The myth of classical music superiority

Aka a new book riff, or half of one — the first half of the chapter in the book that fights the idea that classical music is better than other kinds of music. And especially that it’s better than pop.

(I can imagine the outrage! Maybe we’ll have another visit from AC Douglas, showing us why he needs to do some work on anger management.)

Not that everyone isn’t free to think, on a personal basis, that classical music is the best music, which in the end means the best music for them. But to argue that it’s the best music that exists, as if such a thing could be proved — that’s where the trouble lies.

And it’s not just that attempts to make this argument are in inherently highly suspect, for all kinds of reasons (as I explain in the riff — if you make the right assumptions, you can prove that any kind of music is superior). It’s also that the people who most prominently make the argument know so little about other kinds of music that their attempts fall dead, with quite a loud splat. Which then raises all kinds of fascinating questions. Here we have intelligent and cultured people neglecting to inform themselves about subjects they in some cases write entire books about. What kind of deep distress leads them to do such a thing?

But that will be in my next riff. One question for now would be why this debate is important. Why does it matter, if some people think classical music is the best music there is — and, along with that, make a great point of how bad pop music is?

Especially since, out in the world at large, not many people believe in this myth. Almost everyone is an omnivore (to use the favored sociological term) –  which means that we like culture of all kinds, high and low. (These terms are obsolete, I think, and I’m using them only for convenience.)

But inside the classical music world, the myth isn’t dead. There we encounter — often enough, right in this blog, in the comments — many people who think, often angrily, that classical music really is superior. Which often then leads them to angry denunciations, not just of pop music, but of all popular culture.

Which then puts classical music in a very bad position. Are we now to go out in the world, and find a new audience by telling people that the music they currently listen to is crap? That’s plainly not going to work. Are we going to tell people that their lives are incomplete, their emotional development is stunted, their thinking is shallow, all because they listen to pop music instead of classical?

That won’t work, either. And the worst thing is that none of this is true. Pop music is entirely respectable, musically, artistically, and culturally, and the people on the classical music side who denounce it typically don’t know the first thing about it.

Which then puts classical music in a dramatically ignorant place. And, if you want to look at it this way, it undermines all arguments not just for its superiority, but for its value on any terms. Because it now seems apparent that too much indulgence in classical music undermines – at least for some people – a wide and tolerant view of the larger world. And also undermines any substantial knowledge about it.

There are two books published in recent years, about the value of the classical music – Lawrence Kramer’s Why Classical Music Still Matters and Julian Johnson’s Who Needs Classical Music? As you’ll see when you get the second part of this riff, both these books suffer from the problems I’ve just outlined. As does a classic of the genre, Roger Scruton’s The Aesthetics of Music. Which shows, I think, how deep-seated many of these problems are, and why I need to spend some time refuting the myth.

(I know that this is a complex discussion, and that many other writers — besides the three I’ve just mentioned — have entered into it. I’ve picked these three as representative, and made a point of including Johnson and Kramer because they’ve written the only substantial current books that defend the value of classical music, and for that reason loom reasonably large in current debates. In any case, in the end what interests me more than the debate itself is the stance of the people who want to believe classical music is superior — what seems to motivate them, since, as you’ll see from my next riff, many of them aren’t just intent on proving their point, but are also quite angry about it.)

One other quick note:

I’ve realized that, if I want to write this current chapter properly, it would help if I’d already written the chapter on pop music, which was supposed to come later. So I’ll revise the outline of the book, to put the pop music chapter directly after chapter three, which shows how classical music has grown distant from our larger culture. 

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Comments

  1. Joe Shelby says

    I think the issue, the anger if you will, is the fact that if we accept that pop music is “equal” to classical, we are perforce giving up classical. We are letting the media conglomerates know that, all things being equal, the only music they need to sell to us is the pop music that sells 1000 times more than the classical we crave, because, well, they’re “equal” aren’t they?

    All too often those of us who have found something that really screams quality to us, some art (even within the popular culture) that has utterly gripped us, only to find the media empires take it away from us because “it didn’t sell”. No second season, no sequel, no second album because the group disbanded after the label terminated their contract. We strive so hard to find stuff that grips us, that we feel is “better” then the seemingly mindless stuff out there mass-marketed for our consumption, product that solely treats us as consumers and not conossours.

    To have to accept that this same product through which we so easily see the redundancy, the duplicitousness, the trite lyrics, bad acting, second-rate singing that needs more electronics than IBM has to sound anywhere close to in tune, the insane obsession with sex overwhelming the entire package, and all of the other aspects of culture that just make it seem so vulgar (to use the Latin root of “common”) is a very bitter pill to swallow.

    You can look at many things in life as a glass half full, or a glass half empty. The classical world is full of defeats of quality work, things withdrawn or canceled because they didn’t sell. And in popular culture, things of top quality continued year after year after year, album after album after album.

    And when you talk about the power of big conglomerates — an easy, somewhat cheap shot — aren’t you neglecting the rise and force of the entire indie world? In film and music, for instance.

    A fact to ponder. Here in the US, public TV is supposed to be the height of quality, free from commercial pressure. But in fact it’s funded by corporations, so it’s quite cautious about what it presents.

    HBO, on the other hand — despite being part of a huge international conglomerate — consistently creates and presents edgy dramatic shows, which put public TV to shame.

    But the most important point would be this. Even if we decide pop and classical music are, at bottom, of equal quality, we still have to make quality distinctions within each genre. We want good pop, we want good classical. And it strikes me that defining classical music — as such — as inherently better than pop has a disadvantage I hadn’t thought of before. (Thanks for inciting me to think of it!) It can make us lazy about classical music, more inclined to accept routine classical performances because, after all, every one of them is better than pop.

    • Shlabotnik says

      So tv is funded by corporations, so what? That’s better than government run, taxpayer funded Statist tv.

  2. rbonotto says

    This isn’t an argument, and it’s certainly not a “riff.” You say things like “That won’t work, either. And the worst thing is that none of this is true. Pop music is entirely respectable, musically, artistically, and culturally, and the people on the classical music side who denounce it typically don’t know the first thing about it.”

    This is so knee-jerk silly it barely qualifies as nonsense, a noble word: in the first place, you’re hardly in a position to call other folks’ mere opinion as ‘not true’… and secondly, I know so many folks who played in bands who’ve moved on to classical, that your pretending that you don’t is an insult to readers’ intelligence. (‘Typically’ is the usual copout word for people who are constructing half-truths.)

    Your arguments not only don’t hold any water; they’re also just not very bright.

    “Outrage”? You flatter yourself.

    Why are you so angry?

    “Typically” is a useful word, often found in dictionary definitions. It’s a way of acknowledging that something isn’t true in every instance, even when one is sure it’s true far more often than not.

    So do people in classical music who denounce pop “typically” not know much, if anything at all, about pop? In my experience, yes. And in the written record, also yes. I’ve been debating these issues for, I don’t know, more than 20 years, and over and over and over, either in private conversations or in public forums, people in the classical music world denounce pop music to me, and in the course of their denunciations say things that are so wildly incorrect it’s clear they don’t know the subject. Or I might ask them to give me examples from the work of people in pop who are taken seriously by critics, and they can’t do it. Often they can’t even name any pop musician apart from whoever’s in the headlines that year.

    The written record is equally clear. Though I’d love you to correct me here, because it would help me a lot. If you can find writing by someone in classical music who denounces pop and really knows a lot about pop, I’d be thrilled to see it. Either post the citation in a comment, or email me privately.

    When you talk about people who were in bands who moved to classical music, are you talking about people who were in bands in high school, in music school, or professionally? I can’t think, offhand, of any classical music who abandoned a serious pop career to do classical music, though of course we all know famous examples of top pop musicians who love classical music, and have written classical pieces (Rufus Wainwright, Elvis Costello, Paul McCartney, Jonny Greenwood, Glenn Kotche, Billy Joel, and more.)

    I also know two prominent cases of top classical orchestral players — a percussionist with the Chicago Symphony and Mark Gould, principal ltrumpet at the Met opera — who quit classical music to play pop. But I wouldn’t use them as proof of anything, because they seem like isolated examples. I don’t see any large-scale exodus from classical music into pop.

  3. says

    Here a a tales of cool twists.

    But, first, this subject is the thesis of a thread at ClassicalMusicGuidedotcom.

    So, I just bought Alan Rich’s “So Iv’e Heard”.

    Alan and I had a sort of pen pal relationship which started after I responded to a piece he wrote for the KUSC monthly newsletter. I was a member after WNYC tossed out music. He put me on his email list and we had some correspondence. I was to meet him on my next trip to visit my daughter and her family in L.A. The last exchnage we had was me making him two DVDs of the Great Performances piece on Dudamel’s premier in L.A. Alas, he died before we could meet. But I always enjoyed reading him and the fact that he would bother with a peon like me. So, I bought the book.

    On page xxix of the hard cover, he gives a link to a Frebruary 2004 Alex Ross piece, “Listen to This” at therestisnoisedotcom/listen_to_this/index.html. Alex starts, “I hate ‘classical music':not the thing but the name.”

    And, what to we find there in II paragraph 1?

    None other than a link to this blog, artsjournal.com/sandow, where he says you wrote and I copy Ross, “…that we partisans of the classical need to speak more from the heart about what the music means. He admits that it is easier to analyze his ardor than to express it….” So, Ross.

    So, I thought that was a cool set of twists, Rich, Ross, and back to Sandow.

  4. says

    Aside from the group’s penchant for incorporating folk/indigenous music into their programming, Joseph Horowitz told me that he coined the term “post-classical” for the Post-Classical Ensemble because of the elitist connotations that “classical” has carried for so long. Their September program is “Russian Gershwin.” You don’t get much more of a pop/classical crossover than with Gershwin!

    http://andrewzender.wordpress.com/2010/06/16/a-conversation-with-joseph-horowitz/

    Joe Horowitz, for all his many virtues, doesn’t pay much attention to current pop. And in 2010, Gershwin isn’t a useful example of classical/pop crossover or fusion. You’re talking about something that happened 70 and 80 years ago!

    The current examples of fusion would be classical composers who are strongly influenced by pop, and incorporate a lot of pop sounds and rhythms into their music. For instance Mason Bates, composer in residence next season with the Chicago Symphony.

  5. says

    I’m not convinced that you’ve done justice to the arguments of classical music traditionalists. Surely your book ought to address the best and most sophisticated possible arguments? I haven’t read the books by Johnson or Kramer, but I read Fineberg’s Classical Music – Why Bother? and was less than impressed by the quality of argumentation.

    (Roger Scruton, by the way, is less anti-pop than you make him out to be – in his aesthetics book, he is extremely negative about mainstream British pop groups of that era, such as Oasis and U2, but his other writing, including his recent book Understanding Music, reveals him to be an intelligent commenter on other forms of pop music.)

    The argument for the special status of Western classical music would refer to the things that make it special (a literate tradition of transmission, the privileging of large-scale forms and long-range development), none of which are as highly prioritized in pop music (electronic transmission, generally small-scale forms) or world folk musics (oral transmission, usually either small-scale forms or longer static/sectional forms). Such music clearly must be judged by different standards than that of pop music; it’ll appeal to different part of the brain, and will be used in different settings in differing times and places.

    The argument would continue by pointing out that Western “classical” music is not only a unique tradition, but it’s also the historical tradition of our culture – meaning, the culture of North America and Western Europe, that also gave us our tradition of painting, creative writing, jurisprudence, and representative democracy. Because today’s modern classical music is contiguous with that tradition, it connects us with that past – a connection which is desirable because it makes us aware of the ultimate foundations of our political and social order. Pop music, by contrast, has entirely different aesthetic aims. You might say that pop music is to classical music as hypertext fiction is to the traditional novel – a new form that uses many elements from the older form, but is clearly distinct, employing different aesthetic aims and different media. Pop and classical music are clearly complementary forms, serving different purposes, but it’s equally clear that the older form has a greater historical cachet and deserves a privileged status.

    If put this way, the argument for Western “classical music” does not need to argue that it’s simply better than other styles, which is clearly meaningless. Rather, it’s a frank admission that there are different kinds of music with different cultural roles, requiring different kinds of support.

    This is an argument I find convincing, and to my mind this is the line of argument to which you’ll have to respond if your book is going to be fully comprehensive.

    Your last point is one of the main theses of my book. But then what we’d debate is what the cultural role of various musics might be, and what kind of support they might deserve.

    In my last riff, you might have read that classical music’s historical role and importance is half my definition of classical music (the other half being its developmental nature). But this, I hope you’ll agree, is a double-edged sword. It can be argued — as Susan McClary does, for instance — that classical music of the past carries within it attitudes towards women (for instance) that we’ve gotten past in the contemporary world. And also that classical music in the past was the music of colonialism, and of philosophy in which the mind had too much dominance over the body.

    All these balances have been redressed in recent decades, but classical music hasn’t played much part in that. You can talk all you want about classical music conveying the fine ideas that underly our civilization, but still it’s true that major league baseball had black players years before the Metropolitan Opera had black soloists.

  6. says

    all the great musicians i’ve ever met or known about– the truly great ones, classical or otherwise– have always been lovers of great music before limiting themselves to any one category. in that sense, the claim that one kind of music is superior to another remains academic. on real stages you always find a mix of influences, either directly or indirectly. Be it Yoyo Ma collaborating with Bobby Macferrin; Renee Fleming singing rock ballads; Keith Jarrett playing Bach; Sting recording John Dowland; Or Bartok integrating folk and “street” music into classical compositions.

    But i’m not talking only about cross overs. There’s something deeper than that: it’s the endless curiosity and enthusiasm about rhythm and pitch, that seems to be common to all musicians i consider great. and these rhythms and pitches can come in all styles and forms. cross overs are just an example of such curiosity. let critics and academics decide how they want to call it. in the end, who cares what it is called: great music is great music.

    You go, Lisbeth.

  7. ray says

    Well,of course classical music is superior! I can listen to new age music and enjoy it, but classical music is on a completely different level! Certainly a little pop song by whatever group is current is not on the level of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis or Handel’s Messiah!

  8. Carlos says

    You’ve written some interesting things, much of which I agree with. I’m a classical musician. I stopped getting irked by arguments such as yours, until I read the extract of your book.

    The trap you fall into is that you assume classical musicians are unable to play with real freedom, to play with sponataneity, with awareness. You imply, assume, that it isn’t an option for them. Moreover, that in playing from parts, especially in music they’ve played often, things are pre-ordained. And with a conductor apparently dictating everything, it’s even worse.

    This couldn’t be further from the truth. You misunderstand, deeply, the way that classically-trained musicians think, feel, and perform.

    Not one single bar I ever play feels preordained, predestined. Not within myself, nor with the musicians I’m priviledged to play with. THIS is the myth of those who choose to misunderstand classical performers. Every event can, and often does, go in one of many possible directions. A good classical performer needs at LEAST as much awareness around him or her as, say, a jazz player – because anything can happen, and sometimes does (but they don’t have the luxury of sponaneity, in the eyes of the public, to hide behind if it doesn’t work out).

    And there’s pop – which is fine. But only that. I love a lot of it, in the broadest sense. But with pop, we’ve lived, for some time now, in the world where everything is so over-produced and acoustic-free – and has been for some time. It’s devoid of any kind of originality of sound, of connection with the performer, on the whole, and of any consistency on the live, public stage.

    If classical orchestras, opera houses, ensembles and soloists of the world performed with such an alarming lack of awareness, or accomplishment, as do many pop artists, then they would vanish. Please note: I’m not referring to the session-booked players, but to the names themselves.

    Before you publish your book, I encourage you to have a considered look at the average “classical” musician – and not admonish them for their lack of awareness, freedom, and flexibilty. Most I know can play, anything, in any way, as they’re asked – the same can’t be said for all musicians.

    Your book is about the moral superiority of “classical” music. If you’re so quick to denounce the potency of the average, classically-trained musician, then think again. They are the bedrock of so much more than you think. Please don’t ever disrespect the way musicians work – of whatever genre, or training.

    Carlos, if I’d actually said what you accuse me of saying, you’d have every right to be angry. I’ve worked in classical music (if you count my student days) for 50 years. I’ve performed as a singer, and composed, and had my works performed, and been close friends with classical musicians of all kinds, and worked with them professionally in numerous contexts. Not to mention teaching, and working in many ways with music students at various levels. Of course there’s freedom in playing classical music.

    Here’s what I actually wrote:

    A veteran orchestra player once told me how delighted he’d get, when one of his colleagues—playing a piece that they’d all played together many times—would do something new, inflect a phrase just a little differently, emphasize a note that hadn’t been emphasized, surge over a gorgeous melodic arch with just a little more passion than ever before. When this happens in chamber music, where just a few musicians are playing, inspirations like these change a performance, as the other musicians immediately respond. Which means they do what Max Roach described.

    (The same thing might also happen in an orchestral performance, but because so many musicians play the same music together—and because they have a conductor, who controls much that goes on—there’s less room for it.)

    Seems to me I’m saying much the same thing as you are, though without as much emphasis.

    You might disagree with my second paragraph here, because yes, I do say that the presence of a conductor can set a limit on how much spontaneity orchestral musicians can have. Of course, that varies with the conductor. Some encourage spontaneity, implicitly or explicitly, some don’t.

    And for so many years, I’ve heard so many orchestra musicians (including many from top orchestras) complain about conductors. So I’m a little surprised at your vehemence.

    Once, at a private conference involving a dozen or so orchestras, I led a discussion (along with Bruce Coppock, former executive director of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra) on why musicians don’t look happier onstage when they play. Participating in this were musicians from a variety of big and middle-sized orchestras. What was the first thing the musicians said in their defense? That they couldn’t be expected to look happy when they played, because the conductors were so terrible.

    And please don’t take this to mean that I think all conductors are horrible, and that all orchestral musicians hate every conductor!

  9. says

    Another recent book defending classical music is Andrew Ford’s In Defence of Classical Music

    Thanks. It’s out of print, but available used from Amazon, and from Ford’s website. I’d also love to read his book about Van Morrison! Glad he plays both sides of the street.

  10. David Ezer says

    Greg,

    You’re making an excellent argument to a point that I don’t think is actually the underlying issue in the ‘superiority’ debate. That is, I think perhaps you’re not analyzing what people are really saying when they invoke classical music’s superiority. Perhaps this is what’s coming in the next riff?

    In any case: my feeling on this is that what kind of music you like functions (at least in the minds of those who vilify pop/extol classical) to some degree as a class marker. There are many markers by which someone telegraphs class — good manners, well-connected friends, dresses well, well groomed, etc. means one thing. Being a slobby pothead telegraphs something else. (And even if someone doesn’t actually belong to the economic class s/he is communicating, one can use those markers to become accepted within it.)

    This of course extends into matters of taste. We don’t expect to walk into the home of, let’s say, Bruce Kovner (chair of Juilliard) – who is a superwealthy hedge fund manager, politically very conservative, and a major philanthropist — and find a giant Thomas Kinkade painting hanging on the wall.

    So why is that? Well, someone who has become knowledgeable about art, who has cultivated particular tastes, studied a bit, can objectively compare an individual work by Kinkade with an individual work by Monet and find the former wanting. That person has likely never encountered a teacher, tastemaker, or peer who professes to like Kinkade’s work. But a person who has not become knowledgeable in that way, who has not cultivated a learned taste in art, may see a Kinkade picture in the gallery in the mall and find it speaks to them and they take it home and put it on the wall. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s a good thing – what’s important about art/music is that people enjoy it and derive spiritual value from what it says to them, NOT how other people may judge it.

    The challenge with this analogy comes because there I’m comparing a specific work to a specific work (Kinkade/Monet). We can do the same in music – let’s put Beethoven’s Sixth next to Justin Bieber’s “Baby” and I’m comfortable saying, objectively, the former’s “better” by most (but not all) assumptions you want to put on for comparison. (But that doesn’t mean that people who like Justin Bieber are bad people.) But when you pull out the focus from specific works to the genres of “classical” versus “pop,” you’ve pulled out so far as you can’t make distinctions that mean anything.

    There’s a simply enormous amount of mediocre to bad classical music out there, most of which rarely saw the light of day beyond a few years after its composition. (I mean, we don’t see much Christian Cannabich or Franz Abt on programs these days.) What we think of as “classical music” by non-living composers amounts to, realistically, what: maybe 10,000 pieces? I’d hazard there’s more than 10,000 pop songs of quality…and hundreds of thousands that aren’t.

    The problem, though, comes from saying “classical” is good and “pop” is bad because what you’re really saying is “people who listen to classical are like me and have good taste like I do” and “people who listen to pop are uneducated about music and ignorant and have poor taste.” This is not a winning argument. It’s less about the music itself as who listens to it, and what group one wants to be in. Just read any of Jay Nordlinger’s weird stuff about classical music online at National Review and you’ll get the essence of this.

    That’s how your point above about Indian classical music gets explained: it falls outside this thinking, because it doesn’t telegraph class. It just telegraphs ethnicity. “People who like Indian music” are, in the mind of someone who thinks Western classical is the best music, generally Indian — not “musically uneducated” or “people with no taste.” And because it’s so different from Western music — farther afield from Mozart in sound/harmony/structure than is Justin Bieber — it doesn’t flag as something to compare to “classical.” So Indian music doesn’t pose a threat to those who feel classical is superior – you’re right, it’s apples and oranges.

    But pop does pose a threat. Pop seems to also be an apple because it’s working off the same scales and harmonies. That threat is that “people with bad taste” are overwhelming “people with good taste,” regardless of whether the specific music we’re talking about in either genre is good or bad.

    Sorry to be longwinded making the point. But I think people get vehement and angry because they see the distinction and understanding of classical’s “higher quality” as a means of grouping the good people with them and the bad people in the other camp. When you argue classical’s not “superior” it means their taste is on equal footing with the taste of those horrible uneducated people who like hip-hop or Britney Spears or whatever. And they know in their hearts that can’t be true.

    The irony is, of course, it’s not true – it’s the wrong argument for them to make. Which I think is where you’re going with this.

    Anyway, it’s very late and I’m probably not terribly coherent with this…hope it makes some sense, anyway…

    Makes perfect sense, David. And I’m going to some of those places (certainly the class marker) in the next riff.

  11. says

    This was very stimulating to read (both the post and the “riff” on pdf). I hadn’t encountered classical musicians for some years who claimed superiority of classical music over pop but this year has brought a number of people into my path with extremely strong views on this. In all cases, I scratched the surface and found profound ignorance of popular music, and an assumption that harmony was everything (eg. claiming that everything in popular music was done in classical music in the early 19th century – as Eno said to a similar claim, how does that account for Elvis?).

    Great to read well-considered arguments that come from the perspective of loving classical music.

  12. Frank Feldman says

    I like Lady Gaga too. But if I were stranded on a desert island, I’d rather take Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and Kathleen Ferrier. And let’s face it, so would you. Why?

    So glad you know what I’d take to a desert island.

    And I fear you’ve stepped into a trap, one I frequently see people step in when they make this argument. You offer two choices — the latest mass-market pop craze, vs. two very great classical figures. (Though Schwarzkopf never did much for me; that’s another discussion.) If you put someone I like in pop, Lucinda Williams, maybe, against Ferrier, I’d take Lucinda Williams.

    Not that the desert island test proves anything. The best exploration of it is a classic book of rock criticism, “Stranded,” edited by Greil Marcus, in which rock critics pick the albums they’d take to a desert island. Good reading for anyone who thinks pop music is trivial.

  13. Bruce C. Meyer says

    The superiority of one genre X over another Y is, as I see it, determined by one X being able to incorporate Y, while Y is not able to incorporate X. Rhapsody In Blue shows one kind of jazz incorporated into one kind of Euro-classical music; and ELP’s Pictures at an Exhibition shows Progressive Rock incorporating Mussorski’s work. One might argue that each incorporation leaves out the essence of the other genre, such as “order and simplicity” versus “rebellion and emotional devastation.”

    But I would say that if aspiring jazz musicians study Euro-classic music but classical musicians don’t study Miles or Coltrane, then classical music wins that bout.

  14. Richard V Harris says

    First we have to define what we mean by ‘music’. One definition is, ‘music is whatever someone thinks is music’. On that basis, for a majority of people, no doubt, pop/rock music is the best music.

    For me, pop/rock is not music, rather, it is noise, a hideously rebarbative noise. As art is supposed to operate on our emotions, I presume that the emotional reactions elicited in me by pop/rock are not to my liking, to put it mildly.

    It is of interest that classical music was, (in the main), composed for the elite of past cenrturies, whereas pop/rock was & is composed for the masses. Read into that you what you will.

    So you, my friend, are the measure of all things? Your reactions are the standard by which all things should be judged?

    I think, before you comment further on this subject, that you should learn something about pop. The idea that all of it is now created for the masses is wildly incorrect. Would you stand for someone making equally ignorant statements about classical music?

    In my riff, I noted that many people who take the view that classical music i superior don’t actually know much about the musical genres it’s supposed to be superior to. Here we have a perfect example of what I meant.

  15. D Shapiro says

    Some thoughts on jazz vs. pop vs. classical:

    The problem with improvisation is not that great moments of music are not made, but that they are rarely made. Much of the noodling around is the prelude to (one hopes) finding that one transcendent moment. This is worth having, but all the so-so (and worse) filler detracts from its value as finished art. For those who esteem process above product, I say, Go play and don’t make me listen. That being said, the transcendent bits can be so splendid as to obviate any criticism of the form.

    Classical music’s “superiority” has much to do with its complexity: counterpoint, unexpected but worked-through harmonies, melodic lines that are fresh and long. As to spontaneity, any very good performance has some; that’s why I may own more than one recording of a great piece of music and still attend a live performance of it besides. But many performances are not so good, and yes, Beethoven is a better composer than Glazunov. I prefer listening to a first-rate pop or jazz performance, or piece, to a second-rate classical one. The question of who is first-rate and who is not is part of what makes any discussion of any art exciting and probably endless. The idea that classical music is superior to other forms is probably defensible without being incontrovertible. But maybe it’s only by separating performance from conception that you can start having a serious discussion, and by doing that you are pretending that music is something on a page and not in the ear.

    Pop is a ringer here. While there are some terrific musicians in the pop field, virtuosi of their instruments (including voice, in a few cases), the crucial difference is that a song is not music: it is music and lyrics combined into a single art form, which is a different art form. I have written a bit on this myself, trying to codify and perhaps create an essential vocabulary for some of the issues involved in how music and lyrics fit together into a unified form, but the specifics are very complicated indeed. Musically alone, most pop lacks depth and complexity; as a wholly distinct art, that is of no importance, but strictly as music it will be hard to defend its standing.

    By all means carry on, but please remember the above as you continue. As a writer/composer and sometime performer in all three areas (I have written pop songs and chamber music, performed in coffee houses, cocktail lounges, and orchestras), I have nothing but respect and admiration for those who succeed in making musical art in any of them, as clearly you do, too, and there we are surely in agreement. I look forward to further thoughts on the matter.

    Seems to me you’re harsh about improvisation, as if (for instance) Charlie Parker had never lived. Even if most improvisations worked the way you describe — and jazz improvisations from Parker’s era, by their nature, can’t work that way — we should judge them by their best examples, shouldn’t we? That’s the premise you’re working from in other areas, if I understand you.

    In pop music, the musical text is the performance, not the notation. And so pop performances are going to emphasize things that in classical music are considered secondary — sound, groove, emotional nuance (in performance, I mean). To look for counterpoint in rock is like expecting an apple to taste like an orange. What you do get, in rock, is fabulous heterophany, with many things layered on each other. The rhythmic interplay can be a lot more complex, in its way, than counterpoint — which, for what it’s worth, is one of the few things about composition that can be taught (even, in my experience, to people who are virtually tone-deaf — I actually did that in a solfege class I taught, decades ago).

    But these are big topics, as you say. Subject to very long discussion.

  16. David Roche says

    “Why not have both?[types of music]” was the way John Cage simply answered the question at Wesleyan in 1968 when wrangling factions of music academics were arguing over the future of curriculum at the university and turned to the Great Man for his take.

    More recently, in Venezuela, Jose Antonio Abreu answered this question of genre hierarchy by pointing out that with Western classical music there is a canon by which to measure performance quality. If one’s goal is to educate and support children whose ears are wide open and lidless, why not get them started in orchestras that can be evaluated against the success of other youth orchestras internationally? Anti-popular music? No way – just ask Gustavo Dudamel whose dad was a salsa brass player. In his hometown, I witnessed first chair players in the orchestra sliding over onto lead string instruments in extraordinary jaropo combos when they weren’t playing Beethoven. El Sistema’s got it right regarding class, music and sonic sociology.

  17. says

    In follow up to your response to the last comment, Greg: you mention that in pop the musical text is the performance, not the notation. I think it’s worth pointing out that this perspective is taking greater hold among academic composers and younger theorists (and even some older ones, i.e. Richard Taruskin). I think that emphasizing the performance as text as opposed to the notational artifact breaks down many theoretical barriers that have plagued “classical” music and the thinking of “classical” musicians in the 20th-century. I also think that the increased popularity of this idea among academics is at least partially due to the younger generation’s respect and understanding of pop music (as well as many other kinds of music). As in science, progress(?) in the arts is made by replacing one paradigm with one that more clearly answers more questions.

    Moving on, it occurs to me that perhaps what we are facing in this informal discussion (and often in the larger cultural discourse concerning classical music), is the inability for many to embrace a critical theory that adopts tenets(?) of post-modernism in the face of the more popular tendency to search for objective meaning, and in this case, “superiority”. Despite the history of this blog and all of your intelligent (and public!) writing on the subject of popular music and classical music, many comments are still filled with defensive claims that either explicitly or implicitly suggest that classical music is superior and that other genres are inferior.

    I have much more to write on this subject, but need to return later when I have more time.

  18. says

    Because of the books you chose, I’m guessing you’ve read the aggressive (if hilarious) review of them by Richard Taruskin (originally in The New Republic and now anthologized in The Dangers of Music.) Your argument that false dichotomies are easy to construct and very satisfying to readers who are already convinced is also an important part of Taruskin’s piece. (And that’s not a criticism of your writing, obviously.)

    But the arguments of Julian Johnson et. al. are all so unnecessary, as Lisbeth Salander pointed out above. Johann Strauss II is conventionally thought of as a classical music composer, but really he was a writer of popular waltzes — usable dance music played by a salon orchestra for use at balls and social occasions. Brahms was his good friend, but as far as I know, Johannes B. never said to Johann S. “Why don’t you take that enormous talent for melody and orchestration and write us a great symphony?” Instead he wrote the Liebeslieder Waltzes. Brahms appreciated the dance tunes.

    Several of Papageno’s tunes, in The Magic Flute, are stylistically straight out of the popular theater, as are a lot of the French opera comique tunes of the 18th and early 19th centuries. As are several of the tunes in Weber’s Der Freischutz. As are ….

    So without arguing that popular music is always ennobled when it is imported into classical genres (and why would a good composer start a classical piece with inferior materials?), the proponents of the superiority of classical music are left arguing for a dubious, mythical purity in art music that never existed (except, perhaps, relatively recently within academia).

    Classical musicians, like other musicians can be omnivorous. Not every composer wants to use all these inputs in his/her own music, and not every performer wants to play every kind of music. But cross-pollination happens so often as to be a hugely important thread in musical history. And it would be nearly unremarkable if we hadn’t committed ourselves to hard and fast distinctions between “high” and “low”, “classical” and “popular.” When Osvaldo Golijov wrote Ayre, he wasn’t doing “crossover,” he was doin’ what comes naturally.

  19. says

    Thanks for your response, Greg. I’m glad we agree at least on the big philosophical question – ie: that classical and pop music are different in ways that matter, and that the goal is to find ways to appreciate and reconcile their different functions and excellences.

    You mention changing attitudes to things like colonialism and feminism as problematizing the historical status of classical music. Firstly, nothing I wrote implies that we must endorse all the attitudes of Euro-American cultural history – only that we’re stuck with their results, that its implications continue to work themselves out even now, and that we will have a better chance of solving today’s problems if we understand ourselves as part of a broader tradition.

    Secondly, though, issues of colonialism et al. are hardly unique to music – the same issues come up in literature and the visual arts, and practically every other area of human life. In other words, the problem isn’t unique to classical music – it’s one that comes up in any art form made more than five years ago, and can therefore be ruled out as a cause of classical music’s unique problems. (Indeed, there would probably be more interest in classical music, not less, if people thought that it related to political and social conflicts – my impression is that many people avoid classical music because they think it is too abstract and complex for them to understand.)

    I suspect that we disagree on some other points as well, but I’m very interested to see how your book project plays out. I have a related post here, if you’re interested.

  20. says

    Not to disappoint, re, your, “I can imagine the outrage! Maybe we’ll have another visit from AC Douglas, showing us why he needs to do some work on anger management”…

    The way you’ve set up your, um, thesis is fundamentally meaningless, and rife with straw men arguments. In comparing pop music (by which term I include such populist musical genres as pop, rock, punk, C&W, etc., but NOT jazz) with classical music, it’s NOT a question of “best” or “better-than”. It’s a question, rather, of comparing the artifacts of two essentially incommensurable aesthetic hierarchies which can “no more be compared than one can compare, delectable-wise, the proverbial apples and oranges on the same delectability continuum of things-that-one-can-eat-that-grow-on-trees,” as I’ve elsewhere put it.

    Also, as I’ve elsewhere written (on S&F), there’s another culprit at work here.

    To quote myself,

    Postmodern dogma — which is, at once, both a horrific and risible reductio ad absurdum of Sixties cultural thought, and which “seeks a dissolution of all hierarchies, both natural and culturally determined without distinction” as we’ve written previously elsewhere — is another culprit here, and it’s as wrongheaded and boneheaded as it could possibly be. Hierarchies are essential to the well-being of Homo sapiens, and there’s just no getting around that. It’s in our DNA as it’s in the DNA of all living things, also as we’ve written previously elsewhere, and any attempt to circumvent that ineluctable fact of life is doomed, ultimately, to abject failure, and the attempt itself certain to leave by the wayside scores upon scores of unnecessary and regrettable casualties.

    [...]

    We’ve no argument with, nor objection to, the artifacts of popular culture per se. What we argue against, and lodge objection to, is the growing absence of a fundamental aesthetic distinction between, and separate hierarchies of aesthetic value for, such artifacts and the artifacts of the realm of high culture (so-called to distinguish it from the popular sort). Contrary to the pernicious equalitarian conceits of postmodern thinking, there is such a distinction; a self-evident and inarguably real one … and no meaningful aesthetic continuum connecting the artifacts of the two realms can be constructed except on the merest technical and taxonomic grounds.

    This is all covered in some detail in my 2006 S&F post, “A Call For A Return To Hierarchal Sobriety”, which can be read here.

    Oh, and as to my “anger management”, my anger is being managed quite nicely, thank you. It’s gathered against and focused on the great cultural enemy of our era: postmodern equalitarian and relativist thinking.

    It’s a dirty and disagreeable job, but someone has to do it.

    ACD

    http://www.soundsandfury.com/

  21. Robert Berger says

    De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum. Can’t we all just get along? Let classical be classical and let Pop be Pop,or Rock,Jazz or whatever.

    There’s no use judging classical music by the standards of Jazz or Pop music etc.

    Myself,I prefer classical. But I’m not a snob.

    If other people are fans of other kinds of music,that’s fine with me. But I just wish that people wouldn’t knock classical music for not being like other kinds of music.

    Classical music is different from other kinds of music,very different. It’s not meant for casual entertainment,excpet for some of the simpler types of of it,such as the divertimentos of Haydn and Mozart etc.

    It requires active listening and often requires repeated hearings before a listener can grasp it. You don’t listen to classical music the same way you would listen to Madonna,

    Britney Spears or Michael Jackson etc.

    And often,unless you’re listening to a short piece, you need to have a good attention span,or your mind will wander.

    Personally, I just get infinitely more out of a Bruckner or Mahler symphony,or a Wagner opera, etc,that I could out of pop music.

    It has a profundity and emotional power that no other kind of music provides,for me and some others people,at least.

    But if other people enjoy Madonna,Britney Spears and Michael Jackson,who am I to argue with them?

    But at least I’ve actually heard Pop music,Rock and Jazz, etc. The problem is that too many people reject classical music before they’ve even given it a chance. What a pity.

  22. Katie says

    I wonder if it is worth drawing a distinction between classical musicians and classical music critics/enthusiasts. As others have mentioned in this forum, rarely do you find a classically trained musician who does not listen to and/or perform other genres of music. Maybe I am off the mark on this, but it seems to me that those of us that are actually working as performers do not have such a harsh criticism of other music types such as pop, rock, motown, hip-hop, etc. It would be interesting to poll those who have slammed pop music to see what role they actually play in the music industry. Likewise, you may want to tread lightly when you insinuate that classical musicians are ignorant to other art forms. I would tend to think that this is not the case.

  23. says

    Now, someone will tell me I’m tilting at windmills, that no one these days would dare argue that western music is best.

    And maybe that’s true. But people do insist that (western) classical music is better than pop.

    To be fair, I’ve come across many people, both in the classical and pop world, and read many pieces comparing/constrasting Western vs non-Western musics, which have said Western music is best whether they’re arguing for Western Classical or Western Rock/Pop (the non-classical musicians are no less vitriolic in their defense of Western popular music genres than the classical musicians with their classical music).

    And there are always exceptions and the hardliners are almost invariably always going to defend their own turf.

    I just played an engagement party for Lebanese and Spanish family last weekend and I wouldn’t be surprised if they said Arabic music is better than Western Classical or Western Pop–and as excited as they were to be able to sing and dance to us I would believe they really felt what they were saying was the absolute truth.

    What I think is interesting, however, is that there are generational as well as ethnic/ingroup divides.

    At a Persian Naw Ruz (Persian New Year) party I played back in March, I had a conversation with one of the other performing musicians, a fantastic Santoor player and builder, who was bemoaning the fact that there are fewer and fewer people that appreciate “good music” (we were talking about Classical Persian music) and that the younger generation just wants to listen to this pop music (referring to Persian pop whihc one of the younger kids was playing over the sound sytem at the begeinnning of the evening) and American pop (making a distinction between two different kinds of popular music). It was reminding me of a conversation I had had with his brother and Zarb player (they perform with each other often) last year about Googoosh (the Persian pop diva) and how he poo-pooed on her relevance as an Icon of Persian music.

    Point is–it’s going to happen that ingroups will disparage outgroups and privilege members or representatives of their own no matter what the group. Some are vehement about it, some less vocal and more private about it. Any “solution” for it will likely be one that works for mediating relations between any ingroup/outgroup–and I’m a little skeptical about finding those [solutions].

    Other point is, ingroups whose musical culture are Western Classical and Western Pop aren’t often aware of the idea that their argument is already privileging a much larger ingroups’ musical culture and that other ingroups are having these kinds of arguments about music vis-a-vis many different fronts as my previously mentioned comments about Persian Classical/Persian Pop/American Pop issue illustrates.

    Personally, and this is only tangential to this whole discussion, I do still feel like Western Classical AND Pop are generally treated as “superior” to all the rest and is often the backdrop through which musical debates like these all over the world are being framed.

    Ok, I’ve rambled on again as usual, Greg–Ironically, given what I’ve just said, I must go practice some Goth Rock tunes for an upcoming “Dark Arts Festival” I have to play over the 4th of July weekend…

  24. Evan says

    I’m curious to know if you are arguing for a totally relativitic idea of aesthetics. You may think classical music as a genre is not superior to pop music as a genre – which makes sense given how broad each term has the potential to be – but what about within pop? Your ideas defending popular music seem to suggest that some critics of popular music simply don’t know enough about certain “good” artists within pop music – see your citation to “Stranded” above. But implicit in that argument is the idea that some rock musicians are better than their three-chord counterparts. This seems to conflict with some of the more egalitarian ideas also present in your book , which seems to suggest that all music is of equal value. Is that what you really mean to say?

  25. Greg says

    It is really true that no one has used the words “money” or “power” yet?!!

    Do we need to return to the foundations of “classical music” and it’s aristocratic legacy and the economic point of view of art?

    If we say “classical music is not superior” we can spend all the “classical music” money on something else: philanthropists and governments (we’ll let individual ticket holders decide for themselves . . . after seeing how much an unsubsidized ticket costs).

    If we say “classical music is not superior,” all the politicians and related power gatekeepers can focus their energy on things that are more important (following the example of many educational gatekeepers).

    etc. etc. etc.

    Classical music has largely been attached to specific status groups associated with power and money. Many people arguing that “classical music is superior” have a vested interested in the art form for status, power, or money.

    We need to hear much more from those without such vested interests.

  26. says

    A mite late to the party it seems.

    Hello again, I recall when you published an email I wrote you a while back when I was in college, and seeing this lively exchange of words and ideas has persuaded me to put my small bit in again.

    It’s amazing how much offense people take when you state that the idea of classical music’s inherent superiority is more just a construct than objective truth. And frankly, it may just be a lack of imagination to think of other music as just music than something less than music.

    I used to hold that view as a child, but that has mellowed out tremendously when I starting hopping frequencies on my radio as a teen, and now, I’m pretty open to many sounds, though I still have my favorites.

    Interestingly, my post-college musical journey has taken me away from classical music, as I was already beginning to feel burnt out from trawling CDs from the fine arts library. Boredom and Youtube has now led me to my current musical interest: Late Showa Era Japanese Popular Music.

    It’s a strange leap, but for some reason the genre seem to click to me, and I know why. I was basically a melody and tone oriented listener, and what usually is popular now places more emphasis on riffs, beat and rhythm than a tune to sing along to, so my interest in Western Popular music diminished after going through the 1980s. Hearing the Japanese that seem to continue writing songs with flowing tunes and rich arrangements seems like they were lagging behind the West when compared contemporaneously, but I still enjoyed it, even if I can’t understand a single word being sung.

    What is interesting though is that through my exposure and exploring along with the language barrier, I was only listening to the musicality of the songs, how it was sung, how the backing was used (and sometimes I acquired the karaoke tracks to better understand what the music is doing without the singing). I was thinking about the music much like I would when I was listening to classical music.

    Of course, this was still music from agencies with singers only there to look pretty and a modicum of talent, so to speak, but that doesn’t really matter. Sometimes it is also worth looking into who wrote the songs and compare in that vein to better understand how their style evolved or what their musical ticks are, which in itself is another fun adventure. That is one thing people from the classical world tend to overlook when thinking about pop, in that there is more than just the performers and who their label is, what about the songwriters, lyricists, and arrangers (for those performers who strictly are just that)?

    To tie this all up and keep it from rambling, it might do music better to remember that there wasn’t this dramatic hierarchy in culture like there is today. Back in the day, what classical music was is extremely limited to the public and what others are available were part of the household music world along with more popular fare. It made little difference, that society sang and played together.

    So I don’t see what’s so wrong if more venues started mixing up their lineups to show what is great from other genres. Just make a theme of it, or even be random. Will the concert experience really be adulterated if after an overture some guy with a guitar walks up and sing folk tunes?

    Hi, Andrew. Glad to see you back.

    Your final question is a good test on where people stand, on all these questions. Some people will quickly answer yes! But if the guy with the guitar was, for instance, Elvis Costello, I’d think he’d elevate the concert. One of my peak musical experiences was hearing him do his entire “Spike” album with just his own acoustic guitar as accompaniment. Shorn of all its elaborate (and terrific) production, the album was, if anything, even stronger. He’d elevate any concert program he was on.

  27. says

    I think the commentary following Greg Sandow’s article thus far ranges from reasonable to the just plain idiotic. For the most part I am uninterested in the particulars of people’s justification that classical is better than Tuvan throat singing is better than Miles is better than Son House is better than St. Vincent. Who cares? Good music is good music. Ellington said it, Stravinsky said as much and Berg set Gershwin’s mind at ease upon their meeting in Vienna with the same sentiment.

    I do take exception with Bruce C. Meyer’s pseudo mathematical justification of classical music’s superiority. To make the assertion that classical music wins out ipso facto because jazz musicians study ‘Euro-classic’ musics and classical musicians ignore jazz and all other types of popular music, is well, stupid. Why does – the supposed – willful ignorance by the practitioners of one genre makes it inherently superior to the next? This is a confusing line of reasoning and can hardly be taken seriously however, I feel like I must take a moment to remind Mr. Meyer of the supposedly untainted literature he seems so determined to elevate.

    I think if you look through the contemporary classical literature you will find a good many examples of Jazz, Pop, Classical, Folk, etc. artists studying outside the confines of their own genre. Ravel was fascinated with jazz, Charlie Parker used to blow over his recording of the Rite of Spring, Indie rockers love 60’s minimalism, young classical composers seem to be enthralled with indie rock, jazz artists make third-stream records and Yo Yo Ma and Edger Meyer seem to be making all kinds of music to say nothing of the ECM and Winter and Winter record labels genre bending catalogues. On and on goes the great cross pollination of genres. People who make music are generally more concerned with making music than deciding who has a seat at the top.

    To think that classical musicians only listen to classical music is laughable as well. I think you will find a very diverse set of tastes if you surveyed the record collections of your average bassoonist or cellist. Equally diverse are the record collections of jazz, folk, and pop artists. As you may notice the reasoning is flawed not to mention it is inaccuracy.

    Jazz harmony is a direct result of the harmonic innovations of the last century so it stands to reason that jazz is incorporating classical music in a major way. If classical musicians as you say are not (and this is actually untrue) studying Miles than who is integrating who and how does that jive with your formula?

  28. Kenny Pexton says

    @ Carlos, Bruce C. Meyer, D Shapiro- Leave jazz out of the discussion. What’s the point of dragging it in only to say remarkably ill informed things about it? Unless it is to exhibit your ignorance publicly.

    Carlos- most classical musicians cannot play jazz, maybe they might be able to play rock or pop without a piece of paper in front of them, but then again maybe not. Anyone who says something like

    “A good classical performer needs at LEAST as much awareness around him or her as, say, a jazz player – because anything can happen, and sometimes does (but they don’t have the luxury of spontaneity, in the eyes of the public, to hide behind if it doesn’t work out).”

    has never played jazz on any kind of a level that would be required to know that. No one who can actually play jazz would claim the ability to hide behind spontaneity. It’s not enough to have listened to jazz or played in a jam session once on a blues. You may have even done this before and been under the false impression that you were successful in your attempt. You may have fooled 80% of your audience, but you wouldn’t fool someone who really knows.

    Second of all anything can’t happen. The bass section can’t all of a sudden decide to modulate, or substitute different roots, or superimpose a metric modulation on top of the original tempo, or segue into a new tune entirely, or play spans of time free of chord changes but following the form only to rejoin the original changes at a later point. These things can and do happen in the best jazz performances.

    @ Bruce C. Meyer- Your argument is self-defeating. If jazz musicians are studying classical harmony and not the other way around then who will be doing the incorporating? Certainly not the willfully ignorant. Are you aware of the Bill Evans compositions Twelve Tone Tune and Twelve Tone Tune Two, just to name two examples of jazz incorporating classical harmony?

    @ D. Shapiro – “The problem with improvisation is not that great moments of music are not made, but that they are rarely made.”

    Remove improvisation from that sentence and insert any genre you please. Your gripe seems to be that either there is bad jazz out there or you are only able to appreciate small portions of jazz. I would argue that the fact that you can appreciate some moments in jazz should be your window into a wider appreciation for the genre not an excuse to dismiss it entirely.

    I grew up studying classical clarinet and played in numerous honor groups, won several solo competitions, and played in several regional orchestras before I chose jazz saxophone performance as my major at the New England Conservatory of Music. I have great respect and admiration for classical musicians. Many of my mentors including my grandfather (an orchestral cellist) are classical musicians. I am aware of the gap between my clarinet ability and that of a professional orchestral player. My fervent wish is that more classical musicians would take a jazz improvisation class and discover not only how much they don’t know, but how much they don’t know they don’t know. Then, maybe, they would be more humble in their claims about jazz and jazz musicians in addition to gaining a higher level of appreciation for America’s original art form.

  29. Carlos Fischer says

    Mr. Sandow:

    Would you please tell me at least 5 music(or songs) that you like the most???

    Thanks.

    Sorry to be replying late. I don’t think I can do this. It’s too difficult!

  30. mclaren says

    Pop music makes vast amounts of money and has huge audiences. If classical musicians and classical music lovers admitted even for a moment that pop music wasn’t totally inferior to classic music, well, they’d have to come face to face with the brutal fact that their concerts don’t get anywhere near the audiences that pop concerts do.

    And that might suggest that maybe, just maybe, it’s because of something that classical composers or performers or promoters are not doing. Intolerable. Therefore unthinkable. And impossible.

    If you look at how the typical pop musician promotes hi/rself, it’s just astounding how much more adroit and savvy they are. They use Twitter, YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, they give away sample tracks as teasers, they come up with both regular and deluxe “enhanced” versions of their albums, they offer remixes…everything that classic composers and performers could do to get attention and generate excitement, and don’t do.

    Above all, the pop musicians produce exciting dramatic gripping music. Classical composers could really learn something from that. At the end of the day, though classical composers and audience squirm and wriggle at the thought, music involves entertaining the audience. It invoves grabbing people by the throat and compelling ‘em to listen. Doesn’t matter how you do it, and you needn’t do it the same way pop musicians do…but you must do it. Unless your motto is “Who care if you listen?”

  31. Ian Shanahan says

    Robert Davidson is completely ignorant of what I do (or do not) know about pop music. This is from a man who thinks that bands’ haircuts are part of the *music*. Davidson’s ignorance is so profound he’s not even aware he is ignorant…

  32. Ian Shanahan says

    One dimension I’m yet to see articulated in this discourse involves the physiological and anatomical effects of the respective musics under debate. In numerous scientific experiments from the 1960s onwards, rock music (and to so some extent pop as well) has been shown to be deleterious to physiological well-being. One experiment even demonstrated that plants exposed to long periods of rock music will shrivel and die as a result. Conversely, experiments have confirmed that children listening to so-called ‘classical’ music – such as Mozart – are likely to develop enhanced intelligence. Moreover, we have an epidemic of deafness spanning several generations of rock- and pop-listeners; the same cannot be said of ‘classical’-music aficionados.

    In this respect, science has OBJECTIVELY demonstrated the inherent superiority of one genre (‘classical’) of its vernacular antitheses (pop/rock): the latter is simply, and quite literally, toxic.

  33. carlos fischer says

    The myth about superiority of classical music over the other “genres” or “subgenres” it is not a myth it is a FACT beyond tastes and of course it can be proved. Proving this “MYTH” like proving the Gravity Law it will be impossible of course .

    For this purpose, any starting point should not consider any cultural background nor personal tastes during analysis. The Object is “The music genre”.

    For overall approach to this matter we should first agree about the meaning of “superiority”. Analysis should be made defining Superiority on many aspects of each genre : History , composers,artists(interpreters), music structure(musical elements analysis) ,musical innovation , popularity,music education,etc.

    This analysis will force to reach to some undeniable facts and conclusions in regards each music genre.I will not attempt to make such analysis because maybe this question would be a matter of a Doctoral Thesis. I will simply write some points of view on the aspects mentioned above that explain why I think Western Classical music as a “Superior form of art” in regards to the other music genres.

    1.-History,evolution,innovation and influences( Western classical vs.other western genres)

    Classical music is the main actor of historical facts in the history of western music.From classical music genre, the mainstream of musical evolution is found:Musical concepts and innovations of the majority of musical elements used to make music .

    Concepts like modulation, polyphony , counterpoint ,phrasing ,texture ,thematic development,atonality,dissonance …….etc. Have their most significant developments and applications in classical music.

    The concept of “Music concert” and “Concerto” has his origins in classical music also. Liszt again, was the classical composer that made the piano a definitive concert instrument.

    The violin, the cello, the clarinet ,the trumpet and other instruments….reached the status of concert intruments because of Western classical music composers.

    Choral music and vocal music reached the most significant developments in Western classical music .

    Orchestration , have had their greatest developments in Western Classical music.

    Electronic music , was originnally promoted by Western classical music composers and conductor (Busoni,Schillinger,Varese,Cage,Stockhausen)

    Let’s talk ,as an example, about’improvisation’ . This interesting musical approach mostly adopted in jazz music. Despite Improvisation is what mainly diferentiates Jazz in regards to other genres, Improvisation have been used, before jazz,in Classical Music. The great Johann Sebastian Bach was an skillful organ improviser. We could say that Bach was one of the first Jazz musicians. There is also lots of accounts of Beethoven’s, Chopin’s , Liszt’s.improvisatory skills on the piano.

    Well… It must be clear for anyone that Western classical music history is the most influential and the one that deserves more pages in Western music history books.

    2.-Popularity and audiences; Artists and composers.-

    I must say that classical music is much more OBJECTIVE . All classical music technology favors almost exclusively the music and only the music. Composer ,artists(or interpreter) , Conductor/Orchestra or ensembles and audiences are almost completely focused in music during performance.The importance remains primaly on how the music was played and audiences or cd buyers are guided to music appreciation.Here the music matters.The age of artist, his physical ugliness or beauty are relegated to second ,third,fourth….levels.There is no great shows or fancy artists in classical music ; or beautiful women in short dresses singing the “Ode of Joy”; there is nothing that could distract from strictly music appreciation.

    Classical music audiences, listeners and cd buyers are so “picky” , they are concentrated on music details ,they compare interpretations , they research over reviews from music critics; they keep sometimes two or more recordings ,they want to listen the whole music or the whole movement – from the beginning to the end – not fragments of it , etc.

    So, it is easy to conclude that music appreciation from classical music audiences is superior in regards to other “western audiences”.

    3.-Music structure and music elements

    Classical music make use of much more quantity of music elements and it’s variations:dynamics, rhythm,tonecolors(timbre),pitch,tempo,scales ,Harmony ,melody lines,….…etc.etc.etc.

    combining these elements in such a different ways ; contrasting them(also conversely) from low to high, from slow to fast,from short to long,from small to big, from consonant to dissonant ; from complete silence to full sound,

    from single instrument to full orchestration …resulting in music with the largest expresiveness scope in regards to music of other genres.Such a expressiveness it can be found-and frequently found- in one single piece of Western classical music.

    Most of pop music are monorythmic(or very few rythmic variations within the music ),make little use of Dynamics, with very simple harmonic writing; Most of folk music is very simple also,most rock music the same. Of course there are differences and different levels

    of complexity within an especific genre.

    We could maybe make a starting exercise and compare complexity and quantity of elements of music present in songs(or music) from each genre. For beginning ,you could take a sample size of ten songs(or music) from each genre

    (or pick the equivalent music time) ; start to compare by listening one ,two or as many times you want and then, the scores for analysis(if there’s score of course).

    If you want , you can make a research over the most exotic kind of music like the Classical music from the Never Never Land or The Birmanian Classical music catalogue.

    For comparison I propose the following Classical music: Bach’s English Suite No.2 (piano version); Beethoven’s Romance for violin and Orchestra No.2;Liszt’s Piano sonata in B minor; Bruckner’s Symphony No.9 ;Braga Santos’ Symphony No.4(Alvaro Cassuto version); Sibelius’ Tone Poem “Pohjola’s Daughter” , Debussy’s “L’ isle joyeuse” ;Bartok’s String quartet No.1, Rachmaninov’s Trio Elegiac No.2

    and Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No.1.

    Make ,methodologically, the best description as you can for each music. If you are a musicologist you will be capable to make a very good musical description of each one. If you are not a musicologist you can tell the one you like the most and maybe you will be capable enough to say why you like or dislike this or that music.This second opinion….i don’t want it …I have my own tastes.

    In sum, Western classical music is by far the richest music genre because adopts and combines much more elements of music than any other genre.

    4.-Listening quality

    Composers of Classical music found lots of “inspiration” on Folk music or “Local”, “regional” music ;on jazz or even on pop music….from whatever kind of music you want.

    However, Classical composers were capable to make from this “fusion”, music that contains much more “ingredients” than most of the original music genre they found inspiration from.

    A very good example of this is Dvorak’s String quartet No.12 ‘American’ ; another remarkable example is Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” that has been recognized as a masterpiece only in the classical approach version(Grofé version) with the piano and a symphony orchestra.

    Folk music from any country(Bolivia,USA,Mexico,Brazil,

    China,Germany,Australia……) may be very attractive music in certain occasions. But folk music is generally very simple forms in regards many music elements.

    This simplicity can be heard and feel .Local people from some region let’s say a very local “Brazilian people” will like a very good ‘Samba’ much more than let’s say Villa-Lobos’ “Rudepoema” Because samba and his compelling dancing rhythm and its Carnaval letters invite to dance and sing along the music…to feel as part of the music. It doesn’t matter if you need to do something else while listening .

    If you need to cook for lunch , turn on the radio and listen to samba…..perhaps it will make cooking easier. It doesn’t matter too much if the radio sound is bad.

    This fact is completely understandable taking in mind cultural aspects.There is nothing wrong to prefer a “samba music” because classical music can not fill the place that “Samba” has . Each one has its place an occasion.

    Indeed, all music genres have their proper places and occasions;values and qualities. But when you talk about strictly” listening quality”; Classical music has the highest standards.

    Of course ,for many people, this high listening quality of classical music turns out to be more a “negative quality”. Classical music is for very few occasions.Classical music it is not “Background music”, despite classical music excerpts are used in movies,advertisement,etc.

    In those terms , classical music is strongly not Free listening music.Classical music can not be appreciated if you don’t exclusively listen to the music. Classical music imposes itself;it turns to be the subject and the object.This intrinsic “listening quality” it is almost unique to Classical music and it comes most from his inherent complexity ,sophistication and intellectual approach that any other music genre has.Of course , all the above mentioned is coherent if we understand music mainly as an “Art for listening”.

    5.-Education

    Performers and composers of classical music need more education and training to perform and to compose comparing to performers and composers of other western music genres . With few and notable exceptions, pianists ,violinist ,cellists ,vocalists,conductors ,composers,etc.need continuous training and learning to be valuable musicians. Also today’s Jazz musicians need hard training and studies.

    Of course, in all genres it is needed some degree of education,training….everybody understands that music education is not a strong issue in pop music.

    Music education it’s beeing over the years such a strong matter in Western Classical music that “full music” were composed for strictly educational purposes. Bach’s Inventions and Sinfonias are one of the most notables samples of music created for education and training but also very attractive for listening. Bartok’s Mikrokosmos also aims instruction and technical training.

    There is no pop-music or rock music composed strictly for rock or pop music education purposes.

    Some additional comments.-

    Mediocre music and good music are present in all music genres;as bad and good books from notable writers ,as bad and good paintings from great painters ,etc.In classical music,one of the most notable composers like Mozart is full of mediocre music output , but it must be recognized his outstandings music masterpieces like his Sinfonia concertante or his Symphony No.41 to mention some.

    We do not need to be demagogic and,comfortably, keep saying that there is no such a superior music because it relates to cultural backgrounds and personal tastes. This is a misguided position.The debate has nothing to do with tastes and cultural background. Fake intellectuals keep saying that there is no “superior art” …..that is an absolute lie.Yes, there is superior art in many forms like classical music is much more superior in harmonic issues than American folk music. I do not mean that because this superiority, American folk music is not valuable.In this sense ;Pop music ,Rock music are also only simplest forms of music(Art) because they have a much more simple approach (strictly musical approach) than classical music.

    There is some interesting thoughts in Greg Sandow’s writings I will criticize some:

    one:

    “Suppose someone says that western classical music is better than classical Indian music. It seems uncomfortable just to write that. What a huge assumption, what an awkward stretch from apples to oranges!

    But suppose people really did say this. It would be fair then to ask them how much they know about Indian music. Can they hear what’s going on in it? Can they hear what people in India hear?”

    This demagogic criteria says nothing about anything and the question is set in very wrong terms. Indian music might be better for most of Indian people and other people (western people include)But despite the very complex music system of Indian classical,the music itself HAS NOT by far the complexity of Western classical music. I repeat ,Western Classical music is much richer in elements of music than Indian,Tunisian ,Bolivian,Mexican,……et.etc.etc.

    Indian music have very interesting elements and has qualities and values that surely are not found in Western Classical music, ‘Raagas’ and ‘Taalas’ for example. But have somebody figured out the elements ,qualities and values Western classical music has that Indian music doesn’t????? Indian Classical music has a quite different approach than Western Classical ; there is no score. Music itself is monotextured …that is, it follows one single melody line and is played by one person and sometimes

    two or small ensembles; also the use of dynamics and modulation as elements in Indian Classical music are not present. Despite there’s many different and complex rythms found in Indian, each music follows one single rhythm pattern.

    Two:

    “Can they follow the rhythms of Indian music, which in many ways are more complex than the rhythms that westerners know?And can they—moving now beyond Indian music–hear the complex rhythms in African drumming? Can they feel the long rhythmic cycles on which Tunisian music is built, made up of patterns lasting more than 100 beats? Can they hear the

    microtones that help to define the many Tunisian scales?”

    Ok.Ok.OK….Rythm is such a difficult thing there’s so many things involved. Rhythm is a complex concept itself. African drumming is very rich ,and Tunisian have patterns of more than 100 beats. What is the point here?

    Tunisian composers of music with such a long cycle are the greatest music composers on earth. African Drumming results in the richest music over the world.Indian rhythms are very complex.So Indian music is the most complex in the world. Again I repeat…rhythm ,notes ,sounds ,….are combined in Western classical music in such a fantastic and complex shapes that are not found in Indian,Chinese,Tunisian,

    African…..music.

    Three:

    “Improvisation lies at the heart of jazz. It’s almost completely absent from classical music. Most classical musicians can’t improvise, or think that they can’t. Some are afraid even to try”.

    First of all; there’s a lots of accounts that Improvisation was firstly used in the context of classical music. Second; the approach of classical music education have discarded Improvisation as an important issue.

    In classical music ,improvisations are written in forms of “Cadenzas” , there is cadenzas from composers or cadenzas from performers to show tecnnical abilities for a violin concerto,piano concerto,etc.

    Besides, the afirmation above suggests that jazz musicians are better than classical musicians because most of classical musicians can not improvise . This is a very poor argument.I am thinking in how many jazz pianists are “afraid” to try the difficult classical piano repertoire. There must be some …don’t you think??? This kind of assertions don’t contribute anything to this debate.

    “But improvisation, we might say, if we were fierce jazz partisans, is essential for music. It keeps music honest.. It has a moral dimension. It’s spontaneous, authentic. When you improvise, you’re true to yourself. You commune with other musicians, as all of you improvise together, creating something bigger, better, and deeper than anything any of you could do on your own”.

    “Often…improvisations are nothing more than pure, sometimes bizarre samplings of sound that are not at all integrated into the directives of a composition.This results in constant arousal and appeasement, something I find intolerable. . . . [E]verybody arouses everybody else; it becomes a kind of public onanism. [My emphasis]”

    Improvisation is a very interesting element in Jazz music(but not exclusive). However we have two extremed opinions above : one that suggests that jazz is the most honest music because improvisation and gives improvisation almost a religious character. The other contrary opinion(Pierre Boulez) say that improvisation is a trash.

    Both opinions are exaggerated.The first one because Improvisation in jazz performance is prepared, is planned… is not “absolutely spontaneous” it is not something like “the Holy spirit of improvisation descended and suddenly, the performer started to improvise”. It also suggests that you can not do anything “deeper and better and bigger” in music if you don’t improvise.And ,again, suggests that Jazz performers are the “Most honest musicians in the world”. These opinions should make part of a ” Handbook of music nonsense”.

    Pierre Boulez’s opinion also reflects that improvisation results in “bad music”. That assertion is partially truth and so, partially untrue. The main challenge during improvisation is performer’s musical contribution to the music he is improvising over.

    Despite anything , the presence of improvisation in jazz certainly is by far not enough to say that “jazz is the superior” and it is not a “guarantee of quality” of music as much as the abscense of it results in inferior music.

    “Classical music will never die ; blessed all by the voices of God and angels , cursed all that can not hear .”

  34. Carlos Fischer says

    Dear Mr. Sandow:

    I tell you 5 music that i like the most :

    Rachmaninov’s Piano concerto no.3 ; Sibelius symphony No.1 ; Stravinsky’s firebird Suite; Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit and Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht .

    I could tell you many others that i like the most

    Best regards

  35. lottelenya says

    What you said, Kenny–many classical musicians would like to think they understand what it means to play jazz, when they really, really don’t. But, then again, many classical musicians (including some of the pompous gits here) seem to think they’re superior to the rest of us mere mortals by virtue of their classical training. All the gas-baggery here makes this “classically-trained musician” (barf) want to go blast some Led Zeppelin at full volume.

  36. Carlos Fischer says

    Greg: i am re-posting this comment without

    the unfair words of previous comment on the subject.Please erase that(august/11) and post this. I received your e-mail…nice to have feed-back. Thanks and sorry again.

    The myth about superiority of classical music over the other “genres” or “sub-genres” it is not a myth it is a FACT beyond tastes and of course it can be proved. Proving this “MYTH” like proving the Gravity Law it will be impossible of course .

    For this purpose, any starting point should not consider any cultural background nor personal tastes during analysis. The Object is “The music genre”.

    For overall approach to this matter we should first agree about the meaning of “superiority” . Analysis should be made defining Superiority on many aspects of each genre : History , composers,artists(interpreters), music structure(musical elements analysis) ,musical innovation , popularity,music education,etc.

    This analysis will force to reach to some undeniable facts and conclusions in regards each music genre.I will not attempt to make such analysis because maybe this question would be a matter of a Doctoral Thesis. I will simply write some points

    of view on the aspects mentioned above that explain why I think Western Classical music as a “Superior form of art” in regards to the other music genres.

    History,evolution,innovation and influences( Western classical vs.other western genres)

    Classical music is the main actor of historical facts in the history of western music.From classical music genre, the mainstream of musical evolution is found:Musical concepts and innovations of the majority of musical elements used to make music .

    Concepts like modulation, polyphony , counterpoint ,phrasing ,texture ,thematic development,atonality,dissonance …….etc. Have their most significant developments and applications in classical music.

    The concepts of “Concert music” and “Concerto” have origins in classical music also. Liszt again, was the classical composer that made the piano a definitive concert instrument.

    The violin, the cello, the clarinet ,the trumpet and other instruments….reached the status of concert instruments because of Western classical music composers.

    Choral music and vocal music reached the most significant developments in Western classical music .

    Orchestration , have had their greatest developments in Western Classical music.

    Electronic music , was originally promoted by Western classical music composers and conductors.(Busoni,Schillinger,Varese,Cage,Stockhausen)

    Let’s talk ,as an example, about ‘improvisation’ . This interesting musical approach mostly adopted in jazz music. Despite Improvisation is what mainly differentiates Jazz in regards to other genres, Improvisation have been used, before jazz,

    in Classical Music. The great Johann Sebastian Bach was an skillful organ improviser. We could say that Bach was one of the first Jazz musicians. There is also lots of accounts of Beethoven’s, Chopin’s , Liszt’s improvising skills on the piano.

    Well… It must be clear for anyone that Western classical music history is the most influential and the one that deserves more pages in Western music history books.

    Popularity and audiences; Artists and composers.-

    I must say that classical music is much more OBJECTIVE . All classical music technology favors almost exclusively the music and only the music.

    Composer ,artists(or interpreter) , Conductor/Orchestra or ensembles and audiences are almost completely focused in music during performance.

    The importance remains mainly on how the music was played and audiences or cd buyers are guided to music appreciation.Here the music matters.The age of artist,

    his physical ugliness or beauty are relegated to second ,third,fourth….levels.

    There is no great shows or fancy artists in classical music ; or beautiful women in short dresses singing the “Ode of Joy”; there is nothing that could distract from strictly music appreciation.

    Classical music audiences, listeners and cd buyers are so “picky” , they are concentrated on music details ,they compare interpretations , they research over reviews from music critics; they keep sometimes two or more recordings ,

    they want to listen the whole music or the whole movement – from the beginning to the end – not fragments of it , etc.

    So, it is easy to conclude that music appreciation from classical music audiences is superior in regards to other “western audiences”.

    Music structure and music elements

    Classical music make use of much more quantity of music elements and it’s variations: dynamics, rhythm,tone colors(timbre),pitch,tempo,scalesHarmony ,melody lines,….…etc.etc.etc.

    combining these elements in such a different ways ; contrasting them(also conversely) from low to high, from slow to fast,from short to long,from small to big, from consonant to dissonant ; from complete silence to full sound,

    from single instrument to full orchestration…resulting in music with the largest expressiveness scope in regards to music of other genres.Such a expressiveness it can be found-and frequently found- in one single piece of Western classical music.

    Most of pop music are monorhythmic(or very few rhythm variations within the music ),make little use of Dynamics, with very simple harmonic writing; Most of folk music is very simple also,most rock music the same. Of course there are

    differences and different levels of complexity within an specific genre.

    We could maybe make a starting exercise and compare complexity and quantity of elements of music present in songs(or music) from each genre. For beginning ,you could take a sample size of ten songs(or music) from each genre

    (or pick the equivalent music time) ; start to compare by listening one ,two or as many times you want and then, the scores for analysis(if there’s score of course).

    If you want , you can make a research over the most exotic kind of music like the Classical music from the Never Never Land or The Birmanian Classical music catalogue.

    For comparison I propose the following Classical music: Bach’s English Suite No.2 (piano version); Beethoven’s Romance for violin and Orchestra No.2;Liszt’s Piano sonata in B minor; Bruckner’s Symphony No.9 ;Braga Santos’ Symphony No.4

    (Alvaro Cassuto version); Sibelius’ Tone Poem “Pohjola’s Daughter” , Debussy’s “L’ isle joyeuse” ;Bartok’s String quartet No.1, Rachmaninov’s Trio Elegiac No.2

    and Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No.1.

    Make ,methodologically, the best description as you can for each music. If you are a musicologist you will be capable to make a very good musical description of each one. If you are not a musicologist you can tell the one you like the most and maybe

    you will be capable enough to say why you like or dislike this or that music.This second opinion….i don’t want it …I have my own tastes.

    In sum, Western classical music is by far the richest music genre because adopts and combines much more elements of music than any other genre.

    Listening quality

    Composers of Classical music found lots of “inspiration” on Folk music or “Local”, “regional” music ;on jazz or even on pop music….from whatever kind of music you want.

    However, Classical composers were capable to make from this “fusion”, music that contains much more “ingredients” than most of the original music genre they found inspiration from.

    A very good example of this is Dvorak’s String quartet No.12 ‘American’ ; another remarkable example is Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” that has been recognized as a masterpiece only in the classical approach version(Grofé version) with the piano

    and a symphony orchestra.

    Folk music from any country(Bolivia,USA,Mexico,Brazil,China,Germany,Australia……) may be very attractive music in certain occasions. But folk music is generally very simple forms in regards many music elements.

    This simplicity can be heard and feel .Local people from some region let’s say a very local “Brazilian people” will like a very good ‘Samba’ much more than let’s say Villa-Lobos’ “Rudepoema” Because samba and his compelling dancing rhythm and its

    Carnival letters invites to dance and sing along the music…to feel as part of the music. It doesn’t matter if you need to do something else while listening .

    If you need to cook for lunch , turn on the radio and listen to samba…..perhaps it will make cooking easier. It doesn’t matter too much if the radio sound is bad.

    This fact is completely understandable taking in mind cultural aspects.There is nothing wrong to prefer a “samba music” because classical music can not fill the place that “Samba” has . Each one has its place an occasion.

    Indeed, all music genres have their proper places and occasions;values and qualities. But when you talk about strictly” listening quality”; Classical music has the highest standards.

    Of course ,for many people, this high listening quality of classical music turns out to be more a “negative quality”. Classical music is for very few occasions.Classical music it is not “Background music”, despite classical music excerpts are used

    in movies,advertisement,.…etc.

    In those terms , classical music is strongly not Free listening music.Classical music can not be appreciated if you don’t exclusively listen to the music. Classical music imposes itself;it turns to be the subject and the object.This intrinsic “listening

    quality” it is almost unique to Classical music and it comes most from his inherent complexity ,sophistication and intellectual approach that any other music genre has.

    Of course , all the above mentioned is coherent if we understand music mainly as an “art for listening”.

    Education

    Performers and composers of classical music need more education and training to perform and to compose comparing to performers and composers of other western music genres . With few and notable exceptions, pianists ,violinist ,cellists ,

    vocalists,conductors ,composers,etc.need continuous training and learning to be valuable musicians. Also today’s Jazz musicians need hard training and studies.

    Of course, in all genres it is needed some degree of education,training….everybody understands that music education is not a strong issue in pop music.

    Music education it’s being over the years such a strong matter in Western Classical music that “full music” were composed for strictly educational purposes. Bach’s Inventions and Sinfonias are one of the most notables samples of music created for

    education and training but also very attractive for listening. Bartok’s Mikrokosmos also aims instruction and technical training.

    There is no pop-music or rock music composed strictly for rock or pop music education purposes.

    Some additional comments.-

    Mediocre music and good music are present in all music genres;as bad and good books from notable writers ,as bad and good paintings from great painters ,etc.

    In classical music,one of the most notable composers like Mozart is full of mediocre music output , but it must be recognized his outstanding music masterpieces like his

    Sinfonia concertante or his Symphony No.41 to mention some.

    We do not need to stand comfortable and keep saying that there is no such a superior music because it relates to cultural backgrounds and personal tastes. This is a misguided position.The debate has nothing to do with tastes(or aesthetic values) and cultural

    background. People keep saying that there is no “superior art” …..that is an absolute lie.Yes, there is superior art in many forms like classical music is

    much more superior in harmonic issues than American folk music. I do not mean that because this superiority, American folk music is not valuable.In this sense ;

    Pop music ,Rock music are also only simplest forms of music(Art) because they have a much more simple approach (strictly musical approach) than classical music.

    There is some interesting thoughts in Greg Sandow’s writings I will criticize some:

    one:

    “Suppose someone says that western classical music is better than classical Indian music. It seems uncomfortable just to write that. What a huge assumption, what an awkward stretch from apples to oranges!

    But suppose people really did say this. It would be fair then to ask them how much they know about Indian music. Can they hear what’s going on in it? Can they hear what people in India hear?”

    This criteria says nothing about anything and the question is set in very wrong terms. Indian music might be better for most of Indian people and other people (western people include)

    But despite the very complex music system of Indian classical,the music itself HAS NOT by far the complexity of Western classical music. I repeat ,Western Classical music is much richer in elements of music than Indian,Tunisian ,Bolivian,Mexican,……et.etc.etc.

    Indian music have very interesting elements and has qualities and values that surely are not found in Western Classical music, ‘Raagas’ and ‘Taalas’ for example. But have somebody figured out the elements ,qualities and values Western classical

    music has that Indian music doesn’t????? Indian Classical music has a quite different approach than Western Classical ; there is no score. Music itself is mono-textured …that is, it follows one single melody line and is played by one person and sometimes

    two or small ensembles; also the use of dynamics and modulation as elements in Indian Classical music are not present. Despite there’s many different and complex rhythms found in Indian, each music follows one single rhythm pattern.

    Two:

    “Can they follow the rhythms of Indian music, which in many ways are more complex than the rhythms that westerners know?

    And can they—moving now beyond Indian music–hear the complex rhythms in African drumming? Can they feel the long rhythmic cycles on which Tunisian music is built, made up of patterns lasting more than 100 beats? Can they hear the

    microtones that help to define the many Tunisian scales?”

    Ok.Ok.OK….Rhythm is such a difficult thing there’s so many things involved. Rhythm is a complex concept itself. African drumming is very rich ,and Tunisian have patterns of more than 100 beats. What is the point here?

    Tunisian composers of music with such a long cycle are the greatest music composers on earth. African Drumming results in the richest music over the world.

    Indian rhythms are very complex.So Indian music is the most complex in the world. Again I repeat…rhythm ,notes ,sounds ,….are combined in Western classical music in such a fantastic and complex shapes that are not found in Indian,Chinese,Tunisian,

    African…..music.

    Three:

    “Improvisation lies at the heart of jazz. It’s almost completely absent from classical music. Most classical musicians can’t improvise, or think that they can’t. Some are afraid even to try”.

    First of all; there’s a lots of accounts that Improvisation was firstly used in the context of classical music. Second; the approach of classical music education have discarded Improvisation as an important issue.

    In classical music ,improvisations are written in forms of “Cadenzas” , there is cadenzas from composers or cadenzas from performers to show technnical abilities for a violin concerto,piano concerto,etc.

    Besides, the affirmation above suggests that jazz musicians are better than classical musicians because most of classical musicians can not improvise . This is a very poor argument.

    I am thinking in how many jazz pianists are “afraid” to try the difficult classical piano repertoire. There must be some …don’t you think??? This kind of assertions don’t contribute anything to this debate.

    “But improvisation, we might say, if we were fierce jazz partisans, is essential for music. It keeps music honest.. It has a moral dimension. It’s spontaneous, authentic. When you improvise, you’re true to yourself. You commune with other

    musicians, as all of you improvise together, creating something bigger, better, and deeper than anything any of you could do on your own”.

    “Often…improvisations are nothing more than pure, sometimes bizarre samplings of sound that are not at all integrated into the directives of a composition.

    This results in constant arousal and appeasement, something I find intolerable. . . . [E]verybody arouses everybody else; it becomes a kind of public onanism. [My emphasis]”

    Improvisation is a very interesting approach in Jazz music(but not exclusive). However we have two extreme opinions above : one that suggests that jazz is the most honest music because improvisation and gives improvisation almost a religious

    character. The other contrary opinion(Pierre Boulez) say that improvisation is a trash.

    Both opinions are exaggerated.The first one because Improvisation in jazz performance is prepared, is planned… is not “absolutely spontaneous” it is not something like “the Holy spirit of improvisation descended and suddenly, the

    performer started to improvise”. It also suggests that you can not do anything “deeper and better and bigger” in music if you don’t improvise.

    And ,again, suggests that Jazz performers are the “Most honest musicians in the world”. These opinions should make part of a ” Handbook of music nonsense”.

    Pierre Boulez’s opinion also reflects that improvisation results in “bad music”. That assertion is partially truth and so, partially untrue. The main challenge during improvisation is performer’s musical contribution to the music he is improvising over.

    Despite anything , the presence of improvisation in jazz certainly is by far not enough to say that “jazz is the superior” and it is not a “guarantee of quality” of music as much as the absence of it results in inferior music.

    “Classical music will never die , blessed all by the voices of God and angels , cursed all that can not hear .”

  37. Absurdist says

    Classical music is superior because my music lit professor, a legend in his own mind, swears up and down that it is. He also resented that I’d be listening to Prince and Laurie Anderson in the upstairs student lounge while he was trying to force the general importance of the motet down everyone’s throats, or intimidate his students to the point that some actually spent large amounts of time trying to find sonata allegro form in Le Sacre du Printemps.

    I spent some free time in music school fronting a fun Psychedelic Furs cover band My fiddler friends put me in the back section of a zydeco band. I’d have had even more fun if my music school had had an ethnomusicology division, but things were backwards in the eighties.

    Without vernacular music, regardless of the label applied, there is no classical music.

  38. Tim Roberts says

    For 30 years I tried to make a living in the ‘early music’ end of Classical music (mainly continuo playing, so some semi-improvising. Eventually the boredom of playing the same chord sequences over and over started to drive me crazy. As regards pop I am a sort of Rip van Winkle, I really went into a sulk when the Beatles split in 1970. I now have a new girlfriend who knows an amazing amount about ‘pop’ (in the broadest sense: BBC Radio 6 plus Late Junction) and I’m trying to educate myself from scratch. But I’m almost an old man and the deep predjudices of the “classical” drug I’ve been on for years are so hard to escape from. I hope I manage it because she is really worth it.

    As regards (mainstream) Classical vs. Pop it seems to me many of are blind to what so much of it has in common: three basic chords, very four-square phrasing, dominance of an almost martial 4/4 time., and a tendency to a mawkish, quasi-Romantic expression… I mean, in comparison to all the other world musics – not to mention the commercial way all music has to be marketed. Amateur music-making has not got a look-in on this thread – except briefly to be mocked.

    Tim Roberts
    London, England

  39. Larry says

    I think you are looking at this wrong people who are into classical music simply think that pop music is just all around less skilled which in my experience is true I myself started out In music learning my favourite pop songs and then switched to classical/jazz.
    The fact is that instrumentalists are generally so good at what they do because they are constantly striving for a bigger challenge to make themselves become even better than they are currently for example piano man will only keep you busy for so long I mean it’s a great song with a nice melody but it’s not a very challenging peace either and I know there are some impressive pop stars there like Eddie can Halen and some others who are pretty virtuoso but nothing in the pop world will compare in difficulty to something like Rachmaninov piano concerto 3 that thing is like am hour of solid hardcore playing weather the music is “better” or not I can’t say but I deffinately think if you are taking musicians solely on there playing skills and not there writing skills classical soloists would win by a landslide compared to pop musicians.

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