Skip to content

Standing up to Scrutony

Understanding Music: Philosophy and Interpretation
Roger Scruton
Continuum, 244pp, £18.99
ISBN 978-1-84706-506-3

That any book might ‘appeal both to specialists of philosophy and musicology and also to the ordinary music lover’ is perhaps a little optimistic. In the case of Understanding Music, however, it is – through either authorial arrogance or editorial blindness – wildly so.

It is Scruton’s genius that he dwells in the sort of intellectual outlands where graduate-level music and the philosophy of aesthetics may meet; alas for his prospective readers, he dwells there almost entirely alone. For this ‘ordinary music lover’ at least, the Professor’s latest was nigh on unreadable. If the proof of the Understanding is in the teaching (as it should be for even the most middling academic, let alone one of Scruton’s eminence), then let me say that if I had paid for this book I would now be demanding a refund on the grounds of misrepresentation.

In attempting to reveal ‘the deeper meaning of this mysterious art’ – more or less what I was expecting, from his (ill-considered and immodest) title – Scruton divides his subject into two parts: ‘Aesthetics’, containing individual chapters on sound, movement, expression, and rhythm (with a ‘Wittgenstein on Music’ chapter dropped into the middle, seemingly at random); and ‘Criticism’, in which he ostensibly ‘applies [his] argument to modern music’ by writing about Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner (twice) before discussing, in the final three chapters, Janacek and Schoenberg, Szymanowski, and Adorno – a man hardly famous for his contributions to the musical canon.

His ‘argument’, so far as I could identify one (s.), is that tonality is not dead and never was, being inherent in music/musicality and not, contra Schoenberg, an imposed system – a point obvious to most GCSE students. Later he identifies Mozart as a genius, Beethoven as a titan of humanity, and Wagner as more readily comprehensible if you know your myths and legends – all of which ditto. His entire chapter on ‘Movement’, meanwhile, is apparently reducible to the fact that notes, not being objects, don’t actually move…

This is not, as advertised, a music book with a philosophical angle, but rather the other way around: hence Adorno. In either case, philosophy is supposed to clarify, not obscure (sure, Scruton defines a ‘secondary object’ and a ‘pure event’ – though I’m still in the dark on ‘noumenon’ and ‘Entäusserung‘ – but that’s hardly the point). Worse, and crucially, it is not a book at all, but a collection of essays, journal articles and speeches, originally written in isolation and for various publications, and now bound together without even the courtesy/pretence of some bridging material.

Anything of genuine interest gleaned from this turgid and unrewarding volume – a valuable working definition of ‘kitsch‘, for example, or remarks on the broad church of American popular music – is generally incidental, often of a purely factual nature, and always at risk of being submerged in the murk of philosophical jargon and impenetrable prose. The only brief moments of levity come when Scruton lambastes other writers for their incomprehensible, hyper-theoretical postures – and when he attempts to extend his own ‘argument’ to cover Metallica.

For Music Teacher. Not published.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *