where they speak more about sex, drugs and alcohol and depict women as objects. Also meaning christian rock bands incoporate morals into their music and how we should not lose faith such as 12 stones new song infected

    • Cesar Torres Says:

      I have to disagree due to the multiple misconceptions about rock. But I do agree with you about dancing and clubbing music

  11. cburrell Says:

    Naturally these things are a matter of degree, applying more to one case than another. Christian rock is not really a counter-example, for the argument is that the problem is implicit in the music, quite apart from what is explicit in the words.

    I am glad that we are in agreement about clubbing. It is a cultural phenomenon that I think I shall never understand.

    Thank you for taking the time to comment.

  12. Todd Hamo Says:

    There’s a shopping mall I’ve visited here in Southern California. Throughout virtually the entire parking lot, music (and I use that term loosely) is played, emitted via loudspeakers. And it probably took me a long time to describe the music. And the term I finally came upon, was “vulgar”.

    To help illustrate what is “vulgar”, I would suggest one or more of the following terms:

    tasteless, crass, tawdry, ostentatious, flamboyant, overdone, showy, gaudy, garish, brassy, kitsch, kitschy, tinselly, loud; impolite, ill-mannered, unmannerly, rude, mean, indecorous, unseemly, immoral, ill-bred, boorish, uncouth, crude, rough; unsophisticated, unrefined, tacky, offensive, common, low-minded; unladylike, and ungentlemanly.

    On that count, I’ve contacted the shopping mall and I’ve pointed out to them that as long as they continue playing they do, I shall not visit their mall.

    I apologize for using such negative language.

  13. cburrell Says:

    Oh, no apology necessary. Yours is an accurate description of a good deal of music. The other day I was getting my hair cut in a salon where the music was much as you describe. Hard to bear!

  14. Todd H. Says:

    If it be deemed an admissible comment, I deeply regret to say that I am not certain that I can any longer bring myself to read Dr. Scruton if a quote attributed to him is actually his. It blindsided me, because for quite a while I trusted the material attributed to him. Up until that time, the only quote attributed to Dr. Scruton that I found a slight bit questionable was his favoring the music of the Beatles. I have attempted to contact Dr. Scruton, without success. Alas, I don’t know what to do.

    • Todd H. Says:

      Here is the quote: If it be deemed an admissible comment, I deeply regret to say that I am not certain that I can any longer bring myself to read Dr. Scruton if a quote attributed to him is actually his. It blindsided me, because for quite a while I trusted the material attributed to him. Up until that time, the only quote attributed to Dr. Scruton that I found a slight bit questionable was his favoring the music of the Beatles. I have attempted to contact Dr. Scruton, without success. Alas, I don’t know what to do. is the link to the quote attributed to Dr. Scruton.

      • cburrell Says:

        Well, there are a goodly number of classical music aficionados who have a soft spot for the Beatles. Elvis, not so much, but Scruton at least has at least the honour of admitting it as a guilty pleasure.

        Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

      • Todd H. Says:

        I’m not sure I understand you there. I can’t for a moment bear to think that someone whom I’ve considered a paragon of virtue actually has an antithetical side of him. I read a dictionary definition of antithetical: “mutually incompatible.” I say this not to degrade him, but to question the nature of expressing or embodying truth.

        I do suppose the oft-cited Scripture of Romans Chapter 7 might fit in Dr. Scruton’s Elvis case: “What I hate, I do; I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.” But I could be wrong. Maybe Romans 7 is irrelevant here. He who has been my hero, now seems an enigma. That’s why I’ve recently noted aloud that perhaps I should lower my expectations lest I set myself up for too big a fall. Perhaps I should try contacting Dr. Scruton once more, lest I continue in this quandary.

        Thank you for reading.

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