Friday, March 26, 2010

Scruton on Music

What with all the discussion of music here of late, I thought I would alert our readers to a recent article by Roger Scruton. The article is essentially a reflection on Plato's remark in The Republic (4.424c) that "[t]he ways of poetry and music are not changed anywhere without change in the most important laws of the city.”

There's a lot to think about (and listen to) in the article, but two points struck me as worth repeating and elaborating here. The first is the distinction Scruton draws between "dancing with" and "dancing at" someone else. Anyone who has had the misfortune of stepping into a certain type of dance club will immediately know what Scruton means by that distinction. In music where one dances with a partner, the rhythm seems to be "precipitated" out of the melody. Melody generates rhythm, and the two are inseparable. In music where one dances at someone else, on the other hand, the rhythm is mechanically imposed onto the melody. There is a disconnect between rhythm and melody. He calls the people who dance at each other "victims and not producers of dance." If our music makes us victims of dance, no wonder that dancing as an art form of social life seems currently to be dormant among the general population.

Related to the question of how rhythm is produced is the second point, the use of drum kits in popular music. Drum kits, as Scruton remarks, are often used as a "substitute for rhythm in so much contemporary pop." Drum kits can be used to bring out and reinforce the natural rhythm produced by the melody, such as in Eric Clapton's "Lay Down Sally." Unfortunately, drum kits are more often than not used to impose a rhythm unto an unwilling melody, as in Meshuggah's "Bleed."

While death metal is an extreme example of using drums to impose rhythm, drum kits (and especially drum machines, today) really do deaden any natural rhythm produced by the melody, in any number of rock and pop songs. This deadening can be most clearly heard in those songs whose intros feature either guitars without drums or drums without guitars. Guitars without drums give an idea of what kind of rhythm the melody naturally wants to produce, while drums without guitars give an idea of what kind of rhythm the musicians want to produce. Often enough, though, when the other instrument joins in, the melody and the rhythm do not mesh. That failure to mesh is what Scruton means when he speaks of rhythm being imposed on the melody.

Finally, a tip of my hat for this article to Postmodern Conservative.
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