Ever since writers Greg Sandow and Anne Midgette began stirring up opinions on whether classical music is the “best” music, opinions have been flying, and so, we thought we would add our opinion to the masses and weigh in on the topic.
First off, we think it’s somewhat of a dumb conversation if the question is truly about what is the “best” music. That is a person-to-person issue of what they like best. To tell someone that this music is better than what they like will simply get you in an argument going nowhere, because we all like what we like. But that hasn’t ever stopped anyone, and we’ve certainly been guilty of it ourselves, even between which is a better “pop” genre.
But there is some importance to the conversation. If classical music shouldn’t be seen as anything but a side-by-side competitor to pop music, then why should its organizations and presenters be allowed to become non-profit organizations? You certainly don’t see any Lady Gaga Society 501(c)(3)s. But if “Telephone” should be seen as on par with Sondra Radvanovsky singing Verdi’s aria “Tacea la notte,” then why is classical music allowed to act as a cultural necessity worth “saving?” Shouldn’t it simply be subject to the free market of the music world? And if you follow that logic, then since it makes up one of the smallest sectors of the music industry, is it actually some of the “worst” music? The fact that classical music is one of the only “genres” that is allowed to be a charitable organization makes the question of musical hierarchy actually important, and means that if it is to be talked about, one shouldn’t do it with a grain of salt. There could be repercussions down the line.
Is it okay for one person to not like Radvanovsky and yet love Gaga? — absolutely. Is it okay for another person to despise Gaga and love Radvanovsky? — of course. Is one right and the other wrong? No. That has to do with personal likes and dislikes, and when that is all you are talking about, then Greg Sandow and Andrew Malone of DMV Classical are right, classical music isn’t “superior” or the “best” genre, it’s simply another option. But when it comes to a question of which is needed for an advanced and well-rounded culture, or which should be allowed to take tax-deductible donations in order to survive, the answer isn’t as easy. When the questions of whether or not the music makes a better society come into play, and tax dollars become an issue, the question is no longer what do people like, it becomes what one brings to our society.
Founding Father John Adams stated “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.” This is how he envisioned the evolution of a perfect society, one that ends with people being able to focus on their intellectual and creative depth through the Arts. And that is when music becomes important to cultural and societal well-being, and needs the support of government tax codes. That is why we should “Support the Arts.” But does Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” or T. Payne talking through an auto-tune program count as “art music?” And that question isn’t as easy as it seems either, for surely, one could easily argue that either of the previously mentioned examples should be given as much artistic merit as John Cage’s infamous piece 4’33 (Four minutes and thirty-three seconds), or should they? Where do we draw lines of what is of artistic merit when it comes to music? Is it purpose, is it training, is it a sound? What constitutes something that is going to make us a better and more cultured and creative society, and what constitutes musical garbage, because surely people could argue on that even within their respective musical genres.
These questions and issues are not easy to answer, but they are actually important. People have raised the issue and in a way sought quick and easy answers to sort of poopoo it away. They have also used it as a cry against classical music lovers being elitist and snobby, which we’re all for, but we believe you have to be careful while doing that. It doesn’t really look that great when prominent writers with large audiences from major papers to blogs start saying that classical music isn’t important. That surely doesn’t help “save” the genre at all.
And so we admit that attempting to declare one type of music as “best” cannot be done because most associate that term with personal preference. However, what has became apparent is the importance of a new discussion about cultural and societal “worth” within musical types. This argument is the one that matters since classical music receives subsidization and pop music genres do not. But why is classical music more culturally “worthy” than pop? Even that answer is difficult to pin down. It seems to come from a derived value that the music represents. So, let’s delve into possible reasons that Classical music gives a greater perceived cultural value over pop music.
Classical music is pure music. What does that mean? It means that you have to know what you’re doing to write it or perform it. It means that it has evolved from what at one point was “pop” music into an increasingly complex form that exists to explore what music can be and do. In fact, if pop music lovers are honest with themselves, pop music hasn’t really evolved since the thirteenth century troubadour songs. In fact, most of the lyrical content hasn’t changed either. But classical music has always sort of been different, though it flirted with being one and the same within the troubadour time period (think motets). Even the oldest written music from ancient Greece is thought to have taken place within the theater. And where was written music cultivated? The Catholic Church, and the high-tradition Mass to be even more specific. So, classical music has always been a somewhat elevated art in comparison to pop music. Even the fact that it required training, the ability to be taught, and the ability to be written down, set it apart from “pop” music and on another plane of intellectual thought and ability.
It is that elevated amount of training, ability, and pure musical knowledge that keeps even the most “pop” influenced of classical music on a different musical level than the pure pop. In blatant comparison, take Christopher O’Riley’s arrangements of Radiohead songs. Here, O’Riley is using nothing but “pop” music to make his arrangements, yet due to his musical training and dedication to actually knowing how to purposefully handle musical elements, he creates a completely different feel from the Radiohead melodies and puts the music on another plane than it was before. It’s not just simply a piano transcription, or a more pretty but boring version, but rather a new musical creation. Those separations are why pop music and classical music cater to different audiences, and pop music can reach a larger one. We estimate (complete speculation based on no fact) that 75% of “pop” musicians (not necessarily the songwriters) don’t read music, and an even larger percentage (even including pop songwriters) have never studied music theory. We say this not to seem snobby, but to bring up the next point.
Pop music is written in less musically complex manners due to the inability of pop musicians/songwriters to create music in a studied way. This then creates something that a populace, of which a large majority has also never studied music, can latch onto and easily comprehend. Now, before the pop-music supporters start getting all in a tuft, we’re not saying that a pop musician doesn’t stumble onto something more complex from time-to-time. We’re sure that there’s a German-augmented-sixth chord in some Pink Floyd song somewhere, but we’re guessing it happens by accident, and wasn’t intentionally included for a distinct purpose. And when pop music does become purposefully complex, you’ll usually find that the person that wrote the music has had some sort of classical music training — thus the reason for being able to purposefully manipulate the music.
But why does that matter? Well, it’s basically about perception. Due to an advanced level of training and an incredible amount of complexity there is a perception of higher value from classical music. Why? Well, it can go back to the same reason pop music has a large audience. The majority of people don’t have an advanced musical degree, and therefore they couldn’t recreate the music themselves. It’s the old adage that permeates many art forms from music to movies — “I don’t get it, so it must be smart, and it must be good.” It is also this amount of complexity and the necessity of education that allows people to assume classical music is “superior” to pop music. And if the qualification for a musical hierarchy is set as music that is created from an informed perspective, well, then classical music is definitely the superior form of music. But if the qualification is what the most people like, then classical music is probably towards the bottom of the food chain.
But is perception the only thing that gives classical music value? And is that perceived value the only thing that classical music brings to a society? If it is, is that “worthy” of non-profit status for the presenters? Is that qualification enough to allow classical music to say that it is something “worth” saving even if no one listens to it, or pays money for recordings of it? Well, no. It’s not. There are plenty of hobbies, and crafts in this world that have an educated side and a non-educated side that the government doesn’t give tax-exemption status to. No, there has to be something else. Something else that brings a real value to our society.
In order to find that “worth” we must look at the shared value that both pop and classical present. This is a shared value simply because it is all music. We’re talking about creativity.
Participation in all genres of music instills the value of creativity into participants (both passive and active). Classical music has no strangelhold on this value, in fact, music is not even be the majority shareholder. It’s simply a piece of the Arts puzzle. The Arts is where creativity lives. The Arts inspire imagination; nay, they require it. So, even when the sciences speak of the need, usage, and fostering of creativity, they cannot hold a candle to the Arts. Why? Though it may take creativity to come up with and use a formula, the Arts have no formulas. Sure, there are styles, shapes, and forms, but every single time Art is created or performed it is new and requires imagination. The sciences are learned, done, made, and practiced; but the Arts are CREATEd, the very root of creativity.
But why is creativity a value worth subsidizing? Well, though the Arts may be the main producers, every study and discipline benefits from creativity. Despite our above bashing of the sciences, Einstein’s creativity is what brought about his revolutionary theories. Theory takes guesswork, imagination, and creativity. Buildings and infrastructure take creativity. Architects are as much artists as they are mathematicians! Language interpretation takes creativity, which in turn allows us to connect with one another. A more creative society is a better and advanced society, thus the reason that John Adams saw the end result of a perfect society as one that mainly focused on creative endeavors. But creativity must be learned and fostered as much as anything else. Therefore, in our goal of a more perfect society we must not only preserve creativity, we must ensure the advancement of creativity, and thus the need to subsidize those sectors of the Arts (the bastions of creativity) which may not survive solely on popularity alone.
But what does all of this have to do with the classical vs. pop discussion?
Well, admittedly, classical music is one of the Arts which furthers creativity yet cannot survive solely on popularity. Earlier, we talked about the study, education, and devotion that classical music requires, and pop music does not. However, at first glance, this would make it seem that pop music then requires more creativity. But, the reality is that because of classical music’s far more advanced study of the art itself, the genre is furthering the craft. Think about it. When John Cage’s 4’33″ is performed, or is talked about, its esoteric ridiculousness is what allows us to use it as an “on-par” comparison with Lady Gaga. But, its purpose of expanding the idea of “what is music” opened up new worlds of musical creation. It’s about stretching boundaries. Electronic music as a part of classical music was around long before it was used in the hip-hop world. Classical music is what legitimized the recording industry. As stuffy and stuck in the past as many would like to think classical music truly is (including ourselves), it has been what has pushed musical boundaries, and allowed pop music to exist at the level that it does. The best non-classical musicians have all benefited from some classical music-related training or invention. Would there be a Billy Joel, Elton John, Ben Folds, etc. on the piano if it weren’t for Classical (the actual time period/style) music composers expanding dynamic range to the point where the pianoforte became a necessity back in the eighteenth century? No. And let’s face it, “Harpsichord Man” would not have been as big of hit as “Piano Man.”
There is a division between pop and advanced/educated/pure in all Art forms, and music is one of the most polarized. But it is within the advanced studies of Art forms that the craft is furthered and expanded. Therefore, if the biggest reason for Arts subsidization is fostering creativity, then the advancement of the Arts themselves should be the most important creative endeavor to support as a society. Since classical music is the purest and most advanced/educated form of music and is responsible for advancing the musical arts, it should be lifted on a pedestal and viewed as superior. And it should be revered as something not only “worthy” of being saved, but something that we should demand be furthered, because when creativity and “new” is no longer fostered in pure music, then all of music is damned to stagnation. And that stagnation will produce even more garbage music than there is today in both the pop and classical worlds.