Classical Music, Classical Liberalism
It’s often hard to think about genres of art as belonging to distinct philosophies, and there are always exceptions to whatever philosophical designation we try to apply to a particular type of art. However, it intuitively makes sense that some types of art are better suited for certain worldviews than others.
For example, ancient Greek sculptures were fairly expensive and required a high degree of technical skill. They were also limited to static representations. Those limitations meant that they were not particularly suited to celebrating vulgarity or day to day life. If the number of sculptures people could make were limited, one would not expect to find too many sculptures depicting someone drinking or harvesting a crop. Furthermore, since one could not easily show the sculpture’s subject against a background, the social context needed to depict a vulgar (ordinary, everyday) subject isn’t easily provided. A sculpture showing a person drinking by themselves or hunched over in farm labor would seem bizarre without a group setting or pastoral landscape. That’s not to say, of course, that such sculptures couldn’t exist, just that they would not seem the most natural subject for a simple, expensive expression. People would naturally want something somewhat profound in an expensive work, and something fairly simple. Religious figures would make good sense in that regard — they are beautiful to look at, eternal, important, and somewhat easily typecast in the Greek world. Athena will have her wisdom, Mars his war, etc. Thus, we can argue that the medium of ancient Greek sculpture naturally lends itself to a pagan religious expression.
Within the field of music, different genres even more clearly lend themselves to different worldviews. Take rock and roll for example. Usually consisting of something like four or five instruments (most of which are some form of electric guitar), a rock band can not hold or explore very complex themes. There’s certainly room for technical expertise to be displayed in virtuoso solos, but the themes themselves are not usually explored in too many different directions. The singers usually just tell us how to connect the simple theme to a vulgar idea and that’s that. The instruments and singers are emotive in a sense, but they can’t express an intellectually stimulating or sublime idea because (a) there are not enough of them and (b) perhaps as a consequence, there isn’t a tremendous amount of variation within the instruments. We thus hear a multitude rock songs about day-to-day activities (e.g. “Takin’ care of business”), shallow grief (e.g. “I see a red door and I want to paint it black”), or outright mockery (e.g. “Dude looks like a lady”).
What kind of philosophical ideas can you express in that kind of music? Nothing too complicated. There’s pretty much only room for philosophies based primarily on emotion or celebration of vulgarity. Socialism is one such philosophy. It stresses the importance of equality, which can usually only be achieved by making the great things small rather than the small things great. Some religious expression falls into this category too, the more basic proclamation of affiliation with a particular sect. Mike Huckabee plays bass, after all.
The experience of rock and pop music is also primarily social. If you’ve ever been to a rock concert, you know that it’s hard to just experience it on your own. The crowd is a very important part of the experience. One hears the crowd as much as the singers. Perhaps because of the crowd (or perhaps as an integral part of rock music itself) is the sheer volume of the music. Giant electric amplifiers blast the music at the crowd like a broadside from a galleon. This is the musical equivalent of shouting and screaming. People generally do not shout complicated ideas. They only shout when they are angry, emotional, or upset.
If rock and pop music are better suited for somewhat collective themes, what music expresses a libertarian or individualist perspective? Classical liberalism — a celebration of freedom to achieve to the limits of one’s own ability — obviously does not fit comfortably with rock music. It’s a complicated idea. It is not intuitively obvious that men are better left to govern themselves and that the government should not oversee all aspects of our lives. Paternalism is such an old, basic idea that at some level it’s probably imprinted on our genetic code. Complicated ideas like freedom often take more time to explore. The idea that people should be free presupposes that people deserve to be free, that they’re capable of running their own lives. Thus, classical liberalism demands dignity from its music. It’s hard to feel dignified or important in a crowd at a rock concert. Classical liberalism also demands an appreciation of the sublime, of the great heights that people are able to reach.
To summarize, classical liberalism needs music that can express (a) dignity, (b) complicated ideas, and (c) the sublime. Classical music, particularly of the Romantic era, fills those needs nicely. With dozens of wildly varied instruments and much more time to work with, a classical composer can introduce a theme, build it up, explore the variations, and express a synthesis.
The experience of classical music is also given to a more individualist perspective. If you go to a classical music concert, the crowd will almost never be part of the experience. You might as well be alone in the concert hall.
The great works of classical music certainly fit the bill of dignity, complicated ideas, and sublime expression. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, virtually anything by Rachmaninoff, Dvorak’s New World Symphony, and dozens more such pieces meet those requirements.
One obvious problem with this analysis is that it’s hard to decide whether the popularity of the medium determines what people think of to express through it or if people have ideas and find the medium to express them. In other words, were Americans in the fifties and sixties expressing a growing social consciousness (i.e. a need to be accepted by peers) by embracing rock and roll or was rock and roll simply a new, interesting medium that had to be experienced socially and so adopt vulgar themes? Ultimately, it’s hard to answer that question, but does it really matter? For the person trying to find music to express their ideas, the chicken-and-the-egg argument about whether the medium drives the message or vice-versa is irrelevant.
I don’t want this to come off sounding elitist, I like rock music sometimes and it’s certainly better to run to than (most) classical music. However, when I think of music that expresses deeper and more fundamental ideas of mine, I can’t think of any rock or pop songs, and I think there is a reason for that.
Once you have a dignified, sublime view of man, it’s much easier to give him the freedom to control his own destiny. By contrast, glorify vulgar subjects often enough and it’s easy to forget man can do anything great. That, in essence, is why modern rock and pop music go well with collectivist ideas and classical music and classical liberalism logically fit.