Roger Scruton (and Brian Kane) on Sound, Music and Noise

by Dave Maier

I’ve tried a couple of times already, in this space, to make sense of the relations between sound, noise, and music. (See here and here) (also here). Here’s another chapter in that ongoing story.

KaneIf music is the art of tone, and noise is not, then we need to understand how noise differs from mere sound. (We could interchange these terms, and speak of the art of sound as opposed to mere noise, but I want to make the link to what we often, perhaps carelessly, call “noise music”.) A key issue is the denotational content, or lack thereof, of sound. Two opposed views each seem too extreme. “Acoustic ecologists” like R. Murray Schafer see the denotational function of sound as essential to sound art, regarding other, non-documentary types of sound art as “mediated”, cutting us off from our natural acoustic environment for dubious aesthetic ends. In response, noise artists like Francisco López promote “absolute listening,” which attempts to hear sound in itself, completely independent of its cause or referent. López thus demands “the freedom of a painter” (who can use colors and forms freely, without representational intent, if he so desires).

In so doing, López explicitly enlists Pierre Schaeffer’s “acousmatic” conception of the objet sonore. But this is not quite right. As Brian Kane points out, in an interesting book I have been reading, in this Schaefferian tradition “acousmatic sound” is defined not as sound regarded for its own properties (let alone aesthetic ones), but simply as sound heard without seeing its cause. This need not require the “reduced” or “absolute” listening we may or may not use in approaching sound aesthetically. Kane’s point, which seems good to me (much as I admire López), is that there are many cases in which a sound is detached from its source, or its source is invisible to us, other than in Schaefferian sound art, and we shouldn’t let what we say about the latter determine what we say about the former; and most of Kane’s book is about these other cases. We might then go on to wonder whether that analysis was right even about the narrower case, given how it mangles the wider one, if it does.

Kane also criticizes philosopher Roger Scruton for a similar conflation. Scruton’s concern is not Schaefferian sound art, or sound in general, but the art of music, and in his magisterial magnum opus The Aesthetics of Music (1997) he attempts nothing less than deriving an entire philosophy of music and musical culture from the metaphysics of sound. Leaving the technical complexities of Scruton’s argument at this stage (his chapter 1) to one side, let it suffice to note that it would really help his cause to think of four conceptually distinct things – (1) acousmatic listening, hearing a sound without seeing its source; (2) “reduced” listening, focusing on those properly acoustic properties of sound, without regard to its source; (3) aesthetic listening, focusing on aesthetically relevant properties of a sound; and (4) attending primarily to tones (notes) – as more or less the same thing (see Kane pp. 136-8).

ScrutonOne immediate result of Scruton’s approach is that a great deal of non-musical sound art is rendered virtually conceptually impossible. This is no concern of his, naturally, as he wants to talk about music, not non-music, and we might be tempted to settle here for an amicable divorce between the two. But our concern with non-musical sound is not limited to noise artists like Merzbow or López. And Scruton himself will, not surprisingly, have some pungent cultural observations about such noisy music as Nirvana and (in his eyes) similarly degenerate pop music; so we need to understand how this all is supposed to work.

I should stress at the outset that I really, really like Scruton’s book, and think that he is lamentably underrated as a philosopher. I think this is less because of what he would call his unfashionably conservative views and more because of his dismissive and prickly tone (plus there is apparently a lot of personal bad blood between him and certain leftist philosophers in the UK, about which I don’t know a whole lot so I can’t comment on it) – although of course his philosophy isn’t (any more than mine is, for rather different reasons) methodologically fashionable either. For all it goes off the rails at the end, and (as we’ve seen) fudges some important distinctions at the beginning, most of the book is very carefully and insightfully argued, and displays Scruton’s uncanny ability to use precisely the right musical example for each point he makes (again, except at the end). So I want to spend the rest of my time today unpacking Scruton’s broader points, to see how we might react (that is, constructively) to his blinkered conception of noise.

Scruton is impressed, he says at the outset, by how his entire view of musical culture – “that the ordering of sound as music is an ordering of the soul” (p. ix) – follows directly from the nature of sound. To understand what he means by the latter ordering, let’s start at that end and work backwards. As we’ll see, Scruton believes that modern culture has lost its sense of the sacred, and modern musical culture, especially pop culture, reflects and contributes to this decline.

Like that of many conservatives, then, Scruton’s aesthetic gripes are based in his conception of morality. While not simply a “virtue ethicist”, Scruton does believe that the proper exercise of morality (that is, even as characterized by adherence to moral rules) requires the prompting, in those virtuous enough to feel them, of “social emotions” like guilt and remorse. Naturally enough, this is only possible in a social context, which leads to two further observations. First, experiencing these emotions requires perceiving in the world such things as rights and duties, and thus “situating [ourselves] in some way outside the natural order, standing back from it in judgment.” Second, since this is a matter not simply of acting but of perceiving and feeling, the social order which makes this possible is “a precarious thing, which cannot be sustained by law alone” (An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy (1996), pp. 114-5).

A final requirement is piety, that humility and reverence (not necessarily, Scruton emphasizes, for anything so specific as a deity) which “instils the readiness to be guided and instructed” in moral matters. But while it is rational for us to be pious in this sense, and thus to join the moral community, it is not something, any more than is virtue, to be legislated, by reason any more than law. To look to law (or, for similar reasons, to utilitarian philosophy) to settle moral disagreements, Scruton believes, is to mistake the nature of our situation as human beings in a natural world. Conversely, to make that latter error threatens the fragile conditions only under which moral life is possible for us. This will give a particular spin to the time-honored conservative complaint about the immorality of (for example) rock music.

I can’t do justice to the multifaceted nature of Scruton’s charge here (see the final chapter of The Aesthetics of Music), but we can already see its broad outline. Some of what he says is simply comically tone-deaf (“The electric guitar owes much of its appeal to the fact that it is strapped on and brandished like a dildo”; and much is made (here in an analogous part of another book, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture (2000), an admirably succinct work) of the use of “machines” like the “electronic synthesiser”). It is also customary to deplore (not wrongly!) the cult of the performer and its unavoidable trivialization of the music performed, as well as the change in that music’s status from activity to spectacle. Our concern here, though, is the specifically metaphysical significance Scruton sees in the music’s form – and indeed not (primarily) to refute his views but instead to see why it would be natural, if those were one’s concerns, to do at the crucial juncture what he does.

As we’ve seen, Scruton takes musical listening to be essentially concerned to focus on (abstract) tone as distinctly opposed to (merely physical) sound. It is in this that its moral significance lies. Just as we enter the moral realm by learning to see other creatures as fellow moral agents bound together by rights and duties (and not just physical forces), we enter the musical realm by learning to hear the play of tones, as fundamentally opposed to the sounds that convey it to us (or worse, interfere with same). In this sense, Scruton agrees with Nick Smith (see my earlier post on noise) that noise and music are oil and water; but there is more to Scruton’s criticism of, e.g. Nirvana, than the mere get-off-my-lawn gripe that “that’s not music, it’s just noise”. For Nirvana isn’t “just noise,” it’s bad music, which is worse: a perversion of the good, not just something else.

One way Scruton makes this point is in terms of dancing. His point is not that rock music leads to dancing (!), but that the dancing it encourages simply reflects the metaphysical disorder of the music itself. In the good kind of dancing, we jointly submit to abstract, pre-ordained rules handed down from our predecessors; while to dance to rock music is simply to move your body any which way. Crucially, “the gestures that attend the new forms of dancing require an abdication of music to sound”: in Nirvana’s “Dive”, for example, the etiolated melody, the vague harmony, and pounding beat do not simply ignore musical space but obliterate it, leaving us stuck in the physical world, cut off from the abstract realm of morality and the ever-retreating sacred.

Also relevant to the conceptual possibility of extra-musical sound art are Scruton’s views on the characteristically modern artforms of photography and cinema, which seem to him not sufficiently to distance themselves, metaphysically speaking, from the natural world, which they seem simply to document, not allowing the (visual) artist to perform their proper role: that of representing a physical object (a painting) as something it is not (the world it represents), in order (again) to suggest a movement away from the physical toward the ideal. This too is a very carefully worked out argument, which we will have to put aside for now (see e.g. the relevant chapters of The Aesthetic Imagination (1983)).

For now, and to conclude, let us return to the metaphysical status of music and sound in Scruton’s argument. Scruton does acknowledge that certain works of “music” are difficult to interpret in any way as the play of tones; but given that that’s not where his interest lies, he takes what in this context seems to me to be the properly insouciant attitude (albeit snarkily conveyed): “Some may argue that the electronic noises produced on a computer by such ‘radical’ composers as Dennis [sic] Lorrain are music”, and there are other “deviant” examples to tempt the philosopher into accommodating them into an all-encompassing theory. [I had to Google that name, but as it happens, Denis Lorrain is a French/Canadian academic composer with IRCAM associations, which may tell us all we need to know.] However, “[w]hat is to count as music depends upon our decision; and it is a decision made with a purpose in mind. That purpose is to describe, the kind of interest we have in a Beethoven symphony.” We may put off, perhaps forever, then, the question of whether “this or that modernist or postmodernist experiment is a work of music,” as “[t]he best way of summarizing these central instances is to say that they each achieve … a transformation of sounds into tones” (pp. 16-7). And now the argument can continue.

So even after several dense pages about the metaphysics of sound, which seemed to leave a conceptual gap between, on the one hand, the “acousmatic reduction” of sounds-of-the-world into sounds-in-themselves, and, on the other, the “transformation of sounds into tones," it turns out that since we’re really not interested in that gap anyway we can just ignore it for our purposes, and simply identify the two.

Again, this might not matter, if all we cared about really were the “central instances of the art.” But once we move past Beethoven (and Ravel and Shostakovich), things get wonky. If, when we tried to apply our hard-won wisdom about “music” to other things, our theorist were simply to say, “well, this account wasn’t really meant to apply to such things, just Beethoven and things like that,” that might seem parochial or narrow-minded, but it would at least recognize the limits we acknowledged at the beginning. But we’ve already seen that “noisy music” has to count for Scruton as music done badly, rather than something else borrowing from or overlapping music and possibly thereby done well, whatever that might mean. This is a question Scruton has (unavoidably, but, again, naturally) cut himself off, by his focus on Beethoven as central, from even addressing (whatever we might end up saying about things like Nirvana in particular, of whom I have to say I am not a big fan). We will pick up that slack by addressing it ourselves when we get the chance. So stay tuned!