Share |

Adorno's Theory of Music and its connection to social reality

This is the first paper in a series of papers that will be published under the category of student papers. Only the good ones will be chosen for publication.

There has been a constant question on my mind as to whether music has the power to change society or is it simply that change in society influences music.Either way, it is quite safe to say that music is one of the most powerful mediums of expression that can truly transform thoughts and change attitudes.The realisation and the fear of what music can actually do to a society is what causes so many musical works to be banned and censored.However, there seems to be lesser music that is being prohibited these days, not due to acceptance or freedom of expression but due to the fact that music that is driven by political thought or as a reflection of social reality has become rarer.What has music become today? Can a musician actually go beyond his status as an artist to become a careful, social thinker capable of sharing some knowledge with his audience?
Theodor Adorno, a German musicologist and philosopher from the Frankfurt school is often referred to as the father of the sociology of music.Adorno believed that music had the power of transmitting consciousness and instead of music being an abstract expression of what happened in society in the past, he considered it to be an active, dynamic force which could facilitate social change.Much of Adorno’s thinking was influenced by his understanding of music and his theories on music and society included a variety of themes such as the philosophy of knowledge, reason, political and social authority etc.He was a materialist who believed that reality was too complex to be explained using concepts and ideas and that these concepts and ideas were only misfigured or inaccurate explanations of reality.Ideas and reality were incoherent and while ideas may be necessary for consciousness they did not really represent the truth.There was much danger in equating the two because that would mean that the whole idea of reason would be based on certain procedures that have already been laid down.Reason would become something which would try to fit in, or accommodate itself in already established norms and will explain reality in that way instead of actually trying to understand reality as it happened.This made people accept whatever certain people claimed authority over instead of actively participating or questioning those models of reality.
For Adorno, a subject who performed an activity (praxis) by associating ideas and reality,based his/her performance on certain generic assumptions about nature, culture etc.Thus, it is a consciousness that can be controlled by external factors and authority very easily.He brings this concept into two main forms of knowledge, science and art.Science and art, he says, instead of identifying and exploring the inconsistencies between concepts and materials tried to produce certainties, explanations or emotions.In the case of art, he perceived that the very nature of art being changed to something subjective and open to interpretation made it more susceptible to this authoritarian relationship between the artist and his art.Adorno wanted people to look at all the differences, in order to have a better perception of reality.Therefore Adorno wanted reason to sequence or arrange matter and accommodate all complexities and differences instead of trying to break down or simplify things by fitting the specific into the generic.This is where, he brings in music as a form of praxis where in, one can identify social-cognitive tendencies by looking at how a composer composes music and arranges musical elements in his/her piece.Adorno’s theories on music usually involved the unconscious.The material or the formal arrangment of the music served as examples of how one would order or arrange musical reality within a form.Music therefore could be used to demonstrate how the parts can be fitted into the whole as harmonies could be fitted into a symphony.Therefore music can give examples as to how one may model or arrange things in other realms, such as in science or philosophy.However, what is to be realised here is that most musical arrangments follow the collective ideal.For example, harmonies are written keeping in mind the entire symphony and therefore there may be elements that could be added to the harmony that would be sacrificed or left out in order to ‘fit’ into the entire piece.It appears a bit like how morals and ideals and even laws are adjusted in society.The morals and ideals in a society are tailored in order to fit the entire good of the society, what music shows is that in most social realities, the collective good is looked at, just like how the chord or the harmony is adjusted to fit the collective piece of music.This is where, one begins to see how Adorno makes these connections between music and society.
When a composer sits down to make music, he/she may face several problems while composing it, a typical, good composer might sit down and address these problems using previously established rules and norms etc.Society transforms or solves its problems based on previous structures and institutions.Adorno however did not stop at that.He talked about the composer in another world, as a person who would create music that would make his/her world and hereby,make musical history.What is to be understood by this is that music does not arbitrarily evolve out of thin air rather the history of music is made through the agency of the composer.A good composer therefore not only looked at the rules and standards but used them to demonstrate the political and social conditions of the present.For Adorno, Beethoven was one such composer who positively performed this task.Beethoven, showed how with rising modernity, there was a split between the individual and the society, which we can call ‘subject’ and ‘object’.The object took more importance by claiming authority and Beethoven used dissonance and disharmony to show how the subject was ‘homeless’ or cannot be accommodated in that particular form.However, this era of composition soon passed and there was a rise in authority and commodity fetishism.Everything was being standardised and made familiar.The same kinds of forms, the same tone and the same refrains were used throughout various songs in order to ‘dumb down’ music for people.This kind of music, relied on special effects and catchy lines and the actual material was compromised significantly to fit the so called ‘whole’ of the piece. Music had been reduced to a toy, something which gave temporary pleasure and distracted its listeners from the glaring social reality.
Connecting it back to reason - this form of music took the listeners away from consciousness by creating a lulling effect on their unconscious and hence programming them to invoke certain standard sets of reactions from the listeners.
What Adorno was probably saying was that popular music didn’t help people see that part-whole dialectic which beethoven tried to show,thus limiting reason and not helping to expand it.One modern composer who managed to do this, was Adorno’s own master - Arnold Schoenberg.Schoenberg did not mould material to fit form.He did not believe in subordinating musical material in order to fit the lyrics that it was carrying or the mood it was carrying or according to the composer’s whims and fancies.Basically, he solved the problem posed by musical material by allowing the material to exist without acting as a puppeteer by driving them in a certain direction.This was crucial for Adorno because by this, Schoenberg was making the listener see the difference, the alienation of the subject.The major thing to be understood here is that music which is commoditised is something which numbs the senses, it gives a false sense of security to the listener, who would soon be conditioned to expect something out of it.For example, if the listener was sure that the piece of music would go back to or end where it started, that is for example,on the same tone, he/she felt relaxed and this would repeatedly be the case with several pieces.This enjoyment of having something reliable persists and soon, the listener learns to adapt to these structures because it makes him/her happy.This idea brings to my mind, a society of people, who have only a fake sense of individualisation but the way their mind works, is uniform.The way they seek knowledge is uniform.Reason is uniform and doesn’t give place for acknowledging and accommodating difference.Atonal music, due to its non adherence to form and the complex nature of its composition hence fitted perfectly into Adorno’s functions of music.It could engage people in more complexities.Atonal music had this strong tendency towards particularisation and hence doesn’t simply fit specific materials into a larger picture.Another analogy one might make is that, while being atonal, the piece of music gives equal importance to all the twelve tones hence not placing one above the other.Thus,there is an absence of hierarchy.This in turn can be related to the accommodation of several things in order to widen our sense of consciousness without giving more importance to one phenomenon.
This is a very small portion of Adorno’s massive work on music theory that has been covered here by me.What one can draw from Adorno, though is that while music need not directly instigate change in society it can parallel the models with which we think and also with which we process reality.These examples that music can give, can help us widen our awareness and also reinforce the significance of differences and their accommodation in the way we reason.Adorno is a complicated man and simplifying him wouldn’t do justice to him.The links that he provides between society and music are not extremely clear either.Therefore, I shall not conclude here but simply put a break in this text (the rest of which will be dealt with later) for there is more to be understood in terms of this man’s theories.