Today we’ll be taking a detour from our /mu/core series for a special “book report” edition of Listen to Better Music. I’d like to talk about a book I recently read titled Noise: The Political Economy of Music, by Jacques Attali. It is a short, but dense book covering the history of Western music and its relationship to the development of modern society. It is a book that I expect not many people will have read, but its topic is an interesting one, and I will summarize it and discuss it here.

Attali claims that music says a lot about the society it is part of, and as the bounds of a given musical paradigm are pushed, and music undergoes a change, we can expect to find similar changes in society. In this way, he believes music is prophetic, and highly informative about the period from which it came. I should warn you that this post, in trying to summarize the book as correctly as possible, will be much longer than usual. If you’re not interested in much reading, just skip to the summary.

Before I go into detail on Attali’s claims, I’m going to give some background information about the book and its author, as I feel it is important to know such information before taking in new ideas. Jacques Attali is a French economist and political adviser, and he has written many books on economics, sociology, and the future. This book, Noise, was written in 1977 (and translated to English in 1985), several decades before the mainstream use of audio CDs or MP3s. Interestingly, this unexpected change in technology does not impact Attali’s hypothesis about the prophetic power of music, as we will see later.

The book is written from the perspective of critical theory, which is a modern¹ school of thought that puts a lot of focus on the “hows” and “whys” of the (Western) political economy: how did industrialism and capitalism develop, how did the elite separate itself from the working class, why didn’t socialism or communism slow this development, etc.

Attali does not consider himself a Marxist, but critical theory is inherently a Marxist way of understanding the world. This is because the developers of critical theory as a discipline were (and are) Marxists. The term “Marxism” carries with it a lot of negative connotations that usually stem from a misunderstanding about what it is. Addressing those misunderstandings: Marxism is not communism, and it is not socialism. It is a worldview concerning the nature of society and the role capitalism plays in it. It does not really offer a prescription for economics, but rather an insight on how capitalist society functions, and what the end result of such a society might be. For Marxists, this end result is the eventual abandonment of capitalism in lieu of socialism, and one day a communist utopia. They view this as inevitable — in short, Marxists believe capitalism is not the final chapter in human economic progress. This assumption – and several others recognizable from Marxism and critical theory – is implicit throughout the book.

With that in mind, let us begin our journey through Noise. Attali breaks the progression of Western music into four sections, with a guiding motif addressing the state of the political economy at the time: “Sacrifice,” representing the period prior to the invention of the printing press; “Representation,” from the time of the printing press to the time of the phonograph; “Repetition,” from the phonograph until the present; “Composition,” the future.


I find this initial section to be one of the more philosophically challenging ones in the book, and my summary for it will be longer than the rest in order to accurately convey as much of Attali’s intent as possible.

The fundamental argument is that humanity possesses an “essential violence.” This is a concept adapted from philosopher René Girard. Girard’s belief is that people inherently desire things that others want or have (mimetic desire), and this manifests itself at the root of all conflict in society. A basic example would be two friends who develop a crush on the same girl, although this “desire” can be seen to appear everywhere. Girard proposed that society evolved a powerful technique to deal with this intrinsic flaw in human nature: the scapegoat mechanism.

This mechanism is simply that as the conflicts of desire spread and contaminate a population, it is inevitable that we will find a scapegoat to blame for the troubles it causes. The scapegoat is then either literally or metaphorically sacrificed, and harmony is restored to society for a time. The crucifixion of Jesus is one of Girard’s examples.

Jacques Attali takes this concept to a more abstract level.

Attali contends that noise is violence, both literally and figuratively. Loud noise can be painful, and all noise is wild and chaotic; it “interferes”. With music, noise becomes a figurative scapegoat. We channelize it and tame it. This helps us forget the general violence of the world. I believe Attali is very serious about this point: by “ritually sacrificing” noise, we are telling ourselves we have control over what is otherwise a chaotic world. He calls it a “simulacrum of murder,” to distinguish it from the practice of actually killing scapegoats.

This is the first intersection of music and the political economy. Attali believes that music’s ability to make us forget violence gives it power over us, and this power was used by rulers in society during this early period in music. He points out that there is freedom in noise, and that freedom is subversive: those in power will always wish to control noise, especially if it makes us forget that we can be free.

He analyzes a case study of the decline of the vagabond musician, known as “jongleurs,” and the rise of the domestic minstrel at court. Simply put: jongleurs were traveling musicians who performed memorized (not written down) music to both the peasantry and the elite. Anyone who reads the popular fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire will notice that the musicians described in those books fit this category. As they traveled around, they would sometimes be commissioned to perform at ceremonies, in which they would sing songs about the nobles in attendance. Attali notes the relationship between power and music in this instance, because jongleurs were not permitted to sing certain things that portrayed the noblemen in a negative light. He also mentions that as a demonstration of status, wealthy lords would be able to hire more than one jongleur for a gathering.

This practice developed to a point that nobles ceased to hire jongleurs, but instead employ minstrels permanently, whose role it would be to sing “propaganda” in favor of their masters. This was the first time (in the middle ages, at least) in which there evolved a separation between music for the elite and music for the peasantry. It coincided with the developments in music by the Catholic Church, which gave music a more complex structure. The subsequent decline in the status of the jongleur was never reversed, as one can attest after experiencing street performances today.

One last thing Attali notes about this time period was that it represents a very early stage of capitalism, in which a jongleur or minstrel was paid directly for his music, which was performed live and provided no surplus value. It is a very simple case of exchanging one thing for another. As we will see, things became more complicated once this “court music” was able to be printed and distributed.


The next period in history that Attali considers is the time surrounding and after the invention of the printing press, which gave us the ability to produce printed representations of musical works. A notable concurrent change was the remarkable development of classical music from the comparatively basic music that preceded it. According to Attali, the perceived progress in musical complexity and depth brought about another role for music: it makes us believe in harmony and order. This goes along with its earlier purpose of making us forget about the violence outside of society. For his part, Attali is not certain that the mathematical elegance of music theory is “progress” at all — he seems to view it as an oppression of freedom.

This period in history was the first in which music became a commodity. No longer did an artist sell a performance — publishers sold music that others would purchase to perform. On top of that, spectators would pay to hear these pieces performed. This gives rise to music as a “spectacle”; Attali notes the irony in how music went from a background noise performed by minstrels or jongleurs at festivals to a work of art that is listened to in the silence of a concert hall. In representation, there developed a gulf between music and the listener for the first time.

Part of this change in music was related to a change in the political system at the time. Feudalism was coming to an end, and a new class, the bourgeoisie, was forming. This was the class that suddenly found itself able to attend concert halls and experience music in a manner that was previously reserved for the ruling class. They created a market for this “art music” that gave them a sense of power over those who listened to “popular music.”

Another interesting consequence of the rising bourgeoisie was the invention of the piano, and its adoption in the parlors of many newly wealthy families. As if like clockwork, these pianos necessitated a repertory of music to be played, and this necessitated musical “stars” such as Liszt or Mendelssohn to produce such repertories. There is an interesting contrast that is pointed out between this ordered, beautiful music and the subversive, “commoner” music played in the streets. Attali mentions that many laws were put in place to prevent and obstruct musicians from performing this music in public. This market restriction gave birth to the first working class “pop stars,” who were able to amass relatively large (for their social class) fortunes by performing “acceptable” music in acceptable venues.

Attali mentions that the introduction of publishers into what would become the music business raised the question of ownership (intellectual property rights) of music for the first time. It was a battle that was mostly lost by musicians, who had to adapt simply by writing more and more material to sell to publishers. From the advent of music publishing in the mid-1500’s until 1849, musicians were not paid any form of royalties for performances of their work. Only the well-known musicians would be lucky enough to have some form of patronization allowing them to pursue their art. Attali describes musicians of this time period as “upstream of capitalism,” accepting a rent for their service of writing music, but not participating in its exchange.

Of course, it is mentioned that as music shifted toward this representative model, governments adopted a representative form as well. Personally, I think there is a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation in which truly happened first, but Attali suggests that as music pushed the bounds of its sacrificial era and entered into representation, it signaled the way in which the people would push the bounds of the feudal system and enter into representative government.

Similarly, as we near the end of the 1800’s, Attali points out how representation in music began to be challenged, as it soon would in the political realm. For one thing, representation could not scale with the capitalistic system it was a part of: there were only so many concert halls, and so many nights in a week for a performance. Another is that the “harmonic combinatorics” of music at the time restricted artists in their ability to truly do something innovative. It was at this time that we first start to see experiments in atonal and later aleatoric music — the first rebellion against ordered and harmonious music… and the society it represents. However, a new invention changed the course of history in this respect, as we shall see.


The phonograph completely changed what capitalism was able to do with music. Initially, Edison didn’t even care for the idea of using his machine for recording music: he wanted it to be used to record speeches and other important words; a tool of the powerful to exercise control via sound. Nonetheless, the invention deviated from its political design as technology advanced to allow the phonograph, the jukebox, and lastly the record player to play recorded music at greater fidelity, and its use as a music playing machine took center stage.

With this advent of the record came another curious shift in the role of the listener: from the concert halls of the enlightenment to the solitary room of the modern era. It also signaled a shift in the nature of the market: from paying strictly for performances of music to paying for a stockpile of recorded performances. Attali describes this new model for music consumption in many ways, and I will relay the most striking instance verbatim:

The major contradiction of repetition is in evidence here: people must devote their time to producing the means to buy recordings of other people’s time, losing in the process not only the use of their own time, but also the time required to use other people’s time. Stockpiling then becomes a substitute, not a preliminary condition, for use. People buy more records than they can listen to. They stockpile what they want to find the time to hear.

Referring back to his earlier characterization of music as ritual sacrifice, Attali goes further to say that people are stockpiling death. This happens in two metaphorical ways: first, that the stockpiling of “use-time” recognizes the inevitability of death; second, that music’s supposed role as a simulacrum of murder means that it is death itself. Attali states that this habit of stockpiling goes far beyond music, and that the triumph of commodity culture will be the day when we all spend more time stockpiling things than we do using them. Needless to say, Attali takes an iconoclastic stance against contemporary society.

How, Attali asks, do you get people to keep buying more and more music when the facts of the matter are that music nowadays is so inherently similar (or repetitive)? The answer is “the hit parade” — the mechanism put in place by publications such as Billboard. These institutions tell us what is good and what is bad, under some guise of popular consensus. Therefore, consumers are always given something new to buy while producers are not as hard-pressed to come up with truly new material. This behavior is compared to the way governments progressed from the representative era to now: a present in which most people wouldn’t recognize elected congressmen if they saw them, and such politicians are no better than replaceable cogs in a machine.

The purpose of music now has taken on a role more than making us forget our freedom, or making us believe in order. Now, it serves to silence us. The mass-produced music of the current age, and indeed, the mass-produced culture itself, censors all the noise of society (I don’t recall if Attali puts it this way, but I see it as replacing this natural or “subversive” noise with artificial, cultured noise).


In a relatively short conclusion to his book, Attali considers the future. He detects the emergence of subversive elements in the repetitive system, and sees a way out. He calls it “composition,” and it is the idea that in order to rebel against the system, each of us will have to compose our own meaning that is understood only by us — making music for ourselves, because we want to make it, rather than because we want to sell it.

The example given is the free jazz movement: a collective of individuals who produce music that is entirely out of the scope of the popular realm, or any prevailing ideas about “proper” music theory. This is a genre of music which has been unable to break into the mainstream (Attali claims that it is counter to the ideal of a repetitive society), and thus produce the music because they themselves want to hear it. The meaning is appreciated only by the free jazz community.

“Community” is a choice word on my part, because I believe at this point that Attali is prescribing a rudimentary form of communism. He believes that the only way out of commodity culture is through a collective decision to refocus on use rather than pure exchange, on a rejection of specialized roles and statuses, and on tolerance and autonomy amidst the inevitable differences that come about in a society where meaning is no longer universal. Indeed, an open-ended, aleatory society is something that Attali seems eager to attain. A return to noise, and a return to freedom.

Summary and Remarks

In case it isn’t obvious at this point, Attali says a lot of things in this book. I have covered the big arguments, as well as other particularly interesting things that were mentioned. If you have any questions, feel free to post a comment. The super condensed summary is as follows:

  • Music makes us forget the violence of the world (and our freedom)
  • Music makes us believe in harmony and society
  • Ultimately, music silences us

It is these three properties of music that bind it so closely to the political economy — those in power have an interest in controlling noise, because when they do, they can control the masses. Our only recourse comes through transcending exchange (capitalism), and moving to a world where production and consumption are one and the same: A world where we would make music for ourselves.

For my part, I have yet to be convinced that there is any escape from capitalism. At present, I see it as much more systemic; it is entwined deeply in human nature. Indeed, it is those cases like the feudal age, the USSR, or the PRC – in which capitalism is outwardly absent – that I find capitalism realizing its most wicked potential. Girard’s idea of “essential violence” stemming from innate desire resonates with this view.

That desire, or greed, or lust, or any of those unfortunate and unavoidable human characteristics that stain society with conflict are all inherently expressed in capitalism. The pursuit of wealth, the competition (or government-sanctioned lack thereof), the social hierarchy, power, and perhaps most importantly of all, the disregard that those blinded by capital have for the human condition (except when there is profit in acknowledging it): these have been with us since the dawn of civilization, and remain with us in our advanced capitalist state today. The economy can change, markets can be more or less free, but we will always have the rich and the poor.

The “essential violence” traditionally had another name: Original Sin. Lacking a better explanation, it may be that the original sin committed by Man was the first instance that something was exchanged at a cost, when it used to be exchanged freely. The intoxicating lure of capital has infatuated us ever since.

¹I consider it post-modern because of the way it meta-analyzes everything, but alas, critical theory has been around long enough for “post-modern critical theory” to develop. Post-modern critical theory is prevalent today in many social justice communities by people who seem to be chronic abusers of logical fallacies and propaganda. By their refusal to assess matters with any intellectual rigor, they have done considerable damage to the school of thought and to the reputation of their predecessors.


One thought on “Noise, by Jacques Attali

  1. Pingback: On Popular Music, by Theodor Adorno | Listen To Better Music

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