The Moral Import of Pop Music

In a recent article for The American Roger Scruton argued that we should be selective of what music we should listen to because, he suggests, different music genres have a certain moral character that may alter that may in the course of time have a positive or negative impact on the moral development of listeners. Scruton claims that some of the terms we use to describe music (e.g. gentle, bold, etc.) indicate that we make a moral assessment of what is expressed by music. Additionally, just as our character is impacted by the kind of company we keep so it is also affected by the kind of music we listen to.

According to Scruton there are two ways that music can cause a reaction from a listener: “either by triggering it, as laughter is triggered by tickling, or by providing a proper object of it, so as to inspire a reflective form of sympathy.” Some music, including much modern pop (e.g. Lady Gaga’s Poker Face), can set up “addictive pathways” that side-step reflection and can act like a mood altering drugs and so, he suggests, we should consider why it is that we regulate drugs but not music.

In Scruton’s analysis much of modern pop music is deficient in terms of rhythm (much modern pop shouts at the listener instead of facilitating dancing with another person), melody (often merely the repetition of a single note) and harmony (which has no life of its own) when compared to examples of classical music composed by Beethoveen, Bach and Brahms. The movement that we recognize in music strongly influences whether we dance in a solipsistic, domineering way (as encouraged by modern pop) or else dance with other people around us (which he takes as typical of classical music). Scruton asks how it is that we can be expected to incline towards social cooperation and civility if we are only used to dancing in a non-social manner? In Scruton’s assessment it could be possibe to remedy pop music’s compositional defects but the contemporary music scene if left in its current form could have a negative impact on culture as a whole.

(As a side note: for a hilarious interpretation of Lady Gaga’s Poker Face by Christopher Walken click here; or perhaps you’d prefer a respectable rendition of Hard Day’s Night by Peter Sellers.)

Related articles:
Musical Expressiveness
Derek Matravers, The Open University
(Vol. 2, April 2007)
Philosophy Compass

Art, Morality and Ethics: On the (Im)Moral Character of Art Works and Inter-Relations to Artistic Value
Matthew Kieran, University of Leeds
(Vol. 1, March 2006)
Philosophy Compass


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