August 26th 2017

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Articles from this issue:

CANBERRA OBSERVED Crikey, is nobody a true dinks Aussie these days?

SAME-SEX MARRIAGE Hundreds of doctors call on AMA to withdraw defective statement on same-sex marriage

EUTHANASIA What disability advocates say about assisted suicide by Daniel Giles

RIGHTS Triggs' contribution to human rights and the role of international human rights bodies

ENERGY High prices 'destroying the economy': Glencore

ENERGY Renewable energy barely even a fair weather friend

ECONOMICS The world it is a-changin': globalisation in crisis

SAME-SEX MARRIAGE Gay Liberals' push out of step with LGBTI realities

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS South Africa is losing its rainbow nation credentials

MUSIC A moral scale: Does 'good' music make us better?

CINEMA War for the Planet of the Apes: Best-laid plans of apes and men

BOOK REVIEW Risk nothing; gain nothing

BOOK REVIEW The most infamous crime in history

MARRIAGE The issue, Bill, is transgender marriage




SAME-SEX MARRIAGE The media, champions for free speech and rights (for the media), demonstrate predictable inability to contain bias on postal vote

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A moral scale: Does 'good' music make us better?

by David James

News Weekly, August 26, 2017

How moral are different types of music? The question is not as odd as it sounds, although the answer is anything but obvious. Indeed, it is quite probably an impossible question to shed light on.

Not that people have not tried before. Plato thought that certain modes were morally better than others. The flat five interval – the use of which is central to the blues sound – was thought to be the Devil’s interval in medieval music.

Equally, it is often thought that listening to certain kinds of classical music is inherently uplifting: Gregorian chant is thought to be spiritual, Bach glorious and uplifting, Beethoven a transcendence of the limits of the human spirit and Wagner, well, Wagner – not as bad as it sounds, as Mark Twain quipped. The fact that Wagner’s music was much loved by Hitler should not be considered conclusive proof of how morally questionable it is, although it is hardly an accolade.

It does not seem a stretch to suggest that certain kinds of music are more refined and produce higher thoughts in the listener. For example, it is hard to imagine anyone listening to rap and deriving lessons about better ways to live (here I am using the word “music” in its loosest sense). Yet listening to Mozart or Chopin could be thought of as a way at least to become more refined, if not a better person.

But the morality of listening to music suffers from the usual problem with discussing features of music, which is that music does not “say” anything. It is an art form that does not refer to the world in a direct way. It is not clear how music can be more or less moral when it says so little, whether it is about the practicalities of the good life, or the last end of human kind.

Usually, if there is a moral element to music, it is the words sung, not the notes, because words refer to the world.

Yet there is still an attraction to the idea that at least serious music provides a form of moral uplift. When literary critic George Steiner commented that “if Nazi officers could listen to classical music in their offices next to the gas chambers, then what is the value of culture?” the implication he was making was that there is an expectation that classical music should have an improving influence on the listener. That it had not was, he was suggesting, a tragedy.

One area worth investigating is the fact that music takes place in time, and so does the moral passage of a person. This is perhaps what philosopher Roger Scruton is suggesting when he talks of how serious music inevitably reflects the culture in which it is found; that is, its mores.

He writes: “There is a great difference between a musical culture based in serious listening to extended movements of highly intricate musical thought, and a musical culture based in hearing quickly exhausted and largely predictable melodies, which occur in the background, supported by mechanical rhythms and off-the-shelf harmonies, and which quickly exhaust their sparse musical potential.”

Perhaps we can shed some light on this largely unlit terrain by recalling that music is play. The stern Plato, who banned certain modes, also, allegedly, made the intriguing comment that “you can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation”.

Music is play. And, as Plato implies, people playing reveal themselves. That they do it honestly, or with emotional integrity, determines whether the music is convincing. And these are all moral qualities. In the jazz world, for instance, there is a strong sense that the degree of presentness and emotional integrity an improviser exhibits is a measure of his or her moral quality.

But even if this is true, it only applies to the period of time that the music is being produced. One can well believe in the vulnerability and sublime profundity of Miles Davis listening to his playing, but when he was not playing he was cantankerous and aggressive. It is only play; it is not life.

Yet if it remains all but impossible to identify music’s relationship with morality, not least because music comes in so many forms, one thing is certain. If we could talk of music being more or less moral, then one type of music definitely comes at the bottom of any scale of goodness. Rap.

David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.

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