In need of a bigger tent for music aesthetics

I picked up Roger Scruton’s The Aesthetics of Music at the library. I’ve liked a lot of what I’ve read of him online in the last few years. I find it surprising that I went so many years without having heard of him. As music was my academic discipline (ages ago it seems now), I was curious what I would find in his work on the subject.

A lot of the basics are solid. His definitions are clear and his insistence that musical taste has a moral component is, I think, a deeply theistic and Christian idea. So I find myself agreeing with many of his basic ideas about beauty. And of course he gives many rich examples in the development of harmony and melodic devices throughout the years, focusing mostly on art music from the baroque through romantic age. But alas, focusing isn’t quite the right word. Tunnel vision would be more accurate.

Scruton is largely dismissive of virtually all pop, jazz, and even folk music. Near the end of the book, he discusses contemporary musical examples from U2, R.E.M. and Nirvana, but only to scornfully call them vapid and empty. At one point, he shows a treble clef staff with a few bars of transcription of the rhythm guitar part from R.E.M.’s ‘Losing My Religion’ from 1991. He complains about how the inversion of the chords never change throughout the song. I had to laugh! One might as well complain that a car is ‘boring’ since it keeps four wheels on the ground at all times.

Anyone who is themselves a guitarist and has spent hundreds of hours learning to quickly switch bar chords and get them to resonate evenly would know that changing the inversion all the time is extremely challenging technically and aurally not particularly discernible. The guitar is not a piano, though a very skilled player can perform simplified piano music on it. A guitar is not a choir, though it can be made to sing. When I contemplate music, I think as much or more about the physical aspects of playing as I do about harmonic theory. So much of what I am fascinated by and value in music, Scruton’s theory seems to ignore completely.

How can you listen to U2’s ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ and call it empty and repetitive? Repetitive it is – in CERTAIN respects, but not others. But the ways in which it is rich do not fit into Scruton’s aesthetic theory. And so at the end of his book, he has nothing good to say about a vast multitude of music. I believe the key to understanding this lies in one of his early chapters. After a long section discussing melody, harmony, and rhythm, is the section on timbre. But what’s this? It only gets half a page and ends with:

That is not to deny the importance of timbre, as a contribution to musical meaning; but it is to imply that timbre, and tone-colour generally, presents no parallel system of musical organization, on apart with rhythm, melody, and harmony. those last three weave the musical surface together, and create the tonal space in which its movement is heard. Nothing will be lost if, at this stage in our investigation, we set timbre to one side, as a secondary characteristic of the musical object.

Ah, but so much is lost indeed. When hundreds of years of tinkering with harmony ran it’s course, then timbre was found to be a thousand-square-mile playground! Getting just the right kind of distortion on that electric guitar, putting some growl or smoke or dreaminess into that voice, tinkering with the sizzle of the high-hat until it perfectly compliments the breathy saxophone, and adjusting the reverb levels on each single word sung in a recording to give it a shimmering, otherworldly quality – there is beauty (and real art) to be found in the crafting of these things. They are not barren empty technique, though of course, with sin or rebellion they (like anything), can be employed as such.

So while I think Scruton’s work has some very good insights (his chapter on imagination and methaphor is great), I ultimately find myself not impressed with his aesthetic theory. It just doesn’t account for nearly enough of what is found in the world. It makes sense of some very real ugliness, but cannot account for all the loveliness. It’s like a theory of flight that spends 500 pages talking about airplanes and just one page dismissing birds for their “ridiculous flapping”. We need a bigger tent.

Update: While reading part of Scruton’s similar book on architecture the following day, I came across this passage on music that shows, despite my disagreement, that he is at least aware of some of the questions I raise above:

Consider how one might formulate the thought – vital to the very conception of modern music – that the classical style is no longer AVAILABLE to the modern consciousness, that it is no longer POSSIBLE to compose like Beethoven or like Brahms (despite Sir Donald Tovey’s noble efforts in the latter direction). Surely this thought requires one to represent the existing musical forms and methods as somehow exhausted. They have fallen into desuetude, not because we are bored by them (for we will never be bored by Mozart), but because they do not allow the modern composer to express what he wishes. They are not adapted to the full complexity of the modern consciousness, and do not lend themselves to expressing the tree feelings of a modern man. It is because music, poetry, and painting are seen at least partly in this expressionistic way that their self-conscious reconstruction becomes intelligible.