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Dr. John F. Nieto: 132 Arguments
(More or Less) Against Habitually Listening to Rock Music

Posted: October 23, 2020

One Hundred and Thirty-Two Arguments (More or Less)
Against Habitually Listening to Rock Music
Or Its Congeners and Their Descendants

 

The complete title of this talk is “One Hundred and Thirty-Two Arguments (More or Less) Against Habitually Listening to Rock Music or Its Congeners and their Descendants”. I have given you a list of the arguments as they occur in the talk. I admit that I am less familiar with various contemporary forms of music related to rock and their various fusions, though I will make some implicit observations about them through the judgments made immediately about rock music in its first two or three generations. I am arguing that listening habitually to such music is morally unadvisable.

These arguments agree with one of the principal judgments of Plato’s Republic , that “Reason tempered with music is the best guardian of virtue”.[1] Socrates adds, “This alone, dwelling in the one having it, becomes the savior of virtue through life.”[2] With Plato, I am not claiming music is sufficient to bring about virtue and happiness. Reason, right reason, in fact, is the principal and immediate cause of a virtuous and therefore happy life. But music has a greater power in the moral life than anything else immediately sensible rather than intelligible. And though reason is the first, principal, and immediate cause of a virtuous life, music is the first and immediate principle to a kind of joy necessary to a happy life, even if this is not the joy most proper to happiness. That joy will be proportional to kind of music the happy man enjoys.

I will note something in passing. Music also affects our intellectual life. The high degree of order in such music accustoms the soul, in its irrational, sensitive powers, to contemplate order, to expect it, and to find order satisfying. If all philosophy is the loving pursuit of wisdom and if, as Aristotle says, to order is the proper work of the wise man, then music has a significant role in disposing the rational soul, which is an intellect able to sense, toward ordering its concepts or against such an order.

Once, when I heard a professor say, “I listen to so-and-so the way I listen to music: in one ear and out the other,” I had to restrain myself. I wanted to say, “You shouldn’t listen to music that way.” I did not. But I felt sure of one reason why this professor never seemed to have a deep grasp of philosophy and reality. I would add that I have never known anyone deeply philosophical who does not listen habitually to great music.

Yet I have no intention of speaking about rock music in an absolute manner. I am not claiming that everything about rock music is bad. I am not claiming that the act of listening to rock music is of itself a sin, though I recognize it can be an occasion of sin. Nor am I denying that some good people might habitually listen to or even make rock music. I am certainly not claiming that a happy, virtuous life demands that you never listen with pleasure to a rock song again. But I do think listening habitually to rock music makes the moral life much more difficult and that rock music itself contributes nothing significant to the moral life.

Where Music is Most Like Moral Life

Before offering my principal arguments, let me look at the overlap between music and the moral life—something common to both. Both music and the moral life demand an interior attention to our feelings. We enjoy music insofar as we feel the passions or emotions imitated by that music. Here the names “feelings”, “emotions”, and “passions” signify the same reality in different ways. Likewise, in the moral life, we grasp whether we are doing something right or wrong—in part—by turning within and estimating the nature and intensity of what we feel. And sometimes we think about the moral life abstractly, without being involved in an action at present.

To think abstractly about moral action, we must represent these passions interiorly. Certainly, to represent such passions interiorly is not precisely the same as to feel them. In feeling what anger feels like I am not angry at someone, though I recognize that the feeling of anger is directed outward, at someone. Likewise, I cannot feel what love feels like without attending to it as directed at someone in amanner very unlike that of anger. Note, however, that we think about feelings that we do not enjoy or even find reprehensible. No one can think about murder or rape as a crime, for example, without some sense that the passions causing such crimes are painful and reprehensible.

As we cannot think about the moral life without attention to some interior representation of passion, so we cannot enjoy music without representing the passion expressed in the music interiorly. We sometimes express this when we speak of music as having or not having feeling. Music without feeling lacks the power to bring forth a clear or sufficient representation within us. Music should have feeling; it should bring forth feelings with a certain clarity and distinction.

Note, however, that the representation sufficient for the intellectual attention differs from the representation sufficient for musical enjoyment. In the first case, we need to conceive and name the feeling or passion. In the second, we merely need to enjoy it or appreciate it.

So far I have spoken of our intellectual attention to the moral life and musical attention to the passions that arise in the moral life. The attention to our passions in particular moral action is more or less a combination of these two. We must feel passions in the moral life. Moral action is not suppression of feeling or passion. I think that the moral life demands increase of passion much more than most people imagine.

At present I only point out that feeling passion is a real and necessary part of the moral life. But it is only part; we must also rightly estimate our feelings and the feelings of those we interact with. This estimation is something like our attention to passions when we think about the moral life, as in ethics. Yet further, in moral action we must regulate our passions and feelings so that they are proportionate to various circumstances of the action. Finally, an action remains incomplete, if we do not enjoy the passion appropriate to the action in question. And this last element is very close to the enjoyment of passion we experience in music.

In principle, just as dramatic poetry (together with the novel) imitates some action that leads to happiness or misery, so music imitates the enjoyment of passion integral to happiness or misery. Some music imitates enjoyment of passion much closer to such enjoyment as it forms part of a happy life. Some music imitates enjoyment of passion as proper to a life that appears happy but is not so. I think rock music is this sort of music.

An Important Fallacy

Before going on, let me address a fallacious, but common, argument that there is no better and worse in music or in other imitative arts. Some hold that, since people disagree about which kind of music is good and thus about which music imitates emotions in a manner that is truly pleasant, music has no intrinsic excellence. All music, they say, is good and pleasant only insofar as someone enjoys it.

This argument ignores the true force of the original fact. Insofar as people disagree about what music is good and what emotions are represented in a pleasant manner, they agree upon something yet more certain: some music is better and some music is worse. Likewise, people argue about what kinds of food are more and less healthy, based on the greater certainty that some foods are healthier than others. Hence, however much people disagree about which music does so, they also agree that some emotions are represented with greater fittingness and pleasure than others.

What Do I Mean by Rock Music

Now I will turn to the subject of my talk. I will say what I mean by rock music and describe my familiarity with it. In using the phrase “rock” music, I realize that this phrase names many different things loosely united by a number of musical and even non-musical elements. In this sense, you had a rough idea of what I would speak about tonight. I am arguing that these forms of music are morally hazardous.

Let me clear this up a bit. What I am calling rock music arose together with some other styles of music, its congeners, in distinction from what we call jazz. After some time rock music separated itself from those other forms to become the most dominant form of popular music. I am focusing on it as much because of its dominance as its intrinsic character.

I call rock music “popular” to distinguish it from what we call folk music. I think folk music not only something healthy but also something necessary to a true culture and society, even more necessary than what we call classical music. I say nothing here against American folk traditions. Rock music is not wholly separated from these folk traditions. Such roots may be the best thing about rock music. Nonetheless, I think that in truth, popular music such as rock and roll is the principal musical impediment to a genuine folk music in our day.

My Familiarity with Rock Music

I myself began to listen purposely to rock music when I was fourteen or so. I had long loved music very distinctly, and especially I loved to sing, from of a distinct love for beauty. Music cannot make a life beautiful in the manner most proper to happiness. But more than fifty years’ experience of music convinces me that life can be fully beautiful and joyful without music that is deeply beautiful.

At fourteen I discovered the rock band Chicago. I enjoyed their horn section and this led me to explore other rock music. But early on I heard Jethro Tull play Bach on television. That had an unsettling effect on me and I wondered, “Why don’t they play music like that all the time.” I also heard Beethoven at an friend’s house. I sensed something in this music that I wanted to be able to appreciate. But I did not make any effort to find and listen to music like that for several reasons, one of which is that I did not know where to begin.

I may also have been in the position similar to a fellow student in graduate school. He noticed I listened to classical music and told me that he would like to enjoy classical music but he was afraid he would cease enjoying rock music. He would be sorry to, he explained, because rock music was such a big part of his personality. I had to restrain myself from telling him that he had no personality.

In my late teens my tastes widened to include jazz, blues, early rock and roll, a little punk rock or new wave and what is now called world music. For a month or two I even enjoyed Yoko Ono’s proto-punk music. I kept returning to rhythm and blues—Motown and what followed it—as the center of my own record collection. Still, my favorite pop singer, Nina Simone, considered herself first a folk singer and her attachment to folk music helped me develop my own. Not surprisingly, she thought her whole life would have been better had she fulfilled her childhood dream to be a concert pianist.

And I did not just listen to rock music. I sang background for a band in San Francisco called Mainstream Exiles that had a few gigs. I even had a band of my own: Johnny Golden and his Precious Metals—until I discovered a Johnny Golden in the East Bay—and we became Johnny Diamond and his Precious Gems. Fortunately, we only rehearsed and never performed publically. Of course, had I continued on this path and become a rock star, I probably would not be lecturing here tonight. Perhaps I should also add that a teacher in graduate school was the occasional cause that John Lennon met Yoko Ono.

During these years two people wanted to take me to the opera. I imagined opera to be just what many of you are now imagining opera to be. Each time I thought, “If he thinks I am going to like opera, he’s crazy.” It turned out that I was the one who was crazy; I was the one who failed to understand myself and the kind of music I could find satisfying.

Still I wondered at times why some people thought classical music is better, intrinsically better, better as music. I had an opportunity while staying at a friend’s house—really an old turkey coop—to listen to things from his collection. I found a lovely trio by Dvorak, his Terzetto in C major (Op. 74), that I immediately liked. Providentially, I also read Plato’s Apology in that turkey coop and began a lifelong interaction with Socrates.

I soon decided to go cold turkey. I decided to turn the classical radio station on for one year and not to play my records. After three months, I began to distinguish some classical music I liked from music I did not like or did not like much. After six months, I began to sell my record collection. I knew I would never go back. I admit I still listen very occasionally to one pop tune or another for various reasons. Yet I never return to what we call classical music without a deep sense of its superiority.

More Clarification of Terms

Let me make this term clear. What I am calling classical music here means any art music in the Western tradition, although the name has a more proper meaning as well. But I do not think there is any essential difference between this music and what we usually call folk music. The former involves a more conscious use of art than the latter, but this is accidental. In fact, the classical music section and classical radio stations—such as Ancientfm.com—often have the best recordings of folk music. This happens because these artists attempt to reproduce the music without introducing another influence, as usually happens in recordings found in a rock section or a world music section.

But folk music is not popular music. We call music popular because it caters to the tastes of people taken in a general or average manner. Such music can also be called vulgar, in two senses of that word. Folk music is vulgar in the sense that it is uncultivated and not sophisticated without being bad. But what is vulgar is often something without the cultivation of higher feelings or thoughts that it should have. I think most rock music is vulgar in this second sense.

Rock music is popular music defined most of all by the simple and heavy recurrence of its beat together with many other non-musical aspects. Many want to include the use of syncopation in a definition of rock music. Two or perhaps three major styles of rock music can be pointed out, though I am speaking principally of distinctions in the first generations of rock music.

First, a style of rock music emphasizes a particularly violent beat and erratic rhythms, called hard rock or heavy metal. Second, what was once called soft rock is distinguished by its less strident character and tendency toward romantic feelings in a broad sense of that word. This sort of rock is at its extremes difficult to distinguish from folk music. Still, most of what we once called soft rock was never confused with folk music. Third, true folk music is sometimes sung by rock musicians with a rock approach.

Now I am assuming that one has enough experience of these types of music to know what I am speaking of, despite the fact that true definition is impossible here. In going further I will characterize rock music by properties that are not found in every part of it. Nor are these found only in rock music. Yet these are found in this music and this is not accidental. I am arguing that these properties are signs of its inherent lack of moral integrity. I bring them under four general headings, though there is much overlap.

Rock Music as the Product of a Music Industry

The first heading includes properties of rock music that follow from the fact that it is almost as a whole the tool of a music industry, whose interest is not music but money. The fact may be less true today because of the internet. Still, the medium that allows for this is another tool of mass control. Nor has such music freed itself very clearly from the corruption of its origins.

I do not deny that whenever money can be got through music someone will attempt to do so. Nonetheless, music has most often been fostered primarily by those interested in music itself, whether these people are especially learned or not. Rock music, however, has been developed primarily by entrepreneurs who will “push” whatever sells. Since their interest is money, they will sell what is common and easily enjoyed, what requires no effort to share in the musical art and no rising of the soul from its most common preoccupations.

Something similar has been done by moneyed interests with food. A food industry knows that fat, salt, and sugar sell well, especially when combined and in large portions. This industry does not have good, satisfying food as its end. It seeks money and so it caters to those with little discrimination and encourages what is most base in their eating pleasures. Likewise, an addiction to rock music impedes appreciation of better music the way addiction to so-called soft drinks impedes appreciation of wine, beer, and whisky.

Again, rock music soon became a way of making money by drawing young people at a time when they are most subject to passions for sex and violence. For this reason the industry emphasizes the intensity of these passions rather than their beauty. So, much of this music seems even to indulge in the ugly, since the ugly has its aspect of glamor.

When I bought my last car, not the present one, I was about to sign papers, when the agent excused himself to talk to two men who had just walked in. The men looked as if they rarely came out into the light of day and my first thought was that they were drug dealers. My second thought was that they were warlocks. part of some coven. The agent returned with a big, proud smile, “Those are some of my best customers. You probably realized,” he added and I hung on his words, “they’re rock stars.”

I might add here that a few years ago I decided to listen through the albums by Chicago that I had enjoyed so much in my teens. I still liked a song here and there. But when I watched the band playing in recent years the music they had composed when they were young men, I was embarrassed. Rock stars do not age well. The music is not music fit for a whole life.

Another negative effect of rock music’s monetary origins is its inclination to divide, rather than to unite, a community. This is opposed to the general nature of music, which is most eminent of all the arts in being accessible to all. But, for the sake of money, rock music targets particular generations of young people, such that the style of rock music appreciated by one age group is distinct from the style appreciated by the next.

Two vices of rock music follow almost necessarily from its use in making money. First, the music is generally addictive in character, something I will discuss later. Second, rock music is usually sentimental.

When rock is not overly violent, it is almost always sentimental. By this I mean that it turns one toward a particular experience of passion. Nostalgia is a kind of sentimentality by which one feels vehemently about a particular time, usually some time in one’s youth. Popular music is notoriously nostalgic, and rock music is no exception. Sentimentality is opposed to the general nature of imitative art which represents its object as abstracted from particular conditions and particular persons.

This abstraction actually allows us to feel the passion in a more pure manner. In music we experience passion less as a principle of action and more as an object to be apprehended and enjoyed. In this way music by its nature presents passions so as to manifest their beauty more perfectly. By contracting the passions represented much more to the particular, the sentimentality of rock music lessens its power to represent their beauty.

The Ethos of Rock Music

The second general property of rock music I want to consider is its association with certain social, political, and cultural movements. These are not accidental. Music always belongs in some way to a community and embodies the moral and political ethos, the moral spirit, of that community. Listen to American Indian chant and you will feel something of that culture’s character.

This is especially clear in rock music because most often people are drawn to this music from a desire to belong to a certain group or set, comprised of people they admire and wish to be like. This usually involves some rejection of the moral principles with which the new listener of music was raised. For myself, growing interest and involvement in rock music meant being accepted by people who lived and thought in the way I wanted to.

An anecdote I heard a recent biographer of Bob Dylan report is telling here. He had discovered something never disclosed about a meeting between Bob Dylan and the Beatles. How did Bob Dylan influence John, Paul, George, and Ringo? Here it is. The Beatles had smoked dope before, marijuana, that is, but they had not inhaled. Bob Dylan taught them to inhale and they got high on pot for the first time.

In fact, marijuana is a significant bond to those who love rock music. This is not an accident. Rock music is the music of choice to a world that habitually enjoys marijuana, not to mention much more dangerous drugs.

Note further that rock music has often expressed its social and political stances distinctly and more so as time has passed. You may knowthe song Imagine by John Lennon. He prefers a world without religion to this one. He offers a world with “nothing to live or die for” as the goal for a new society.

Such music really has been influential in disposing us to the restructuring of Western social order over the last sixty years. If Lennon is correct, this is a social an d political order without any agreement about the principles of moral action. Lennon’s ideal captivated me as a teenager and helped me become an anarchist. And I have heard many identify this song as a beginning to their political stance on the left.

To make clear John Lennon meant this, I will play the beginning of a conversation, probably arranged by George Harrison, that John Lennon and Yoko Ono had with A. C. Bhaktivedanta, the head of the Hare Krishna movement. [PLAY] I will read what they said, in case that was not clear. The guru asked, “What kind of philosophy you are following?” Lennon responds as if to an accusation, “Following?” Yoko Ono makes clear, “We’re not following anything. We just live.” The guru does not insist but I am sure he is thinking, with a wisdom we have lost in the West, “You cannot live without following some philosophy, whether you know it or not.”

Oddly enough, rock music has had a fascination with religion hard to understand in a society as areligious as ours. Rock music has likewise become more fascinated with violence, at least in its first several decades, not less. Again, its love songs have not, in my awareness, come to express the more honest experience of love proposed at first. Rather, love songs have become filled more and more with bitterness, guilt, and contempt. As an observer of both, I can tell you that the rise of rock music was a distinct and perhaps the most important instrument in the sexual revolution.

Before I go on to discuss the third property of rock music, let me point out something that hovers between this second aspect, the social and political side of rock music, and the next, its artistic character. This is its name, rock and roll. There is no question that in its origins, the term “rock and roll”, just like the term “jazz”, was understood to describe sexual activity, though the phrase “rock and roll” does so more distinctly. I will spare you the quotations. Again, the names of bands and singers, as well as their albums and song titles, often express violence or impure sexuality, contempt for religion, or love of evil.

Lyrics and Dancing

The third property is properly artistic, though less essential, or thought less essential, to music alone. I will first discuss the lyrics to rock songs and then the dancing. In consideration of lyrics and dancing, I also imply some consideration of costumes, stage props and stage antics, perhaps publicity stunts, and so on.

Sometimes people claim that lyrics are irrelevant to musical character. This is true to the extent that the words of songs can often be switched without disrupting the agreement of rhythm in words and melody. But in well written songs the words are not irrelevant to the passion felt in the music.

So far as I can see, we observe the rule in what is sometimes called Christian rock. The words have a message in opposition to the music. I think black spirituals are a good counter-example here; their melodies express true religious feeling. Again, the message in Christian rock is often accommodated to the character of the music. Thus, the words often become sentimental to agree with the passions implied in the music. This is to some extent the reason for the failure in church music in the last fifty years. The introduction of elements of soft rock into the liturgy has brought about music that is mediocre sacred music and mediocre rock music.

In fact, the lyrics of rock music generally exalt the free flow of passion without restraint. Most obvious here are the violent images found in some hard rock music. Such music even expresses violence as if intrinsically pleasing and delightful. Sometimes it also represents pleasure, especially sexual pleasure, as an expression of anger. While I feel confident those enjoying such music experience it as beautiful in some way, even they would recognize that at some level they enjoy such music because it is not beautiful or pretty.

Yet more frightening is the satanic character of many such lyrics. Nor does it matter whether such people actually believe in Satan or not. The willingness to represent evil, even what has the appearance of evil, as if it is good, is a kind of consent to evil.

Here is an interesting anecdote about Jerry Lee Lewis, one of the first true rock and roll stars. Lewis himself reports his conversation with Elvis Presley: “I said, ‘Elvis, I’m going to ask you one thing before we part company here. If you die, do you think you’d go to heaven or hell?’ And he got real red in the face, and then he got real white in the face, and he said, ‘Jerry Lee, don’t you ever say that to me agin.’ I said, ‘Well, I won’t even say it to you again.’ He was very frightened.” As I recall, his biographer thought this conflict between the attachment to rock music and the fear of hell was very important in the lives of both singers.

You should not think this association with evil is merely abstract. Not long after I began teaching here, some boys raped and murdered a girl north of here, in Paso Robles, as I recall. They explained that they thought Satan would give them musical power for raping and killing a virgin.

Again, soft rock does not generally indulge in lyrics of particular violence. But the lyrics often describe unhealthy sexual attachments. In the clearest examples, lyrics describe the beloved as loveable in a way that only God can be: “I can’t live without you,” “You are everything,” and so on. This is not proper to rock music nor is altogether false to the feeling of romantic love. I do think, however, that this attitude toward the beloved is much more common in rock music and represented there as something ordinary rather than extraordinary.

And often such lyrics rejoice in expressing sexual passion as overwhelming reason, sometimes as leading to despair. Again, they sometimes describe situations filled with bitterness and hatred. Sometimes they trivialize the sexual act by explicit and vulgar references to what should be most intimate and personal between husband and wife. Perhaps rap music takes the lead here.

As one becomes more and more habituated to enjoying music that expresses extreme sexual or romantic attraction or extreme violence, one usually finds it harder to take pleasure in other types of music and especially in music expressing anger or sexual attraction as moderated by reason. This is similar to those who like things too salty or too sweet. They find it difficult to enjoy the taste of things that are properly seasoned or to appreciate other kinds of seasoning. Since whatever beauty is found in music makes it pleasant to feel the corresponding passion, this becomes a kind of addiction to feeling that emotion as well as listening to that music.

I would point out here that the Western classical music tradition stands out among all music traditions, in my judgment, precisely by not limiting itself to determinate passions. Most “ethnic” music has a distinct sound associated with a particular temperament and passions. The European tradition, however, developed methods to express passion universally.

Now, much music, if not most, is more or less mediocre, whatever its genre. In this sense lyrics and music may not fit one another in a particular song. But, if we are speaking of songs written with some artistic power, expressing the full ability of the art in question, there will be a very close connection between the two. The music will in some sense serve the lyrics and express the passions implied by them, while the lyrics will make the character of the passion found in the music clear to our thought. In this sense, the lyrics of the greatest rock songs clearly express an emotional life inconsistent with virtue.

Dance will do the same, though without the dimension of thought. Dance has the particular ability to manifest musical rhythm to the sense of sight and, in the dancer himself, to the sense of touch. One of the advantages of watching music live is the seeing the bodies of the performers, the singers, instrumentalists, and above all the conductor, move. I would suggest that this is the principal reason we focus on the conductor in orchestral music, to see the rhythm in his movements, which, if excellent, constitute a kind of dance. These movements help us attend to the rhythmic character of the melody and thus help us hear the melody itself.

Dance makes this aspect of music-making an art in itself: to manifest rhythm visually. The parts of the body, in particular the legs and feet, move so as to reveal the movement implied in the rhythmic flow. Further, dance presents attitudes or positions that agree with actions, passions and character represented by the music.

What is most clear about the dance that accompanies rock music is its lack of any artistic character. There is generally no series of steps that one must learn and master. Sometime, the feet do not move at all; the pelvis thrusts or gyrates. Such dancing is explicitly sexual. This is not a work of art. Nature teaches us this movement for the sake of procreation.

Now I am not saying that there should be nothing sexual about dancing. Dancing can imitate sexual love and passion in many ways without abusing the order of sexual passion. Prokofiev’s pas de deux from his Romeo and Juliet or the Adagio for Spartacus and Phrygia in Khachaturian’s Spartacus represent their sexual passion with beauty, intensity, but also a certain restraint. Dance should not delight in mere sexual abandon. Merely to mimic copulation is not a work of art.

Musical Qualities of Rock Music

Finally, let me speak to what is properly musical in rock music. Many expect that the disorder in rock music must have properly musical principles. So some students at the college imagine that our music program will reveal a disorder of this sort in rock music. In fact, with very little exception, rock music follows the basic principles of Western tonal music. But, as my music teacher, the inimitable Molly Gustin, said, “Rock music is so ordered it makes you want never to have anything to do with order again.”

In fact, a common objection to rock music is its musical simplicity. Most rock music is musically simple-minded. “Just three chords!” as my old high school teacher complained. Of course, folk music is often simple to speak merely of chords, though folk music is not as melodically simple as most rock music is. Further, rock music presents itself as very sophisticated.

Another common musical objection to rock music is its syncopation, that is, its over-use of syncopation. I suspect most people imagine this argument is more powerful than it really is. Great composers use syncopation or a back-beat for long passages of tremendous beauty. I find that the over-use of syncopation makes most rock music boring, though I will add to this presently.

I admit that here and there one finds vocalists in pop music who are able to sing well. Many have fine voices; many sing with much feeling. But very few know anything about phrasing—and this is the work of the singer: to take the musical line from its beginning to its climax or peak and land rightly at the end. Sometimes when I actually listen to pop singers offered as entertainment in a store or restaurant, I find myself laughing at the clumsiness of singing that their audiences put up with. Again, the use of microphones at once prevents any real development of vocal ability and corrupts what nature might have provided.

Another vice among white vocalists in a lot of pop music is an obviously fake black accent. If you listen attentively, their accents are comical and never have the true beauty of a natural black voice. And they sing with an accent that is not their own because the music is not genuine. In fact, it would be rightly insulting to black Americans if these singers spoke with the accent they sing with.

I must also point out one of the most obvious signs of musical illiteracy in rock music—the fade-out. When I had my own band, I was always disappointed with “live” fade-outs. The art of the fade-out is really the work of the recording studio. What the fade-out hides is the fact that the rock musicians usually have no idea how to end.

Again, the instruments used by rock musicians usually offer very little of interest. The great electric guitarists, like Jimi Hendrix, were influenced by East Indian classical music, mostly by ragas played on the sitar. In my judgment, these guitarists remain far behind the artistry of the great sitar players. The acoustic guitar is a very beautiful instrument. But rock music utilizes very little of its potential. I am sure I liked the band Chicago as a boy because their brass section added some variety of timbre to the music. Most bands provide no sounds this interesting. Again, even when some of these music elements are better than average, the most remain mediocre. This is not difficult to hear, unless one is caught up in the particular feelings or sentiments of the tune.

Note that I recognize that the Western tradition of “art” music has become corrupt in these ways, as well as others. Some of this music is even worse that rock music, because the artistic power is so much greater. But these are not very easy to enjoy and have never become popular.

In fact, the failure in the last one hundred and fifty years or so of the Western music tradition to produce higher music able unite a whole culture seems to me one of the principal reasons rock music has become so dominant a force in our culture. Rock music serves both moneyed interests that cannot see what is noble in human nature and social forces conceiving moral and political order as wholly serving our animal appetites. Rock music produces a populace focused on passions most sensibly intense, sexual desire and anger. Such a populace must have its desires met. It will pay whatever something costs, because such a populace cannot produce the means of life. It will vote into office whatever government convinces them that such sensible desires will be satisfied. Rock music is thus an instrument to forces intent on producing a slavish people incapable of governing and ruling themselves.

Concluding Remarks

In conclusion, let me make clear that I do not desire to become anyone’s conscience nor anyone’s judge in these matters. I am not suggesting that you should reject rock music because I have or because I tell you to. Nor am I suggesting that classical music is the only solution.

In fact, I believe that folk music, not as an industry or by means of recordings, but as something produced live in a particular community for the pure pleasure of it, is the only solution to the musical crisis in our culture. Nothing very far from folk music can express the moral feelings that unite a true political community, which is necessarily (I insist) a small political community.

Also, only with folk music is it possible for everyone to experience music by making it. I heard some time ago an anthropologist describe her growing familiarity with a tribe that she was studying. At length they became so familiar with her that they asked her to sing something for them. When she said she couldn’t sing, they responded, “But you can talk!” There is something decidedly wrong with a culture in which there are people who make no music.

Still classical music may be the solution for you, as it has been in great measure for me. If so many joys and pleasures await you: the fugues of Bach, the symphonies and quartet of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, the trios of Corelli and Couperin, the operas of Mozart. In particular I suggest that enjoyment of the sonata form may be the perfect musical pleasure man has invented. The delight as one enters the development of a Haydn sonata movement and the satisfaction in its recapitulation please at once the intellect and the passions. This is, as Plato suggests, a harmony much greater than the harmony proper to music.

And do not let the staid, formal character of the typical concert hall deceive you. Passion is no less present in classical music as it is in popular music. People moved and danced to such music for centuries before the manufacture of modern popular music. Some people still do. And many of us believe the emotions are even more pronounced in what we call classical music, though it is often more subtle. This passion is certainly more varied.

Now, what I am proposing here is an understanding of music and its role in the moral life that I urge you to consider not merely in the abstract, but in the actual experience of music. In such an understanding, music gives rise to pleasant imitations of passion in the soul. These habituate us to feel and experience passions in certain ways. Why waste your life listening to second or third-rate music, when so much great music is available? In fact, appreciation of music truly great will help you enjoy your own passions much more deeply than you do at present.

Finally, most of you will marry and have children. A genuine love of fine music is a tremendous inheritance that you can offer to your children. But no one develops a deep and genuine love of any kind of music without listening for many years. By developing an appreciation of great music you can convey the beauty of an ordered soul to your children. And this will be an instrument in teaching your children to enjoy their passions very deeply.


[1] Republic 549B3-4.

[2] Republic 549B6-7.

John F. Nieto lectures on the California Campus (2020)
Suzie Jackson (’15)

“The texts we are reading ask the fundamental questions in life, which every human person needs to be able to answer. You want to answer these questions, and you experience the beauty of wonder in discussing them.”

– Suzie Jackson (’15)

Manassas, Va.

“I am full of admiration for what the College, its founders, its leadership, its faculty and staff, and its students and alumni have achieved.”

– George Cardinal Pell

Archbishop of Sydney

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