Music as Metaphor

Understanding Music, Philosophy and Interpretation. Roger Scruton. New York: Continuum Press, 2009.


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 his 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. Along with his previous book, The Aesthetics of Music, Scruton’s Understanding Music will likely remain required reading for anyone who is interested in studying and thinking seriously about music for many years to come.

Scruton starts the book 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 where 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. Scruton’s underlying assumption here is that rational beings with self-consciousness, intention, and the ability to represent the world are the only ones who can recognize the inherent causality and coherence of tonality. Only rational beings can organize sounds in spatial metaphors that are joined by a virtual causality in an imagined space. In other words, Scruton rejects the notion that the meaning of music resides in its potential representational quality of the world: we would enjoy Strauss’ Don Quixote even if it were the life of a dog. For Scruton, the content of music resides in its own causality and coherence and in our metaphorical capacity to encounter it.

This inherent and internal causality and coherence of music requires a defense of the primacy of tonality in music. Scruton briefly defends tonality here by referring to the universality of certain tones and melodic resources (he presents a more elaborate account of these arguments in Chapter 4 of The Aesthetic Experience). Although tonality is an evolving tradition, it is the paradigm of musical organization of sound and therefore is not something fleeting, arbitrary, or merely stylistic in the history of music. Even serialists, like Schoenberg who seemingly reject tonality, still have to use the harmonic vistas of tonality to create their post-tonal systems. With its causality and coherence, tonality therefore is the primary feature that allows us to distinguish music from other sounds.

Sounds are heard as tones, and tones are animated by a continuous movement in an imagined space created by pitch. This “acousmatic” experience is central to Scruton’s musical understanding. When a violinist strains to produce a sound, it is not the producing sound that we appreciate but how the strain fits into the virtual worlds of tones that we recognize and from which derive pleasure. Because of our metaphorical capacity, we are able to imagine which place this sound belongs in the virtual worlds of tones so as to provide us causality and coherence of music in our hearing of the sound. In other words, we perceive music as movements through space and we imagine ourselves moving to the music. To understand music is to hear “the life that moves in it” (7). This experience is what Scruton calls the aesthetic experience.

The aesthetic experience of music is characterized by the double intentionality of our encounter with it: we hear a succession of sounds that are ordered in time and we believe something is occurring as we literally hear it. While we hear the sounds of a melody moving through an imaginary space of music, we also imagine it. The aesthetic experience consequently is our ability to organize a single experience (Scruton uses the word, Gestalt) in two simultaneously ways: the literal and the imaginative perception of a single event. Because the two perceptions do not compete with each other, we are able to both literally and imaginatively perceive the same experience simultaneously.

However, we need to keep in mind that these imaginative perceptions of music are not representative in nature but rather expressive. For music to have any meaning, it must be over and above any representational content attributed to it. The response to expression is a sympathetic response that is awaken by another person whose feelings become shared. Our response to music is a sympathetic response to a human life imagined in the sounds we hear. However, a formalist, who denies content in music, would point out that since music does not have the capacity to represent, there can be no precise object of sympathy. Although a sympathetic response may arise to the listening of music, this response is not supported by the content in the music itself.

Scruton’s response to the formalist’s argument is to provide analyses of individual composers and their compositions to support his position of expression over formalism and representation in understanding music. Scruton tell us that listening to the operas of Mozart or symphonies of Beethoven reveal not only their souls but also instill within us certain sympathies or emotions. Simply put, Scruton is making an experiential appeal to the sensitive listener of music in order to support his argument. Whether it is possible to provide a more detailed account of how we can find in music the content that Scruton believes is there is an open question. Unfortunately, it is not pursued in this book.

Besides essays on Mozart and Beethoven, Scruton also writes on Wagner, Schoenberg, Szymanowski, and Adorno. In these essays, Scruton defends Wagner’s music against the charge of racism and instead interprets the Ring as a commentary on modern life; Scoenberg’s atonal system as a failed experiment; and Szymanowski and other obscure composers as the greatest composers of the twentieth century for following what “sounds right” rather than what is right according to some theory of musical composition. The final essay is on Adorno, who was a left-wing thinker and a champion of Schoenberg, but what Scruton admires and writes about is his suspicion of popular music. Both Adorno and Scruton perceive popular music as superficial, shallow, and evade important questions.

Scruton’s theory of expression for aesthetic meaning navigates between theories of formalism and representation and enriches our theoretical understanding of music, even for those who may disagree with him. His individual portraits of composers and compositions are also illuminating and provide examples of how his theory could work in the interpretation of music. Although more work could be done in explaining how we can find content in music that Scruton believes is there, Understanding Music widens our understanding – and hopefully enjoyment – of music both as philosophers and listeners.

Lee Trepanier

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Lee Trepanier is a Professor of Political Science and University Pre-Law Advisor at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan. He is author and editor of several books and also is the editor of VoegelinView (2016-present) and editor of Lexington Books series Politics, Literature, and Film (2013-present).