“I don’t think we should underestimate the tyranny exerted over the human brain by pop…. All that is beautiful, special and full of love is replaced by a grinding mechanism. Just as porn addicts lose the capacity for real sexual love, so do pop addicts lose the capacity for genuine musical experience. The magical encounter with the Beethoven quartet, the Bach suite, the Brahms symphony, in which your whole being is gripped by melodic and harmonic ideas and taken on a journey through the imaginary space of music – that experience which lies at the heart of our civilisation and which is an incomparable source of joy and consolation to all those who know it – is no longer a universal resource” A famous philosopher. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-34801885

“I’ll start by saying that I love Rock and Classical. On to the answer, my deep, never ending hate for pop stems from the fact that pop HAS no actual musical value in general. Most “artists” seem to me perfectly talentless, the lyrics are annoying and borderline meaningless. Absolutely disconnected from the real world and annoying. And don’t even get me on the superiority of Classical. The music in which the composer’s life and thoughts are portrayed without even lyrics. Music I could listen to all damn day. After all there IS a reason people have been listening to it for over 500 years.” A less famous critic. https://uk.answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20110915035811AAzRYiD

 

It is puzzling that Scruton is held in such high regard. Read almost any blog or opinion piece about pop and its negative influence and you will get the same ideas expressed nearly word for word: a self-consciously elitist, provocative stance echoed paradoxically by almost every common sense music lover across the country. That Scruton’s musing are undone by the very the very people he tries to dismiss is amusing – you can cut and paste together his argument from almost any defender of “real music” and melody. His argument against pop and its dulling effect is just another example of the kind of dumbing down he is opposed to.

What is problematic about his position?

  1. His understanding of the differences between classical and pop is wrong.
  2. His understanding of young people and how they come to value music is wrong.
  3. His understanding of the significance of music is wrong.
  4. His remedy for improving music education is wrong.
  5. His own listening skills and analytical understanding of music seems poor.

 

  1. His understanding of the differences between classical and pop is wrong.

 

Scruton is attempting to make a division between serious classical music appreciation and the mere frivolous entertainment of pop. This division does not hold up on further investigation. For example, consider the reception to Liszt: “A contemporary caricature of a Liszt concert in Berlin in 1842 depicts an audience of frenzied women variously screaming, swooning, trying to storm the stage, observing him through binoculars (from the front row) and throwing flowers at him..” – See more at: http://www.danceshistoricalmiscellany.com/2014/11/lisztomania-franz-liszt-sex-and.html#sthash.0QrtHAwY.dpuf

 

The history of classical music is littered with academics attempting to make it abstract and divorced from real life – producing graphs and analysis to demonstrate its abstract purity, complexity or claim to greatness. There is a well documented anxiety of the feminization of music and its effects. Indeed Scruton’s own writing seems to characterize pop as a feminized “other” – a worrying potentially contaminating problem to eradicate or denounce. The attempt to divide music with classical on the one side as a serious, intellectual pursuit and pop on the other as mere “bodily” entertainment is misguided. It leaves our understanding of both lacking.

 

  1. His understanding of young people and how they come to value music is wrong.

 

Scruton assumes that people invest very little intellectual and emotional substance in their enjoyment of music. However – as anyone who spends any time with young people making music will recognize – they are continuously drawn to pop music as a source of joy and consolation. Its not so much his view of music that is elitist – its his view of people.

 

He assumes he knows what they think and feel. I doubt he has ever spent the time to find out what young people feel about music and its power. He seems untroubled by the idea that his own opinions about music might just be opinions –he seems to believe he is beyond being duped by modern mores and beliefs. We are all fooled and manipulated some of the time – our tastes vary and change.  His pleasure becomes a “magical encounter” and a genuine response unlike the manipulated ones produced by pop. Scruton does not recognize that for most people music matters – this is a serious intellectual error.

 

  1. His understanding of the  significance of music is wrong.

Scruton would seem to have us believe the individual contemplative listening to music is a natural, universal way to be moved by music. However this ignores how music is deeply connected to us as social people. Music is a cultural practice – and is involved in how we become social, cultural beings. To attempt to divorce music from its roots in human rituals and meanings is to kill music of its power and significance. The caricature of a contemplative listening individual on a soul changing journey with each musical encounter is just that. Music is a part of the body and the way we come to understand our world. Music’s significance is bound up with our bodies as much as our intellect. To enjoy music physically and socially is not to enjoy it less. Music is a communal activity. The rhythms and repetition of pop music are part of importance not something to push to one side and denounce. The point is to understand why these particular sounds and rhythms– what is different to the sounds and rhythms of previous years – and what connects us to our past and provides meaning.

 

Ultimately Scruton’s mistake is investing music and its importance in only the inherent musical meanings of the sounds through time. In ignoring the listeners and their social contexts and how that brings meaning to the sounds they listen to he is unable to really appreciate music.

 

  1. His remedy for the improving music appreciation is wrong.

“Put a young person in a position to make music and not just to hear it and immediately the ear begins to recover from its lethargy. By teaching children to play musical instruments, we acquaint them with the roots of music in human life.”

We don’t come to be acquainted with the roots of music in human life by being given an instrument. We know this by living a life surrounded by music – whether in the pub, church, home, restaurant, tube or on TV. By living we know this – giving me an instrument does not convince me that suddenly music is important. I have known this from the moment I was born.

Scruton’s mission is wrong from the start. Young people need ways of expressing their love of music – this is rarely done by first playing them your favorite artists for 50 minutes. Scruton would be better off acknowledging and supporting the music making that young people are already energized by – to take their love of pop as something humanly useful rather than something to be educated out of them.

 

  1. His own listening skills and analytical understanding of music seems poor.

 He discusses Poker Face and claims it is almost all based on one note. Has he actually listened to this song? If he listened to it rather than say looking at a staff notated transcription he would hear the many inflections and movement away from the central note. He would hear how the end of lines contain varied sliding up and down of pitches. He would also hear that the melody moves around from the key note after a few bars.

We might also consider just what kind of music Scruton has been listening to not to have noticed that much modern classical music quite often has “no melody.”

We might also wonder if his conception of melody needs revising. Hip-hop is one of the most significant musical movements in the last 30 years – we need to be able to listen to spoken/rapped music with appreciation of its musical and melodic subtleties. Its influence on Poker Face shines throughout. We can’t understand the complexity of music intelligently if we constantly compare music to a Euro centric conception of melodic development that no longer applies. Scruton seems to perversely limit music and its complexities by expecting the same kind of melodic development he found in European classics. The denial of the importance of Afro-American music in transforming contemporary music is part of the western racist ideologies that seem determined to position Afro-American music as inferior. Its time Scruton was able to really listen to and appreciate melodies in all their diversity and richness.

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