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.