Roger Scruton, The Decline of Musical Culture (1997)



2.      Subjectivism/relativism in aes: Aesthetic value (or quality) is whatever a group or individual thinks it is

         a.      There is no “objective” standard of taste beyond preferences of a group or individual

                   i.       Anyone’s aes judgments as good as anyone else’s

         b.      No objective (rational) basis for determining good and bad, better and worse in art or aesthetic judgment

         c.      For defense see Ducasse “Tastes Cannot Be Disputed”

3.      Objectivism in aes: Judgments of aesthetic value (or quality) can be better or worse

         a.      While it may be (perhaps is) true that people are entitled to their own tastes (a political or moral judgment)

         b.      Some of those judgments of aesthetic value/quality (i.e., tastes) are better and some worse than others (an aesthetic judgment), more or less reasonable/justified/warranted/informed/thoughtful

         c.      For defense, see Beardsley’s “Tastes Can Be Disputed”

         d.      Don’t confuse the moral judgment (that people are entitled to their own tastes) with the aes judgment (the tastes people are entitled to have are equally good tastes)

                   i.       The second is an aesthetic or epistemological judgment

4.      Scruton is an objectivist

         a.      Rejects the defense of some pop musical genres--such as Grunge and Heavy Metal--based on relativism and subjectivism (viz., the claim that anyone’s preference in music is as good as anyone else’s)

         b.      Judgments of aesthetic value can be more or less reasonable, better and worse

         c.      Taste in music is not like taste in ice-cream (anything is fine, no better or worse)

5.      Examples: Michelangelo/Lonnie Holley, Rolling Stones/Hotie and the Blowfish, Bob Dylan/Wiz Kalifa

6.      Note: One can be an objectivist without being dogmatic

         a.      The dogmatist insists she’s right, ignores reasons for the opposing position, is ignorant of its claims (or even about the whole topic)

         b.      One could be an objectivist and a skeptic, claiming that while there are better and worse aes judgments, one does not know what they are

                   i.       Is Scruton a dogmatist?



8.      Scruton believes much contemporary popular music is aesthetically (and morally) deficient

         a.      Much modern pop is sound not music     

         b.      It is deficient in melody, treats harmony as if of no importance, and reduces rhythm to beat

         c.      Specifics:

                   i.       Dominating beat of percussion

                   ii.      “Anti-harmonic devices of power chord produced by electronic distortion”

                   iii.     Melodies get swamped by rhythm

                            (1)    Not just inability to understand the words, but the melody is lost

9.      Examples:

         a.      Nirvana's "Scentless Apprentice" or Dive

         b.      Rage Against the Machine - Bulls on Parade Lyrics

         c.      Hip-hop? Machine-Gun Kelly or Nicki Minaj’s Super Bass

10.    If this music sounds ugly, this is not important

         a.      It exist to take revenge on the world, to blow away the world

         b.      Is some of it meant to sound ugly?

11.    Today’s music (musicians) has/have enormous power over audience

         a.      Instead of listening to the music, audience listens through the music to the performers

         b.      Musicians become idols, a shaman dancing before his/her tribe

         c.      Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit

12.    Criticism of the music is received by fan as assault upon himself and identity

         a.      But given Scruton’s account of the importance of music to morality and character, the fan should see it this way!

13.    Scruton is NOT defending classical music against all popular music; he approves of some popular music

         a.      His criticism of REM, U2, AC/DC, Nirvana does not apply to:

                   i.       Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lois Armstrong, Glenn Miller and Ella Fitzgerald

                   ii.      “They are better in every way than above”

         b.      Dismissing all pop music shows same atrophy of aesthetic judgment he’s criticizing

         c.      Approves of the Beatles or Buddy Holly: To sing or move to their music involves “thinking and feeling musically, with awareness of the voice not only as sound but as expression of the soul”

                   i.       E.g., The Beatles “She loves you” has melody and harmony and is musically sophisticated

                   ii.      The breathless gestures of Nirvana are not



15.    Music is immensely important

         a.      Music plays a dominant role in virtually alll social gatherings, sacred or secular, formal or informal, ceremonial or friendly

         b.      Music is an invitation to join, an expression of feelings and hopes of participants

         c.      Music lends dignity and harmony to our gestures, raises them to a higher level

         d.      To withhold judgment about music–as though taste in music were like taste in ice-cream--is not to understand the power of music

16.    Bad music, bad morals, and permissive, egalitarian culture go together

         a.      Decline in musical culture is tied to decline in morals

                   i.       Acceptance of pop music reflects “triumph of a culture that refuses to control the behavior of people who can’t control themselves”

         b.      Decline in music/morals tied to a democratic egalitarian culture that treats all people, ideas, behaviors, and tastes as equal

17.    Democratic egalitarian culture and aesthetic relativism and subjectivism

         a.      This culture grants equality to every human type

                   i.       Beer guzzling TV watcher equal to the soldier who is willing to sacrifice his life for our country

         b.      “Democratic egalitarian culture” accepts every taste that does no obvious damage

                            (1)    Drugs, sex

         c.      “Modern music has broken loose from the channel of taste into the great ocean of equality”

18.    Good taste is sacrificed to popularity

         a.      How many views or likes is taken as a sign of aes value

19.    Scruton believes we have a duty to educate taste so as to distinguish between good and bad taste

         a.      Teacher who criticizes music of his pupils or tries to cultivate a love for the classics instead will be attacked as judgmental

                   i.       No adverse judgment in aesthetics is permitted

         b.      Is education of taste, aes judgment important?

         c.      Is there a duty to educate the tastes of one’s children?

                   i.       If so, must be a distinction between good and bad tastes

         d.      Is there a duty of society to help educate the taste of its citizens?

         e.      If so, this is an argument for public art and public funding of art

20.    Scruton is a conservative who opposes the liberal doctrine that government/society must remain neutral on conceptions of the good life (what is good in life)

         a.      Conservatives (like Scruton) believe a

                   i.       Legitimate role of society/government is to inculcate virtue in its citizens,

                   ii.      Rather than simply prevent them from harming others (the “liberal’s” view)



22.    Dancing and music closely related

         a.      Listening to music is latent (=present but not visible) dancing

                   i.       A sublimated desire to move with the music

23.    Dancing is (can/should be) an aesthetic response

         a.      Involves responding to music and other’s movement for its own sake; Dwelling on appearance of another’s gesture, finding meaning in that appearance, and matching it with a gesture of one’s own

         b.      One is dancing to the music only if one’s movements express attention to the music

24.    Dancing can be sincere or fake/sentimental, as can formal gestures at weddings and funerals

         a.      Sincere gesture of condolence distinct from sentimental fake

                   i.       Relate to other in his predicament or aimed backward at person who makes the gesture

         b.      Dancing too can be sincere (aimed at and responding sympathetically to the music or your partner) or self-indulgent (all about me)

25.    Taste in music and dancing matters as this is part of the moral dimensions of life

         a.      “Through free play of sympathy in fiction, our emotions can be educated and also corrupted”

                   i.       “One reason why art matters”

         b.      Applies to music and dance, as these involve sympathetic responses

         c.      These are empirical psychological claims that can be (and have been) tested (with mixed results?)

26.    Music has character and when singing or dancing we imitate this character and make it our own

         a.      Music a character-forming force and decline of musical taste a decline in morals

         b.      **Few things more important to educator than music pupils sing and dance to (!)

         c.      So must distinguish between music that fulfils our nature from music that destroys it

         d.      The lack of standards, purposes and alienation in Nirvana and REM reflects and reinforces the same in its listeners

27.    Summary: What kind of music we listen to and like can either educate or corrupt our emotions, just as can what we read and experience

28.    Dancing (and music) is a reflection of social character

         a.      Imagine the mores (=customs/values) of people who danced gavotte

         b.      Then listen to Nirvana and imagine mores of people who dance to that music

         c.      **These too sets of people could not live in the same way, with same habits of mind and character and same ways of responding to each other in social life

         d.      Is Scruton’s claim here undermined by this finding? Rock and Classical Music Lovers Have Similar Psychological Profiles

29.    Change in dance styles tells us much about change in culture

         a.      Transition from waltz to ballroom dancing, to ragtime to Charleston and Tango, to swing, to rock and its successors tell us much about moral transformations of modernity

         b.      Love, sex and body perceived differently now

         c.      Courtesy and courtship have disappeared from dancing just as they have disappeared from life

         d.      Dancing as a form of order and self-control has been replaced with frantic/frenzied dancing as social and sexual release

30.    Today we have a decay of dancing into exhibition and sexual display

         a.      Dancing has become sexual exhibition, as music available for dancing has no other meaning besides release

         b.      Requires neither knowledge nor self control

                   i.       For that would impede democratic right of everyone to enter into the fray

         c.      So no one really dances with anyone else

         d.      Each dancer exudes a narcissistic excitement that requires no acknowledgment from a partner besides similar gestures of display

         e.      Dance has become a lapse into disorder

         f.       Example?

31.    **Absolute music’s (=music w/o words) abstract nature doesn’t prevent it from influencing and reflecting social/moral character

         a.      People have no problem seeing why a taste for porn videos may be judged adversely

                   i.       No problems seeing why we should protect our children from acquiring that sort of taste

         b.      If pop music has words and images it attracts similar criticism

                   i.       E.g., Rap music with message of sustained aggression and violent images of music videos

                   ii.      Lil Wayne’s recent vulgar reference to Emmet Till

         c.      But Scruton has argued that words and images don’t exhaust meaning of music

         d.      They reinforce a message shaped and projected through tones

         e.      Even pure/absolute music has meaning and can shape character

32.    Questions about connection music and morals/culture

         a.      Does the music you listen to represent your values?

         b.      Does it reflect and affect who you are?

         c.      Can music change your values (for better or worse)?

                   i.       Music with words versus absolute music (w/o words)

         d.      Is a culture’s taste in music/art a measure of the worth of a culture?

         e.      Does a shift from Bach to Nirvana represent a decline in culture or a value-neutral shift in personal preferences?

Study questions for Scruton, The Decline of Musical Culture


1.      Explain the difference between aesthetic relativism, aesthetic subjectivism, and aesthetic objectivism. Which does Scruton embrace? What is a dogmatist? Is Scruton a dogmatist? Must an aesthetic objectivist be a dogmatist? Why or why not? Can an aesthetic objectivist agree that “everyone is entitled to his or her own tastes?” Why or why not?

2.      What are some of Scruton’s criticism of popular music? State them as forcefully as you can. Why does Scruton think fans of pop music do not listen to the music?

3.      Does Scruton reject all popular music as musically unsophisticated and equally deficient? Why or why not? Give examples.

4.      Does Scruton think music is relatively important or unimportant? Explain his reasons.

5.      Would Scruton support public funding of art? Why or why not? Does he think we have a duty to educate about people about good taste?

6.      As forcefully as you can, explain the connection between music, dance, social character, and morals that Scruton defends. Do you agree with him? Does the music you listen and dance to reflect and affect who you are?

7.      What is absolute music? Why might making Scruton’s case for the above connections be more difficult with absolute music?

8.      Why does Scruton object to “democratic egalitarian culture?”

9.      How does Scruton think we should dance and how does he think we in fact dance today?

Miscellaneous, extraneous and cut material below


10.    Pop music listening has given up on judgment of taste

11.    Idea of dancing as a from of order and self-control is dead

         a.      Now dance a form of social and sexual release, or else a spectator art, something others do, to be contemplated in passive silence

12.    Good and bad taste even in absolute, non rep music

13.    Some music breaks free of bounds of aes exp–loses all restraint and spill over into erotic or violent action



15.    Three important exp (forms of kn) of musical culture

16.    One: exp of melody; one tone calling to another; melodies have character and singing them we imitate that form of human life, rehearse our social nature


17.    Two: exp of harmony: voices sounding together, moving in concord, creating tensions and resolutions

18.    Three: Rhythm: something other than all pervasive beat, on which shapeless cries of singer are hung

         a.      Beat is the sad skeleton of rhythm, stripped bare of human life.


19.    Melody, harmony and rhythm distill centuries of social life, allowing us to reach out of ourselves into world were others exist, full of feeling but also ordered and disciplined but free

20.    Originally dance and singing came before silent listening

21.    Music as an otherworldly voice that speaks to us

22.    A voice that becomes more important to us as the sense of spiritual religious community dwindles

23.    Music does not need to refer to the empirical world, it can gesture to the true implied ideal community

24.    Be alert to things that pollute this higher community with the debris of our baser attitudes



26.    Aristocratic world view versus Democratic world view

27.    Aristocratic world view

         a.      instinctive aversion to what is vulgar, sentimental or commonplace


28.    Defenses of heavy metal say it has meaning

         a.      Expresses alienation and frustration

         b.      But they fail to distinguish between expressive and inexpressive instances of this


        Sympathetic emotions come out more in fiction than fact, because in fiction our interests that would diverge from sympathy are not at stake


         Musical exp, not merely perceptual, but depends on social context of expectations about performance and listening


          It is tonal (involves keys)

                   -        Melody feels closed only when rests on privileged tone

                   -        Other tones are heard in relation to being more or less close to the tonic

                 Schoenberg and Ives are 20th century composers given up on tonality

                 Some music of other cultures is not tonal?

                 Tonality is a paradigm of musical organization

                   -        Attempts to give it up show its authority over musical ear



              Dancing has obvious social consequences

              Can reinforced order and self-control or undermine it

                              Traditional dances had to be learned and were exercises in self control, not forms of abandon

                              Dancer was required to fit gestures to movement of partner and patterns of the whole


              Dancing and sex:

                              Dancing involves attitudes by which men and women come together in quest of a partner

                              Trading partners was a way to moderate sexual motive

                              Dancer may be prompted by desire, but dancing with people for whom he has no such emotion

                                -              Acknowledges their existence as sexual beings with gestures of innocent courtesy

                              Dance as a social rather than sexual occasion

                                -              Few occasions anymore when young man can dance with his aunt or a young girl with his boyfriend’s father


              So if our response to music is a kind of latent dancing, then taste in music matters (because taste in dancing matters morally/socially)

              Given our interest in music involves same kind of engagement as dancing, namely singing along with and joining in

                              Listening to music is also a reflection of social character

                              Music plays a role in education of character and helps forms habits (both good and bad)

              Search for objective musical values is one part of our search for the right way to live.


              Music is an invitation to sympathy

                              Sympathy can be directed at real or imagined situations (often more powerful in latter)

                              Free play of sympathy in fiction can educate and corrupt our emotions

                                -              One reason art matters

                              Response to music is sympathetic–a response to human life imagined in sounds we hear


              Relativism/subjectivism in art related to disorderly human communities

                              Scruton: only in culture where people not invested in properly ordered human community that relativism and subjectivism gain hold

              Music that does not demand aes discrimination is dehumanizing

                              Because we structure our social lives through expressive objects that demand aes discrimination, trivializing aes judgment denies our humanity

                              Society that has allowed such music to flourish has ceased to be a community

              Musical culture changed for the worse

                              Widespread indifference to “classical” music – music which demands attention for its own sake – represents nothing less than a crisis of culture


              **********All go together: Democratic culture, aes relativism, grunge and heavy metal music, disorder, alienation, dehumanization


        Monsters of pop culture threaten this order

        Much modern pop is cheerless and meant to be

                 A kind of negation of music

                 Dehumanizing of the spirit of song


        Pop music ceases to be music as sex love ceases to be love

        Alienation comes from this life–fear inadequacy and anger that result from trying to live w/o the blessings of the dead

                 Pop culture expresses it and

        Cheerlessness of so much pop music acknowledges that we live outside society


        Music a character-forming force and decline of musical taste a decline in morals

        The lack of standards, purposes and alienation in Nirvana and REM reflects and reinforces the same in its listeners


        To withhold all judgment–as though taste in music were like taste in ice-cream--is not to understand the power of music

        Music is god-given

                 Is hated by beings to whom god’s love does not extend

        Music cheers, soothes and pacifies

                 Threatens power of monsters who live by violence and lawlessness




        Democratic culture is essentially cultureless (Nietzsche but not Scruton?)

                 lacking aspirations that might be placed in literature and art

                 Humans no longer try to better themselves

                 Or strive toward inequality which is mark of truly human

                 But our democracy is capitalistic and here competition and inequality are central

        Culture is grounded in religion

                 when people begin to lose their faith

                 Stop exp their social membership in sacred terms

                 Culture begins to wither

                 Religion heals division of rank and class

        Our society is not merely democratic, but irreligious

                 Live in the present moment, the now

                 Deaf to the voices of absent generations

        Not only art and music that have undergone a fatal change, bur human psyche too

        Rule of substitution

                 any part of life has its equivalent

                 Attachment to particulars spouses and lovers, projects and ambitions, sacred places and true communities

                 Seems comic

        People lose all sense of sacral community and get locked in isolation of own desires

        Our religious impulse gets transferred to idols, and pop culture provides them and involves the worship of idols (false gods)

        Given our circumstances it is inevitable that pop music should be both sentimental and idolatrous


                 “Our (classical?) tradition of music is the richest and most fertile that has yet existed”