Why Classical Music is not Popular Music
by Simon Barber
Why classical music isn’t popular music: a subjective point of view
When people discover that I studied music the question I’m asked is: “what instrument do you play?” The assumption behind the question is understandable: musicians play instruments. I usually say “guitar” and leave it at that. It’s not really true but it’s too complicated to explain further. In fact, I don’t enjoy performing and never have. I do enjoying playing sometimes, usually for myself or as accompaniment to others who sing. Mostly, though, I use the guitar to do something else: to write music. When people discover that I’m a composer and that I studied composition I’m asked “What style of music do you write?” At this point it becomes very difficult to explain.
So, two qualities are fundamental to what later became music: ritual and imitation.
Today ritual and imitation remain key components to our idea of music. These are factors which contribute to our ability to recognise something familiar to us and, because of this, we feel empowered: through ritual, the sequence of events to a story, we have an expectation of what will happen and through imitation we recognise different elements or characters within the story. This almost certainly reflects a deep need in our brain to recognise ordered patterns of events, e.g. night following day, spring following winter.
It is easy to understand why music became important to religious activity reflecting as it did the stages in an individual’s life: birth, puberty, marriage,… death; as well as stages in the life of the community: spring festivals, bacchanalia, triumph in battle, a successful hunt etc. To have these events reflected in music became central for binding the individual to the community, maintaining bonds within the community as well as reinforcing the religious point of view of the time.
OK, enough anthropology! What are the components in music that create and reflect meaning for us?
“Rhythm” refers to the pulse of the music which is formed through the organisation of beats. Rhythm is often associated with percussion. When we hear rhythms, particularly repetitively, fast and at high volume, we experience this pulse as our own pulse. This has the effect of making us feel “bigger” and, e.g. when on the dance floor, bound directly, if not always physically, with the people around us.
“Pitch” refers to the frequency of the sound we hear – experienced as high and low sounds. The sound quality – timbre - contributes to how we respond to the sound. “Soft” sounds, e.g. a quiet French horn, may make us feel relaxed and remind us of the sea whereas “hard” sounds, e.g. trumpet fanfares, demand our attention completely and preclude any daydreaming. When two different pitches sound simultaneously we have entered the world of…
We use the word “harmony” in a non-musical context to describe agreement and co-operation between people. Another word for this is “accord”. A situation where there is disagreement and non-cooperation can be described by its opposite: “discord”. Both these words are related to the word “chord” which describes the simultaneous sounding of two pitches or more.
As you might expect, what is perceived as “discord” – or, musically speaking, “dissonance” – changes over time and is different from culture to culture. Chinese music can sound dissonant to the European ear, just as Mozart can sound strange to Indians. So, there is no ‘universality’ of meaning in music: the meaning that we experience in music is (a) connected to time and place and (b) learnt.
The word “taste”, in English as in German, is used to describe the tendency to reflect about aesthetic experience and choose the kind of aesthetic experience we want to have. Unlike laws governing a community, taste is not morally binding and varies greatly between individuals and different parts of the community.
Taste changes over time. Often when we look back to what was fashionable even 10 or 15 years ago we can find it funny – and experience our taste of today as completely normal. We have tastes in clothes, music, cars – even people – which change over time. When we hear popular music from the 1950s compared with the 1970s the differences are striking. The popular music of the first decade of the 21st century is similarly different to that of the 1980s.
Because taste isn’t morally binding it is considered inappropriate to use words like “good” and “bad” in connection with it – at least publicly. We all have ideas of “good” and “bad” taste but don’t immediately recognise how or why our tastes or interests change over time until we are confronted with a memory from the past – or a health problem. Then we have a point of reference to measure changes in our taste.
Having introduced the topic of “taste” we are prepared to tackle the topic of…
Frequently I’m asked “What style of music do you write?” which is a very difficult question to answer. And I can only begin to do so by giving a very quick overview of the evolution of music in Europe…
Once upon a time music was linked with rituals and ceremonies within the community. Over time the art of music-making developed as did the scope of its expression. As the need for entertainment and further expression developed in society the profession of poet and, later, composer emerged. Music was originally used with words – for songs. This is still the most popular form of music today.
The idea of the individual within the community became strong during the time of the renaissance and that is when the profession of composer began to flourish and the art of instrumental music, i.e. music for instruments alone without voice, began to develop.
The instrumental music which emerged around this time was associated with the court. It was the music written to entertain the nobility. This music neither belonged to the sacred music of the church nor the folk music of the culture, though the composers often worked for the church and were influenced by the melodies of folk music in writing their compositions.
Dance had always been important in expressing ritual in music but was quashed with the rise of Christendom in favour of a more meditative expression. It was left to folk music to preserve and develop the ritual of dance. The secular music of the court used dance rhythms and forms of folk music combined with the theoretical knowledge of harmony used in the compositions of the church.
With the emergence of a wealthy middle class its demand for entertainment grew and secular music moved outside the court and into the market place. New forms of entertainment emerged, notably opera, then symphonic and chamber music.
The impulse behind the development of music in the 20th century came firstly from composers who saw themselves as being at the forefront of musical innovation, particularly in terms of harmonic and rhythmic innovation. However, this quickly became subsumed by the growing entertainment industry which used whatever it could find to make money – whether it was the music of Igor Stravinsky’s La Sacre du Printemps (composed in 1913) used for Disney’s “Fantasia” in 1939 (for which the composer was miserably paid) or the rap and hip hop music of today: a dynamic and angry expression of desperation which is marketed to make money for business.
The composer or innovative “artist” has, therefore, lost ground to businesses which want products to sell in the market place for mass consumption to make millions of dollars. Even a rock group like Pink Floyd which has been directly critical of the marketing industry are themselves constantly remarketed and repackaged to make even more money for the people they criticise.
Against this backdrop the composer of today hardly has a chance: innovation in musical expression has been trivialised to novelty or, as Theodor Adorno (composer, philosopher and sociologist) once called it, fetish.
The composer of today has the choice: to either conform to ‘industry standards’, write film music or pop music and work for the entertainment industry or be ignored by the industry and, consequently, by society.
Innovative artists have today been replaced by marketing departments. For over 70 years market research has been providing data for companies with information about “target groups”, “consumers”, “buying habits” etc. This has created the idea of people paying for a service: the service they are paying for is entertainment. The music produced today is targeted at entertaining people. In order to entertain people one needs to, for example, write music which already sounds familiar. The consumer mentality has turned art into something to be consumed – a notion ironically popularised by the artist Andy Warhol (probably the first artist to make a successful crossover into marketing) – without any deeper sense. Even the rock n’ roll of the 50s, 60s and 70s with its rebellious and revolutionary messages feared by ‘the establishment’ of the time is now nostalgically re-marketed by ‘the establishment’ itself. Today corporate managers, rather than going to the opera, feel that they are cool if they listen to ‘Rammstein’ instead: there is a slightly threatening, “other” feeling to the music coming from outside the boredom of their lives – but at the same time they feel secure that nothing much will really change in their life so a high degree of aggression expressed in some popular music forms can be tolerated… and used in marketing as we have seen in the case of rap and hip hop.
We can see how music has become (a) a commodity to be consumed like chocolate or alcohol and (b) has become trivial – i.e. something without any consequence other than an emotional joyride. In other words, music is used liked a drug – sometimes as a stimulant, sometimes as a relaxant.
Not so long ago composers were feared enough by governments to either be sent into exile, imprisoned or blackmailed. Examples include Arnold Schönberg, Jewish-German composer, who left Germany for the USA in the 30s; Conlon Nancarrow, American composer, who left the USA during the McCarthy era in the 50s for Mexico; Isang Yun, Korean composer, who was kidnapped from Germany by North Korean agents and imprisoned in North Korea for some years in the late 1960s and Dimitri Schostokovitisch, who was threatened and coerced into conforming to the ‘socialist realism’ of Stalin. The music written by these composers and many others was perceived as a threat by totalitarian governments.
Now we have the free-market. And democracy. Easy and groovy.
How free are we?
How much choice do we have when everything is the same?
Can we really be openly critical about society?
These are things we mostly don’t like to think about or discuss. In a society that promotes individuality as a life-style it’s easier to conform than develop ones own individuality.
These days it isn’t necessary to threaten or imprison composers – we can ignore them, laugh at them, hate them… but mostly we don’t hear them. They are effectively neutralised.
The music isn’t familiar. It rarely sounds pretty. It often isn’t easy to understand. It’s rarely relaxing. It’s hardly ever groovy and easy…
…but the reasons for being neutralised are, naturally, deeper: the music can’t be easily marketed. It has no purpose in the consumer society: it neither makes money nor has popular entertainment value. It doesn’t fit in with the industrial work routine. It makes us feel uncomfortable…
… and that is the answer to the question asked of me: “What kind of music do you write?”
The next question is often….
Because I’ve already taken up enough time I’ll give a short answer to that: if one is a prostitute one mostly doesn’t want to remain a prostitute – or at least only part time to bring in the necessary money to finance free time. In my case, I teach English (and have done many other things, but haven’t been a prostitute yet) to finance my free time in order to write the music I want to write.