Music and the Transcendental

Future Symphony Institute

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an edited transcription of the keynote address delivered by Roger Scruton at our inaugural The Future of the Symphony Conference in September 2014. You can also watch the video of the address.

I’m greatly encouraged by this initiative to actually bring into public awareness just what matters about the symphony and what its place in modern cities should be, what its place in the surrounding way of life and the culture generally should be, and how we can support and give meaning to it. What I shall talk about today are some philosophical ideas about music itself, in particular about classical music, and why we think it is such an important thing. And it’s a difficult area for many reasons.

People who love music often find it extremely difficult to talk about it, to say what it is that they love in it; and people who dislike it nevertheless think that they have very good reasons to do so. And there seems to be no forum of debate in which people can try to come to some agreement as to why music has the importance that it has in our society. I’m going to say a few things about that and also about the theme that I have put in the title.

I think we have to begin from this idea that we’ve inherited a listening culture. Listening is not an easy thing itself to define. There is such a thing as hearing. We hear music all the time around us, but most of us don’t pay attention to it – partly because most of it is not worth paying attention to. But there’s also overhearing and that is a very common experience. Wherever we are – in restaurants or in the Metro or wherever – we are overhearing music coming at us from all angles, and we are learning how to ignore it. Music wasn’t originally designed to be ignored. But we live in a society where, if we don’t learn to ignore it, we can’t also learn to listen to it. This puts an enormous strain on us and it’s one reason, of course, for the existence of these special places like symphony halls where one can insulate oneself from the surrounding world.

I totally endorse everything that Léon Krier said to us about modern architecture and the way in which it has created alienating spaces where it should create spaces where we’re at home. And I think of all spaces where we should be at home, the symphony hall is the most important. Many of us have this sense that musical experience is of supreme value and that musical experience of the kind I’m going to be talking about – the kind that involves listening – has been extremely important in our civilization.

Western civilization is in many ways a musical civilization. Music has had a place in our civilization which it has never achieved elsewhere. Of course, all people everywhere sing and dance. Dance in particular has a profound social meaning, and without it most societies in the past could not have really held together. But dancing is a very different thing from just sitting and listening, and we have this long – perhaps a thousand-year-long – experience of just sitting and listening for long moments, and doing so in company. We detach music from collective singing and dancing and make of it what you might call a spectacle or auricle, an occasion for simply sitting together and listening. Though detached from those natural social forms of musical order like singing and dancing, it is still a social experience. It is something shared. Even when you’re listening on your own, there is an implicit sharing going on you. You don’t think of yourself as “me, alone, listening to that.” You are, as it were, representing your ideal group of fellow listeners for whom this is a communal experience. You’re being returned in some way to a deep social experience within you.

There are many threats, however, to this listening culture. In particular, there is growing around us a habit of merely hearing music, or merely overhearing music, and of having to fight music off so that you can listen. The music that you hear in most restaurants today is not music that you could listen to without going mad. Or if you if you did start listening to it then of course the whole purpose of the restaurant would be defeated, too. It is there simply to fill in the silence that would otherwise, people fear, be engendered between the people sitting at the tables by the fact that they’ve forgotten how to speak. That is only one place in which music intrudes, but it intrudes in so many other ways and so many other places that we do have to learn the habit of ignoring it. And that gives us a real sense that learning to listen is not something that can be achieved simply by doing it. We need to rehabilitate ourselves to a particular culture.

I want to say something in connection with this about the idea of the sacred. We all have this conception within us that certain moments, certain events, certain ceremonies, and certain social occasions stand outside the ordinary run of events. They are not simply day-to-day events, but somehow they are places, times, or occasions, which take us outside ourselves and point us to another world – a world which, whether or not we even think it exists, is nevertheless there in our imaginations and beckoning to us. And this of course is something that we experience in collective worship – those of us who are believers or are attached to a particular faith. And we recognize it as contained within liturgical words and the habit of chanting. I think it’s worth thinking about this experience, even if it may not be an experience we repeat each week in church, or mosque, or synagogue, or wherever. Nevertheless, for all of us there is deep in the unconscious memory this sense of the ceremonial presence of the divine and our collective attention to it. In this moment, our attention is turned towards the altar, and the altar is a kind of ‘no place.’ It’s a place within our world which is also nowhere because there’s nothing at it. The thing that is there is in some deep sense elsewhere. It lies outside our world. It’s not of this world.

This idea that we collectively turn our attention to something that is, as it were, absent but also for that very reason present – this paradoxical sense – is something that I think we inherited from the primary religious experience of humanity. And when this occurs in the normal ceremony of worship, the words and the music seem to fill the void that is there. It’s a very important feature of our civilization that religious worship has almost always been a matter of music as well as words. The words are formalized. Often they are words in a foreign language, words that have been inherited from a dead language. They’re not there specifically so that you should understand every nuance of them. They are there because they are correct, they sound right, they’ve always been said. But it’s the music for many of us that fills the void, that turns our attention to the altar, which is the ‘no place’ that is also a place. And through this singing we summon the real presence of the god, but we do this only because we have precise words and precise songs – the right words and songs. And that is what we have inherited.

Chant: “Salve, Regina”

This experience that we have of the sacred moment in which we are addressing this ‘no place’ at the altar with music and ritualized words is, I think, always in the back of our experience when we enter the concert hall. This is, as it were, the original experience from which we are downstream. And this experience of the real presence of the sacred, the sacramental, the consecrated, is a shared experience – even if you encounter it alone. When you walk into a church in a quiet, rural place and you’re alone in that church, you are for that very reason not alone. You are being addressed from nowhere, but as a member of something. So you adopt precise steps, precise tones – you speak in hushed tones and you look around yourself always for the precise words and precise gestures that would make your presence there into something acceptable. But I think music captures something of this ‘no place’ experience – the ‘no place’ where it all takes place. And that’s because it moves in a space of it’s own. In listening, we stand at the threshold of this space, and this is a philosophical point which is sometimes quite difficult to put across. Let me just give you a few thoughts.

When we listen to music – and perhaps not when we’re playing it or even singing it, but just listening – we experience a sense of things moving. The theme moves up and down in a one-dimensional space that is represented in the bar lines of the score. And it moves from one place to another. The opening theme of Beethoven’s third piano concerto, for instance, moves from C to E-flat to G and it comes down again. So between those notes there is a movement that you hear, but it’s an imaginary movement. The notes themselves are simply sounds if you think of them in real, physical terms. There’s a sequence of sounds but we hear in that sequence a movement up and then down. It has a certain force to it. It has a certain speed, and the sounds themselves have weight. As it goes down that C-minor scale to the tonic, you feel the weight increasing: you think, “It’s got to go further, it’s got to go further.” And then Beethoven stops it. With a couple of dominant-to-tonic commas, he stops the music in midstream.

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3

And musical sounds have all kinds of spatial features like opacity and transparency. The chords in a Debussy prelude might sound to you totally transparent, as though you could hear what is coming from behind them. There’s also a gravitational force in music: things seem to be, as it were, attracted to each other. They seem to drag things behind each other; they coalesce. Think of the beginning of Brahms’s second piano concerto where the horn announces the first phrase of the opening theme and seems to drag the piano behind it, after which, then, the piano takes over from the horn and completes the phrase. The piano is in one part of the concert hall, the horn in another part. There is no physical interaction between them, but in the notes that you hear, in the musical line, you hear a gravitational force which is making those two things cohere and move together.

Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2

This is all by way of suggesting that music in the listening culture to which I’m referring is organized spatially even though it isn’t in a real space. There is no actual space comparable to the physical space in which you and I live that contains the music. The music itself is creating that space and it’s creating it in your imagination. So the musical experience has some of this character of being nowhere. It’s creating a space of it’s own, which is not part of physical space and of which we are privileged witnesses through our ears, so to speak – but into which we ourselves cannot enter, either. It is something like the way that we sense a real presence around us in the sacred moment, but one that’s addressing us from ‘no place’ where we are.

This raises the question of how we find meaning in music. What kind of meaning do we find and how important is it to us? Does this help explain the incredible weight that has been given to the musical experience in our culture? Obviously, music can occur in conjunction with words. Music is used to set words and many people think that that is the primary way in which music acquires meaning – through word setting. You have a poem on the one hand, you have the musical setting on the other hand, and somehow they come together in the experience of these things. We hear the music perhaps as an illustration of the words or expressing the same thing that the words express. Those of you who are familiar with Lieder, especially the Schubert songs, will recognize that there is something consummate in what the music can provide to a very simple poem by way of translating it from a naïve expression of something into a kind of perfected drama. But what exactly is going on here? I want to say that it’s not just an identity of expression, but much more to do with the fact that the music provides appropriate gestures because it’s moving in this imaginary space that we ourselves are imagining in hearing, that we are surrounding the words with the gestures which in some way complete them. It is as though the music is observing the words with a sympathetic gaze. It is standing next to them and moving with them.

And I think for this reason, contrasting words can be set to the same music. In many of the Bach cantatas you will find that the composer uses again and again some of the themes and structures which appeal to him because they fit into the musical context. And they seem absolutely appropriate even though perhaps the emotions suggested by the words are completely different on each occasion. Many people think this a proof that music really doesn’t express emotion at all – that it can be used in these completely contrasting ways suggests that really, after all, it’s an illusion on our part and that we attribute emotional meaning to the music. But I think that’s not right. If we see the music as observing the words, sympathetically responding to them with the gestures that are appropriate to them, then of course it could be making the same movements in response to contrasting emotions in the words. What it is doing is providing those words with a context which enables us to identify with them.

In the supreme examples, however, we want to say that the music is in some way picking up the words and taking them to another place – the ‘no place’ that is also a sacred place. Here I would play for you Bach’s famous aria from the St. Matthew Passion, “Erbarme dich, mein Gott,” which perhaps many of you know. It opens with a violin obligato, one of the longest melodies that have ever been composed, simply introducing, before any words have been uttered, the state of mind that Bach wishes you to understand. And it’s a very complex state of mind. That moment in the St. Matthew Passion occurs just after Peter has a heard the cock crow, and has remembered the words of Jesus who had told him that before the cock crows he would betray him thrice. And he goes out and weeps bitterly. It’s a beautiful recitative setting of those words followed by this extraordinary violin melody in 12/8 time. And you don’t know yet what is going to be said next. But what is said by the words is something very strange: it’s not a direct comment on Peter’s emotion, but a general plea for mercy from God. “Have mercy on me, my God.” In other words, “Recognize that I live in a state of sin and that I will always fall short of what is required of me.”

Bach: “Erbarme dich, mein Gott”

Because music can have such an extraordinary emotional power of its own, independently of words even if it can be put to the use of words, there arose at a certain stage in the history of our civilization the idea that the real meaning of music would be best identified if we could separate it from words altogether. A certain distinction was made in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century between music that is applied and absolute music. Absolute music was thought to be the true music – the music which is not put to use in setting words or in accompanying a dance or in managing the conduct of a drama or any of the normal uses to which music might be put. Absolute music is just there for its own sake and in its own right. And that, surely, is the music of the concert hall: music which is simply played, which we attend to in reverent silence.

The word absolute was very appealing to the German romantic philosophers and poets who first put it forward – partly because it is a philosophical word. It seems to denote something which has purified itself of all pollution from the surrounding day-to-day reality. It’s as though this kind of music is lifted out of all its applications so as to reveal what it is in itself, in its essence. It reveals its intrinsic meaning. Now, whether you can make full sense of that is one of the great questions of musical aesthetics. And I’ll just say one or two things about it because I think, again, this is part of trying to understand why music has had the enormous significance that it has had for us.

The first point to make is that music is not a representational art. I think this is not often seen quite as clearly as it should be seen. Painting, as you know, is a representational art in its highest forms. It is an attempt to depict reality. It shows the world in a certain light, but the world that it shows is independent of the painting. You look at the painting and you see through the painting to another world – not always, of course: with modern abstract art you don’t have that experience. But that’s one reason for thinking that modern abstract art is a kind of degenerate case. In the central case, painting is there to represent something other than itself. And the same is true of literature and poetry. But in the case of music, this is not so. Although music can be used to set words, although it can be used to accompany a dance or to present a drama, in the case that really interests us – where we think that we are concentrating on the music itself – it doesn’t represent things, or if it does represent something it’s only itself. It is just there, as an object of attention. There are cases, of course, where music imitates sounds other than musical sounds. In Debussy’s La Mer you have attempts to imitate the movement of the sea in various conditions. But suppose somebody said to you that, although he loves Debussy’s La Mer, he can’t see any analogy with the movement of the sea. You wouldn’t say for that reason that he had misunderstood it. There are many forms of imitation that you don’t have to latch onto in order to understand the movement in the music. If music were a representational art you’d have to understand the subject matter in order to understand the music. And I think it’s very, very rare that that is required – that you, as it were, understand the music in terms of something else.

And again, music isn’t a language, either. It’s like a language in certain respects, but you couldn’t use music in order to conduct a conversation. When you hear in many of the Haydn and Beethoven quartets that kind of conversation-like music, as though the instrumentalists were responding to each other in the way that people do when having a friendly conversation, it’s not an actual conversation that you’re hearing. There is nothing other than the music that they are saying to each other. There is no exchange of information. It’s just something that’s very like a conversation going on. Even so, of course, music does have a kind of syntax – that is to say, there are rules that seem to have emerged over time to which we get habituated. And every note in music builds up certain expectations as to what will follow it. This is particularly true of tonal music. One of the things that worries us about atonal music is that we don’t have expectations as to what will follow any particular note in a melodic line or any particular harmony in the accompanying chords. But with tonal music, precisely because of the tonal syntax, we do have those expectations. So there is a background syntax that we seem to be able to grasp and it carries us forward through the music. It seems to be intimately connected with the meaning of the music. And in that sense, music is like a language.

But this syntax is not conventional: it’s the effect of use and not the cause of it. In language, syntax is entirely arbitrary. You can make your own rules – and there are many artificial languages of which this is true. Each language has different rules for constructing a syntactically correct sentence out of the parts of it. But in music, syntax is not conventional. There is something natural about the syntax that has emerged over the centuries in tonal music. It wasn’t somebody’s choice to create the relation between the dominant seventh and the tonic which makes the tonic such a natural successor to the dominant seventh. That’s something that we’ve learned to hear, and if you try to remake the code so that that particular convention – that syntactical rule – is denied, you’ll find that your audience won’t follow you. So it’s like the syntax of language in a way, but not conventional.

Bach: Cello Suite No. 1

There is nevertheless a form that emerges from the use of this syntax, and musical form is one of the most important features that interests us in this so-called absolute music – music which is there for its own sake and is not applied to anything else. And as in architecture, the parts of music answer to each other. Léon Krier in his lecture showed us some very wonderful examples – in his inimitable draftsman’s style – of architectural elements in which the parts enter into relation with each other, and how by altering the dimensions the relation is in some way distorted. Another meaning entirely begins to attach itself to the architectural form. But without the meaningful parts, the architectural form would have no meaning at all. It’s because there are moldings that you can divide a wall into meaningful areas and see whether they correspond to each other proportionately. It’s because a column has a capital, a base, and all the moldings around them that you can understand the relations between its parts and obtain a sense of harmony between them. And I think that one of the great errors ­– to add to what Léon said – of modernism is to think that you can understand the architectural form without the meaningful parts from which the building is constructed. On the contrary, you end up with buildings which, because you have no meaningful parts, have no shadows with which to measure them. I think something similar is true of music: musical form isn’t just an overall, liquid assembly. It’s generated, bit-by-bit, from meaningful details. It is only there because we have this syntax which enables us to understand the parts.

But there is a mystery, as well, to musical form. It’s not just a matter of following certain rules. The traditional forms of music were constructed according to rules. There’s a rule for constructing the perfect sonata form movement. There are rules for constructing fugues, and so on. But it doesn’t follow from the fact that you obey these rules that the resulting piece of music will have real musical form. Clementi’s sonatas and sonatinas, which all of you learn when you begin learning to play the piano, are full of perfect sonata form movements which are deeply formless. There’s nothing that happens in them. There is no real tension built up at the beginning which takes them through to the end. But they’re charming and very useful to piano teachers. In Scarlatti, you have these defiant violations of the traditional forms. Those little sonatas of his which seem from the technical point of view entirely formless are nevertheless perfect little miniatures – perfectly formed in the sense that everything given at the beginning takes you inexorably through to the end, and there isn’t a redundant element in them. This is true, too, of the great formal masterpieces like the sonata movements of Bruckner’ symphonies. But there could be formal perfection, also, without conventional form when there is no reference to any particular system of rules for generating a musical movement – as in the three movements of Debussy’s La Mer, each of which is formally absolutely perfect in the sense that I’m intending, but has no real reference to the traditions of musical structure. This is similarly true of Beethoven’s late C-sharp minor quartet.

So why should we be interested in form in this case? This is a deep question, which is extremely relevant to the whole idea of a listening culture. When you go to a concert to listen to something, you go not just because it’s live music and otherwise you only get it on your iPad or whatever. You’re going partly because the form seems so much clearer when you can engage with your eyes and with your sense of space with the individual components, the individual musical lines, that go to compose it. I think this is one of the most important aspects of the listening experience – when you’re in the presence of the players – that in some way you see and hear and are surrounded by this coming-together of separate currents of energy into a comprehensive form. And this interest is not simply the result of taking an aesthetic attitude – in other words, of attending to the thing – it goes deeper.

We have a deep interest in form. We require the parts in a work of music to answer to each other. And, as I said, part of the disaster of modernist architecture lies here. It reminds us that we are at home with form but we are at sea with the formless. If you look at the city with which you are familiar, you have a very good example of this: Baltimore is one of the few American cities that hasn’t been yet entirely destroyed. It’s got another five or six years of life. You’ve got whole sections of the street where you see buildings that were made in very different sizes and of very different materials, but all attempting to produce form out of matching parts or out of parts that respond to each other. Then they’re interrupted by utterly formless blocks which have bulk but no detail. And we’re not at home with those other things.

Form seems to be a fundamental need of the human psyche. Why is this? I’ll offer just a very rough suggestion, which is that our lives are incomplete and we are constantly embarking on things – adventures or just a walk around the block or a conversation with a friend or something bigger like a love affair or whatever. We embark on these things and it quickly dissipates in chaos or incompletion. Something interrupts it. Nothing comes properly to an end, and then a sense invades us of the futility of things. “I should have done that properly. I didn’t bring it to a conclusion. It is simply the ragged ends of something that I began but couldn’t actually bring to any effective conclusion.” In everything we do we are aiming to get somewhere, but we never seem to arrive there.

Perhaps one of the things that art can do us is to provide us with a destination. When we enter a work of music, so to speak, we’re taken up by it and it’s moving us towards a destination of its own. Because in some deep sense we’re identifying with the movement in the music, we hear it as bringing to completion the gestures that originated in us. We follow these gestures and episodes to their completion. And there’s a sense that, after all, these ragged ends of human life don’t have to be just ragged. They could, in some ideal world, find a conclusion of their own; and we are, similarly, beings who do have it within us to arrive at our destination. You can think of your own examples of that, but to me, a very effectively example is the first movement of Brahms’s fourth symphony, which starts off with a very obvious gesture: a descending third followed by a rising sixth. And growing out of that gesture is another one of the same kind, and then you gradually realize that this gesture has penetrated the whole orchestra and has taken on a life of its own and moves through successive blocks of thematic material until finally it reaches its inevitable fulfillment ten minutes later.

As well as our desire for form, we also have a hunger for meaning. Music, as I said earlier, is not sound. It inhabits sound in the same way that a face inhabits a picture. It’s there in the sound; we hear the movement in the sound through entering that imagined space. What we’re hearing, judged as a physical object, is just sound. But the music is not that sound. It is the thing that we hear in it. So we’re always listening for something that speaks to us through the music – a kind of disembodied voice in an imagined space. And that voice is in the world but not of it, to use the religious language. It is speaking to us, but not from any space in which we ourselves stand.

Nevertheless, we judge it. If we’re listening, we want to know if it’s saying something serious. And if it’s serious, from what psychic region does it come? We have the impression often that truly serious music has, as it were, put its ear to the ground and heard the far-off murmur of the infinite. And that’s the kind of experience you have obviously from things like the openings of Bruckner’s symphonies and the famous opening of Beethoven’s ninth symphony in which the music is saying, “Look, something is speaking through me from far, far away – and you must put your ear to the ground just as I am doing.”

This connects in my view with our experience of each other. To understand an experience, of course, is not necessarily to justify it. But we still have to understand this experience that we get from music. And one way of understanding it is to see its relation to our everyday experience of each other. What I want to say is that the reaching for the transcendental is actually an everyday event for human beings. It isn’t something unusual because it’s what we are doing all the time with each other.

When I encounter another person, as I encounter you or as you encounter each other, whether in conversation or just simply standing and looking at you, I have a sense that there is a kind of barrier between me and you. There you are looking at me, speaking to me, but the thing that you really are – the ‘I’ behind that barrier – is not something that can ever be made visible or tangible to me. And yet I’m constantly reaching out to try and take possession of it, to try to be in full contact with you. And I, too, stand behind such a barrier. I know that you’re looking at my face and you’re listening to my words, but I also know that in some deep sense you can’t actually enter that space from which I address you.

We have to reach across this barrier. Otherwise, what is the point of human life? Everything that we do and hope for depends upon crossing that barrier to the other and being at one with him or her. So we do reach across it, and when we’re doing things together of the right kind, we can forget that barrier. We have a sense in communal activities that the barrier has dissolved and that the various ‘I’s have melted into a ‘we.’ And I think this dissolving of the barrier between us occurs especially in our shared attention to the ‘no place,’ as in the religious experience when we’re all attending to the altar, that ‘no place’ which is a place nevertheless.

I suspect that something similar is going on also in the concert hall. The music is, as it were, speaking for us in our communal assault on the silence that is being created in the concert hall, and we are with it in trying to get through to what it is that’s speaking through that silence. I think the sense that we find in music a transcendental voice that we can engage with and enter into communication with is something that has its origins in our everyday need for each other. And that’s part of its significance for us.

Now, I think I’ll say a little bit more. I think I have more material than I can possible present to you, but I shall carry on for a bit more. We’re all familiar with the facts of human sympathy: that we can be at one with another person in his joy or grief, and likewise we can feel sympathy for animals, for nature itself – we can be at one with the natural world in the sense that we feel a harmony between our emotions and our will, our desires, and the context that surrounds us and inspires those things in us. And when I feel sympathy with another person, I enter into his state of mind. “I know what it’s like to feel as you do.” We don’t necessarily know how to put it into words, but often in extreme moments of sympathy, especially those which are of real value to us, we have this sense of knowing from inside what the other person is feeling. And there is a kind of vindication of our own life in that. The fact that that is possible brings home to us the other dimension of our being, where we are at one with others.

Music can also shows what it is like to be in a condition for which we have no words. In Fidelio, when Leonore and Florestan are finally aware of each other’s presence they sing that famous duet O namenlose Freude! (O Nameless Joy!). And the music really does express a joy of the kind no words could possibly capture – and indeed probably of a kind that only somebody as solitary as Beethoven could think really exists. Nevertheless, the music, as it were, gives us that first person perspective on this otherwise unknowable thing.

In a similar way, much music reaches towards the transcendental – reaches beyond the limits of this world to the kind of archetypes from which we think our own feelings and states of mind have descended. And perhaps this shared moment of reaching towards the transcendental is what we ultimately wanted from music. That is one of the real questions: Is it so?

Well, I’ll conclude with a philosophical thought about ‘about.’ My feelings are directed from the ‘I’ towards the ‘you.’ This is what philosophers call an intentional relation, not a material relation. I feel maybe fear, love, shame, or whatever towards you. And it may be that I feel this even though you don’t exist. It’s unknown to me that you’ve been killed, but still my feeling is there. The feeling is a going out towards the other which doesn’t necessarily depend upon the other’s existence or anything that’s going on in the other.

And this feature of our states of mind – their intentionality – is something that philosophers regard as, in many ways, marking out the human condition from everything else in the universe. Here we have these extraordinary conditions that we undergo which are in some way incomplete. They’re reaching out from us; they are unsaturated. They’re looking for the object that will fulfill them and complete them. We have this sense all the time with each other – that we’re reaching out in that way – and I think we have this in music, too. When we’re listening properly, surrounded by others who are doing likewise, and imagining that space in which the music moves under impulses of its own, we hear the music, not just moving as a physical object might move, but having intentions of its own, reasons of its own. It’s got a reason for moving from C to E-flat, just as we might have. It is a kind of master of its imagined space.

Important works of music exhibit in that way a kind of freedom and completeness to which we aspire in our own lives, but which we don’t obtain. For this reason, I think we think of music as having an ‘aboutness’ of its own. It’s not just there, the movement of sounds in imaginary space. It is itself responding to something that we can’t directly perceive or know – in just the way that we can’t directly perceive or know each other. It is, if you like, a source of feelings which belong to it. It’s as though it is about something even though it’s not something that we could ever ourselves engage with or know directly.

And I think it’s this feature of music – this capacity it has to lift up our hearts, to take us into a world where we, too, can imagine being complete in our emotions, to take all our emotions to their conclusion, and to rejoice in them as they are – that is perhaps the most important experience of the concert hall, and one which is threatened wherever the listening experience is threatened by invasion from the noise that surrounds us.

So I would give these as my philosophical reasons for thinking that music not only gives us a sense of the transcendental, but is a part of our lives that fulfills us and depends upon the whole symphonic concert hall tradition in order to be the thing that it is. I’ll stop there. Thank you.

About the Author

Roger Scruton is the world's preeminent philosopher in the field of aesthetics. Having graduated with honors from Cambridge, he has subsequently held positions at some of the world's most prestigious institutions including the Universities of Cambridge, Oxford, St Andrews, Princeton, and Boston. Roger was called to the Bar after his studies at the Inns of Court in London. He is a fellow of both the Royal Society of Literature and the British Academy. Moreover, Roger has been awarded the Czech Republic's Medal for Merit in recognition of his efforts to establish an underground university in Czechoslovakia during its last decade of communism. Today he serves as a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC. But his principal activity remains what it has been for the last 30 years, which is writing. Roger is an astonishingly prolific writer on a broad range of topics in several genres. His serious academic research has been in the area of aesthetics, with two books – The Aesthetics of Architecture and The Aesthetics of Music – that have made important contributions to their respective fields. In addition Roger has written essays, criticism, autobiography, invocations of country life, novels, and poems. He is deeply devoted to classical music and an accomplished amateur composer. For in case you missed it, somewhere in there he also found time to write two operas and the libretto for a third.
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  • Beautiful text, and a clear formulation (as far as this is possible) of the ineffable nature of music, which is the ‘inside’ of things while we live the ‘outside’. While we can identify with the music, its forms and ‘logic’ ennobles our own emotions, and gives them meaning. This would explain that really negative music, like some of Chopin’s works (for instance, the 2nd sonata), still has an uplifting effect upon our emotions: we are not alone in these moods and also these have meaning, although we can’t put our finger on it. The inner space of music forms a continuum which we can share.

    It follows from this that sonic art (modernist, atonal music) is very poor in comparison: there is only the material surface of sound, and no inner space, which can only be created by the interrelatedness of tonality.

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