The Agonist Journal

The liberal approach to music, that it is “subjective” and that people merely “like what they like,’’ is peculiar to modern Western countries. Islam rightly understands that music has a powerful hold over people and therefore must be taken very seriously; Christianity too, though most forms are less prohibitive than Islam. Plato understood that while music can be transcendent and good, it can also appeal to the barbaric side of man.

“[M]usic is important: not a diversion from life, a mere piece of ephemeral joy (though it can be that too), but one of the deepest forms of communication.”

These warnings are more relevant than ever, with music now possessing unprecedented influence over our lives. Look at advertising: there you will see music’s ability to manipulate emotions, and the human mind’s tendency to associate music with certain actions and inclinations which advertisers have seized upon. And anyone who has visited a nightclub will also have seen the astonishing and, I would argue, dangerous power music has over people. Such places could not exist in silence.

And yet, if one tries to express criticisms about music (particularly popular music), an activity which naturally involves the unfashionable business of drawing up hierarchies and concluding that some music is in certain respects either good or bad, the reaction usually ranges from dismissive rebukes of “it’s just music” and “that’s your opinion” to utter incredulity and anger. Somewhat paradoxically, music is for many people both a subjective matter of taste and a core part of their cultural identity. It has become one of those topics in which it has become increasingly taboo to make certain judgements, because we are reluctant to hurt anyone’s feelings.

This is all to argue that music is important: not a diversion from life, a mere piece of ephemeral joy (though it can be that too), but one of the deepest forms of communication. So we should study it seriously, and moreover critically examine the health of music in our time. My intention is to look very broadly at the state of music, at how it has changed and whether it has declined. I have divided the essay into two short parts: classical music and popular music. Each has become a fairly distinct sphere of music with its own internal problems. (The fact of this increasing separation between classical and popular music may itself be a sign of decline.) As to whether there has been decline in classical music, the answer is somewhat ambiguous, though I am inclined to believe there has been. Regarding popular music, however, a pattern of decline is clear.

Classical Music

Music is noise given specific pitch, time, form, and sound. It is the transformation of chaos into order. The most common criticism of much contemporary classical music is that it is chaotic and ugly. It is true, I would say, that classical music now borders more closely on chaos than it ever has before. Tonal rules which had existed in various forms for the last millennium became ever-freer in the twentieth century. Much modern classical music can at times seem like an aimless art which only exists for its own sake, a sort of musical onanism. It can seem as if anything is allowed; indeed, the less ordered, or the more perversely ordered, the better. For many listeners, modern classical music sounds like someone with a brain injury who is trying to speak, but whose words all come out muddled and frustrated. It is reminiscent of an order, but an order that was long ago damaged in a great injury to the collective musical mind.

I do not believe this criticism to be entirely fair, however. Twelve-tone serialism, the bête noire of the traditionalist, was a short-lived movement whose attempt to arbitrarily redefine the tonal rules of music ultimately failed. There is, to be sure, a continuing trend to try to stretch tonality to its breaking point; that is, to be deliberately contrary in the use of those harmonies which were once widely believed to have derived from nature, but now, we are told, were socially conditioned. Yet it is often surprising how effective and indeed beautiful music can be in this modern idiom. Though we can point out problems one might very broadly call the modern style (defined by its relative tonal and rhythmic freedom), it would be foolish to deny that it has produced many great composers, from Stravinsky to Ives to Messiaen to Gubaidulina—even Schoenberg, so often portrayed—wrongly, I believe—as the radical villain of twentieth-century music.

While there were and still are great composers writing in the modern idiom, the difference with past musical eras is that the modern seldom produces decent or even tolerable second- or third-rate music. It is true that we tend to forget that there were many composers, now forgotten, who produced little more than tedious rows of notes in the Classical style—we only remember Haydn, Mozart, and a handful of others. But the modern style can be even more tedious, and certainly more unforgiving. It takes real genius to make beauty from it. Before, when there was a well-defined formal style, even mediocre music was still listenable—seldom bad or ugly, just underdeveloped and less skilled. The default position of music was within stricter musical rules and styles, which ensured that even the most unremarkable composers could produce works with some value and agreeable qualities. The default position is now one of extraordinary musical freedom, with an increased aversion to what was traditionally beautiful—a starting point from which only the most brilliant can make something good. And too often they do not, merely preferring to present the fact of ugliness with no effort to transform it into beauty or insight.

There are those modern composers who held on to a tonal language. The Orthodox composers Arvo Part and John Tavener returned to the past (Medieval and Renaissance music) in order to invent something new. Composers such as Benjamin Britten and Peter Maxwell Davies have, with that quite British blend of high and low (and professional and amateur), managed to enter Britain’s wider musical culture. In this century, there does seem to be a growing trend towards a more tonal style of composition, not entirely unlike the transition from the denser Baroque style to the leaner Classical style in the 18th century. Some have described this as postmodern music, represented by composers such as Nico Muhly and Anna Meredith, in which there seems to be an effort to rejoin the “classical” and the “popular.”

I say “rejoin” as they were once not so separate. Great composers would write popular operatic arias, songs, festive music, hymns, and other more lowly music (for want of a better word). However, the current “crossover,” as it is sometimes called, of classical and popular is too often a lobotomization of the classical while incorporating the noise, electronics, and moreover aesthetics and fashion of popular music. It seldom incorporates the better aspects of popular music: its brevity and relative tunefulness, for example. The works are usually long, semi-experimental, and rather tedious.

With respect to classical music’s place in the wider culture, a pattern of decline is more obvious. For many, the reason for the existence of a high musical culture is no longer evident. Classical music is part of the spiritual and intellectual heights of a culture, art that touches the transcendent. Music is increasingly regarded as a mere form of entertainment, and the intellectual and often religious reasons for listening to serious music have therefore lost their potency. Instead classical music often tries to justify itself on utilitarian grounds. Studying classical music will improve your spatial reasoning. Listening to classical music improves social skills. Efforts to show that classical music can and should be loud, rhythmic, sexual, and exciting, just like pop music. These are sad, desperate, and self-defeating attempts to gain relevance by those who know that their art form’s place in the culture is in decline.

It always astonishes me how even otherwise educated and well-read people are now ignorant of the Western musical tradition. Watching University Challenge, that national institution in Britain where the supposedly brightest students from our universities are pitted against each other, one often finds that students—even Oxbridge students—are flummoxed by the most basic of classical music questions, unable to make even an educated guess. Indeed, fewer and fewer people are musically literate. Not only can fewer read musical notation, the vast majority do not even possess a basic understanding of the historical musical styles. Schools teach popular music and music technology as if they are adequate replacements for the study of the Western musical tradition. Exam boards now offer grades in “popular” instruments such as electric guitar or drums. Classical music is losing its eminence within musical education, and children are therefore not being taught the best that has been thought and written and performed. Those who have sung in school, church or amateur choirs, or those who have performed, in some capacity, the great music of civilization, know that it is an incomparable social and spiritual experience. It is devastating that this musical inheritance is being lost to so many, pushed to the fringes of culture, when once it was mainstream.

Popular Music

Popular music (which I use to refer not merely to pop but to rock, metal, rap, and all those genres that are part of the popular culture) has become a global religion, with its own unholy trinity of sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. Most people who have reservations about it are nevertheless wary of expressing criticism, because of the usually hostile response that is received. Much more than with classical music, people identify with the popular music they listen to. One gets the impression that, for many, to criticize the music is to criticize their way of life. So, by way of a disclaimer, I want to be clear that I am not disparaging all popular music from all eras (nor from all cultures). And I am emphatically not disparaging anyone who listens to popular music. Neither am I writing from any position of snobbery: I think that some form of popular music is vitally important to a culture and to communities, but that the trend in modern popular music is away from what is good.

Popular music has opened up a different sort of chaos than classical music. It has kept pulse, harmony, and form, usually in uninteresting but fairly conventional ways. However, it has fundamentally changed two things: the sound of music and its function. Regarding the sound, the amplifier and the computer now dominate the musical world, resulting in a louder, less human form of music. Much of the music literally distorts and synthesizes in order to create its sound world. Anyone who plays a classical instrument (and possibly those who play more traditional instruments) knows that the most beautiful sound is almost never the loudest, and that, generally speaking, to be musically interesting the loud is used sparingly and quiet and moderation predominate.

Moreover, all musically-sensitive people recognize the importance of silence. The Japanese even have a word, “Ma,” for the silence between sounds. It is in that space that the music reveals its importance. Silence allows the music to grow and the listener to reflect, but may be nearly impossible in a society which, in even the shortest moment of quiet, anxiously reaches for the nearest distraction to fill the gap. Many listeners today are attached to their earphones and constantly bathing in the soapy lukewarm waters of background music, and so for them the unyielding pulse of popular music beats throughout much of their waking life.

The social function of music has therefore changed. Modern man usually listens to music as an auxiliary to other things: on a noisy train, while doing work, or as a soundtrack to a film or video game. This means that all he is doing is hearing the music, not listening. When one stands before a painting, one does not merely stare. One has to think, to reflect, to judge, to analyze. When reading a story, essay or even a poem one does not merely delight in the sound of the words. Eventually, one begins to seek an understanding of the meaning. But with music, thanks in great part to the easy stimulative effect of popular music, people hear it as a drug which they expect to release all its wonders without any effort on the part of the listener. They should be asking why as the music unfolds. They should be thinking—not just drifting into absence of thought and “letting the music take over you.” I am not saying that popular music should require the same level of reflection as more serious art (though it clearly does aspire to be an art form, with its performers even describing themselves as “artists”). The problem is that there is something about modern popular music which, in its unrelenting loudness and immediacy, seems to suppress thought.

Simple music was once used, as with vernacular (or traditional and folk) music, to bind together a (usually geographical) community through song and dance and stories; or with plainchant as a more powerful way to communicate a religious message. Popular music, however, seldom uses its immediacy towards such good ends. It has in fact all but eliminated local vernacular music, substituting it for a global industrial product. People no longer know the melodies, songs and dances of their historic culture; they have lost a great part of their musical inheritance as a result. Such vernacular music was modest and humble in its simplicity. Popular music too often mistakes crudity for simplicity. It debases, appeals to the raw and untamed parts of us, and naturally becomes tiresome on repeated listens, causing the listener to seek out new and novel thrills. Thus the endless stream of “hits,” a simple word which symbolizes so much of popular much: drug-like, immediate, violent. And these are consumed by “fans” (short for fanatics) who care more about the musician and their image, exemplified by the popularity of the music video, than they do the music.

Even St Augustine, singing chant, was worried that he was being seduced by the music, forgetting that the music was merely a mode of communicating the text. Not only does popular music draw attention away from what is good, it redirects attention to what is bad. Gangs, drugs, drunkenness, antisocial behavior, idol worship, image obsession, wealth obsession, consumerism, pornography, swearing, violent amplification and rhythm, permanent adolescence, mob mentality—so many of society’s problems are championed by popular music, from the urban squalor of hip-hop to the debauched music videos of pop singers to the nihilist gloom of extreme metal. This is not to say that such things only present in popular music, but they are almost always among the core features of popular music. The result is what the writer Simon Leys termed an “empire of ugliness.” “[Even] more than aesthetic beauty,” wrote Leys, “moral beauty seems to exasperate our sorry species. The need to ring down to our own wretched level, to deface, to deride and debunk any splendor that is towering above us, is probably the saddest urge of human nature.”

As of this writing, the current No. 1 in the UK Top 40 Singles Chart is Dance Monkey by Tones & I. The music video features the undignified sight of groups of older people dancing wildly and sticking their tongues out semi-sexually, for everyone in popular music, regardless of age, is expected to act like a modern teenager. The lyrics are cheap and sung without grace or charm to a throbbing soundtrack:

So they say
Dance for me, dance for me, dance for me, oh oh oh
I've never seen anybody do the things you do before
They say
Move for me, move for me, move for me, eh eh eh
And when you’re done, I'll make you do it all again

If one compares these thoughtless words to another well-known UK No. 1, but from several decades ago, the decline within popular music is self-evident—not merely in skill but in moral value:

I hear babies crying, I watch them grow
They'll learn much more than I'll never know
And I think to myself what a wonderful world

Or to this UK No. 1 from 1953:

I believe for every drop of rain that falls a flower grows
I believe that somewhere in the darkest night a candle glows
I believe for everyone who goes astray
someone will come to show the way

To be clear, I am not dismissing all modern popular music (nor idealizing earlier popular music). There are always exceptions, and my heart is warmed when I see a solitary busker with his or her guitar, whose gentle nervousness often reveals a deep love of music (even though I may have reservations about the music which he or she sings). Of all the musical periods, the one I look back on most fondly is the Elizabethan, with its wealth of galliards, pavans, almains, and popular songs which were often written by the same people who wrote contrapuntal fantasies and church music. I criticize modern popular music so strongly out of a desire to see a healthier, more humble popular music—music that has place and a positive social function.


To reverse the decline in various aspects of contemporary music would require more than better education and more than renewed social prestige for classical music or a revival of vernacular music. I suspect we have designed an allergy to good music into the biology of modern society. We have built it into our noisy and increasingly ugly streets, our distracting gadgets, our secular pleasure-seeking worldview, our global untethered way of life. Music is more powerful and unrestrained than it has perhaps ever been before. It is present in so many aspects of daily life, manipulating the way we view ourselves and the world around us—creating our identity, defining our culture, always in the background of our lives. It contains within it something of the totalitarian impetus. It is there in the supermarket, in the waiting room, in restaurants (and even in many restaurant toilets), in the background of most television programs, leaking out of the earphones of commuters, blaring from amplifiers everywhere. At popular music concerts it drowns out everything else, dominating the crowd which has come for the visceral thrill. It does not give us time or quiet to reflect on what it might be doing to us, or what we might be missing.