Published November 15, 2015
In almost every public place today the ears are assailed by the sound of pop music. In shopping malls, public houses, restaurants, hotels and elevators the ambient sound is not human conversation but the music disgorged into the air by speakers – usually invisible and inaccessible speakers that cannot be punished for their impertinence. Some places brand themselves with their own signature sound – folk, jazz or excerpts from the Broadway musicals. For the most part, however, the prevailing music is of an astounding banality – it is there in order not to be really there. It is a background to the business of consuming things, a surrounding nothingness on which we scribble the graffiti of our desires. The worst forms of this music – sometimes known, after the trade name, as Muzak – are produced without the intervention of musicians, being put together on a computer from a repertoire of standard effects.
The background sounds of modern life are therefore less and less human. Rhythm, which is the sound of life, has been largely replaced by electrical pulses, produced by a machine programmed to repeat itself ad infinitum, and to thrust its booming bass notes into the very bones of the victim. Whole areas of civic space in our society are now policed by this sound, which drives anybody with the slightest feeling for music to distraction, and ensures that for many of us a visit to the pub or a meal in a restaurant have lost their residual meaning. These are no longer social events, but experiments in endurance, as you shout at each other over the deadly noise.
There are two reasons why this vacuous music has flown into every public space. One is the vast change in the human ear brought about by the mass production of sound. The other is the failure of the law to protect us from the result. For our ancestors music was something that you sat down to listen to, or which you made for yourself. It was a ceremonial event, in which you participated, either as a passive listener or as an active performer. Either way you were giving and receiving life, sharing in something of great social significance.
With the advent of the gramophone, the radio and now the iPod, music is no longer something that you must make for yourself, nor is it something that you sit down to listen to. It follows you about wherever you go, and you switch it on as a background. It is not so much listened to as overheard. The banal melodies and mechanical rhythms, the stock harmonies recycled in song after song, these things signify the eclipse of the musical ear. For many people music is no longer a language shaped by our deepest feelings, no longer a place of refuge from the tawdriness and distraction of everyday life, no longer an art in which gripping ideas are followed to their distant conclusions. It is simply a carpet of sound, designed to bring all thought and feeling down to its own level lest something serious might be felt or said.
And there is no law against it. You are rightly prevented from polluting the air of a restaurant with smoke; but nothing prevents the owner from inflicting this far worse pollution on his customers – pollution that poisons not the body but the soul. Of course, you can ask for the music to be turned off. But you will be met by blank and even hostile stares. What kind of a weirdo is this, who wants to impose his will on everyone? Who is he to dictate the noise levels? Such is the usual response. Background music is the default position. It is no longer silence to which we return when we cease to speak, but the empty chatter of the music-box. Silence must be excluded at all cost, since it awakens you to the emptiness that looms on the edge of modern life, threatening to confront you with the dreadful truth, that you have nothing whatever to say. On the other hand, if we knew silence for what once it was, as the plastic material that is shaped by real music, then it would not frighten us at all.
I don’t think we should underestimate the tyranny exerted over the human brain by pop. The constant repetition of musical platitudes, at every moment of the day and night, leads to addiction. It also has a dampening effect on conversation. I suspect that the increasing inarticulateness of the young, their inability to complete their sentences, to find telling phrases or images, or to say anything at all without calling upon the word “like” to help them out, has something to do with the fact that their ears are constantly stuffed with cotton wool. Round and round in their heads go the chord progressions, the empty lyrics and the impoverished fragments of tune, and boom goes the brain box at the start of every bar.
Pop pollution has an effect on musical appreciation comparable to pornography on sex. All that is beautiful, special and full of love is replaced by a grinding mechanism. Just as porn addicts lose the capacity for real sexual love, so do pop addicts lose the capacity for genuine musical experience. The magical encounter with the Beethoven quartet, the Bach suite, the Brahms symphony, in which your whole being is gripped by melodic and harmonic ideas and taken on a journey through the imaginary space of music – that experience which lies at the heart of our civilisation and which is an incomparable source of joy and consolation to all those who know it – is no longer a universal resource. It has become a private eccentricity, something that a dwindling body of oldies cling to, but which is regarded by many of the young as irrelevant. Increasingly young ears cannot reach out to this enchanted world, and therefore turn away from it. The loss is theirs, but you cannot explain that to them, any more than you can explain the beauty of colours to someone who is congenitally blind.
Is there a remedy? Yes, I think there is. The addictive ear, dulled by repetition, is shut tight as a clam around its pointless treasures. But you can prise it open with musical instruments. Put a young person in a position to make music and not just to hear it and immediately the ear begins to recover from its lethargy. By teaching children to play musical instruments, we acquaint them with the roots of music in human life.
The next step is to introduce the idea of judgment. The belief that there is a difference between good and bad, meaningful and meaningless, profound and vapid, exciting and banal – this belief was once fundamental to musical education. But it offends against political correctness. Today there is only my taste and yours. The suggestion that my taste is better than yours is elitist, an offence against equality. But unless we teach children to judge, to discriminate, to recognise the difference between music of lasting value and mere ephemera, we give up on the task of education. Judgment is the precondition of true enjoyment, and the prelude to understanding art in all its forms.
The good news is that, in their hearts, people are aware of this. All who have had the experience of teaching music appreciation know it to be so. The first step is to introduce the precious commodity of silence, so that your students are listening with open ears to the cosmos, and are beginning to forget their addictive pleasures. Then you play to them the things that you love. They will be bewildered at first. After all, how can this old geezer sit still for 50 minutes listening to something that hasn’t got a beat or a tune? Then you discuss the things that they love. Had they noticed, for example, that Lady Gaga in “Poker Face” stays for most of the tune on one note? Is that real melody? After a while they will see that they have in fact been making judgments all along – it is just that they were making the wrong ones. When Metallica appeared at the 2014 Glastonbury festival there was a wake-up moment of this kind – the recognition that these guys, unlike so many who had performed there, actually had something to say. Yes, there are distinctions of quality, even in the realm of pop.
The next stage is to get the students to perform – to sing in unison, and then in parts. Very soon they will understand that music is not a blanket with which to shut out communication, but a form of communication in itself. And gradually they will know the place of this great art form in the world that they have inherited. Our civilisation was made by music and the musical tradition that we have inherited is as worthy of praise as all our other achievements in art, science, religion and politics. This musical tradition speaks for itself but to hear it you must clear the air of noise.
Roger Scruton is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.