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Music, Metaphor and Society: Some Thoughts on Scruton1

  • Robert Grant (a1)


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I am most grateful to Roger Scruton and Guy Dammann for their comments on the penultimate version of this article. They are not to blame for any remaining inadequacies.



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2 References to this work are indicated henceforth by unprefixed page numbers in the main text.

3 ‘Sound and Fury’, Prospect, no. 26, January 1998.

4 It is hard to see, in fact, how one could dissent from them while continuing, with Levinson, to treat music as music rather than as a purely acoustic or sensory event, which seem to be the only realist alternatives. (Deryck Cooke's exhaustively-documented claim that music is substantially a language, with an established vocabulary, is surely not ‘realist’ in any strict sense.) This is not to say that ‘phenomenological-idealist’ assumptions must be valid across the entire range of human experience. Only a post-modernist would think them applicable (e.g.) to science.

5 The Philosophical Review, Vol. 109, No. 4 (October 2000), 608614.

6 Calling itself a ‘discourse on music’, the first half of Ch. 10 of Perictione in Colophon (South Bend: St Augustine's Press, 2000, 208223) illustrates many of the main ideas behind The Aesthetics of Music in dramatically vivid and compressed form.

7 Mass delusions are shared too, but concern objective states of affairs from which they are distinct, and against which they can be measured. The experiences of which I speak are themselves the objective state of affairs.

8 Scruton, The Aesthetics of Music, 13, 338

9 Scruton, The Aesthetics of Music, 12, 10

10 Scruton, The Aesthetics of Music, 19ff. etc.

11 When an actual tone is made to ‘slide’ up or down, it seems as though we cannot continue to call it a tone (since we think of tones as having fixed pitches). So what are we to call it? Glissandi in music are sometimes virtual, being no more than very rapid runs (e.g. on the harp, or when swiped with a thumb- or fingernail on the piano), in other words a blurred succession of tones. But there are true glissandi too, where the initial tone is made to increase or decrease in frequency without a break, as with a slide trombone, a violin, or even a clarinet, as at the beginning of Rhapsody in Blue. ‘Sound’, though it is a sound, will hardly do for such an effect. I think we must call it a note, as distinct from a tone. (Or is that insufficiently distinct? The distinction does not exist at all in German, where Ton serves for both, and Note only for the written sign.) Both true and virtual glissandi exhibit ‘movement’ from one discrete pitch to another. Vibrato, however, because it oscillates about a central pitch, is named for that pitch (tone). (The latter is actually sounded, unlike the mean pitch between the two tones of a trill. For some reason this unheard mean pitch is not imaginatively ‘deduced’ or ‘averaged out’ from them by the mind's ear.) On the other hand (but consistently), we generally speak of a note's, rather than a tone's, being ‘bent’, e.g. by an acoustic guitarist's sideways finger pressure, or an electric guitarist's ‘whammy bar’. (As in jazz we speak of a ‘blue note’, not a blue tone, in the melody. This, though it may be accurately described, and written, as fully flattened in relation to the the equivalent note in the harmony – E flat as opposed to E natural, where the key is C major, say, and the instrument one of fixed pitches, such as the piano – is still somehow perceived as being ‘bent’ away from its normative pitch, and not as a separate, named tone in its own right.)

12 Scruton, The Aesthetics of Music, 160ff.

13 By this criterion one might have to concede that the chimes of a clock or electric doorbell were musical tones, though hardly that the result was music.

14 Scruton, The Aesthetics of Music, 87, etc.

15 A Gestalt is defined inter alia as ‘an organized whole’, or as one that, presented to our perception, is more than, and different from, the sum of its parts (i.e. is supervenient). See, e.g. Christian von Ehrenfels, ‘On Gestalt-Qualities’ (1932): ‘The theory of Gestalt-qualities began with the attempt to answer a question: What is melody? First and most obvious answer: the sum of the individual notes which make up the melody. But opposed to this is the fact that the same melody may be made up of quite different groups of notes, as happens when the self-same melody is transposed into different keys. If the melody were nothing else than the sum of the notes, different melodies would have to be produced, because different groups of notes are here involved.’ (Psychological Review, Vol. 44 [1937], 521524.) See also Köhler, Wolfgang, Gestalt Psychology (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1930), 165, 212, 223 etc. As can be seen at a glance from his index, Scruton leans heavily on the Gestalt-idea, his use of it being admirably summarized and clarified by Alison Denham on 415 of her outstandingly conscientious review article concerning The Aesthetics of Music. See Denham, A.E., ‘The Moving Mirrors of Music’, Music and Letters, Vol. 80, No. 3 (August 1999), 411432.

16 In an interesting, sympathetic review of The Aesthetics of Music (Music Perception, Vol. 15, No.4 [1998], 412422), the experimental psychologist Bruno H. Repp notes that ‘the purely auditory properties of speech sounds … are less important and partially inaccessible in the context of coherent and meaningful speech’ (414). I was puzzled as a child (and still am) by the curious fact that, try as one will, one cannot see a printed word simply (or even) as – what it is – a series of black marks on a white background, but is invariably compelled not only to see it as that word but even to ‘hear’ it in one's head. (By contrast, as I remark in both this and the following paragraph, and though we normally hear music simply as music, we do seem also to be able, at will, to hear it purely as sound.)

17 H.P. Grice, ‘Meaning’ (1957), reprinted in Grice, Paul, Studies in the Way of Words (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), 213223. This is not to say, of course, that what is ‘communicated’ in music is anything like a declarative utterance (i.e. propositional), let alone a piece of emotional autobiography (‘this is how I feel’), though it may well resemble (e.g.) fictional utterances.

18 Scruton, The Aesthetics of Music, 17

19 Scruton, The Aesthetics of Music, 16, 17, 39, 94, etc.

20 Scruton, The Aesthetics of Music, 44, 90, 94

21 See Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, §240. He calls the Prelude ‘a piece of magnificent, gorgeous, heavy, latter-day art’, but of course that is exactly how Wagner means us to regard the Mastersingers' theme with which it opens. Later in the paragraph Nietzsche seems visited by a fleeting suspicion to this effect, but ignores it and ploughs on with his denunciation regardless.

22 They would also be inconceivable among the genuinely tone-deaf, whose misfortune it is to be unable to perceive a theme as expressing anything very much, since they cannot clearly distinguish the pitches, and sometimes not even the general ‘upness’ or ‘downness’, of its component notes. (Tone-deaf people, however, are often responsive to rhythm, which plays an important part in expression.)

23 Diary of Comte Charles de Zinzendorf et Pottendorf (Staatsarchiv, Vienna), Tuesday 5th October 1762: ‘L'ambassadrice trouva la musique de l'air Che farò senza Euridice? trop gaie pour un homme qui veut se tuer, elle dit cependant que l'ensemble faisoit un fort beau spectacle.’ (Quoted in Brown, Bruce Alan, Gluck and the French Theatre in Vienna [Oxford: Clarendon Press 1991], 369. I am grateful to Dr Guy Dammann for tracking this distantly-remembered reference down for me.) The point was later picked up by the French writer Pascal Boyé, as reported by Hanslick: ‘At a time when thousands were moved to tears by the air from Orpheus … [quotes ‘Che farò’ in French, and the music in piano score] … Boyé, a contemporary of Gluck, observed that precisely the same melody would accord equally well, if not better, with words conveying exactly the reverse' (Eduard Hanslick, Vom Musikalisch-Schönen, Ch. 2, in Lippman, E.A., ed., Musical Aesthetics: a Historical Reader [New York: Pendragon Press, 1986-], Vol. II, 275–6). Boyé's essay (1779) is aptly summarized in its title, ‘L'Expression musicale, mise au rang des chimères’, the burden being that expression is not intrinsic to the music but is essentially a feature of performance. An extract is given in Lippman, Vol. I, 285–294, the comment on ‘Che farò’ being on 290. As part of his proto-Hanslickian argument, Boyé claims that because, according to him, music cannot express hate or rage, neither can it other emotions. He had not the advantage of having heard the episode in Act 1 of Götterdämmerung known as ‘Hagens Wacht’, nor the Prelude and first scene of Act 2 (Hagen's subliminal visitation from Alberich), nor the Prelude to Act 2 of Parsifal (introducing Klingsor).

24 See, e.g. Cumming, Naomi, ‘Metaphor in Roger Scruton's aesthetics of music’, in Pople, Anthony, ed., Theory, Analysis and Meaning in Music (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 328; Boghossian, Paul, ‘On Hearing the Music in the Sound: Scruton on Musical Expression’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 60, No. 1, Winter 2002, 4955; Budd, Malcolm, ‘Musical Movement and Aesthetic Metaphors’, British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 43, No. 3, July 2003, 209223; Roger Scruton, ‘Musical Movement: a Reply to Budd’, ibid., Vol. 44, No. 2, April 2004, 184–7. Naomi Cumming's essay is based on Scruton's earlier musical aesthetics, as expounded in his The Aesthetic Understanding (Methuen, 1983), but is equally relevant to The Aesthetics of Music, into which they are largely incorporated. If these commentators are perplexed – as who is not? – it is due as much to the slipperiness of metaphor as a concept, as to Scruton's treatment of it. (An example of such slipperiness: ‘length’ is predicated of both space and time, and sometimes of both at once, as in ‘a long journey’. Unless we are students of rhetoric, do we ever ask ourselves which usage, the spatial or the temporal, is metaphorical and which literal? Does it really matter? If so, how would we set about deciding the issue? Could each perhaps be ‘half-and-half’, or is that idea ridiculous? Cannot both be literal? And so on.)

25 Scruton, The Aesthetics of Music, 80–96, 239, etc.

26 Words such as ‘harmony’, ‘consonance’ and ‘dissonance’ possess a literal meaning in their own right. Those were musical terms to start with, and, so far from being metaphors themselves, are the source of metaphorical applications outside music, as in ‘harmony’ to mean peace or agreement, and ‘dissonance’ conflict, as in the expression ‘cognitive dissonance’. In Greek harmonia, for musical harmony, actually is a metaphor, the word literally meaning ‘joining’ or ‘fitting together’. But in English the first recorded use of ‘harmony’ is in the musical sense. See OED, ‘harmony’, etymology and senses 4 and 5.

27 Derrida himself admits that ‘to read within a concept the hidden history of a metaphor is to privilege diachrony at the expense of system’, i.e. is etymologically deterministic and thus illegitimate (Margins of Philosophy, tr. Bass, Alan [Brighton: Harvester Press, 1982]). 215). It is current, not past, use that determines meaning. If I use, say, the words concetto or Begriff in their everyday senses, while being quite unaware of their roots in a (presumably) once-live ‘grasping’ metaphor, then I am not speaking metaphorically. Moreover, neither am I doing so even if I use them knowing their derivation: ‘It is use in discourse that specifies the difference between the literal and the metaphorical, and not some sort of prestige attributed to the primitive or the original’ (Ricoeur, Paul, The Rule of Metaphor, trans. Czerny, R. [London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978], 291).

28 Scruton, The Aesthetics of Music, 49ff

29 The observation seems to have originated in Zuckerkandl, Viktor, Sound and Symbol: Music and the External World (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1969), 83.

30 An impressive attempt, from the standpoint of ‘conceptual metaphor’, to answer this and related questions comes to my attention just as I submit the present piece in typescript. It is ‘“Something in the Way She Moves” – Metaphors of Musical Motion’, by the philosopher Mark Johnson (co-author with George Lakoff of Metaphors We Live By) and the musicologist Larson, Steve, in Metaphor and Symbol, Vol. 18, No. 2 [2003], 6384. They conclude that movement in music is both real and metaphorical, and ‘no less real for being a product of human imagination’ (77). It is also grounded, they say, in our experience of physical movement. Astonishingly, they make no reference to Scruton, with whom they have so many points of contact.

31 The Meaning of Conservatism (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980), 3638, 98.

32 As any dictionary entry shows, words acquire new applications by what looks like metaphorical extension. But, proper nouns apart, since a word's original application already covers a diversity of particulars perceived nevertheless to possess enough in common to deserve the same name, there is nothing anomalous about bringing further phenomena under the same semantic umbrella whenever it seems appropriate to do so, whether we call the process metaphorical or not. An ordinary designation flatly assumes or asserts the similarity pro tanto of the various items it denotes, whereas metaphor, rather, invites an imaginative perception of similarity. The object, at least of the first, is to give us a handle on specifics, more especially to enable us to communicate them, by successively narrower qualifications of items within an agreed general category. (Not just ‘a table’, but ‘the new pine table in John's kitchen’; not any old cat, but ‘the black cat we saw in the garden yesterday’.) The system of reference in language is (let us hazard) not unlike that used in a library, and has a similar purpose, of enabling us to locate things.

33 So does simile, but the rhetorical logic differs. Simile says that X is like Y, which may be true; metaphor, in effect, says that X actually is Y, when it is literally and manifestly not. The imaginative force, or so-called ‘truth’, of a successful metaphor may derive from its literal falsehood. It is a kind of exaggeration to say that X is Y, when it is only like Y, but the hyperbole, as in other contexts, lends emphasis. Further, a simile is an assertion, to be accepted or rejected; but a metaphor, being literally untrue, and understood to be so by both speaker and listener, demands interpretation, a cognitive effort which may well prove more enlightening than a mere statement of resemblance.

34 Scruton, The Aesthetics of Music, 86

35 There seems to be some evidence that ‘height’ and ‘depth’, as applied to pitch, are universal human usages, independently of cross-cultural influence, and thence effectively ‘natural’. (Not that this explains anything. Rather, it demands explanation itself.)

36 It may be asked in what sense Schiller's Ode to Joy is ‘fictional’, since, although people do not normally speak in verse, this is pretty clearly the poet speaking in his own person. The ‘thought’ contained in the poem is evidently not entertained, as in fiction generally, but asserted (to use Scruton's distinction on pages 88–9). The poem is a kind of manifesto, like Wordsworth's Immortality Ode. But I cannot pursue this question here.

37 The point was, through symbolism, to make apprehensible something thought to exist but to be apprehensible by no other route. See, in general, Edmund Wilson, Axel's Castle, Ch. 1: ‘What the symbols of Symbolism really were, were metaphors detached from their subjects.’ A near-perfect illustration is Kafka's The Castle, in which, though something is clearly being allegorized, it is not quite clear what. (Who is the elusive castellan? God? And so on.) Contrast this with The Pilgrim's Progress, which is generically very similar, but in which Bunyan even tells us, through their names, what his symbols mean: Giant Despair, the Slough of Despond, Doubting Castle, etc.

38 Though he gave each movement of his most pictorial composition a programmatic title, Beethoven himself said of the so-called Pastoral Symphony that it was ‘more the expression of feeling than painting in sound’. His titles for the two outer movements stress the ‘feeling’ element, an element which, to the listener, predominates even in the storm scene (4th movement), despite its striking ‘realism’. (By ‘realism’ I mean that even without the programme one might easily guess that the music was intended to suggest a storm, with rain, wind, thunder, lightning, etc.)

39 The World as Will and Idea, Vol. I, Book 3, §52. One need not accept Schopenhauer's metaphysics to see that these few pages contain some remarkably profound, detailed and informed reflections on the least readily explicable of the arts (yet also, as he rightly observes, the only one which is immediately and universally understood). It should however be added that if music, as Schopenhauer claims, is either the Will itself or a ‘direct copy’, it can hardly deliver us from our blind servitude to it, in the manner alleged of the other arts, viz. through aesthetic contemplation. (How far, then, can it really be called an art?)

40 It would not be unreasonable, however, to claim that the representational arts also ‘present’ something, but do so by means of representation.

41 Scruton, The Aesthetics of Music, 452

42 In a TV interview broadcast during his lifetime, whose details I have tried in vain to retrieve. Someone other than I will remember it, and doubtless them too.

43 Leavis's original formulation of this principle (which some would deny that he himself consistently observed) was in his notorious Richmond Lecture ‘Two Cultures? The Significance of C.P. Snow’, first printed in the Spectator, March 9th, 1962, and subsequently reprinted elsewhere.

44 Scruton, The Aesthetics of Music, 362, 376

45 The Aesthetics of Music contains some lengthy, highly technical discussion of Schenker's theories (see esp. pages 313–329). In music theory the Roman numerals I, IV, V etc. represent standard triads (three-note chords made up, when in so-called ‘root position’, of two stacked thirds) built on the corresponding degrees of the diatonic scale, so that in the key of C major (the piano's white notes) I = C-triad, V = G-triad, and so on. Capitals are used for major triads, small letters for minor, so the D-triad is ii and the E-triad iii, because their harmony (on the white notes) is minor.

46 I am informed by Guy Dammann, however, that ‘Murray Perahia swears by Schenker, although he is unusual’ [in so doing].

47 An analogy: suppose the theme, by the publisher Anton Diabelli, of Beethoven's towering, sublimely inventive Diabelli Variations had been lost, but (impossibly) that some brilliant musicologist such as Schenker had accurately reconstructed it from Beethoven's variations, and was then vindicated by its subsequent discovery. It would still be the mere ‘cobbler's patch’ that Beethoven described it as being, despite the wondrous things, like gold from straw, that Beethoven had spun out of it. And similarly, perhaps, for the Ursatz, even if, like Schenker, we see it as the fundamental structure of the finished work rather than, like Scruton, as an a posteriori abstraction from it (Scruton, The Aesthetics of Music, 321–4). Of course, Diabelli's clunky but robust little waltz really does ‘underlie’ Beethoven's piece, by definition – that is what variation form is ‘about’ – and, if you like, constitutes its ‘fundamental structure’; but even so, the whole point of the work (again, as with any variations) is not the theme, but what the composer has made of it. As Diabelli himself modestly observed, its sheer ordinariness only makes Beethoven's achievement the more spectacular.

48 The post-modernist twist on this is (perhaps one can now safely say ‘was’) that since everything is a ‘narrative’ – unsurprisingly enough, given that every thought, sentence and proposition has a narrative structure – everything must also be a fiction (except, presumably, post-modernism itself). Of course this is a total non sequitur, due to assimilating all narratives to the literary kind, which are fictional.

49 Scruton, The Aesthetics of Music, 338-9, 354ff., 438-9

50 In Dryden, however, that true classicist, even the baser passions – fury, anger, jealousy – once expressed in music, are raised to a certain dignity. (As, one might add, is the horrific, irresistible lust of Racine's Phèdre for her innocent stepson.)

51 Mann, Reflections of a Non-Political Man (1918), trans. Morris, Walter D. (New York: Ungar, 1987), 231–3. Mann's somewhat bellicose nationalism at this period, his ‘organicist’ musical notions, his anti-Enlightenment Francophobia, and his scornful polemical bluster were all shared, incidentally, by Schenker. (See, e.g. Schenker's ‘Rameau or Beethoven? Paralysis or Spiritual Life in Music?’, Ch. 3 of his Das Meisterwerk in der Musik, 1930, reprinted in Lippman, cit., Vol. III, 71–86.) None of those things, I hasten to add, is found in The Aesthetics of Music, except the postulated and very plausible connection between a society's musical and its general culture.

52 Scruton, The Aesthetics of Music, 338-9, 355-7, 391, etc.

53 Nor (he reminds me) does Scruton positively claim that it does. What he seems to suggest (The Aesthetics of Music, 357) is that the ‘latent dancing’ in our response to some music indicates ‘a sublimated desire to “move with” the music’ generally, whether it ‘dances’ or not. In this way, as doubtless in others, we identify ourselves with it and make it our own.

54 Nietzsche contra Wagner, III (‘Wagner as a Danger’), §1 (an extract from Human, All-too-Human).

55 In his Communist pamphlet The Art-Work of the Future (1849), II, §4.

56 After writing those sentences I listened to the world barber-shop champions, The Acoustix, on YouTube. Their performance (or perhaps I should say ‘act’) was so breathtakingly brilliant that I really didn't care whether the actual music was any good, or even notice what it was. (Hence, perhaps, the appropriateness of their name.)

57 Critique of Judgment, Book II, §53 (‘Comparative estimate of the aesthetic worth of the fine arts’).

58 The novelist L.H. Myers (1881–1944), a man of exceptionally scrupulous and demanding tastes, had nevertheless such an aversion to music that he forbade his wife, a first-rate pianist – and also, it is said, the model for Henry James's Maggie Verver – ever to play when he was in the house. (Needless to say, he was also something of a domestic tyrant.) Latterly, however, his daughters persuaded him to listen to, and to tolerate, the late Beethoven quartets. (See The Case of L.H. Myers’ in my Imagining the Real [Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2003].)

59 One might adduce these lines to support the point made earlier concerning ‘x-ing in’ and ‘x-ing as’ (where x = hear, see, etc.), and how one hears not the sound of the words, but the words themselves (and so on). One can become so absorbed in a sensorily-mediated experience that the medium itself, the sensory component, drops out of consciousness, leaving one face-to-face simply with the experience, or even identical with it. Cf. Perictione in Colophon, 212: ‘To Archeanassa's ears it [Perictione's novel polyphonic composition, prefiguring “Western” music by two millennia] was more like thought than sound, and seemed to echo within her as though she herself were producing it.'

60 It is unlikely, to say the least, that there could have been any ‘ego-ideals’ properly so called to be found in the primal horde, and not merely because the leader had engrossed them all to his own use. One might accuse Freud of anachronism, were the whole story not so speculative to start with.

61 During the public protests of December 2011 concerning the Russian parliamentary elections, the chairman of the electoral commission, Vladimir Churov, was widely reported as having said, in an interview with Kommersant magazine, that his ‘No.1 law’ was that ‘Putin is always right’. (See Google.)

62 The spectacle is nowadays reckoned to have been injurious to the animals' dignity, but, at least to my childish perception at the time, that never worried them greatly, or at all.

63 By ‘serialism and the like’ I mean Modernist music that, whatever its structural principle, is radically atonal. Much Modernist music from The Rite of Spring onwards, including works as different as Honegger's Pacific 231 and the first movement of Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, is atonal in the sense of being in no particular key, either locally or overall; but there is always a centre of gravity, a particular note, say, around which the composition rotates and on which it typically converges and comes eventually to rest. In both the Bartók and the Honegger we sense what the final note – we might call it the virtual tonic – must be some time before it arrives, and are harmlessly pleased when our expectation is fulfilled. Almost uniquely for an atonal and authentically Modernist work, then (1923) or subsequently, Pacific 231 achieved worldwide popular success, doubtless for the ‘wrong’ reasons (its brilliant sound effects, imitative of a steam locomotive), but one shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth, and it is a fine piece about which much more could be said.

64 Scruton has written many magazine articles in this vein. Here are two: Youth Culture's Lament’, City Journal, Autumn 1998; ‘Soul Music’, The American, 27th February 2010. Both are readily available online. In ‘Soul Music’ he notes ‘the collapse of music into sound… both in the world of pop and in the concert hall’ (

65 At the risk of superfluity, perhaps I should mention that the distinction was first explicitly drawn by the pioneering German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies (Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft, 1887).

66 ‘Without It man cannot live. But he who lives with It alone is not a man.’ (Martin Buber [1923], trans. Smith, R. Gregor, I and Thou [London: Continuum, 2004], 32.)

67 Scruton, The Aesthetics of Music, 485ff.

68 I am quoting, from memory, an article by Mellers in Scrutiny which I have tried, but failed, to locate. A later, less resoundingly-phrased formulation of the same idea can be found in Harman, Alec and Mellers, W.H., Man and his Music (London: Barrie and Rockliff, 1962), 626.

1 I am most grateful to Roger Scruton and Guy Dammann for their comments on the penultimate version of this article. They are not to blame for any remaining inadequacies.

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