Fascism in Music

This article is part of the Psychology section.

What is fascism? Hundreds of books have been written about this subject, but let’s start with a few general ideas. Some of the characteristics often associated with fascism are: strict rules, obedience to authority, military discipline, machine-like toughness under pressure, homogeneity, absolute precision, perfection, infallibility, vertical power hierarchies (with their heroes, stars, leaders, and gods), traditions, punishment, security, the absence of doubt, regularity ……….  etc. Unfortunately, many of these characteristics are often strongly associated also with the world of classical music, especially with the realm of instrumental performance (see below)!

Fascism tends towards the binary. There are only ever two alternatives in any situation and the boundary between them is usually very clear: “Yes/No” …… “Black/White” ……. “Good/Bad” ………. “Right/Wrong” ……. “Off/On” ……. “Never/Always” ……… Friend/Enemy etc. It is not without significance that fascists and fundamentalists are often called “hardliners”, or that fascism likes the clarity of straight lines and 90º angles.


Normally we associate fascism with extremist political and religious groups, but there is in fact a lot of it in the professional “classical” music world, in the same way that there is lots of it in many other professional fields in which great discipline, great self-sacrifice and very high levels of technical skill are also demanded. This is ironic because the nature of musicality – expressive, emotional, artistic, communicative – is totally non-fascist.

Normally in fact it is these extreme technical demands (rather than the expressive demands), that produce fascism. There is perhaps a strong parallel with the field of medicine nowadays. In what should be the most humane of the sciences, the level of knowledge and technical training now required means that many young doctors are forced to become such super-technicians and memorisers that there is no time left in their training to explore the emotional and humane side of their profession.

Technical perfectionism is quite a fascist concept. Only the best will do, no mistakes or human weaknesses are tolerated, and nothing is allowed to distract the professional in their single-minded pursuit of quality. In the case of music, this means that technical perfection becomes more important than emotional communication and that the music becomes more important than the musician. “Quality” is a noble ideal but it can easily become a fascist god, justifying some very inhumane behavior!! This is why so many teachers and conductors (especially in the past) have treated their students or musicians so badly, and why so many musicians treat themselves so badly! Even the nicest, most artistic, idealistic, and musical people can gradually and inadvertently become “musical fascists” in their striving for technical perfection. Fascism seems to be a response to stress, fear, and insecurity, all of which abound in a performer’s life, so is it any wonder that musicians can be attracted by its easy solutions!

Perhaps this could explain the rise of fascist values in the USA. Could it be that the extreme levels of stress, fear and insecurity produced by such a predatory, unforgiving, “dog-eat-dog” society, have converted a significant part of its inhabitants into angry, gun-toting, militaristic, religious, right-wing fundamentalists who are strongly attracted to fascist attitudes in all areas of life?

Fascism is aided by mass communication, in which millions of people admire, watch, listen to and copy, just a few heroes. The rise of advertising, fashion, cosmetics (and even cosmetic surgery) go hand in hand with this process of depersonalisation. With mass communication, it is the superficial presentation that counts. Style is more important than substance, appearance is everything, and blemishes are not allowed. In politics, it doesn’t matter what the policy is, or even if it is based on truth: if it is delivered (and marketed) convincingly and repeatedly, the election can be won. And if not, then even the most worthwhile and important messages can be overwhelmed and pushed into the background. In advertising, it doesn’t matter if the product is good or bad: if it is well marketed and has a big enough advertising budget, it will sell. In music, it doesn’t matter what we are trying to say, if we play all the notes well, we pass to the next round or win the job.


The metronome is a wonderful invention and is not a product nor a tool of mass communication, but it does lend itself easily to fascism if we are not careful! As with musical notation and ancient religious texts, the metronome should not always be taken literally. Notes do not always start and finish in the clear-cut, binary, autistic “On-Off” way.

The way our notes start gives insight into our own psychological approach as well as that of the composer, and the communication style of the phrase we are playing. Especially in slower, more expressive music, we can often actually start our notes a little bit before the beats, with a gentle, almost imperceptible “fade-in”, to give a more free, languid, lazy, dreamy feel. We can sometimes even start the notes a little after the beat ! In popular music, singers and instrumental soloists do this all the time, “going with the flow”, drifting along with the current but not following it like an anxious dog or a military/marching band. This is totally non-fascist!. It’s a little like writing (hand-writing) between the lines on lined paper, rather than exactly along the line. The slower we put the metronome beat, the wider we are making the lines and therefore the more time (and space) we will have between them to place our notes. See Musical Notation Problems and Rubato.

For gentle, smooth, warm note-starts we need to banish the binary switch concept of “off-on” or “yes-no”, replacing it with something more artistic and fluid. The idea of a light-dimmer comes to mind, but we can find more inspiring imagery, especially in nature and music. The most beautiful, delicate events in life usually start (and finish) gently: a caress, dawn, and sunrise, sunset and nightfall, the change of seasons, the ocean tides, a landscape with gently rolling hills or the gentle strumming of a guitar accompaniment. Here, the “changes” (contours) are gradual: they have soft, rounded edges and blurred boundaries (see Bow Starts and Changes).

In total contrast to this are the abrupt contours/changes of a rugged mountain landscape, an electrical switch, a lot of 20th-century architecture, furniture, art, music, and industrial production. Here, the “changes” are characterised by sharp, straight, hard angles and clearly delimited (defined) contours (edges). These can create dramatic, powerful, and spectacular effects but tend to be threatening, imposing, powerful, challenging, triumphant and unforgiving rather than gentle, comforting, and accomodating.

Some rhythms also have more fascist tendencies than others. Why did Tchaikovsky, that most sensitive and emotional of musicians, write so many wonderful waltzes? And why are all military marches in binary time? The answer is: because fascism is profoundly binary. The 1 2 1 2 1 2 rhythm could easily stand for the “Yes-No”, “Black-White”, “Good-Bad”, “Right-Wrong”, “Off-On”, “Never-Always” pairs of opposites so typical of fascism. In contrast to this binary autism, is the more tolerant and human “Yes-No-MAYBE” (!!!!!) of ternary rhythms, which also lend themselves much more easily to rhythmic flexibility within each bar as there are now two beats to play with between the pulses rather than just one.

Syncopations are the ultimate “antifascist” rhythms. Playing between the beats (rather than on the beats) is equivalent to writing between the lines. Syncopation is the opposite of “toeing the line”, of military discipline and clarity. It gives, on the contrary, a beautiful, relaxed, cool, flowing expressivity and sentimental freedom to the music. How many military marches use syncopations ? None that I can think of. Imagine soldiers trying to march to war to the music of Bossa Nova, Jazz, Pop, Disco, The Beatles etc !! Instead of striding forth in perfect order, discipline and determination, the soldiers would inevitably loosen up, dance, lose their aggressivity, and end up having a picnic with the opposing forces!!! It’s not surprising that most “philosophical” music (music that searches for a deeper, more intimate humanity) such as Jazz, the Beatles, Schumann and other “Intimate Romantics”, Bossa Nova and even most Pop music, is full of syncopations. And let’s not forget that we owe all this 20th-century syncopation -with all the joy and loosening-up that it brings – to the Afro-American influence. Scott Joplin, with his invention of Ragtime – a sort of fusion of African rhythms with classical harmony – planted the seed that would later develop into Big Band, Jazz, Pop, Rock, Rhythm-and-Blues, Bossa Nova etc and all of the most exciting musical developments of the 2oth-century. In contrast to this musical revolution, dodecaphonic music can seem like the last gasp of a suffocating, dried-up, exhausted, sterile, and dehumanised “classical” musical language, catatonic, demented and devoid of emotion at the end of its life.

It is curious that Joplin died in 1917, just when the first treatises on serial (dodecaphonic) music were about to appear in 1919 (Hauer) and 1923 (Schönberg). Thank heavens for the wonderful seed that Joplin planted, because it has given rise to a magnificent musical tropical forest, whereas the dodecaphonic seed has given rise only to an endless series of incestuous musical Frankensteins.


Several of the most famous laws of physics seem to be also applicable to society and could perhaps also be called the “Principles of Fascism”. The Second Law of Thermodynamics is the one that says that the universe tends to disorder and chaos and fascism can be seen as an extreme attempt to counteract this tendency, through bringing life and nature under total control. Another principle states that “if things are not moving, there is no tendency towards disorder”. Is it any wonder then that fascists have a tendency to rigidity! And Newton’s Third Law states that  “every reaction has an equal and opposite reaction”. Fascist organisations cannot tolerate the opposition and “disobedience” of that opposite reaction so they always try and stifle it, through violence and repression, media manipulation (including social media), or both.

Ecology is the opposite of fascism. It accepts that life has its own order, in which: ……. regularity coexists with irregularity …. perfection is a dangerous rarity and not the norm ……. most boundaries are “fuzzy” …..  things start progressively and come in waves rather than in on/off binary spurts ……. objects move gracefully in curves rather than rigid straight lines …… and where respect for “life” is more important than any ideals or objects.

Ecology in music is more than just rubato, syncopation, agogic accents (off the main beats) or giving higher priority to emotional communication than to technical perfection. It is also making the well-being of the musician more important than the quality of the musical performance. Musical standards might go down, but the quality of life for everybody (including critics who could now loosen up) would go up. Long live amateurism and people who love music but prefer to play many instruments quite well rather than one instrument magnificently. The fact that all of the music on this website is available for free, is a tiny contribution to counter the tide of fascism in all its forms (musical, economic and otherwise) and to support the wonderful activity of amateur music-making.