Religion & Liberty Online

Scruton and McGilchrist on Bach, the ‘tyranny of pop,’ and the gullibility of our age

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

The other evening I was at a pool with my family.  It was beautiful and warm, and we decided to order some pizza and have dinner at one of the tables overlooking the pool.  As we sat and talked and enjoyed blue sky and full trees of late summer, I realized that I  could hear the background sounds of children laughing and talking and of water splashing.  It was noticeably different and pleasant.  Then it struck me that the music had been turned off. There was no pop music or disc jockeys talking in the background. I could hear the normal sounds of human beings talking and children enjoying a summer evening.

A day or two after, I was looking for something by the English philosopher Roger Scruton and I came across  a short 10 minute audio essay called Tyranny of Pop from BBC’s Point of View where he discussed this very thing. Scruton  begins:

In almost every public place today, the ears are assailed by the sound of pop music…the ambient  sound is not   human conversation but the  music disgorged  into the air by speakers;  usually invisible and  inaccessible speakers that cannot be  punished for their impertinence.

He claims that majority of this music is

“of an astounding banality.  It is there in order to be be not really there. It is the background to the  business of  consuming  things.”  

Scruton argues that this is far from harmless because it undermines our capacity to appreciate and be moved by  truly beautiful music and he gives some suggestions to overcome it.  It is only 10  minutes and I highly recommend it.  Here is the link if you listen on Apple Podcasts

Scruton once said, it I am not mistaken, that his favorite piece of music, the one he finds most powerful is J.S. Bach’s Mass in B-Minor.  If that is not exactly right, it was definitely Bach–as well it should be!  I don’t pretend to have the musical ability, knowledge or refined tastes of Roger Scruton, but Bach is definitely the greatest.

The power of Bach of course is well known.  I read once that that a number of Japanese people were considering a conversion to Christianity and the main influence was the music of Bach.

Iain McGilchrist writes about the power of Bach to stir the human soul. in his profound book The Master and Its Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World  Interestingly echoing both Christopher Dawson and Joseph Ratzinger about the power of art and beauty as a force for evangelization.  McGilchrist writes

In an age in which conventional religion does not appeal to many it may be through art that ultimate meanings can be conveyed. I believe art does play an invaluable role in conveying spiritual meaning. Schumann once said of Bach’s chorale prelude Ich ruf’ zu dir – chosen by Andrei Tarkovsky to open his extraordinary poetical exploration of the relationship between mind and the incarnate world, Solaris – that if a man had lost all his faith, just hearing it would be enough to restore it. Whether we put it in those terms or not, there is no doubt that here, as in Bach’s great Passions, something powerful is being communicated that is of a spiritual, not just emotional, nature. Something similar could be said of the extraordinary depiction of Christ and his mother in the ancient church of St Saviour in Khora in Istanbul.


Like Scruton, McGilchrist also laments our current inability to distinguish between good and bad art and how we have been taken in by the banal.

Here I must speak for myself, since these matters are nothing if not personal. When I think of such works of art, and compare Tracey Emin’s unmade bed, or even, I am afraid, so much other post-modern art, just as when I think of Bach and compare him with Stockhausen, I feel we have lost not just the plot, but our sense of the absurd. We stand or sit there solemnly contemplating the genius of the artwork, like the passive, well-behaved bourgeois that we are, when we should be calling someone’s bluff. My bet is that our age will be viewed in retrospect with amusement, as an age remarkable not only for its cynicism, but for its gullibility.

Michael Matheson Miller

Michael Matheson Miller is a Senior Research Fellow at the Acton Institute