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23/04/2020 Tonality Now: Finding a Groove – Future Symphony Institute


O che trate a enaissance.


Tonality Now: Finding a Groove

The history of instrumental music and that of the cult of listening are interwoven
with the history of the Church.
bySir Roger Scruton

Published with special thanks to Hilary B. and Kate Miller who made it possible.

THE EAR IS A BIOLOGICAL PHENOMENON ; but the human ear is also a

cultural product. It has a history, a perspective and an interest of its own. The
ear of the modern concertgoer is unlike the ear of a medieval chorister, and both
are distinct from the ear of the pop fan who never takes his speakers from his
ears. Until we understand this fact we will not be able to address the question
that is of such importance to classical music today, which is that of the renewal
of tonality.

Some people listen to music; others merely hear it. The assumption on which our musical
culture has been built is that people will listen to musical sounds, and listen to them for their
own sake, treating them as intrinsically signi cant. All music lovers listen in that sense,
regardless of their taste. This does not mean that listening is a single phenomenon, or that it
cannot be changed through education. Just as you can educate the eye to look for the meanings
that painters endeavour to put on the canvas, so you can educate the ear to listen for, and to
hear, the e ects that composers intend.

Animals too listen: they prick up their ears and stand still, attending to the ambient sounds. But
they are doing something di erent from what we do, when we listen to music. They are seeking
information. It is not the sounds that interest them, but the things that cause the sounds. Like
us, they use their ears to gain knowledge of the world, and the sounds that they make are signals
of other things – their emotions, desires and responses. Even bird-song is to be understood in 1/6
23/04/2020 Tonality Now: Finding a Groove – Future Symphony Institute

that way. Birds neither sing nor listen for the sake of the music: they are expressing their
territorial instinct, and taking note of others doing the same.

When we listen to music it is also true that we are interested in information – who is making the
sound, where it is coming from, why it is sounding now, and so on. But those interests are
extraneous to the musical experience. A completely unmusical person could be interested in
music for those reasons, as could an animal. When we listen to music as music, we are focusing
on the sounds themselves, hearing in them a particular kind of life and movement. And this is a
far more mysterious thing than at rst it seems. Often, if you focus too closely on the causes of
the sounds, you lose track of the music. Brahms’s 2nd piano concerto opens with a phrase on the
horn, followed by a rising arpeggio on the piano that breaks into an answering phrase. To hear
the musical line you have to think away the physical location of the sounds, to forget the man
blowing in one corner of the orchestra and the woman striking keys in the other. You must hear
the horn summoning that arpeggio, which rises up in the same space as the horn’s melody, but
from somewhere below it, presenting its answering phrase in the space vacated by the horn.
Where is this space? Nowhere in the physical world. And when we listen to these sounds as
music we are focusing on a movement that does not occur in the place where we are.

Only because we human beings are capable of certain special acts of attention do we encounter
music in the sounds that we hear. Maybe the tone deaf hear only sounds, and cannot perceive
the order that reveals itself to the musical ear. But musical people are listening in another way
from the unmusical. They don’t hear through the sounds to some mysterious cause that eludes
those with less acute hearing. What they hear lies in the sounds themselves. It is not a hidden
cause or a faraway commotion. It is as present in the sounds as a face is present in a portrait. But
it is not identical with the sounds, any more than the face in the picture is identical with a
collection of pigments. The order we hear in music is an imagined order, and it is only because
we attend to the music in a certain way that it is revealed to us.

Listening is not the whole of musical appreciation. There is also playing, singing along, dancing.
But in all those activities we nd some equivalent of the mysterious process that occurs in the
soul of the musical listener: the process that lls a sequence of sounds with movement, life and
order. It is in these terms that we should understand our tonal tradition, and also the interest
that we bring to it in the concert hall. When playing an instrument you might be the sole
audience. Nevertheless, it is your nature as a listener that governs how you play, and even if your
body responds to the rhythm so that the movement of the music takes place also in you, this
happens because you are a listener, someone who can hold sounds together in his imagination
and who can hear the order that binds each sound to its successor.

Undeniably, listening has a history, and a pre-history too. Just how the habit of making and
listening to music arose is a deep question, and evolutionary psychologists have o ered various
not very plausible theories in response to it. In its rst occurrence, it is natural to assume, music
must have been a social phenomenon – a form of ‘joining in’ through which the tribe
experienced in heightened form the solidarity on which it depended for survival. When people 2/6
23/04/2020 Tonality Now: Finding a Groove – Future Symphony Institute

sing and dance together they have an experience of ‘belonging’ which depends on no family ties
or prior a ections, and which therefore can be used to incorporate strangers into the
community, to prepare otherwise mutually suspicious people for combat or hunting, and to
mark the rites of passage in which the community as a whole has a stake. Not surprisingly,
therefore, singing and dancing are universal features of tribal societies, and occur at just the
places and times where the need for solidarity surfaces.

This does not, however, tell us very much about listening. The very fact that listening can occur
in private, without the experience of ‘joining in’, might lead us to think that it is a late arrival on
the human scene, a mark of the separation of the individual from the community, and of the
growing ability of humans to put observation in the place of participation. Even if the performer
and the dancer must listen to their music, the art of listening without joining is, it might be
suggested, a later development, something that did not have to occur, and which supposes a new
and more sophisticated attitude to the collective life of the tribe.

Whatever its pre-history, however, listening in silence brought with it not only a new attitude to
music, but also a new kind of music. Music began to be written down and worked over; it
became established as an art whose products could be repeated and admired in other places and
at other times. The movement heard in sounds was now isolated for study, and understood in
terms of its inner logic. New complexities arose as people began to distinguish separate but
harmonising voices, and in due course there emerged the instrumental, choral and vocal music
of our classical tradition, which demands acts of attention that can occur only if the audience
maintains a posture of collective silence, and only if the urge to dance or to sing along is

It is from those developments that the symphony and the concert arose. And it is not too
fanciful, I think, to compare the rise of silent listening to the advent of silent worship in church,
temple and synagogue. What must originally have been a collective dance or song in honour of
the god became in time a largely silent ritual, in which the presiding priest conducted the
ceremony, performed the sacred actions or recited the holy words, whether or not with the aid
of a choir. The congregation could join in from time to time, but only in ways speci ed by the
rite. For long moments the ordinary worshippers remained motionless in silence, their eyes and
thoughts xed on the ritual at the altar. The priest mediated between two worlds, the everyday
world, and the world beyond, the spirit-world, to which the thoughts and hopes of the
congregation were directed. And in due course the question arose whether such mediation was
necessary, and whether people could not put themselves immediately in the presence of God,
and receive his blessings through pronouncing prayers of their own.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the history of instrumental music and that of the cult of listening are
interwoven with the history of the Church and the priesthood. You entered both the church and
the concert hall from the world of business, laying aside your everyday concerns and preparing
to be addressed by the silence. You came in an attitude of readiness, not to do something, but to
receive something. In both places you were confronted with a mystery, something that 3/6
23/04/2020 Tonality Now: Finding a Groove – Future Symphony Institute

happened without a real explanation, and which must be contemplated for the thing that it is.
The silence is received as a preparation, a lustration, in which the audience prepares itself for an
act of spiritual refreshment. This is perhaps one of the most important di erences between the
concert-hall experience and the Rock concert, in which the audience falls silent, if at all, only
because it cannot compete with the noise from the stage. Like a football match, a Rock concert
takes place in an atmosphere of excitement. Even if the result is a kind of listening, it is one in
which participation, rather than contemplation, is the background sentiment.

In our attempts to understand the place of the symphony hall in our society today we should be
aware of that great di erence between the symphony and the Rock concert. The rst is more
akin to a religious service, in which a mystery is repeated in silence, while the second is more like
a collective celebration, in which everyone joins in and there is no mystery at all – only life,
expressed and accepted for what it is. The music of the concert hall tends to start from small
beginnings and work to a climax. It is a kind of reasoned extrapolation of a primal thought, in
which the listeners are invited to move and develop with the music, much as they are invited to
move and develop with a religious service. Your feelings at the end of a great classical symphony
have been won from you by a process which involves your deepest being. In the usual Rock
concert, the excitement, and the message, are contained in the very rst bar. Rhythm, tonality
and the main spurt of melody are thrust immediately into the ears of the listener. There is a ‘let’s
go!’ feeling to the music, and an invitation to leave aside all those long-winded and di cult
emotions that have hesitation as their initiating mark.

But there are also signi cant similarities between the two events. In both there is a centre of
attention – the people who are making music for the sake of the audience. And in both there is,
or has been, a shared legacy of rhythmic, melodic and harmonic devices. While the symphony is
more akin to a religious mystery, and the Rock concert to a tribal dance – although a dance that
is constrained by the space and by the focus on the stage – both depend on musical movement,
melodic progression, rhythmic beat and harmonic closure. The chords that occur in the Rock
concert could also occur in a tonal symphony, and while, by the standards of the concert hall,
the melodies of Rock music are for the most part truncated and ephemeral, they work in the
same way – by bringing the listener into their movement. They work towards closure, and
usually the melodic closure is a harmonic closure too, a coming to rest on the tonic of the key.

I don’t say that all Rock music is like that. But such is the paradigm case, from which the many
experiments depart. And it is built around the same basic grammar as the great classical
symphonies – the ‘common practice’, which extracts repeatable and recognizable harmonies
from the diatonic scale. That is the thread by which young people today can be brought to enter,
with experimental footsteps, the sacred place of the symphony hall. But rst they must take o
their ear-phones. And how do we make that happen?

It is not a question of replacing one musical taste with another – something that often happens
through education and an expanded acquaintance with the repertoire. It is a question of
replacing addiction with discrimination. If you look back at the critiques of tonality articulated 4/6
23/04/2020 Tonality Now: Finding a Groove – Future Symphony Institute

by Schoenberg, and subsequently by Adorno, Bloch and others, you will nd a repeated emphasis
on the ‘banality’ of the common practice. This banality clings not only to melodies and rhythms,
but also to individual chords. The diminished seventh, Schoenberg tells us in the Harmonielehre,
has ‘become banal’. You just can’t use it any more: its once thrilling e ect has gone from it; the
chord has lost its aura through too much and too predictable use. (Though people went on using
it nevertheless – there are three diminished sevenths in a row in Berg’s great Lyric Suite for
string quartet.) It is as though a groove has been worn in musical space, and if you slip into it
you are trapped by it, sliding along with no escape. All the e ects of the common practice,
Adorno argued, have become like that.

The same kind of groove is chiselled in the human psyche by addictions. When rewards are too
quickly and too easily obtained, the path to them becomes entrenched and closed against
divergence. The addict slips into the groove unresisting, and is carried to the goal without the
possibility of escape from it. This happens with substance abuse, with pornography, with the
anger-addiction of the Islamists, who slip into the God groove at the rst hint of an excuse. And
it surely happens with music too. When rhythms, harmonies and melodic lines are taken from a
predictable repertoire and o er no resistance to the person who nods along with them, and
when the experience is available at the push of a button, a groove is chiselled in the listening
part of the brain, and the entrance to that groove lies always open. How to close that entrance?
And if we cannot close it, what then?

The rst step in the cure of addiction is well known: the addict must confess to his condition
and express a desire to be released from it. The various ‘12 step’ programs that have been
proposed, in the wake of the pioneering work of Alcoholics Anonymous, all depend upon this
rst step. And it is this rst step that is the hardest to achieve. The pop addict must rst be
brought to listen to something other than his addiction. And how can that be achieved without
removing the earphones? Only if he can be brought into a shared space, and encouraged to
listen, with others beside him, to another kind of sound than the one that lies along that open
groove, will the process of recovery begin. For this reason, it seems to me, music education must
begin in school. It should be one task of a symphony to organize school-day concerts, to show
children that there is another and more grow-up way of listening to another and more long-
range kind of music.

It is for the same reason that we should refuse to go along with those who disparage the
common practice, who say, with Adorno, that tonality is a dead language, which should be
learned only as Latin is learned, in order to appreciate the beauties of a world that has gone. We
must be prepared to show young people that the coal face from which their addictive songs have
been chipped contains other, more beautiful and more interesting seams of meaning, and that
behind the glittering surface lie treasures that are worth far more than the super cial dross.

American composers have made their own distinctive contribution to this enterprise. From
Gershwin to John Adams it has been normal to take some aspect of the popular music of the day
and to show its connection to other and more long-term ways of musical thinking. Just as 5/6
23/04/2020 Tonality Now: Finding a Groove – Future Symphony Institute

Gershwin rewrote jazz sequences in the language of counterpoint, so does Adams lift the
ostinato four in a bar of the Rock group into an orchestral empyrean, where the at-footed
dance gives way to a gravitationless rhythm that moves and develops with the harmony. Adams
uses the tonal language, not to make the kind of profound statement of a Beethoven or a
Bruckner, but nevertheless to lift the young ear out of its groove and to make it listen.

If those thoughts have any merit, then they suggest a program of musical education that is still
available to us, and in which the American symphony, and the American tradition of democratic
openness, can play a vital part. But they also suggest that we should not let ourselves be bullied
by the avant-garde into lling the concert hall with original noises and inexplicable sound
e ects. New music is of course necessary if the symphony is to live. But it should be music in
which each note is joined to its neighbour, so that life can move between them and we the
listeners move in sympathy too. It is that experience of moving in sympathy, yet without really
moving, that is the ‘real presence’ in the consecrated space of the symphony hall. And to lead
young people towards it is not only our duty, but also their salvation. 6/6