Thursday, July 28, 2011

Music and Philosophy

In the header to this blog I mention classical music, popular culture and philosophy, but I haven't given you any philosophy yet, right? Well, not so. Due to a youthful exposure to philosophy (at one point I seriously considered switching my major) a bit of it permeates all my thinking.

I recently read a book, Understanding Music: Philosophy and Interpretation by Roger Scruton. While I find some of his ideas a bit puzzling, he really hits the nail on the head sometimes. He points out some interesting consequences of the criticism of Theodor Adorno, the critical theorist and composition student of Alban Berg. Adorno was vehemently dismissive of all popular music. In this blanket condemnation he opened the door for a later generation of musicologists to the inverse proposition that popular music must be accepted in its entirety. As Scruton says,
A blanket criticism is no criticism at all. Hence, when pop dawned on the world of musicology it was as a field of study in which the critic was denied a voice. It is precisely in this way that Adorno has been useful to the postmodern musicologist. By presenting judgment as a form of total condemnation, Adorno consigned judgement to the dustheap. He presented the musicological world with a dichotomy that facilitated the very view that he abhorred. Either total condemnation, or 'anything goes'. It is only by making discriminations within the realm of popular music that we can encourage young people to recognize the difference between genuine musical sentiment and kitsch, between beauty and ugliness, between the life-affirming and the life-denying, the inspired and the routine--in short between The Beatles and U2.
 Heh. I love the last, throw-away, smear of U2 and I wish he had gone on to some specifics. In this blog, I very much believe in valid criticism as you may have noticed. In fact, it's all about criticism and I try my best to show that it is ultimately a positive force. We are inundated with music of all kinds, from all cultures and all times. Only some of it is really worth our time. How do we sort it out?


Ironically, Lennon was sued by Chuck Berry for plagiarism because one line of the lyrics references a Chuck Berry lyric. I pretty much chose these two songs at random, though after picking the U2 song, I did try and find a Beatles tune that was not in a wildly different style. Listen to them and see if you think that Scruton had a point. Is the U2 song cliched and lifeless compared to the Lennon song?

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