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Adorno and Attali on Music as a Sociopolitical Force

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

October 14, 2011

I am currently working on a small but fascinating writing project, sketching various dimensions and expressions of the philosophy of music. Two twentieth-century theorists, Theodor Adorno and Jacques Attali, have captivated my imagination, as both foreground the socio-political dimensions of music. Theorists in this vein raise questions concerning the essence and value of music as limited to the realm of musical art. That is, if the nature of music involves something beyond the sphere of musical art itself—and is by nature implicated in socio-political activities and in shaping the cultural consciousness—then by what criteria do we establish the strictly musical versus the strictly social aspects, which count as purely musical and which political, and does music’s value somehow become obscured or diminished by emphasizing social and political dimensions as essential features of music?

For Adorno, music possesses a unique ability to awaken our soporific social consciousness. Music must resist commodification in order to be a powerful force for socio-political change; thus, Adorno lays stress upon unconstrained, unique, autonomous musical structures—structures that evidence originality and highlight individuality, which is the exact opposite of mass produced, commodified music. Likewise, Adorno’s position recognizes that musical compositions, unlike traditional philosophical texts, can impact and occasion social change by performative and other means wholly unavailable to philosophy construed as a “purely” rational enterprise. For instance, atonal music such as twelve-tone serialism calls into question the naturalness of music and thus argues that music’s form, content, harmonic structures, scales, and so forth are conventional; they are non-absolute human practices that change over time and differ within a society, as well as across social, cultural, and historical boundaries. Similar to the way that innovative musical structures and contents can create extreme dissonance and unsettle a listener bodily, music’s socio-critical function can likewise unsettle our cultural complacencies and dulled moral sensitivities. His strong stance on the objectivity of musical value, which has been highly criticized, does not sit well with his insistence on music’s conventional and progressive nature.

For Attali, the relation between music and power is brought front and center. Music is a site of struggle in which voices are always fighting to be heard. The mass production of music—its commodification—slowly eradicates the human elements of music. Paradoxically, the excess of musical products and the resultant repetition and “sameness” of commodified music both silences music and deafens society. Consequently, Attali calls for a return to the humanity of music, to its communal, personal, and difference affirming origins. Likewise, we must recover the activity of attentive listening, of hearing the complex timbres and tones of the world and the other. If we would but listen, music has much to say about how to establish harmonious, difference-affirming relations between individuals and collectives, freedom and constraint—themes central to social and political theory and practice.