There is no better or faster way to out yourself as a curmudgeon than to pick on the music that kids are listening to, especially if you do it without the ironic and self-mocking flair that my generation has perfected.
And there is no issue which used to divide kids and parents more than what tunes–an archaic word for them–are acceptable to pulse through the ubiquitous earbuds. My generation, like my parent’s generation, was shaped by rebellion implicit in our musical preferences (Nirvana? Pearl Jam? Yes, please).
The case that the music matters goes back to Plato, and while it doesn’t have many popular defenders (at least among non-parents), it remains compelling. And Roger Scruton is just the guy to update it.
The argument is long, and resists excerpting. But Scruton captures the fundamental difference between melody and noise about as well as anyone I’ve seen:
When we hear a piece of music, we hear a sequence of sounds: one sound, and then another. Usually these sounds are pitched, and melody depends upon playing different pitches in succession. When we hear a melody, however, we don’t just hear a succession of pitched sounds. We hear something else—namely, a movement between those sounds. The melody begins on one note, continues through its successors in a goal-directed way, and ends on another note. This is something we hear, even though nothing in the physical world actually moves.
But the essay, named “Soul Music,” would have done just as well titled “Body Music,” for as Scruton argues, its music that connects the two and shapes our embodied existence:
Only rational beings dance, and in the normal case they do so by way of putting their personality and their freedom on display, in the manner described by Schiller. When you are in the grip of an external and mechanised rhythm, your freedom is overridden, and it is hard then to move in a way that suggests a personal relation to a partner—the I-Thou relation on which human society is built. Plato was surely right, therefore, to think that when we move in time to music we are educating our characters. For we are learning an aspect of our embodiment, as free beings.
If Scruton’s argument is right, then music–not the words, but the melodies, harmonies, and metre–matters. Which is to say, we should always listen to our mothers.