Playing in Tune

  • Hayden Ramsay


The film Shawkshank Redemption is set in a tough 1940s prison in which inmates are treated as if they are sub-human and so become more and more brutal. In one scene, the central character breaks into the warden’s office, turns the microphone towards a turntable, and plays over the prison’s loudspeaker system a soaring soprano duet from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. As the voices rise through the prison halls and yards, prisoners everywhere come to a standstill and gaze upwards, their faces transfigured by the power of the music. The message is plain: music frees the human soul; music turns our minds from suffering and routine and stress and towards the sublime.1 Listening to music is a truly contemplative activity: activity that fills people with joy and provides new meaning.


Classical Music Popular Music Aesthetic Appreciation Recording Industry Dance Music 
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  1. 2.
    Alan Merriam The Anthropology of Music (Evanston: Northwestern University, 1964), p. 219.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Cf. Aristotle Politics, 1338a21: ‘The use of music for intellectual enjoyment in leisure.’ For scholarly discussion of the point, see Thomas Christensen ‘Introduction’, pp. 1–23, and Calvin Bower ‘The Transmission of Ancient Music Theory into the Middle Ages’ in Thomas Christensen (ed.) The Cambridge History of Western Music Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    For Boethius’s work on music, see Henry Chadwick Boethius: the consolations of music, logic, theology, and philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981).Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    Hence, twentieth century philosophy’s focus on the relation of music to the emotions is focus on a modern question: a question for a psychologised age, one that looks tofreud, William James, Hume, and ultimately Descartes’ work on the passions, to understand profound experiences. Before Descartes and his account of the passions (including his treatment of music), performance, listening, and the effect of music on people were not scholarly concerns. Now, of course, at the other extreme, looking at emotion is the only (or the major) way in which most philosophy of music proceeds. See, for example, Nussbaum Upheavals of Thought, Ch. 5; Roger Scruton The Aesthetics of Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997);Google Scholar
  5. Malcolm Budd Music and the emotions: the philosophical theories (London: Routledge, 1985);CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    See William Weber The Rise of Musical Classics in Eighteenth Century England: a study in canon, ritual, and ideology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).Google Scholar
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    On this, see Robert Philip Performing Music in the Age of Recording (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2004).Google Scholar
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    Christopher Ballantine Music and Its Social Meanings (New York: Gordon and Breach, 1984), Ch. 1, p. 5: ‘In various ways and with varying degrees of critical awareness, the musical microcosm replicates the social macrocosm.’Google Scholar
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    For a different, and always stimulating, view, see Peter Conrad A Song of Love and Death: the meaning of opera (London: Hogarth Press, 1989). He begins his analysis with the different forms of self-understanding that opera demonstrates — the archetypes of Orpheus, Dionysius, Eros, Mephistopheles, and Dagon (song, sensuality, sexuality, the devil, and religion).Google Scholar
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    Cf. Rupert Christiansen The Spectator, 16/23 December 2000, p. 25, on his conversion to opera: ‘What compelled me was the sense that opera was something, as it were, on the top shelf — dangerous, arcane, complex and, as Dr Johnson supposedly said “exotick and irrational”. Now I worry that, by making opera so officially “accessible”, all the well-meaning, friendly work…actually neutralises those qualities, making what should be subversive and potently strange seem like nothing more alluring than an approved sidebar of the National Curriculum.’Google Scholar
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    Honorius of Autun ‘A Picture of the World’ in John Wippel and Allan Wolter (eds) Mediceval Philosophy: from St Augustine to Nicholas of Cusa (New York: Free Press, 1969), p. 183.Google Scholar
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    For discussion of Schopenhauer’s view of music, see Malcolm Budd Music and the Emotions: the philosophical theories (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985), Ch. 5;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    See Norman Lebrecht When The Music Stops (London: Pocket Books, 1996) for critical and fiery discussion of the classical recording business. As a response to limitations in that business, several famous orchestras have inaugurated their own record labels in 2004.Google Scholar
  16. 18.
    ‘To me there is no pop or classical. That which we call classical today was popular culture in its time. There’s only good work and bad work, a great story and a not-so-great story’, Baz Luhrmann, Opera 53, Nov. 2002, p. 1312.Google Scholar
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    See, for example, Bruce Baugh ‘Prolegomena To Any Aesthetics of Rock Music’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 51, 1993, 23–31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    The issue of the nature and standards of popular music is hotly contested by sociologists and philosophers of aesthetics. See for example the debate between Baugh and James Young, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 53, 1995, 78–83; Simon Frith Performing Rites: on the value of popular music (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996);Google Scholar
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    For discussion of the culture that forms and is supported by the simple music of rock and pop, see Roger Scruton An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture (South Bend, IN: St Augustine’s Press, 2000), Ch. 10.Google Scholar
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    Simon Frith ‘Towards an Aesthetic of Popular Music’ in R. Leppert and S. McClary Music and Society: the politics of composition, performance and reception (Cambridge: CUP, 1987), p. 143.Google Scholar
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    Christopher Ballantine Music and its Social Meanings (New York: Gordon and Breach, 1984), p. 9.Google Scholar

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© Hayden Ramsay 2005

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  • Hayden Ramsay

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