face the music

To accept criticism or other unpleasant consequences of your actions. “You were the one who stayed up so late last night, and now this morning you have to face the music.”

The phrase first arises in the mid 19th century, and appears to be American. The earliest citation for the phrase is in The New Hampshire Statesman & State Journal, August 1834.

Another early example is in the Portsmouth (New Hampshire) Journal of Literature and Politics of 23 May 1835: “As Van Buren, however, has now given ‘assurances’ that he will not be a Vetoite, we are curious to see how the tories will get over it. Come gentlemen — no dodging — face the music.” It seemed to become very popular in 1850, for there are many examples found in the immediately following years.

Unfortunately, there is no clear source for the phrase, though there are various theories concerning where it began. 

One theory supposes that it comes from musical theater. A nervous performer would have to steel himself to face the audience, and that position would also require him also to face the musicians in the orchestra pit. A beginner especially would fear that the musicians had seen everything and would therefore be hyper-critical.

The second theory cites a military origin, though there is disagreement on what that might be. During assembly, soldiers face the military band, and you can imagine a cavalry man trying to keep his nervous horse quiet while the band is playing. The phrase may also have begun as a reference to a soldier going into battle and facing the “music” of the opposing army’s guns.

Yet another military theory is that of a soldier being drummed out of his regiment. The victim would leave the camp by enduring a ‘walk of shame’ past the ranks of his fellow soldiers. The ‘walk of shame’ was usually accompanied by the beat of a drum, hence the association of music with the idea of accepting one’s punishment.

The phrase turns up frequently in abolitionist contexts. “Perhaps this became a favored turn of phrase of the abolitionists when chastising the cowardice of their opponents.”

Since most people enjoy music, it seems a shame to associate it with punishment, but perhaps the idea of facing music makes it easier to ’take your medicine.’  Certainly easier to contemplate than facing a tablespoon of cod liver oil.

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