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Ohio State University
School of Music

Theodor Adorno and the Regression of Listening

Notes by David Huron

Theodor Adorno was a central figure in the Frankfurt School of Critical Theorists. Adorno's On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening is an influential 30-page essay originally published in 1938.
Theodor Adorno's writing style has been variously characterized as "impenetrable" and "impossible." Most readers unfamiliar with Adorno's style and ideas find his writings challenging to read. The following is a distillation and simplification of Adorno's famous essay.

On the fetish-character in music and the regression of listening (1938).

Theodor W. Adorno

Complaints about the decline of musical taste started at the beginning of music history. Whenever the listener's peace is disturbed by agitation, there is talk of the decline of taste. In these complaints, certain motifs constantly recur. There is no lack of pouting and sentimental comments assessing the current musical condition of the masses as one of "degeneration." The most tenacious of these motifs is that of sensuality, which allegedly enfeebles and incapacitates heroic behavior. Such complaints can be found in Plato's Republic. Plato's ethical-musical program bears the character of an Attic purge in Spartan style. Other perennial themes of musical sermonizing are on the same level. What is attacked is chiefly progress.

The concept of taste is itself outmoded. To like a work is almost the same as to recognize it. Value judgments are fictional for the listener who finds him/herself hemmed in by standardized musical goods. The right to freedom of choice can no longer be exercised. People have learned to listen without hearing.

At one time, music, through impulse, subjectivity and profanation was the adversay of materialist alienation. In capitalist times though, music has become corrupted by the allure of commercial success and now it conspires with authority against freedom. Musicians, as representatives of the opposition to the authoritarian schema, have become witnesses to the authority of commercial success. In the service of success they renounce that insubordinate character which was theirs. Formerly, music attacked the cultural privileges of the ruling class. Now the function of all music has changed. Cultural "goods," by their very administration, are "transformed into evils."

The seductive power of sensual charm survives only where the forces of denial are strongest. If asceticism once reacted against the sensuous esthetic, asceticism has today become the sign of advanced art. All "light" and pleasant art has become illusory and false. What makes its appearance esthetically in the pleasure categories can no longer give pleasure. The musical consciousness of the masses today is "displeasure in pleasure" -- the unconscious recognition of "false happiness."

It is claimed that those who listen to music of a higher type do so only for reasons of social prestige. The illusion of a social preference for light music as against serious music is based on that passivity of the masses which makes the consumption of light music contradict the objective interest of those who consume it. The unity of the two spheres is obscured and they are portrayed as being antagonistic. In fact, the ideal is that popular (light) music should serve as an introduction to higher (serious) music, while higher music should renew its lost collective strength by borrowing from the lower.

The liquidation of the individual is the real signature of the new musical situation. Between incomprehensibility (serious music) and inescapability (popular music), there is currently no room between them for the "individual."

Musical appreciation degrades to "fetishism" -- particularly a vulgar materialistic fascination with the technical material of music. For musical vulgar materialists, it is synonymous to have a voice and to be a singer. Today, the material as such, destitute of any function, is celebrated. To legitimate the fame of its owner, a voice need only be especially voluminuous or especially high. All this reaches a climax of absurdity in the cult of the master violins. One promptly goes into raptures at the well-announced sound of a Stradivarius or Amati violin, which only the specialist can tell from that of a good modern instrument, forgetting in the process to listen to the composition and the execution, from which there is still something to be had. The voice or instruments are made into fetishes and torn away from the function which gives them meaning -- the eliciting of moments of sensual pleasure in the idea.

All contemporary musical life is dominated by the ocmmodity form; the last pre-capitalist residues have been eliminated. Music, with all the attributes of the ethereal and sublime which are generously accorded it, serves in American broadcast media as an advertisement for commodities which one must acquire in order to be able to hear music. If the advertising function is carefully dimmed in the case of serious music, it always breaks through in the case of light music.

In modern capitalist society, the only legitimate pleasure to be got from music is to appreciate its exchange value. The consumer is really worshipping the money that he himself has paid for the ticket to the Toscanini concert. Pleasure is derived from the idea that the music is valuable rather than taking pleasure in the music itself. The consumer has not "made it" by liking the concert, but rather by buying the ticket. The fetish character of the commodity as exchange-value, simultaneously alienates itself from producer and consumer.

To be sure, in the real of cultural goods, exchange-value exerts its power in a special way. For in the world of commodities, cultural goods appears to be exempted from the power of exchange. Ironically, it is this appearance of being exempted which alone gives cultural goods their exchange-value.

Any pleasure which is able to emancipate itself from exchange-value takes on subversive features. The person who has money with which to buy is intoxicated by the act of buying. Even in moments of intimacy, a woman will attach greater importance to her hairdresser and cosmetician than to the situation for the sake of which the hairdresser and cosmetician are employed. This commodity fetish is similar to the behavior of the prisoner who loves his cell because he has been left nothing else to love.

The identical character of commodities (which everyone must buy) is hidden by the myth of universal style. The fiction of "supply and demand" survives merely in trivial individual nuances. Acquiescence to this state of uniformity is rationalized as modesty, or opposition to caprice and anarchy.

The actions of arrangers, conductors, and listeners are in diabolical harmony:

Musical arrangers are self-serving. By scaling up small works they defeat the intimacy. By scaling down large works, they negate the totality. The dressing up and puffing up erases the elements of protest.
Under the pretense of "perfect interpretation," conductors also participate in the standardizing of music. The rule of the established conductor remind one of the rule of the totalitarian Fuhrer. At one stroke he provides the norm. (The fetish character of the conductor is the most obvious and the most hidden.)
The consciousness of the mass of listeners is adequate to fetishized music. They listen according to formula. If one confronts listeners with this fact, one drives them all the deeper into the conformist behavior in which they think they can remain concealed from the danger of exposure.

Regression of Listening

The counterpart to the fetishism of music is a regression of listening. Not only do listeners lose, along with freedom of choice and responsibility, the capacity for conscious perception of music, but listeners come to stubbornly reject the notion that any such perception is possible. They listen atomistically and dissociate what they hear. They are childish. However, their primitivism is not that of the undeveloped, but that of the forcibly retarded. Whenever they have a chance, they display the pinched hatred of those who really sense the other but exclude it in order to live in peace, and who therefore would like best to root out the nagging possibility.

Regressive listening is tied to production by the machinery of distribution, and particularly by advertising. Regressive listening appears as soon as advertising turns into terror, as soon as nothing is left for the consciousness but to capitulate before the superior power of the advertised stuff and purchase spiritual peace by making the imposed goods literally its own thing. In regressive listening, advertising takes on a compulsory character. For a while, an English brewery used for propaganda purposes a billboard that bore a deceptive likeness to a whitewashed brick wall. Properly placed, the billboard was barely distinguishable from a real wall. On it, chalk-white, in careful imitation of awkward writing were the words: "What we want is Watney's." The brand of the beer was presented like a political slogan.

The masses overcome the feeling of impotence in the face of monopolistic production by identifying themselves with the inescapable product. The fetish character of music produces its own camouflage through the identification of the listener with the fetish.

Lower Music

Commercial jazz can carry out its function only when listeners are in a state of distraction -- as background to conversation or accompaniment for dancing. The music is dreadful for concerted listening, and listeners recognize this fact. Consequently, they only appreciate the music in a "distracted" setting -- necessarily rendering perception of a whole impossible.

If atomized listening means progressive decomposition for the higher music, there is nothing more to decompose in the lower music. The forms of hit songs are so strictly standardized, down to the number of beats and the exact duration, that no specific form appears in any particular piece. The listener seems to care more about treatment and "style" than on aspects of substance. Along with the attraction to color as such, there is of course the veneration for the tool.

In tests on the reception of hit songs, people have been found who ask how they should act if a passage simultaneously pleases and displeases them. One may well suspect that they report an experience which also occurs to those who give no account of it. The reactions to isolated charms are ambivalent. A sensory pleasure turns into disgust as soon as it is seen how it only still serves to betray the consumer. The betrayal here consists in always offering the same thing. Regressive listeners behave like children. Again and again, and with stubborn malice, they demand the one dish they have once been served.

A sort of musical children's language is prepared for them: it differs from the real thing in that its vocabulary consists exclusively of fragments and distortions of the artistic language of music. Published hit songs swarm with mistakes in phrasing and harmony, wrong pitches, incorrect doublings of thirds, parallel fifths and octaves, and all sorts of illogical treatments. One would like to blame the amateurs who originate most of the hit songs. But how can one account for the neglect of expert arranges? Just as a publisher does not let a misspelled word go out into the world, so it is inconceivable that, well-advised by their experts, they publish amateur versions without checking them. The mistakes are either consciously produced by the experts or intentionally permitted to stand by the publishers. The mistakes are then the "bold strokes" which reconcile the antagonisms of the infantile listener's consciousness.


Revolts against fetishism only entangle them more deeply in it. Whenever they attempt to break away from the passive status of compulsory consumers and "activate" themselves, they succumb to pseudoactivity. Types rise up from the mass of the retarded who differentiate themselves by pseudoactivity and nevertheless make the regression more strikingly visible. A good example is the "fan" (or "groupie"). Another example is the radio "ham" who patiently builds radio sets whose most important parts must be purchased ready-made. The "hams" scan the air for shortwave secrets -- though there are none. They organize themselves on a large scale -- having printed verification cards sent them by the shortwave stations they have discovered, and hold contests in which the winner is the one who can produce the most such cards. All this is carefully fostered from the authorities above. Of all fetishistic listeners, the radio ham is perhaps the most complete. What is heard is irrelevant. The ham is only interested in the fact of hearing -- the fact of being inserted, with private equipment, into the public mechanism, without exerting even the slightest influence on it.

Another pseudo-activist is the amateur jazz player. Such improvisations are aways gestures of nimble subordination to what the instrument demands of the player. The sovereign routine of the jazz amateur is nothgin but the passive capacity for adaptation to models from which to avoid straying. The amateur player is the reall jazz subject: their improvizations come from the pattern, and they navigate the pattern, cigarette in mouth, as nonchalantly as if they had invented it themselves.

In America, it is just the so-called liberals and progressives whom one finds among the advocates of light popular music. Most of them want to classify their activity as democratice. But the sphere of popular music mummifies the vulgarized and decaying remnants of romantic individualism.

Regressive listening is always ready to degenerate into rage. The regressive listener would like to ridicule and destroy what yesterday they were intoxicated with, as if in retrospect to avenge for the fact that the ecstasy was not actually such. The bigots who complain to the radio stations in pathetic-sadistic letters of the jazzing up of holy things and the youth who delight in such exhibitions are of one mind. It requires only the proper situation to bring them together in a united front.

The technical innovations of mass music really don't exist This is clearly the case with harmonic and melodic construction. The coloristic accomplishments of modern dance music are familiar Wagnerian and post-Wagnerian orchestral techniques. Even in the techniques of syncopation, there is nothing that was not present in rudimentary form in Brahms and outdone by Schoenberg and Stravinsky. The practice of contemporary popular music has not so much developed these techniques as conformistically dulled them. Popular music listeners view these techniques with astonishment, but react with resistance and rejection as soon as the techniques are introduced to them in those contexts in which they have their meaning. Whether a technique can be considered progressive and "rational" depends on this organization of the particular work. In order to serve reaction, technical development must establish itself as a fetish. By perfecting techniques, the neglected social tasks are represented as already accomplished. This is why all attempts to reform mass music and regressive listening on the basis of what exists are frustrated. Consumable art music must pay by sacrificing its consistency. Its chord bespeaks the backwardness of those to whose demand accommodation is made. But technically consistent, harmonious mass music purified of all the elements of bad pretense would turn into art music and at once lose its mass basis. Consequently, all attempts to reconcile popular and art music, whether initiated by market-oriented artists or collectively-oriented art educators, are fruitless.

The Positive is Negative, and the Negative is Positive

The postive aspect for which the new mass music and regressive lsitening are praised --

vitality and technical progress, collective breadth and relation to an undefined practice, into whose concepts there has entered the supplicant self-denunciation of the intellectuals, who can thereby finally end their social alientation from the masses in order to coordinate themselves politically with contemporary mass consciousness
-- this positive is negative, the irruption into music of a catastrophic phase of society. The positive lies locked up solely in its negativity.

Regressive listening represents a growing and merciless enemy not only to museum cultural goods but to the age-old sacred function of music as the locus for taming of impulses.

Regressive listening is hardly a symptom of progress in consciousness of freedom. Nevertheless, things could suddenly turn around if art, in unity with the society, should ever leave the road of the always-identical. Not popular music, but artistic music, has furnished a model for this possibility.

The creators of new and radical music do not just aim to contribute to musical progress. They consciously aim to resist regressive listening and battle against those powers which destroy individuality in society. The terror which Schoenberg and Webern spread, today as in the past, comes not from their incomprehensibility, but from the fact that they are all too well understood. Their music gives form to that anxiety, that terror, that insight into the catastrophic situation which others merely evade by regressing. These musicians are called individualists, and yet their work is nothing but a single dialog with the powers which destroy individuality -- powers whose "formless shadows" fall gigantically on their music. In music too, collective powers are liquidating an individuality past saving. But against these powers, only individuals are capable of consciously representing the aims of collectivity.

This document is available at http://csml.som.ohio-state.edu/Music839B/Approaches/Adorno.html