On What’s Behind The Notes In Music

A man with something to say

As (then) Monsignor Fulton J. Sheen said1:

[I]t is impossible to have any kind of evolution [change] without something that evolves or a change without permanence…It is no escape from the logic of this argument to explain certain kinds of permanence—for example the permanence of consciousness—by the metaphor of a melody. A melody is nothing but a success of harmonious sounds, it is argued. While this is quite true, it must not be forgotten that every melody implies an abiding something which retains the successive notes, and if there were nothing to retain the successive notes, there would never be such a things as melody.

Roger Scruton emphasizes Sheen’s middle point: music is change, he says. A single sustained note would not be a melody because there is no change. Change is a necessary but not sufficient for melody. There has to be order: there has to be something around which the varying notes drive or aim at, or rather orbit. Melody must be a final cause of music.

This incidentally is why Cage’s 4’33 was a hornswoggle from beginning to end. There is no there there. There are no notes thus nothing behind what is not there. There is no object and no final cause, save assuaging the egos of the intelligentsia by giving them yet another way to elevate themselves over the merely intelligent. (Sheen again, “In modern times…some intellectuals, trained beyond their intelligence until they have become intelligentsia…”)

Here are Captain Jack Aubrey and ship’s surgeon (and intelligence agent) Doctor Stephen Maturin from Patrick O’Brian’s The Ionian Mission discussing works by Johann Ambrosius Bach, the father of Johann Sebastian (it is 1813):

“Is is strange stuff, fugues and suites of the last age, crabbed and knotted and sometimes not at all in the modern taste, but I do assure you, Stephen, there is meat in it. I have tried this partita in C a good many times, and the argument goes so deep, so close and deep, that I scarcely follow it yet, let alone make it sing.

There is something behind the notes; the object of the melody is a message, an argument, a story, something of real and vital importance, an idea worth understanding. It is not, in this case, a trite, banal, or simplistic “sound bite” as found bleating from the speakers in nearly any modern establishment (silence as an option has been completely forgotten; more echoes of 1984). There is no beating over the head; there is real substance.

The contrast between even something so simple as this partita (YouTube) and this hit song (YouTube) which informs us that tonight will be a good night, over and over and over some more, and then repeating that intelligence in case the dullest among us did not catch it, is profound. The difference in message is like that between a speech by Cato the Younger and a t-shirted street-corner activist who pesters you with a “Do you have a minute for X rights?” The latter personage has a message to convey, as does the hit song, but it is equivalent to “1 + 1 = 3”. Short, simple, and with only a stab at reality.

Let’s give Scruton the last word, keeping in mind that it is only rarely that there is honor in surrendering:

Adorno attacked something that he called the “regression of listening,” which he believed had infected the entire culture of modern America. He saw the culture of listening as a deep spiritual resource of Western civilization. For Adorno the habit of listening to long-range musical thought, in which themes are subjected to extended melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic development, is connected to the ability to live beyond the moment, to transcend the search for instant gratification, to set aside the routines of the consumer society, with its constant pursuit of the “fetish,” and to put real values in the place of fleeting desires. And there is something persuasive here that needs to be rescued from Adorno’s intemperate and over-politicized critique of just about everything he found in America. But Adorno reminds us that it is very hard to criticize a musical idiom without standing in judgment on the culture to which it belongs. Musical idioms don’t come in sealed packets, with no relation to the rest of human life. And when a particular kind of music surrounds us in public spaces, when it invades every caf&eactue;, bar, and restaurant, when it blares at us from passing motor cars and dribbles from the open taps of radios and iPods all over the planet, the critic may seem to stand like the apocryphal King Canute before an irresistible tide, uttering useless cries of indignation.


1Philosophy of Religion: The Impact of Modern Knowledge on Religion, 1948. Appleton Century Crofts, New York, p. 127.


  1. Well, I don’t see bashing pop music as anything more than snobbery. That something is repeated does not mean it’s stupid, or assumes it’s audience is stupid. Repetition has always been a theme in popular music, and always an element of all Western Music, save for the intentionally meandering, which is even more annoying than repetition if you ask me.

    American tastes have always been base, and it’s reflected in our music – music that has literally changed the world. The base needs to be heard. It’s healthy. I don’t like most pop music, but I do like some of it, and I think that’s where most people fall. There’s base in all of us.


  2. Gary

    “The contrast between even something so simple as this partita (YouTube) and this hit song (YouTube) … is profound.” I will only observe that the intention of the partita is to to engage the ear and the mind while the intention of the hit song is to engage the body on a dance floor. This is not an excuse for the vapidity of the song, but only points out that purpose is a component of appreciation (as are personal experience and native taste).

  3. Briggs


    Scruton was ahead of us on that point, too (see the linked article):

    “Pop, they tell us, is music to be danced to, and those who judge it by the standards of the concert hall, which is a place of silent listening, have simply lost the plot…

    And the complaints that might be made against the worst form of pop apply also to the lame attempts at dancing that generally are produced by it—attempts that involve no control of the body, no attempt to dance with another person, but at best only the attempt to dance at him or her, by making movements that are sliced up and atomized like the sounds that provoke them.”


    Change is not always for the good.

  4. Luis Dias

    Of course, were we to compare pop songs from the 18th century, would they be any better than Black Eyed Peas? No, not even remotely.

    So what happened was that the masses got hold of the means of production of music. And they conquered the world against the obnoxious pretensious burgeoisie of the world, singing songs of joy and excitement.

    Not only that, but we have now many more “arts” than even before. Cinema, Photography, Digital art, Digital Games, mankind is still pushing strong with meaningful content. There has never been so much great art as now, period.

    I see nothing wrong in this whole picture, but then again, I’m not a curmudgeon who thinks civilization is going down the drain, so.

  5. Sander van der Wal

    We still listen to Bach because he wrote brilliant music, or so lots of people think. But there’s a whole host of composers from that era that nobody listens to anymore.

    Regarding the Black Eyed Peas, ver much Middle of the Road music. As it should be. Popular now (or better yesterday), forgotten in 10 years time.

  6. La Longue Carabine

    I think it’s premature to call any music ‘a hit’ until a large number of people consider it so worth listening to that they will still lay down good money to hear it 200 years after its debut.

    Some pop stuff is like m&m’s: fun, tasty and enjoyable for a moment. Some pop stuff is like Skittles — tangy booby traps for those expecting an m&m. OK, I guess pop music is like http://www.amazon.com/Harry-Potter-Bertie-Flavour-Jelly/dp/B0057ISDW2 in that you can’t please everyone.

    Meh. Feh.

  7. Briggs


    It appears we agree with Sheen’s thesis that melody is something which exists behind the notes, as it were, that music can convey messages. And that some messages are banal and ephemeral and some deep and lasting. This is well.

    Scruton was also right (in the linked essay) that some cannot bear any criticism of music, especially music they happen to enjoy.

    A day of fulfilled predictions.

  8. Ye Olde Statisician

    That something is repeated does not mean it’s stupid

    No, but it is a useful first approximation; for there are repetitions and then there is repetitiveness.

    Complexity may be a useful measure. Sure, when the peasants gather that the crossroads for a hooley, complex music may be the last thing they desire; but even within the pop genre one notes a difference in artistry between say the close harmony of the Chordettes on Mr. Sandman or the polyphony of the Beach Boys on Sloop John B. and the general ruck of most pop music.

    Even so, an Indian colleague once complained that Western classical music sounded like just noise to her and compared it to the clean melodies of a raga. The difference of course is the development not of melody by of harmony and counterpoint, a musical invention by which different voices or instruments could each produce “its own thing” while blending as a whole toward a common goal. So, from the medieval choir loft to the boardroom or the football team.

  9. I think we forget that classes of music have always been divided as the classes themselves. We tend to imagine everyone in the late 18th century waltzing to Mozart. They weren’t. They were listening to popular folk music and church music, and the intellectual level of it was just as it is today.


    I don’t like the vast majority of popular music, but I don’t complain about it. Who am I? Is it not saying anything about our culture that popular music hasn’t always said about our culture, and rarely anything we don’t already know. It can make us feel certain ways about things that we may otherwise have not, but if we are uncomfortable with that, well, maybe that’s our own problem.


  10. Josh


    Why is it snobbish to critique music but not snobbish to critique the character of people who didn’t even say what you suggested?

    I think it is more “snobbish” to claim that no one can judge the quality of a piece of music – or a genre, or an era – than to say that beauty or purpose in music has some objective reality that we might discover. One arbitrarily sets rules for everyone, the other tries to find and live by rules that no man could create.

  11. Jim S

    I worship the music of Bach. Greatest composer ever. Second greatest is Thelonious Monk, but that’s for another discussion…

    However, the essential forms of much of Bach’s music is from dance. I often point this out to people who don’t know how to listen to it or don’t “get it”.

    The partita No. 2 for solo violin is probably the greatest thing ever produced by a human being – but it doesn’t “convey a message”. It’s play and invention just for the sake of play and invention. This can be true for other forms and types of music too. I also enjoy some electronic dance music. Not a lot, but some.

    Most programmatic classical music puts me to sleep. Mozart, yawn….

  12. Ye Olde Statisician

    Imagine the opening notes of Beethoven’s 5th. Da-da-da-dummm.

    Now imagine that motif being repeated again and again, perhaps as people jump around.

    Now recollect what Beethoven did with it. Developing it, playing with it. It’s not the repetition as such. It’s that the composer doesn’t seem to have much to say.

    And a lot of Mozart were broad farces written for suburban music halls.
    As Scruton points out in the linked article, it’s not “classical vs. popular”. You can see the same decay in the popular music. You needn’t even go back to the Beatles to find superior pop music.

  13. Bob

    … the object of the melody is a message, an argument, a story, something of real and vital importance, an idea worth understanding. It is not, in this case, a trite, banal, or simplistic “sound bite”

    This brings to mine the Eagles song, “Hotel California”. The Eagles themselves didn’t encode any meanings to the song when they wrote it, but everybody else did. Heck, I still like the song. There’s a message in there, somewhere.

    In the last few minutes since reading your article, I discovered Amazon Prime’s new streaming music service. It’s free, and I am currently listening to Yo Yo Ma play Bach. I don’t know what the messages are in these pieces, but the music is beautiful and relaxing.

  14. “de gustibus non disputandum est”….
    However, the problem is that rap, and other corruptions of music crowd out good forms(I do like some early rock, folk music, klezmer, sephardic) …it’s like viruses taking over the organism, so that young people aren’t exposed to “good” music, and I know what I mean by “good”. If you go to a symphony concert, the average age of the attendees is probably over 50 (or more–I know I have to wait endlessly in line at the Men’s room at intermission–too many, including myself, with BPH.)
    There IS a corruption of our musical culture, and it isn’t from Jazz, and it isn’t from rock.

  15. Ben Schumacher

    A side note on the Jack Aubrey quote: I do not think any “Johann Ambrosius Bach” is relevant here. I am pretty sure Jack was actually describing J. S. Bach himself — the joke being that Bach’s sons (J. C., C. P. E., etc.) were far better known than their father to musicians in the early 19th C. So the comment that the “famous” Bach had a father (who knew!?) that was something of a composer himself is just the sort of inside historical humor that O’Brian slipped into his books. (The Aubrey-Maturin books often do this, as when they chat about the evolutionary theories of that fellow Darwin — Erasmus Darwin, of course, since his grandson Charles was still in diapers.)

    Closer to the actual topic, I’ve always been fascinated by Charles Bennett’s idea of logical depth as a measure of complexity. Roughly speaking, a structure or piece of music is “deep” in this sense if it is highly orderly — it is based on simple principles — but the process by which the order is unfolded in the work is elaborate. (In Turing machine terms, a short program with a long run time.) Things that are deep are neither chaotic nor simple. Bennett seems to regard this as a fundamental aesthetic principle as well.

  16. Briggs

    Ben S.

    “…Bach had a father.”

    “Heavens Jack, what things you tell me. Yet upon recollection I seem to have known other men in much the same case.”

    “And this father, this old Bach, you understand me, had written piles and piles of musical scores in the pantry.”

    “A whimsical place to compose in, perhaps; but then birds sing in trees, do they not? Why not antediluvian Germans in a pantry?”

    “I mean the piles were kept in the pantry. Mice and blackbeetles and cook-maids had played Old Harry with some cantatas and a vast great Passion according to St Mark, in High Dutch; but lower down all was well, and I brought away several pieces, ‘cello for you, fiddle for me, and some for both together. It is strange stuff, fugues and suites of the last age, crabbed and knotted and sometimes and not at all in the modern taste, but I do assure you Stephen, there is meat in it. I have tried this partita

  17. DAV


    That and Low Spark.

    What seems to be forgotten is that if all music were at the level of say, J.S. Bach, then J.S. would be mediocre. If you eat steak every day you might think of hamburger as a delight. I’ve heard some truly ghastly classical pieces and I’ve heard some really terrible ragas. Sturgeon rules. What’s good and what’s not is subjective just as with other tastes. Some people like caviar but I think it overrated.

    Here’s an interesting piece from 2002 strangely listed under “Dance and DJ”. Sitar and sax — who’d a thunk?

    Here’s some rather banal music that I like. And another from the same duo with Celtic overtones.

  18. Will Bittle

    “I don’t like the vast majority of popular music, but I don’t complain about it. Who am I? Is it not saying anything about our culture that popular music hasn’t always said about our culture, and rarely anything we don’t already know. It can make us feel certain ways about things that we may otherwise have not, but if we are uncomfortable with that, well, maybe that’s our own problem.”

    Next time you feel like making disparaging remarks about conservatives, maybe you should ask yourself why you’re so enlightened when it comes to music, but not politics. Replace “popular music” with “conservative politics” in this paragraph and then say it to yourself with some repetition. Remember to really concentrate on the part that says “Who am I?”

  19. jake-the-rake

    No one can define music, yet one may speak of decadence, just as one need not have a clear definition of gastronomy to say “food ain’t what it used to be.”

    How can any honest opinion about music be snobbery?

    If Jack (a man of vast culture) says I absolutely must listen to the Madrigals of Monteverdi, and ween myself away from the artless lyrics of Bam Shazam and the ******, the instant and natural urge to consider Jack a snob, will cut me off from: “Zefiro Torna” and God knows Bam Shazam’s next rap piece with lyrics such as “Rub-a-dub-dub-*****” could use some civilizing elements that, to Bam Shazam’s own surprise will make his life and that of his listeners better.

    But the pitiful state of pop music, compared to – say – the vibrancy of the Doo Wop era, is entirely the effect of “the love of money is the root of…”

    Guys without means gathering at street corners and subway stations, singing a capella… and being noticed by store front fly-by-night record executives.

    They had their hearts in it and like the ingredients of a strawberry milkshake at the hop, the stuff they were serving was genuine.

    Well the hop is no more. Kids these days are more liable to start dancing only in large numbers when a Tweet orders them to, and the Strawberry milkshakes are made with:

    Amyl acetate, amyl butyrate, amyl valerate, anethol, anisyl formate, benzyl acetate, benzyl isobutyrate, butyric acid, cinnamyl isobutyrate, cinnamyl valerate, cognac essential oil, diacetyl, dipropyl ketone, ethyl butyrate, ethyl cinnamate, ethyl heptanoate, ethyl heptylate, ethyl lactate, ethyl methylphenylglycidate, ethyl nitrate, ethylpropionate, ethyl valerate, heliotropin, hydroxyphrenyl-2-butanone (10% solution in alcohol), ionone, isobutyl anthranilate, isobutyl butyrate, lemon essential oil, maltol, 4-methylace-tophenone, methyl anthranilate, methyl benzoate, methyl cinnamate, methyl heptine carbonate, methyl naphtyl ketone, methyl salicylate, mint essential oil, neroli essential oil, nerolin, neryl isobutyrate, orris butter, phenethyl alcohol, undecalactone, rum ether, rose, vanillin and solvent

    I guess lyrics could be a little more sophisticated and food a little less so…

    Bam Shazam listens to Claudio Monteverdi and – surprising the whole Music Industrial Complex – starts singing sweeter than Nat King Cole, he connects to the vast Negro Heritage of truly fine music… Like Louis Jordan. The Platters… and tons of stuff so good it made wops like Johnny Maestro form groups with guys fom the other side of the track… and go on tours together to the Deep South.


  20. JH

    Went to a Ratdog concert not long ago. Neither the music nor the 2000-seat performance hall is suitable for line dancing. When familiar songs hit, the majority of audiences, middle-aged mostly, stood up and danced. Free- form but rhythmic. A tie-dyed shirt seemed most appropriate.

    The inebriated stranger sitting (standing really) next to me, with a beer bottle clasped by the neck between his thumb and index finger, ensured me that he wouldn’t fall down on me just when the lyric line “it’s so easy to fall” was due. As Bob Weir finished singing

    “So I’ll light another cigarette
    And try to remember to forget”

    He lit up a pocket-sized pipe and took a toke (again). Yes, you could still see swirls of smoke in the air. ^_^

    What’s behind the notes in music? Smiles and tears?

    Anyway, we, at least I, probably don’t care about what others think of the music we like.

  21. Luis Dias

    The snobbery in this discussion is within the pretension of sufficient clarivision over historical time scales to be able to say we are degenerating into decadence. This is the particular snobbery within the conservative mindset displayed here.

    How can you know this, how is anyone able to even think himself capable of delivering this wide condemnation of civilization? It’s nothing but an emotion of contempt towards what they see around them, with an attitude of snobbery towards everything. Not caring about the top 1% done today that will pass perhaps the test of time, no, they will swim in the vast ocean of vulgarity that has always existed with us (without it, how would we recognize brilliance at all?) and shouting to everyone how it is so vulgar and incomparable to the 0.1% of the 18th century that did pass the test of time (and we know it did because it survived to get to us).

    With this shout to the airwaves, they will then conclude what they first hypothesized, that the world is coming to an end. It is both predictable, and, ironically, degenerated mode of thinking. A decadent mode of thought. Why? Because such obsession blinds them from the true brilliant works that are being created right now but aren’t perhaps as popular as Black Eyed Peas. They won’t care to find these pearls that *will* pass the test of time. Time is better spent begrudging all the vulgarity for being vulgar.

    Don Quixotes fighting windmills. Sad.

  22. Ye Olde Statisician

    Folks, look again: Scruton was not inveighing against popular music vis a vis “classical” music. He was lamenting the loss of complexity — of interesting musical development within the piece. This applies to the “classical” as much as to the popular. (Remember: the first international musical celebrity, complete with groupies, was Johann Strauss Jr.) Nor was Scruton saying that all of modern music suffers from excessive simplicity.
    Examples of complexity of various types:
    “Fidgety Feet” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XAdA0Snqto0
    “High Society” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tqOHEbeYv0U
    (Or a clip featuring Mr. Acker Bilk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RonFKv2Ua9M )
    “Sloop John B.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ubAjEjkJIJo
    “California Dreaming” http://cosmiclog.nbcnews.com/
    “Madame Bonaparte” (starting around 2:47) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rRMFcA_Biyc

    Scruton was not writing about whether you like the music or even if sometimes you want a beer rather than a fine wine. He was writing about whether the music developed an idea or motif.
    (Nor, I think, was he necessarily talking about the words in the songs.)

  23. jake-the-rake

    The first sign of decadence is when you can’t talk about it because of some supposed lack of far-sightedness, verging on omniscience.

    The Muslims might chop off the hands of thieves, but now the trend of progressives is to snip off the tongue of those who “make an honest offering” that is, of those who express an honest opinion.

    Okay, let there be no standards! Let every sound made, whether by a monkey on a pianola or Benedetto Michelangeli on a Steinway be music.

    That is easy to do.

    Disarmingly easy.

    The question is why?

    And why such an approach would not work for food.

    Because food is eaten, it physically goes inside your body. You gotta digest it, it mustn’t make you suffer, running to the bathroom all night long. Nor for that matter, must it affect normal elimination at all.

    Better if the ingredients are fresh, and the whole mangia-mangia experience is WHOLESOME.

    For this reason, as rule of thumb when judging things: turn them into food… or even just a cappuccino.

    Fine, all sounds are music, but can we at least agree that not everything is a cappuccino?

    I mean, sure, go ahead and add a squirt of Maple Syrup that would send a Napoletano crying in a corner, but you gotta draw the limit somewhere, right? A dribble of varnish? A few LSD tabs?

    You may argue that one cannot put limits on what a cappuccino might be 1000 years from now… but you would be loathe to drink the sort of Cappuccino (or live in such a state of Cappuccinodom) you’re defending.

    Cameriere: “And then we have Zuppa alla Karlheinz Stockhausen”
    Patron: “Hm… interesting. What is it?

    At this point the Cameriere could unzip his fly and pee in the patron’s bowl… or if the place is too chic, just pull out a canister of Evian mineral water spray and moisten his own face.

    Once music (but even politics) is imagined as food, then it’s possible to talk. Otherwise, there’s a far stronger chance that some fast talker just put turpentine in your margarita.

  24. DAV

    Scruton was not inveighing against popular music vis a vis “classical” music. He was lamenting the loss of complexity

    I take it then Scruton thinks the minimalists are on the wrong track and “becoming” things like this

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