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On Music and Ideology

On the relationship between Music and Ideology (written April 24, 2019)


In the 20th Century, the world saw a period of intense industrialisation alongside the development of economic and civic freedoms. With these freedoms, such as universal suffrage, the rise of a middle class, the way culture was consumed transformed. No longer was it the case that Classical or ‘High’ music was reserved for elites, kept within a closed circle of patron and patronised. Music, like other artistic mediums, became open to the consumer market in a way not seen previously. In one sense this seemed to be a positive thing, people from poorer backgrounds now had access through purchasing power, to a ‘luxury’ product, something of fine craft that had hitherto been reserved for the wealthy and aristocratic classes. The other side of this development, however, meant that there was now a financial incentive to steer the direction of music and the influence the tastes of the public. In this essay I would like to discuss broadly how music can be a tool of ideology, both on the left and right of the political spectrum but also discuss the belief that music is not of a fundamentally ideological nature and has its roots in a fundamental need to express the nature of our existence and develop an understanding of what it means to be someone else through art. I will do this through arguing and critiquing what ‘ideology’ means and how it may play a role in the way we make judgements on the music we listen to and the way we perceive Art more generally.



Ideology requires a localised conscious awareness of the linguistic and symbolic implications that may be implicitly or, explicitly expressed. If we take an example in music, tonality has developed to express an increasingly broad array of emotional content. As it is, beyond its sensual quality (i.e. the immediate pleasure or disgust from hearing said music) it requires us to undertake a post-hoc rationalisation of musical events for it to take on an ideological quality. The individual who consumes music as a cultural product must be a participant in the culture out of which the music has emerged for the ideology to take on any effective meaning. In the case that the ideological content has been made explicitly clear through specific musical devices that seek to imitate universally understood real things e.g. birds, marching etc. whether this translates into an ideologically charged action depends largely on the individual’s personal circumstances and temperamental disposition. For example if the composer of a specific piece wishes to incite the listener into revolutionary action that depends on whether the listener seeks to engage in revolutionary action in the first place and similarly if a piece of music has been written with the sole intention of encouraging people to buy a certain product, the individual for the most part still has to have a certain need or utility for that product in order that they should wish to buy it.



Music can, of course, be used for the purpose of promoting ideology, Slavoj Žižek explores this idea in the film ‘Pervert’s Guide to Ideology’. When discussing the 4th Movement from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony he refers to how this work has, over time, been appropriated by a whole plethora of groups from the Nazi Party in Germany; the Soviet Union; the Chinese Communist Party; South Rhodesia et al. The diversity of these parties present a paradoxical picture and it is significant that each of them would like to identify with and lay claim to the notion of ‘Universal Brotherhood’ expressed in the poem. Žižek goes on to say, “It’s never just meaning, it always has to work as an empty container”[1]. The idea of the empty container further illustrates the notion that art is not by necessity ideological — it is rather this nature that allows ideologically motivated individuals/parties to exploit art to their own ends and modify/conform the message to suit their own particular agenda. The ideological component then defines itself as being defined on the will of the author and more importantly the intents and desires of the audience. In the case of Beethoven, though we know he possessed ideological predilections of his own since he is not here in the present moment to clarify his precise intentions or defend his position, we are free only to interpret but not to assert truth.



It becomes apparent then that the ideological view is only one way of interpreting music rather than a necessary, inherent property of it. It is undeniable in one sense that a given work has a set of temporally bound characteristics which are potentially governed by the value-structure of the period and context under which the work was conceived. These characteristics are what lend themselves readily to the critical, ideologically focused perspective. It is assumed wrongfully however that those characteristics are automatically given to the subject of power relations. Music and Art is not necessarily a zero-sum game, in the sense that inclusion of one set of values is not exclusively an active exclusion of others, it can be that an assertion of one type of value means that another value is just not present. It requires an active political move to deliberately exclude a position or include a position which has a historical reality that is indelibly tied to certain practices. Much of the procedures exist in a kind of pre-ideological state. Žižek further explores this idea discussing the hard rock band ‘Rammstein’ and their flirtations with Nazi iconography, he says “The minimal elements of the Nazi ideology enacted by Rammstein are something like pure elements of libidinal investment. Enjoyment has to be, as it were, condensed in some minimal tics: gestures, which do not have any precise ideological meaning. What Rammstein does is it liberates these elements from their Nazi articulations. It allows us to enjoy them in their pre-ideological state.”[2] In this sense, it articulates precisely that if we can separate the sensuous, voluntary elements of the music without explicitly tying it to the ideological baggage, we can then obtain a more ‘aesthetically unadulterated’ experience.



Music, and Art more generally, differ from Science in the sense that the way we experience it is more than simply an accumulation of facts but that in a sense the work addresses the viewer directly through form and technique. This, however, does not mean that we must assume that ideology is inherently intertwined with the work itself as espoused by the author but rather that we experience music as a set of empirical objects that convey something beyond the sum of its parts. In this sense, we can suggest that Art is communicating something ‘true’ rather than something entirely localised to one’s own time and culture. Stuart Sim defines the Marxist conception which relates to the ideological conception of art thus: “for a Marxist, they [Homeric Poems] make no eternally valid statements about the ‘human condition’. Instead, Homeric Poems like any other great works of art have to be recreated and re-appropriated by each generation in terms of the specifics of its own ideological struggle”[3]. Where this understanding of Art lacks clarity, is that it fails to explain why certain works of Art such as the poems by Homer have not only remained with us across time but also are capable of being understood cross-culturally. It is certainly true that the works can be given a localised reading and it may yield some results, but I would posit the reason that they have persisted with us is because of the effectiveness at which they embody certain true representations about what it means to exist as a human being. Whilst in every society there are unique circumstances that characterise our existence, there are basic, fundamental truths that characterise the nature of our being. On the negative side of our existence, we collectively have and continue to suffer our biological constraints, disease, hunger, pain, depression, fear, loss and ultimately death. On the positive side, joy, love, creation, discovery, and kinship. All these facets of our existence can be said to find expression through Art and it is this unique utility of expressing the nature of the things around us and indeed, more importantly, the perspective of others whose experience goes beyond our own, has meant that Art has an enduring and purposeful role in societies across time. Though it is mere conjecture, it could be suggested that Art may play a stabilising role in society precisely because it allows us to see an existence beyond our own and experience the world through another person’s eyes thus helping us develop a sense of genuine empathy and understanding of situations and emotional states that we ourselves might not have experienced.



Art, we know from historical artefacts predates our notion of political systems and if Music is by necessity ideological it begs the question, how did this music arise? It seems more plausible to suggest that there are non-political reasons why Music might emerge cross-culturally and millennia before the idea of coherent social, cultural and political systems that were wielded and understood in the context of power relations. Considering these historical realities, it is not unreasonable to presume that there had to have been a first moment when music was practiced for its ‘purer’ properties. Why would music have arisen in the first place? There doesn’t appear to be an evolutionary advantage to playing music outside of the potential social status that may be granted with a high level of competence in this field (e.g. mating preference), therefore this appears to be evidence to support the claim that music is first and foremost a sensory and cognitive pleasure that can alter our state of consciousness rather than primarily a tool of power. It is because of this nature that ideological uses for music arise in the capitalist structure. Media companies can use this effect of music to manipulate tastes, but this does not mean that this is the final word in music. With the advent of the internet, information and therefore art has a capacity to be democratised outside of the intervention of parties with vested interest. Furthermore, it does not seem plausible to suggest that the entire vocabulary of Western Classical Music is a calculated move. For example, the emergence of the diatonic scale or chromatic harmonies emerged from the artist’s desire to communicate increasingly complex ideas in a world that becomes more complex. There are fundamental logistical issues with the idea that the creators have little to no autonomy, as under the ideological lens they are merely pawns to promote the will of the ruling classes. How this manipulation is effectively achieved is unclear and has the tone of conspiratorial thinking rather than an accurate reflection of reality.



We can argue that it is only the projected intent of the audience or the author that enables a work of art to become politicised and therefore indicative of a given set of values held by a society. This differs from visual art where a given set of norms can be displayed through familiar figures (body shape, skin tone etc.) Through music, however, the history of musical language has been developed as a series of necessary action to widen the scope of artistic expression and help reflect the world around us rather than stagnating within outmoded forms. Only through reading the historical progression of music as a political entity enables it to become so. The free market economic system allows musical progression to develop organically, in a sense moving in whichever direction the people develop culturally for better or for worse. This at least grants agency to the participants, unlike an authoritarian system which demands of the participants to follow a specific political programme set in motion by ideologically possessed ‘gatekeepers’, ironically undermining the very emancipation the system seeks to achieve.



Selected Bibliography

Scruton, Roger, Aesthetics of Music (Clarendon Press, 1997)

Hanfling, Oswald (ed.), Philosophical Aesthetics: An Introduction (Blackwell, 1992)

Paddison, Max, Adorno’s Aesthetics of Music (CUP, 1993)

Kivy, Peter (ed.), The Blackwell Guide to Aesthetics, (Blackwell, 2004)

Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, “The culture industry: Enlightenment as mass deception.” In Gunzelin Schmid Noerr (ed.), Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, pp. 94–136. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002.




Fiennes, Sophie, James Wilson, Martin Rosenbaum, Katie Holly, Slavoj Žižek, and Magnus Fiennes. The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. , 2012.

[1] Fiennes, Sophie, James Wilson, Martin Rosenbaum, Katie Holly, Slavoj Žižek, and Magnus Fiennes. The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. , 2012.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Hanfling, Oswald (ed.), Philosophical Aesthetics: An Introduction (Blackwell, 1992)

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