• Roger Scruton visits Groningen

    Music in a civilization under threat

    Surprise! Roger Scruton likes Radiohead. So what happened to the famous philosopher who believed pop music was gnawing away at the very foundations of Western civilization?

    Just look it up on the internet. Type ‘Roger Scruton on music’ in your Google search bar and see just how many articles and interviews pop up about the conservative philosopher and professor of aesthetics, and about his feelings on music. Bach, Mozart, Wagner… those classical composers’ music is infinitely elevated above the music we have today. Modern pop music is like a drug, pornography or fast food. It is addictive and numbs your senses. And yes, its popularity represents the decline of our Western civilization. That – in a nutshell – is what Scruton has written, said and thought.

    So when he asks to kill the jazz music softly playing in Hôtel de Ville in Groningen – a few hours before he’ll be delivering the annual GRIPh Faculty of Philosophy lecture in the Academy Building – it’s almost logical to assume that he doesn’t like it. Or does he?

    ‘I do like jazz music’, he says immediately. ‘I think it is a very amazing phenomenon. But that doesn’t alter the fact that the saxophone is an extremely irritating instrument and improvisation is an extremely irritating thing to listen to.’

    Is it only pop music then, that he hates so much? The philosopher – so very British country gentleman in his informal greens and yellow browns – again shakes his head. ‘Not all pop music of course. There are serious groups like Radiohead, who want to raise pop music out of the mud and make it into an articulate and sort of spiritual expression. And that is all to be admired. But on the whole pop music does not seem to hold a great deal of inspiration.’

    Consolation and insight

    He does have strong opinions, however, about the mainstream pop music you hear just simply turning on the radio. Especially because classical music is so very important to him, ever since the day he stumbled upon it as a 13-year-old. ‘I’ve always found in music not only consolation, but also the inadequacy of the rest of experience, insight into the human condition and what is emotionally and spiritually possible.’

    It’s this unique ability music has to make you feel and think that makes it a matter to take seriously. And too many people these days don’t. ‘The habit of not judging, of saying that anything goes. One has to make distinctions, between the good and the bad, the violent and the sub-horrific.’

    Music is an art form to reckon with. It’s addressed to a listener as a way to share a thought or a way of thinking through sound. ‘A complete representation of a state of mind’, as Scruton puts it. It resembles a facial expression that does not simply convey one emotion but many, yet is still immediately understood by the viewer.

    And that is where it all goes wrong. Pop music usually consists of small songs, clichés and simple rhythms. How can you compare that to a classical overture? ‘Like The Kooks’ Ooh La. That song was briefly at the top of the charts and it was just one note! And that sort of thing is very frequent.’


    The downfall started when jazz moved away from its origins, Scruton believes. When the drum kit came in as an independent instrument in bands. When it got replaced by a drum machine and synthesizers came in. ‘Much pop music now, certainly the things that hit the charts depends upon synthesizing music out of mechanically created sounds and pre-digested units.’

    Machines have taken over. ‘Then you take as the avatar for this meaningless sound some sexy person. And you put it into her mouth so that it looks as if she’s singing. To call that music to me is blasphemous.’

    That kind of music is addictive like pornography or fast food. ‘It fills up this hole where you should be really listening.’

    Too bad, one might say. You – Mr Scruton – are just old and conservative. Haven’t people always complained about the music of younger generations? ‘True’, says Scruton, who has himself composed three operas. However, it’s not the same. When you have a capacity – whether musical, mathematical, or physical, you should exercise it.

    ‘We know the heart of our civilization through music in a way we cannot easily do through anything else. We communicate not just with other people, but with other generations. Like Bach’s St Matthew Passion. The fact that such things exist makes available to us a vision of the world that is not only superior to ours, but has an awful lot to teach us about what we could be. It brings us in, through this collective activity of singing together, playing together and listening together.’

    Under threat

    What makes our Christian civilization so different from Islam, is that it has always communicated through music. ‘Our worship of God has always been musical’, Scruton says. ‘We don’t recite abstract verses that tell us what we should be doing. Bach was a Protestant. Out of Bach everything musical that we know now came. Collective singing and rejoicing has brought people together over the years.’ And it always was continuous with the music of the streets.

    No singing in the mosque, though. ‘Not the joyful cadence of allowing the voice to go in its own direction.’

    And because it is the heart of our civilization, it is as natural to us as it was to people living 300 years ago to enjoy and listen to music. It’s a language, Scruton says, but also a language that is slowly being lost. And that – says Scruton – is extremely worrying. Even though he finds it hard to imagine that something so attractive could be lost.

    Western civilization is under threat, he believes. From the inside: under threat from technology that has completely changed our attitude towards art. Almost everything is available with a single click on our laptop. We move fast and don’t take the time to read poetry, watch art or listen to an opera. But also from the outside: under threat from cultures, like Islam, that have different – and Scruton thinks – less attractive foundations.

    But isn’t it simply that times they are a-changing? As they have always done? Maybe, Scruton admits. ‘But that doesn’t mean you just accept what happens. We have the obligation to preserve what we value. Of course, after the Roman Empire collapsed things started again. But it took Western society 600 years to recover what was lost!’

     Here’s some links with information about Roger Scruton on music:

    The audio-recording of Scruton’s lecture yesterday evening.
    By his own hand: Music and Morality in the American Spectator
    An interview in The Guardian
    The music-section of his own website. Including some of his self-composed pieces.