By Ng Ling Xuan
Scruton and Bloom argue that rock music weakens the morals of listeners by bringing easy pleasure. In this essay, I will attempt to address this claim. I will argue, firstly, that the usage of the formal classical music framework on rock music should be reconsidered. Secondly, the active engagement that rock music provides to its listeners should be given credit. And thirdly, I will respond to Scruton’s claim that rock music can only offer easy pleasure; the experience of rock music runs much deeper. Ultimately, it is more fruitful to examine and discuss rock music in its own right. I hope to put across, therefore, that rock music has good philosophical standing as a valuable musical genre.
We should first make an attempt to understand the charge against rock music. And this is that rock music weakens and corrupt listeners, especially the young, because it brings easy pleasure, harms one’s imagination, and discourages the will for self-improvement. This stance is driven by the fundamental divide between classical and popular music, which, by extension, includes rock music. This view is influenced by the Platonic view of music which states that music should be a rational activity. According to this view, there are ideal musical forms or structures waiting to be discovered. These ideal musical forms can be seen to be analogous to that of Western classical music which emphasises musical notation. The technical perfection of musical notation has held central sway in the Western classical music canon. This way of viewing music has since become a standard for music in general.
Since popular music, and rock music, as a result, does not strictly follow musical notation, it is seen as inferior and subservient. According to Scruton, “popular music ceases to be music” because popular music lacks the orderly “character-forming force” that classical music possesses. In fact, “much modern pop is cheerless”. Further, he notes that rock music is “a kind of negation of music, dehumanising of the spirit of a song”. Meanwhile, Bloom thought rock music has “only one appeal” which is the “untutored” sexual desire. This essentially means that rock music has nothing significant to offer listeners — to like rock music is to have poor taste. And to have poor taste is to have questionable morals.
With the motivation spelt out above, work can first begin to question whether it is even tenable to use the traditional classical music framework on rock music. Before plunging into rock music, it is prudent to first consider music and its basic characteristics. Since music is taken to bring auditory pleasure to listeners, it can be considered as a kind of aesthetic experience. And in being as such, music should firstly be examined with regards to its aesthetic properties. In general, these aesthetic properties do not vary wildly between different musical genres. Main aesthetic properties like “unity, narration, representation and expression” are commonly found across various genres, time periods and musical styles. So, music works with a general set of auditory aesthetics properties and plays creatively around with them.
It is also worthy to note that music is a temporally unfolding auditory phenomenon that is embedded in rich and dynamic musical historical lineages. One can only make sense of music in general after a broader appreciation of these intricate musical lineages. To be fully acquainted with a certain musical style or genre, the listener also needs to undergo a process of “enculturation” where one gets increasingly informed and familiar with the genre’s musical framework and internal musical grammar. After the process of “enculturation”, full appreciation of the genre would come naturally to the listener. Another way to describe the process of “enculturation” is that music is better appreciated beyond the scope of musical notation and within that of performance. There is a reduced need to intellectually analyse notations while the need to consider the performative aspect of music is increased. Hence, a fairer way to appreciate music is to assess music holistically. And this is by considering its aesthetic properties as well as its dynamic musical historical lineages. Applied to rock music, the renewed basis of evaluation points to the need for a more objective judgement of rock music’s aesthetic properties, its musical lineage, and performative significance. Therefore, to judge rock music using the traditional notation-centric framework of classical music is to depict it narrowly.
Now that I have readjusted the metric by which we judge rock music, I can move on to the claims proper. Firstly, according to Langer’s view, music in general has the potential, on a personal level, to tap into rich inner emotive lives of its listeners by being a medium to provide knowledge of one’s inner life. Music is a highly personal and experiential event which helps increase one’s self-awareness. Music, being a dynamic phenomenon, can also accentuate the passing of time. Since music is highly personal and experiential, when one listens and experience the unfolding of music, he also gains self-awareness and emotional feedback in real-time synchronisation with music. According to Xi Kang’s Daoist account, in this highly personal space of listening to music, music also can help release emotions in listeners and bringing them to a state of inner tranquillity. Music is unique in the way that it can elicit a kind of inner emotive “fidelity” or “mutual resonance” with its listeners. It is important to note that this inner “mutual resonance” is a highly personal experience. Different listeners have different notions of their own inner tranquillity. In this process of releasing emotions, music is a complementary medium to help listeners explore a host of emotions. Listening to music can therefore be a highly personal, therapeutic experience. It allows an outlet for catharsis. And this ultimately results in a state of restful harmony in listeners.
According to Mencius, with access to musical susceptibility and sensibility, the natural process of nourishing morality can be triggered more spontaneously too. It is crucial to note that Mencius thought moral cultivation can be increased by the sharing of worthy music in one’s community. Since music can spontaneously elicit such personal and powerful responses, it seems that music is impactful beyond words. Langer, for instance, thinks that language is limited in musical experiences. Emotions are more congruent with music rather than with language. Since music is now seen more as a tool to help listeners explore emotions and spark moral cultivation, music as an entity itself would actually embody “neither sorrow nor joy”. This way of viewing music enables talk of how one need not necessarily be sad when listening to sad music and the paradoxical possibility of actually enjoying melancholic music.
And so, the apparent aggressiveness of rock music need not cause the listener to feel a sense of violence. Rock music need not be a negation of music, with nothing of value to offer to the keen listener. Rock music just happens to be a musical style that allows more overt and active exploration of emotions more on a personal level. Subsequently, by being a highly personal musical phenomenon, rock music also allows for diversity of emotive responses to the same piece of music. It is possible to have a myriad of different interpretations of the same song gained in different listeners. Rock music is highly personal, visceral, dynamic and diverse.
This diversity of interpretation is especially relevant for rock music. Performance gives “muscular imagination of tone” and the performer can also actively import emotions through music. The performative aspect of music is best reflected in rock music where concerts give life to the composed and recorded version of the music. In addition, continuing from the earlier point by Mencius that morality can be fostered by sharing music, this is an excellent fit for rock music. Since rock music thrive best in the live concert setting, the positive aspects of sharing and cultivating morality will be best complemented. The fact that rock music enjoys tremendous popularity and influence in popular culture in many communities can also attest to the above point.
On the topic of live performances, rock music is an exemplar of a musical genre that flourishes in the live concert setting since it is mostly appreciated for just its three main sonic components, namely the materiality of tones, loudness, and rhythm. By only focusing on merely three components, there is a liberal sense of freedom in expression to be found in rock music. Rock music succeeds when its sounds manage to generate and capture non-formal or extra-notation musical properties. This is best reflected when the guitarist improvises a flowing guitar solo without prior rehearsal or when a singer plays around his voice to add an unplanned unique flavour to that performance. These instances of non-formal musical properties are exclusive to those performances and make live rock music so exciting to behold. By gauging rock music’s success in fulfilling these extra- notation factors, the effects of rock music are hence less cognitive and more affective. And, since rock music functions largely outside of the confines of formal musical notation, this genre is “ontologically thin”. That is, rock music enjoys freedom of expression, a liberal space for performance, appreciation and interpretation.
Contrasting the musical freedom of live rock music with the medium in which it is commonly enjoyed, it is peculiar to note that the modern studio recording technology makes rock music readily available in its optimal digital format. It seems then that there is one way to listen to rock music. This might be the paradox of rock music where there is an idealised version of a song as well as the virtuosity of expression in live performances. So, rock music might be both limiting and liberating at the same time. All in all, rock music flourishes with significant amounts of musical freedom by being a thoroughly active musical agent in the collective sphere.
After examining rock music both on the personal and collective spheres, one can now finally give a well-considered re-assessment on the genre itself. This reassessment will be divided into two fronts, firstly that rock music is not necessarily mere easy pleasures and secondly that it is worthwhile to distinguish between the aesthetic and symbolic values of rock music.
On the first front, it can be granted that rock music can be simple in musical structure, but they are nevertheless they are rich in purpose. The point is that rock music functions by furnishing a variety of special social connections with its listeners. Rock music is a “lived in” experience to be appreciated and enjoyed differently with varied selective foci in different listeners. This pointed once again to the liberal nature of rock music where it is a social and open-ended musical entity. Although some songs in rock music can be simplistic in musical structure, there is still a value in them nonetheless. One should not discount the value of a song just because its musical notation might appear bare and unpolished. In fact, as Gracyk notes, this simplicity of some rock songs can allow for listeners to anchor their own “meaningful pertinences” of their everyday lives to the music itself. One great example would be “Blitzkrieg Bop” by The Ramones. Although musically simple and repetitive, it has gained a punk-rock legacy and is frequently taken to be one of the greatest songs of all time (Rolling Stone, 2011). This renders rock music into a genre that could adapt well to the needs of its listeners.
By shifting the discussion to the value of the song, it is worthwhile to consider that the aesthetic pleasure gained in engaging with rock music need not be hedonistic. Liking something because it is purely pleasurable is entirely different from liking it because it has great values. These values in music could be symbolic ones. The exploration of this distinction would allow for more space to properly appraise music beside the mere concern about the strict adherence of musical notation.
Since rock music is such a dynamic and personal musical experience, the causal relationship between emotions and listeners should be reconsidered too. It is not that music has the causal ability to elicit emotions or pleasures in listeners, but, as Gracyk notes, the listeners draw them from the music instead. Rock music is now a rich reservoir for a variety of interpretations for each different listener. By rethinking about the “causation” of emotions, listening to rock music is instantly renews as a highly personal, interactive and immensely rewarding musical activity.
On the second front of rock music’s re-assessment, the distinction between aesthetic and symbolic values takes central stage. Besides the obvious aural aesthetic value of rock music, there can also be symbolic values. Sometimes, rock music is best appreciated for its aural aesthetic properties. Other times, it is more enjoyed for their symbolic values or meanings. To fully appreciate a piece of music holistically is to pay attention to both aesthetic values and symbolic values equally.
Firstly, for aesthetic values, rock music can sometimes be aesthetically challenging, with sophisticated yet satisfying notational properties while at the same time display aesthetic independence and even rebellion. By being aesthetically challenging and complex, rock music can in fact be comparable to the hallowed works of classical music which are also equally aesthetically complicated! This defiance against traditional aesthetic standards can also be of great creative value. The best exemplar of this defiance comes in the more extreme derivation of rock music which is metal music.
Metal music is a musical genre which actively reacts against the mainstream musical styles and aesthetics. Furthermore, metal music is also often remarked for its structural complexity and ambition. Does this imply that metal music stands a good aesthetic chance to be considered seriously?
Secondly, symbolic meaning refers to what the musician tries to convey implicitly through music. One great example of commendable symbolic value in rock music would be “Meat Is Murder” by The Smiths which conveyed the immorality of meat-eating by inserting audio clips of animals screaming mid-slaughter and having lyrics that oppose animal cruelty. The symbolic value of this song is highly positive in prompting listeners to adopt a vegetarian diet. Another prominent song would be “Imagine” by John Lennon which symbolically espoused for the reconciled need for world peace. According to Rolling Stone, the song left an indelible legacy in public consciousness as it is repeatedly used in various peace campaigns that champion for shared humanity. In comparison, one would be hard pressed to find a similarly powerful, lifestyle-changing and positive symbolic value espoused by gilded compositions in the classical music canon. By considering the significance of both aesthetic and symbolic values, rock music can be a highly pluralistic, positive and flexible musical experience.
In conclusion, rock music initially suffered a distorted assessment of musical inferiority. A fairer way to gauge it would be to focus on its aesthetic properties as well as to consider the process of familiarising with the musical grammar of rock music. The proper exploration of rock music on the personal level yielded a glimpse into how this genre of music can flesh out, reflect and complement rich inner emotive lives of listeners. While the exploration of rock music on the communal level pointed to the positivity of rock music’s performative aspects that highlighted its liberal and socially dynamic nature. With rock music properly assessed, it seems that this genre does not necessarily equate to mere easy pleasures as there is an important underlying distinction to be made between rock music’s aesthetic and symbolic values. With this distinction made, rock music can finally be considered seriously.
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