Roger Scruton, The Decline of Musical Culture (1997)



2.       Relativism/subjectivism: Aesthetic value is whatever a group or individual thinks it is

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

          b.       No objective basis or rule for measuring good and bad, better and worse in art or aesthetic judgment

          c.       (1) Everyone is entitled to his or her own tastes and (2) none can be said to be better or worse than any other

                    i.        The objectivist can accept the first, but will reject the second

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

3.       Objectivism: Judgments of aesthetic value can be better or worse (for defense see Beardsley, Tastes Can Be Disputed)

          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 (i.e., tastes) are better and some worse than others (an aesthetic 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.       Can be an objectivist without being dogmatic

          a.       Dogmatist: Insists he’s right, ignores reasons for the opposing position and is even ignorant of its virtues



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

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

          b.       Much modern pop is the negation of music, sound not music   

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

                    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

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

                    i.        Is some of it meant to sound ugly?

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

          f.       For example, Nirvana’s song Dive

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

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

9.       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 is not



11.     Music is immensely important

          a.       Our civilization bound up with music as no other

          b.       All social gatherings, sacred or secular, formal or informal, ceremonial or friendly, music has played dominant role

          c.       Invitation to join, an expression of feelings and hopes of participants

          d.       Lends dignity and harmony to our gestures, raises them to a higher level

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

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

          a.       Decline in musical culture is tightly tied to decline in morals and both tied to a democratic egalitarian culture that treats all people, ideas, behaviors, and tastes as equal

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

13.     Democratic egalitarian culture and aesthetic relativism

          a.       Grants equality to every human type

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

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

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

          d.       No adverse judgment in aesthetics is permitted

          e.       Good taste is sacrificed to popularity

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

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

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

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

          d.       This could be used as an argument for public art and public funding of art

15.     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 legitimate role of society/government is to inculcate virtue in its citizens, rather than simply prevent them from harming others (the “liberal’s” view)



17.     Dancing and music closely related for Scruton

          a.       Listening to music is latent (=present but not visible) dancing; a sublimated desire to move with the music

          b.       Experience at a concert is a kind of truncated dance: listener may tap our feet and sway subliminally; absorbed by movement of the music

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

          a.       Involves responding to music and other’s movement for its own sake

          b.       Dwelling on appearance of another’s gesture, finding meaning in that appearance, and matching it with a gesture of one’s own

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

19.     Dancing is (should be) communal

          a.       Involves joining in with the music and other people

          b.       A way of being together

20.     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.       In learning these sincere gestures (manners?) you enter into a common culture with neighbors

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

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

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

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

                    i.        “One reason why art matters”

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

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

22.     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

23.     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

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

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

          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

25.     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

26.     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.       Surrender of body that anticipates sexual act itself


27.     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

          c.       But he’s 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


28.     Questions to consider

          a.       Connection music and morals/culture:

                    i.        Does the music you listen to represent your values? Does it reflect and affect who you are?

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

                              (1)     Music with words versus absolute music (w/o words)

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

          c.       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?