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October 10, 2005

Theodore Dalrymple on why the Baroque is superior to Rock: high culture is no bulwark against barbarism - but Baroque does not make those already predisposed to violence even more violent

Posted by Theodore Dalrymple

A recent lunchtime visit to a pub - and its thankful absence of music - causes Theodore Dalrymple to muse on the superiority of Baroque over Rock. As the Nazis amply demonstrated, an affection for high culture is no bulwark against barbarism - but Baroque does not make those already predisposed to violence even more violent.

Recently - and rather against my custom - I went to a pub at lunchtime. As I entered, I felt a wave of relief sweep over me. It was not because of the prospect of alcohol - in fact, I am rarely dependent upon alcohol for relief of anxiety or tension, and intended to have only some fizzy water - but because of a very noticeable absence, that of music.

There was no music and there were no flashing lights or flickering screens in the pub, just a few people gathered around small tables, chatting and having a quiet drink. Only an occasional burst of laughter rose above the sociable murmur. I cursed the electricity that produces so many little hells of electronic stimulation, until I recalled that I like my drinks cooled.

No music! That its absence should strike me so forcefully, rather as the heat when you step off an air-conditioned aircraft into a tropical country, demonstrates how insidiously pervasive it has become in our urban environment. It is like a poisonous gas that a malign authority pumps into our atmosphere, whose doleful effect, and probably purpose, is to destroy our capacity to converse, to concentrate, to reflect. It agitates us, keeps us constantly on the move, makes us impulsive and lacking in judgement.

As it happened, a newspaper called me on the day I went into the pub to ask whether I was willing to write an article on the beneficial, salutary effects of classical music. Apparently, a study had just been published to demonstrate that Mozart and Bach were good for your health; and since these days healthiness is next to godliness, or even superior to it, here was proof at last that classical music was superior to rock music. Unfortunately, I could not write the article because I was due that afternoon to attend a murder trial - of someone, of course, who was unaware that there was any other kind of music but rock music.

One of the reasons, I suspect, that defenders and advocates of high culture have been diffident about their claims, and reluctant to resist the relentless advance of a debased popular culture, is the historical fact that the Nazis enthusiastically supported at least some aspects of it. Not long ago I went to the home of an antiquarian bookseller acquaintance of mine, a devotee of classical music. When I arrived, he was listening to a recording of the Winterreise, a most beautiful and sensitive recording made in Berlin in 1943. Schubert at the very nerve centre of political barbarism: what use or benefit, then, is Schubert to the world, and how could anyone claim him as a manifestation or pillar of high civilisation? If Schubert brings tears to your eyes after a hard day's genocide, what moral superiority can be claimed for Schubert’s music, or the act of listening to it, compared with any other music?

It is a powerful argument, at least in rhetorical effect. And once the advocates of high culture have lost confidence not so much in its superiority over low culture, but in their ability to argue for it, the entire field is left wide open to the lowest of low culture to occupy. Indeed, such low culture can even argue its moral superiority, for not only is it of the People, self-evidently a good thing, but it is untainted by any association with the Nazis. What rock star does not espouse the best causes? No concentration camp commandant ever spent his evenings listening to Iggy Pop or the Boomtown Rats.

If the invocation of guilt by association is a permissible rhetorical manoeuvre, let us, however, be even-handed about it. Rock music formed a large part of the content of Radio Mille Collines, the radio station that instigated and incited the genocide in Rwanda.

Even if high culture is not by itself a sufficient bulwark against ideological barbarism (and, of course, the Nazis were in many respects aesthetic barbarians too), there is no reason to go over to other forms of barbarism. There is good reason to believe that rock music exerts a brutalising effect, and if it is not the sole cause of many of the unpleasantness of modern life, it aggravates them.

In the days when, as part of my medical duties, I had to visit police cells to examine the recently arrested, I went to a police station in which the custody sergeant used to play chamber works by Brahms (not always the most serene of composers, perhaps) to those whom I suppose in these consumerist days I must call his customers. He had found by trial and error, he said, that Brahms calmed criminals down while rock music made them more agitated and aggressive than they were already inclined to be.

A prison officer in the prison in which I worked, a man of Jamaican origin and therefore by no means culturally predisposed to such a conclusion, had found also that rock and baroque exerted quite different effects on the prisoners. The first agitated them to the point of violence, the latter soothed them to the point of docility. But he had difficulty in persuading the other officers of the value of his observations, for culturally they were themselves more inclined to rock than baroque. As to my proposal that the prison should echo to the sound of Gregorian chant, they thought it was merely a joke.

No doubt all of us have experienced the bass vibrations through the pavement under our feet of an approaching car, whose driver is in an enraged but trance-like state. The car is driven aggressively, as if invulnerable to accident. Of course, aggressive people listen to aggressive music, but no one is so aggressive that he cannot be provoked into further aggression.

Needless to say, the outright suppression of rock music in public places, while very tempting, is not the solution. What is required is the elevation of public taste. This, it seems to me, might take some time.

Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and retired earlier this year as a doctor.

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In my youth I considered getting small pellets of C4 shaped like 50-pence coins, which could explode inside a juke box without endangering bystanders. Then for a while I longed for plastic one-pound coins that would disgorge some kind of super-glue to permanently clog the arteries of juke boxes. A tried and true method of course (although not yet tried by me) is to wrap the prongs of an electric plug with cellotape -- that can render any appliance inoperable and avoid detection for months, but it is hard to do in a busy pub.

There is also a potential technological cure, based on the Bose (and other) earphones that rebroadcast noise back on itself. When the peak of a sound wave meets its opposite trough coming towards it, it cancels out the sound and there is meant to be quiet beyond the point of contact. In principle, a small speaker on the table should, from the perspective one seated behind, be able to kill all the incoming noise. But then , without all that pounding drivel, what would serve to turn us into the mindless consumer-cattle that our national socialist masters wish us to be?

I suppose that I must wait in eager anticipation for the deafness that befalls most people in my family. Meanwhile thanks for a typically good article from Dr Dalrymple.

Posted by: s masty at October 10, 2005 08:11 PM

As Antonio Gramsci died in 1945, he could not have forseen the effect of Rock Music on the culture he wished his disciples to change by infiltration and stealth. But how he would have approved of it!

It has probably been more effective in bringing his aims to fruition than any other aspect of revolutionary activity. Was it planned deliberately by a Gramsci inspired apparatchik? Or did it just erupt spontaneously? As a device in the deliberate spread of abuse of dangerous drugs it has certainly accelerated our descent into mass insanity. Future historians will eventually adjudge as one of the most extreme crimes of humanity, the grevious bodily harm inflicted upon susceptible young people of our era by amplified cacophony of junkies using instruments of torture they describe as electronic guitars whilst screaming hysterical and unintelligible words into microphones.

Mr Dalrymple characteristically alerts his grateful readers to the dangers with yet another charming and inimitable parable.

Posted by: Frank Pulley at October 11, 2005 01:43 AM

What a bunch of old farts! I am a 52 year old father of two daughters aged 20 and 17 and keeping up with, and actively enjoying the contemporary music scene has kept me young, and what is more importantly my daughters want to talk to me and seek out my company. It is only when people disengage with what is going on around them that they become the truly old, under-informed and moaning old gits that seem to constitute our pensioner population nowdays.

Posted by: Mike Baldwin at October 11, 2005 03:57 PM

I am a person of mixed taste; I like some classical, and some modern popular. But I also detest some of both. To me, content is more important than form, so I find most unsuitable the way that the Prince of Wales, who may one day be Defender of the Faith, is seen at Royal concerts approving of Ozzy Osbourne, whose band’s name derives from devil worship. Also I think that Wagner, with his self-importance and cracked mythology, is there to be lampooned (sorry, David Conway). In particular, I suggest that Isoldes Liebestod  be re-cast for male voice and issued as the “Love song of the Male Mantis”.

However, Dr Dalrymple’s main thesis, about the effect of rock music on criminals and thumpy music on drivers, is right on the nail. Both convicted criminals and aggressive drivers should be deprived of such music, which their nervous systems cannot handle any more than the drunkard can manage booze.

And while I do agree with Mike Baldwin about keeping in touch with the younger generation, I disapprove of the way he plays the Rock Mullah and issues a FASWA (Arabic for fart) against those who think like Dr Dalrymple.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at October 11, 2005 06:27 PM

Rock music suits a time in a persons life when the brain is too developed for nursery rhymes but too immature for classical music. Of course, we all mature at different rates and to different degrees, and for many development stops altogether at the rock or popular music stage just as for a few the classical stage starts in childhood. We are all different, but broadly speaking classical music devotees are not youngsters. That's why, when Radio 3 is treating us to jazz, Late Junction, or some dull play I tune to Classic FM and have to endure adverts for pension plans and cheap car insurance for the over 55's.

Posted by: colin at October 12, 2005 12:09 AM

Which raises the question: why do those of us who work during weekdays and seek to spend saturday afternoons listening to classic music on radio 3 have to be subjected to world music (sorry, musics). The kind of people who prefer the sounds of tribal chanting to, say, schubert, are the kind of people who work in the PC professions such as academia, the bbc itself, etc., who have plenty of time to listen to this crap during the week...

Posted by: OD at October 12, 2005 01:46 PM

Since I am still a young person (just finished my undergraduate this summer), I think perhaps I can provide a different perspective to this discussion. For the past four years or so, I have been persuaded that grave moral danger threatens those who listen to rock/pop music (and the Wagner type of classical). I can say with confidence that my development as a person was fundamentally affected by the fact that I did listen to rock music in highschool, and that I stopped listening to rock music in college. Bad music is so insidious. Even if the words are decent, it can shape your emotions and desires and lifestyle before you even realize it. Besides, the culture attached to it is foul and offensive. It is not a coincidence that there are no mosh pits at a Vivaldi concer, that there is no offensive dancing when the Tallis scholars sing, and that pot heads do not gather to hear a schola chant.
Although I appreciate Mr. Baldwin's desire to stay close to his daughters, I must disagree with his method of achieving that end. This has become a Nickelodeon era, where parents imitate their children instead of vice versa. Those who have lived longer have more knowledge and experience to offer, and it is most proper that children learn virtue and dignity from them. I started listening to rock music because my friends did and all their conversation touched on it. Unfortunately, parents did not stop me. They sensed a danger, but had no arguments to offer in support of their intuition. I realize now what little benefit or pleasure derives from conversation focused on that secular, materialistic world anyways. There is nothing lofty in it to inspire the heart or raise the mind. When I gave up I rock music, better things replaced it - silence and reflection, good music, edifying conversation. My arguments may not be very convincing, but if you are interested you can obtain a thorough discussion of the topic at this address: The lectures are called "Music and Morality," and the speaker uses both a moral and a scientific arguments.

Posted by: Lorraine at October 12, 2005 04:22 PM

The great jazz trumpeter Bunny Berigan couldn't stand jukebox music in bars, so he'd go over to the jukebox and pretend to put a coin in while actually blocking the coin slot with chewing gum. And he went to many bars, did Bunny.

Posted by: dearieme at October 17, 2005 02:41 AM

I've followed up the "Opus Angelorum" link suggested by Lorraine. The thing that worries me is that people can listen to the most angelic of music and get a totally deceptive moral feelgood factor from it. I'm sure that Henry VIII listened to the most sublime music, all the while divorcing Catherine of Aragon, hanging Catholics, and burning Protestants. (He went hunting as Anne Boleyn was being beheaded).

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at October 17, 2005 10:17 PM

Lorraine, what's your objection to "the Wagner type of Classical?" And what, aside from Wagner himself, does it refer to exactly?

Posted by: jim mcqueen at October 18, 2005 11:57 AM


Music does not impose a moral habit on a person. Although it imitates or reflects moral states (love, anger, passion, etc.) and tends to produce them in the listener, it does not completely override human reason and free will. Henry the VIII probably acquired his bad habits from a life of decadence and indulgence, not from listening to good music. Every part of a person's moral formation is important, and entertainment is just one facet of that.


My objection is based on a philosophical belief that styles of music can be intrinsically "disordered."
This argument assumes a classical, Christian understanding of the soul, i.e. that it has three parts and that the lower parts (concupiscible appetities and irascible appetites) should be ordered to and ruled by the higher part (intellect).
There are basically four elements to a song: rhythm, harmony, melody, and words. Believe it or not, in the classical tradition of western civilization, the words are probably the least important. Of course, you should not listen to music with bad words, but since it is obvious when they are morally offensive, the virtuous person will reject them intellectually and their potential harm is limited. The other elements effect the soul more subconsciously.

With regard to those other three elements, the melody appeals to the intellectual part of the soul, the harmony to the irascible passions (love, hate, fear, etc.), and the rhythm to the concupiscible passions (desire for bodily things).

*I know I am making certain philosophical assumptions here, but I don't have the knowledge to prove everything, and such a lengthy discussion would probably bore everyone to tears anyway.*
According to these principles, it seems a song can become disordered in two ways: first, when the parts are not ordered correctly to one another; or secondly, when the entire song is ordered toward a vicious passion (hatred, lust, etc.). An "ordered" song, subordinates the harmony and the rhythm to the melody. Thus, one overarching problem with rock music is the tendency to have a driving beat which takes over the song. With Wagner, I think the problem is more with the unreasonableness of the melody (no key signature or something). Anyway, I hope that helps - like I said, the Music and Morality cds go into much more detail - they specifically address composers like Wagner.

Posted by: Lorraine at October 18, 2005 08:21 PM

For those who heartily agree with Dr Dalrymple about the joys of hearing only conversation in public houses and public places, the following website may provide hope and a way to support the cause:

Posted by: Roger at October 26, 2005 04:13 AM

This is quite late but as to the comment above disparaging World Music as crap; isn't this the same calcified, rigid thinking that is so hard to override in people when you try to get them to understand the beauty of classical music?

What a shame.

Posted by: vargas at July 19, 2006 05:55 AM

I'm sure things were indeed better back in the good old days, but isn't rock music a rather queer point of blame for our decline? I myself have joined the AC/DC fan club (echos of Faust?), but have yet to fall under Lucifer's spell. But then, perhaps it's only a matter of time.

Posted by: Brian at April 17, 2007 12:25 AM

"It is only when people disengage with what is going on around them that they become the truly old, under-informed and moaning old gits that seem to constitute our pensioner population nowdays."

Yeah! The kids are all right! Congratulations to Mike Baldwin for being such a cool Tony Blair dad. I just hope middle age doesn't turn me into a cringe-making cheerleader for youth "culture".

By the way, are you sure your daughters aren't simply sparing your feelings? I spent my salad days (and much of my income) flailing about with friends at rock & pop concerts, yet nobody I knew would have wanted to be seen dead with their dad at a gig. It would've been like having a dad who "treated" the family to naturist camping holidays.

The taste for dirge and driving rhythm dies hard, I've found, although I don't bother with the concerts anymore. And my own experiences corroborate Dalrymple's: this stuff does indeed affect behaviour, often quite profoundly.

Perhaps some of the mountain of money squandered on useless research could be directed instead to the prison warder and police officer that they might expand and publish their rather humble yet potentially valuable studies. I think it would be found that Dalrymple's suggestion of bathing the inmates in plainsong isn't so daft after all: indeed, a more monastic milieu in general might do wonders for prison discipline.

Posted by: Paul H. at July 23, 2007 07:47 PM

"Of course, aggressive people listen to aggressive music"

is this logical or scientfic ?

Posted by: mike at September 9, 2007 12:43 AM

What an absurd article! What exactly is this 'rock music' you speak of? Anything that isn't played by an orchestra? Oh, it's Iggy Pop and The Boomtown Rats. I see. They are surely responsible for the moral degeneration of our society. "Rock music formed a large part of the content of Radio Mille Collines, the radio station that instigated and incited the genocide in Rwanda." - This zinger took my breath away.

Humans delight in aural sensation. With the advent of music technology and electronics, the possibilites of variaton in sound increased massively. Do you really think that if Beethoven were alive today he would stick to the same instruments to create with? Of course not. He could never have dreamed of the aural possibilities open to us.

The laziness of the author is outrageous. I had to translate - 'rock music' means anything made after 1900, right? If I play a random selection of music from my collection it might include folk recordings from Sumatra, avant-garde movie scores, comedic death-metal, Sammy Davis Jr ballads, Chopin nocturnes, bubblegum pop from the latest charts.....all in the name of SOUND. Get it?

Most people here seem to believe that the familiar Western orchestra is an immutable gift handed to humans by God some hundreds of years ago. That the sounds produced by those instruments is all we need and all we will ever need to express ourselves through sound. Idiotic. Dalrymple decides that the music he enjoys is 'high', while anything made after The Fall or The War or whatever went wrong (Welfare State? Promiscuity? Drugs?) is just the 'lowest of the low'. Oh, and it causes people to kill each other too. Naturally.

Posted by: Robert at February 6, 2011 03:52 PM

"all in the name of SOUND. Get it?"

I think I get it. You like sound devoid of meaning. A sort of sensual bath in which the emotions and thoughts aren't touched. But how could they not be touched? Perhaps the auditor is autistic, or else repressing. In any case, I find incomprehensible the notion that music is just sound. After all, unless one is deaf, sound is ubiquitous. The difference between music and sound is the difference between something intentional and something random. And what is that intention? To say, "The intention is to make sound" is to talk in circles. Anyone (and anything) can make sound. Music is intentional; it's sound organized to touch mind and heart.

Posted by: DR at June 11, 2011 06:46 PM

It depend what Baroque and what Rock - Van Morisson's "listen to the Lion"? - and the finest songs of Sigur Ros match the best music from any era in any genre. Speaking as a dyed in the wool conservative and vaughan williams addict

Posted by: phil at November 2, 2012 11:32 AM
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