Theodor Adorno and the Critique of Western Music’s Function in Society

(Recently in my Sociology of Music class I was asked to examine how Theodor Adorno’s view of music in society constitutes a critique of ideology (Adorno was a famous sociologist from the Frankfurt School of Thought). While I tend to be on the opposite end of certain areas that Adorno holds opinions in, the assignment presented some provocative ideas. For this reason, I have decided to share it with you all.-Derek)

In the study of the sociology of music, it will be inevitable that theorists will attempt to change the public’s perception of music. In the case of Theodor Adorno in the third chapter of his Introduction to the Sociology of Music, he seeks to present his view of music as it ought to function in society (both in the individual’s view as well as the understanding of its intrinsic purpose on a macro level). What results from this is a controversial attack on many beloved ideas held by western society with regards to music. Ultimately his exposition of his sociological philosophy is a strong critique of the ideology held by the public regarding various musical concepts.

His views seem to seek to ultimately change the interpretation of music as a social function, ultimately making it an entity that does not act as though people thought it did (i.e. as a source of happiness). Such views are expounded in statements such as “music as a social function is akin to a ‘rip-off,’ a fraudulent promise of happiness …even in regressing to the unconscious,  functional music grants a mere ersatz satisfaction to the target of its appeal(45).” Herein lies the true essence of Adorno’s theory of the sociology of music, as he is attempting to critique the present ideology held by the public on music. Adorno seeks to show what, in his mind, is a categorical error on the part of the consumer, that music’s function in society is a shell-game of sorts, deceiving the listener into a delusional state. This is certainly a controversial, and arguably inaccurate viewpoint, however, it shows the nature of Adorno’s philosophy of music (in a sociological context). In presenting his own ideology on music, Adorno is attempting to shift the thoughts of a culture away from their present mindset towards his own.

Adorno’s critique of the western ideology of music continues on the next page, where he expands further on the concept of delusion with regards to music and society. This time he attacks the music created specifically for the consumer (i.e. popular music), and the ideas it claims to fulfill. In Adorno’s view, music of the consumer is “disciplinary…it pretends to be irresistible, to leave us…without a mode of conduct other than chiming in. (46)” He goes on to state that consumer’s music “takes the place of the Utopia it promises (46),” with Utopia being used in a derogatory sense (in that it drains individuals of reality and supplies them with delusions of grandeur). It seems, with regards to music of the consumer, Adorno’s main ideological critique lies within the idea that, in his view, this type of music is robbing people of a true musical experience. He seems to feel that consumer music is nothing more than a sham, a fake representation of a listener’s desires, and delivering them in a series of melodic half-truths. One could surmise that, as Karl Marx viewed religion to be the “opiate of the people,” in the same manner does Adorno believe popular music is a drug that deludes society of reality. Yet again, Adorno is attempting to throw out the perception society possesses of music, and present a differing ideology that would, in his mind, resolve the cultural drain of consumerist music. Whether Adorno seeks to completely eliminate the music of the consumer or simply alter it is unclear, but regardless, he obviously seeks to show his view that the current public perception of music is dangerous. The danger is found in the slowly sinking ship of music’s true form, that the more society consumes popular music in the current form, the more society warps into a poorer form.

Theodor Adorno does not leave the reader wondering what his desired end result would be per the adoption of his ideological pursuits. In the closing paragraph to chapter 3, Adorno states that, if his critique of western music ideology is accepted, then people “can use music to learn how…wherever possible in the realm of music disciplines, to work for a competent and cognitive relation to music in place of ideological consumption…and to a music that would be different (54).” Here is the end projected result of an adaptation of Adorno’s ideology (that is, in place of the present societal ideology). Adorno expects that, with his ideology in mass acceptance, a stronger consciousness will arise among the people. Through this reformed consciousness, more intelligent decisions will be made with regards to music consumption, as well as music production. It seems rather arrogant to assume that every fabric of society is totally devoid of cognitive ability with regards to music choice, but this is simply Adorno’s ideology at work. He is doing what any decent sociologist would do, identifying cracks in the structure of society, and laying out ways to positively alter them. Whether one agrees with Theodor Adorno’s postulation or not, it is certain that all can agree that his theories show explicit critique of current western societal ideology with regards to music.

As is often present in academia, there are individuals who wish to change the system within which they function. Theodor Adorno was no exception to this statement, as his often strong critique of music’s perceived function in society shows how he steadfastly believed in his ideology. This ideology led him to pursue an acceptance of his ideas in mass numbers, as should be the aim of any scholar.


2 thoughts on “Theodor Adorno and the Critique of Western Music’s Function in Society

  1. I think Adorno’s criticisms of popular music need to be understood against his general stance toward contemporary (for him) music. You also need to make a greater distinction between ‘music’ per se, and popular music, which you several times conflate.
    Your essay leaves the impression of Adorno as a man fighting progress and calling for conformity to old ways.
    Adorno was philosopher AND musician, with a lifelong passion for music. However, he felt that music should be an expression of individuality, rebellion, freedom and the questioning of authority (in music and wider culture). He admired Schoenberg (who was very modernist and broke all the rules). Music was not separate from ‘public debate’ but a part of it.
    His criticism of ‘pop’ was that it no longer spoke – it became homogenised and ‘speechless’, just one more thing the public could numb itself with.
    Looking at the parade of ‘band-a-likes’ and paint-by-numbers artists dribbling out the same asinine, vapid piss in the charts today one could hardly disagree.
    Adorno was not regressionist but entirely the opposite.

  2. That wasn’t my intention at all, but I was simply giving my impression of that particular writing of his. You have to admit he was quite critical of popular music, and I do address the change he wishes to see in the second to last paragraph (in that he had a certain idea of what music should progress to be).

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