Almost twenty years ago I remember Sangharakshita expressing the view that music was an inferior form of art to literature, especially poetry, in that in music there is no 'intelligible content'. That is, music does not, cannot, express anything outside of itself — it does not refer to anything, does not represent anything. Literature though does have an intelligible content, it can tell us about the world, about the way things are — it can help us to understand reality. Philosophy and science also have their claims to truth, but literature expresses it's truth within the context of beauty, which adds to its intelligible meaning the power to move us, enabling us to apprehend it's truth more deeply. Great literature possesses both truth and beauty, whereas music has only beauty. It is, to quote Sangharakshita, 'A sphynx without a secret'.

I have been thinking about these ideas, on and off, ever since Bhante made those statements, especially when listening to music. Sometimes, when I am enjoying a piece of music, I have asked myself what is actually happening — what exactly am I feeling? What does my emotion refer to? And does it have any significance other than the aesthetic pleasure it arouses in me? I remember hearing on the radio one day Brahms' piano transcription for one hand of Bach's Chaconne, from the Partita No.2 for solo violin, being deeply moved, and asking myself this very question. The music seemed to be not just an expression of emotion, it seemed also to express something deeply significant — it seemed to be reaching down into the depths of my being, trying to tell me something about life, but what that something was, I was not able to say.

I recently read a very interesting book — The Aesthetics of Music by Roger Scruton, which explores, amongst other things, this very question. Scruton is a well known philosopher, and also a musician and occasional composer. (He is also, incidentally, the writer of a small book called Hunting — a defence of animal hunting in response to the present government's attempts to have the sport banned. However much I may disagree with the arguments put forward in that little book, I found many of the ideas expressed in The Aesthetics of Music very stimulating and exciting). Perhaps I should make it clear from the outset that I am not recommending this book generally — it is a very difficult book to read for anyone not well versed in music and philosophy. Scruton makes very little concession to the layman, taking for granted quite a high level of knowledge and understanding of both western classical music and aesthetic philosophy. Consequently, reading the book was pretty hard going for me, with my rather scant knowledge of both. However, I would recommend the final chapter on Culture, which was actually the first chapter of the book I read, and although he does refer back to things he has written in earlier chapters, it is possible to understand the thrust of what he says th Úere without having to read them first. In this chapter he sets forth a number of ideas about aesthetics, the relationship between art (not just music) and the spiritual life, the relative values of classical and popular music and their effect on society, sincerity and sentimentality, friendship and culture, and other topics which would be of interest to anyone interested in Buddhism, art and society. His ideas about religion are, from the Buddhist point of view, limited, and consequently his discussion about the parallels between religion and art are somewhat limited too. However, this is not to completely invalidate them, as it is possible to adapt and enlarge his ideas to include a wider understanding of the spiritual life.

Earlier in the book (chapter 11, Content) Scruton asks the question: does music express anything other than emotion? Is it capable of expressing meaning? After rehearsing various other philosophers' and music critics' theories about the meaning of music, he puts forwa ´rd his own theory, which runs like this. Music cannot express conceptual meaning — it is not possible to say that a piece of music expresses this or that particular meaning, as we can with literature and, to an extent, with (representational) painting or sculpture. However, music is more than merely a 'beautiful play of sensations', as Kant considered it to be — it does hold some kind of meaning, although that meaning is more in the nature of metaphor than concept, more in the nature of gesture than word. Music, he maintains, is esentially participatory — it is only in comparatively recent times that people have sat down, in the concert hall or at home with their hi-fi system, to listen silently to music played by others. In the past music has been something that one would join in with — some people playing musical instruments or singing while others join in by clapping, singing or dancing. 'It is an invitation to joi ‡n, an expression of the feelings and hopes of the participants. It lends dignity and harmony to our gestures, and raises them to a higher level, where they can be understood and emulated. Whether singing hymns in church, whistling a tune in the street, or sitting rapt in the concert hall, we are enjoying the expression of human life — but in an enhanced and perfected form, which offers a mirror to our understanding.'

Dance, he thinks, is a very significant activity, being a close relative of gesture, especially of the kind of formalized gestures which we make on special occasions, such as weddings and funerals. At a funeral, for instance, we pay our respects and condolences to the relatives and close friends of the deceased person not only through our words, but also through our gestures. These gestures are not expressions of grief, but of sympathy with the grief of the bereaved. These gestures can be either sincere or sentimental. A sincere gesture of condolence is one »which refers to the grief of the bereaved person, whereas a sentimental gesture refers to oneself — 'We distinguish true compassion, which focuses on another's suffering, from the self-dramatizing pretence of it, whose aim is to display the 'beautiful soul' of the performer'.

In dancing we are engaging in a series of gestures, we are representing ourselves to others. Music too is a series of 'gestures', only these gestures are in sound rather than in bodily action. Dancing is a series of gestures in sympathetic response to the gestures of the music. Even when we sit silently listening to music played by others we are in some sense participating in the music — we sway, we tap our feet, we move in sympathy. Listening to music is a kind of 'truncated dance'. But what are these 'gestures' of music actually expressing? Scruton says 'In responding to a piece of music we are being led through a series of gestures which gain their significance from the in ©timation of community.' All art implies community but music more so because of its essentially participatory nature. In listening to music we are participating in that 'intimation of community'.

Popular music expresses community in its ordinary sense — the community that we experience ourselves in everday life. The composer of art music (by art music Scruton means western classical music and possibly some forms of jazz — he is writing about the western tradition of music) takes us out of our ordinary experience and lifts us up into an ideal world of beautiful forms, and in so doing he intimates an ideal community. In listening to art music we are participating in an imagined, ideal community, and this is why music is significant and, in a sense, meaningful. For instance 'Classical harmony provides us with an archetype of human sympathy. The ability to notice a bass-line, to feel the rightness of the notes and of t Áhe harmonies that erupt from them, is the ability to respond to a wider world, to value the other voice, and to situate both self and other in a moralized universe.'

Consequently there is a difference between listening to popular music and art music — popular music is easy to listen to — it makes no special demands upon us, for it simply expresses mental states with which we are already familiar. Art music takes more effort, for it is expressive of mental states which, for most of us, are difficult to experience, because they pertain to a more ideal community than the community we actually live in. Listening to art music is, to varying degrees, an emotional education (to varying degrees because art music is of varying qualities — it can be sincere, sentimental, or a mixture of the two). The composer leads us through a series of 'gestures', compelling us to rehearse feelings which would be difficult for us to experience otherwise. This emotional education does not involve the ga Ùining of theoretical knowledge or information — it is 'the reordering of our sympathies', and as such is enhanced by repetition — 'we seek the experience again and again, because we must exercise our sympathies if they are to be alive at all'. In this way listening to music is a similar experience to performing a religious ritual, in which we do not learn any new information, but are led through a series of devotional moods which renew and revitalize our spiritual aspirations.

This then is the gist (albeit somewhat simplified) of Scruton's ideas about the significance of music. I don't have the space here to explore all of these ideas, but I would like to look at what seem to be his principle ones: that listening to great music is an emotional education, and that music signifies, at least metaphorically, community. Earlier in this essay I mentioned Bach's Chaconne for solo violin, and the fact that I felt it was telling me something important, although I was unable, at the time, to say what ‹ that was. If I were to articulate now what Bach's 'message' is in that piece I would say this: it is a weighty, serious piece, which seems to be expressing the suffering of the world. It is also, at the same time extraordinarily beautiful — showing us that, although life is shot through with suffering, at the same time life is beautiful. It is music of great nobility — it seems to be teaching us how to face suffering with dignity, as if Bach is saying to us 'endure'. Interestingly, in the light of Scruton's ideas about music and community, the piece was written for solo violin, and this, I think, is significant — it seems to be expressing the capacity to endure suffering alone, unsupported by others, the individual's struggle for integrity. (There are two well-known transcriptions of the piece for piano, one by Brahms and the other by Busoni. The Brahms is, I would say, the more effective because he has transcribed it for just one hand, and so it retains it's auster pe simplicity and sense of aloneness. Busoni has filled out all the implied harmonies of the original and added arpeggios etc., and, although it is very impressive in its own way, it loses that simplicity and therefore one of its most important 'messages'. It has become, in a sense, another piece of music). The second subject, which breaks into the first subject without a pause, coming as it were from nowhere, is one of incredible sweetness, expressing acceptance, even resignation — resignation, that is, of the egoistical will. Of course this is just my interpretation, someone else may interpret it very differently, and here we come up against the problem of the lack of intelligible content in music. Perhaps all I can say is that this is what it means to me, and in meaning that to me, it is of great value to me.

Secondly, Sruton's ideas about music and community. While I don't think that all music can be encompassed in this theory, it can certainly be a useful way of understanding some — after all, most music is constituted of many single tones sounding together, having different timbres, moving in different directions, but nevertheless working together, as it were, remaining in harmony with one other, and producing a whole, integrated piece. Some music (notably romantic music) goes through a period of turbulence and conflict, but ends with a resolution, perhaps signifying the difficult journey one may have to travel in order to achieve such ideal harmony. Not that we should listen to music with such ideas in mind, which would become very tedious, we listen to music as music, and it has it's effect on us.

Sangharakshita has used both music and dancing as similes for the spiritual community. For example, in his poem Four Gifts he says:

My third gift is a shepherd's round-dance,
Do your feet know how to dance?

This 'third gift' is the spiritual community. He has also, on a few occasions, likened the experience of spiritual community to that of playing in an orchestra, where each musician plays his own particular part, but at the same time is aware of, and listens to, every other instrument.

Adapting Scruton's ideas and putting them into our own terms, we could say that popular music pertains to the group (good-natured popular music pertaining particularly to the positive group) while art music, at least the greatest art music, pertains to the spiritual community. However, here we come up against the problem of the lack of 'intelligible content' in music once again. If we grant that music is expressive of community, and that there is a noticeable difference between music which is good natured (emotionally positive) and music which is not, the question still remains whether music can express the spiritual community as distinct from the positive gro €up — after all, in emotional terms, in terms of 'gestures', what is the difference? Perhaps only one of degree. The positive group is emotionally positive, and so is the spiritual community — for one person a symphony may be a metaphor for spiritual community, while for another it is a metaphor for the group. What is needed to distinguish the spiritual community from the group is concepts. Even Sangharakshita's similes of the shepherd's round-dance and the orchestra can be used to denote both — it is only if we are familiar with his conceptual expositions of the spiritual community that we can understand them in the particular way he wants us to.

However, I would say that some great music is at least strongly suggestive of spiritual community, in that it is not only emotionally positive, but also abundantly creative to a superlative degree — never falling back on cliche, on the banal phrase, the sentimental gesture, but always moving forward in ways which are deligh ÿtfully new and surprizing, but at the same time exactly 'right'. If we can follow the composer's series of 'gestures', each one calling forth the next, each one being an authentic response to the previous one, we are witnessing the constant renewal of life, and this constant renewal is not carried out in isolation: each 'voice' is renewed in response to, and relation with, another, or many others. To follow such music is not merely to witness but to participate — we 'join in' with the music, and thus 'dance' in sympathy with it.

Scruton thinks that music matters — the kind of music that we listen to effects us, for the good or the bad, and therefore helps to make the difference between a healthy and an unhealthy society. Listening to good music though is not enough, otherwise all those people who listen to classical music would be individuals participating in spiritual community, and this is obviously not the case. It is interesting to read Vikram Seth's latest nove ll An Equal Music in the light of Scruton's ideas. The title of the book is taken from a passage by John Donne; 'And into that gate they shall enter, and in that house they shall dwell, where there shall be no cloud nor sun, no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light, no noise nor silence, but one equal music, no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession, no foes nor friends, but one equal communion and identity, no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity'.

The hero of the novel, Michael Holmes, is a member of a string quartet (the Maggiore). He lives alone, in London; his mother is dead, and he is emotionally as well as geographically distant from his father, who lives in their hometown of Rochdale. He is in a sexual relationship with someone he does not love, and is, in fact, still in love with a woman he had a relationship with ten years ago. Apart from the other members of the string quartet he has no community to which he belongs, and the relationships between them are somewhat fractious — they only really become a community when playing music. 'Dying, undying, a dying fall, a rise: the waves of sound well around us as we generate them: Helen and I at the heart and, to either side, Piers and Billy. Our eyes are on the music; we hardly glance at each other, but we cue and are cued as if Haydn himself were our conductor. A strange composite being we are, not ourselves anymore, but the Maggiore, composed of so many disjunct parts: chairs, stands, music, bows, instruments É, musicians - sitting, standing, shifting, sounding - all to produce these complex vibrations that jog the inner ear, and through them the grey mass that says: joy; love; sorrow; beauty'. The experience of community they share in making music does not translate to their actual lives - they don't know how to. Michael remains, throughout the novel, a solitary, lonely figure.

If in listening to music we participate in an imagined ideal community, we have then to turn that imagined community into a reality, we have to turn the 'Path of Vision' into the 'Path of Transformation' by living the spiritual life. Music has to become life.

Originally published in Madhyamavani: Autumn Issue Two (Birmingham: Madhyamaloka, 1999).