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Music as Metaphor
a book review by Lee Trepanier
Roger Scruton, Understanding Music, Philosophy and Interpretation. New York: Continuum Press, 2009, 244 pp., incl. index. Hardcover. $29.95.
Roger Scruton’s Understanding Music is a collection of previously published essays, with the first part of the book recapitulating and refining his argument about music that he had presented in The Aesthetics of Music (1997) and the second part devoted to critical studies of individual composers and compositions.
The book is impressive not only for its theoretical contribution to our understanding of music, but it is also provides a wide range of examples, from obscure classical composers to contemporary popular tunes, to illustrate his philosophical points.
The Aesthetics of Music and Understanding Music will likely remain required reading for many years to come for anyone who is interested in studying and thinking seriously about music.
Scruton begins by maintaining and developing his earlier position that music is crucially and fundamentally informed by metaphor.
Contrary to “absolute” theories of music (or better known as formalism), which holds that music is an abstract form empty of content or meaning, Scruton argues otherwise.
Beginning with our understanding of sound, Scruton moves to a defense of tonality and ultimately to a theory of aesthetic experience to contend that music has content or meaning.
What makes Scruton’s argument unique is that he relies only on music and our capacity for metaphor as the foundation from which meaning can be extracted. Rejecting both the theories of formalism and musical representation, which claim the content of music is its representative aspect, Scruton provides an original argument about music and our understanding of it.
For Scruton, music is fundamentally the art of sound, and its nature and properties are determined by how they appear to a person’s hearing. Although sounds are produced by physical disturbances, they are not identical with those disturbances. According to Scruton, sounds are “pure events” that can be referred to any object which participates in them and is what makes music unique.
In other words, we can detach musical sounds in our thoughts and experiences from their causes and impose order and meaning to them that are independent of their physical origins. Thus, the difference in distinguishing a car crash and a concert hall performance exists, because the former is caused and associated with a car crash while the latter can be encountered as metaphor, apart from the actual action and location of performance. Another difference between the sounds of the car crash and the sounds of music is the latter contains tones that form a type of causality and coherence which we can recognize.