Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

In Offense of Classical Music

I recently had to sit through a performance of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (it was the conductor’s farewell concert). At first it was simply boring, but as I listened more carefully, it grew increasingly painful, until it became excruciatingly so. I literally began tearing my hair out and trying to cut my skin with my nails (there were large red marks when the performance was finally over). The pianist, I was certain, kept flubbing the notes and getting the timing off. But few around me seemed to agree. “Well, he certainly plays it differently from Gould,” was the most they could say.

The audience, like that of private libraries and the FOX News Channel, was decidedly old. I don’t recall seeing anyone who looked younger than thirty. And, aside from thoughts of this whole orchestras-playing-classical-music thing dying out, it made me wonder: what’s so great about classical music?

Ask the old folks there and they’ll tell you that nothing really compares. Listen to the stuff on the radio today and it’s all simply repetitive melodies with stupid lyrics. And the thing is, they’re right: the stuff on the radio does suck for the most part. But that’s not really a fair comparison.

When I listen to good modern music, it takes my heart in its hands and plays with it as it pleases — makes me soar, makes me sad, excited, and mad. But when I listen to classical music, at most it simply occupies my brain for a while. Is this simply a flaw in my perception or has music really improved?

I think it’s possible to argue that music is actually getting better. As humans, we clearly share a number of genetically-encoded similarities, perhaps with some variation. For example, we almost all have two eyes, although in different shapes, sizes, and colors. Imagine that we are similarly endowed with some shared sense of musical appreciation (or, put another way, emotional susceptibility). We all fall for the same musical things, again with some variation.

If this is the case (and while I can’t really prove it, it seems at least plausible to me that it is), then there would indeed be objective standards for measuring music: better music would be more appreciated by the “average person” or the majority of people or some such. And if there are objective standards for measuring music, then music can get better.

And, if we again imagine that what’s appreciated in music isn’t simply random, that it involves certain traits (which seems pretty clear, although again hard to prove), then not only can music get better, but it probably will. Musicians will listen to old music, the majority of them will enjoy the good songs of the past, and they’ll try to build upon and improve that good material, following its patterns, creating even better music. And the next generation will do the same, from a further along starting point.

Does this prove that the latest Aimee Mann album (The Forgotten Arm) is the best work of music yet to be created by humans? Of course not. But it does mean it’s at least possible, that I’m not completely crazy for thinking so.

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June 20, 2006


So why do old people like classical music then?

Maybe their hearing’s gone so bad they can’t appreciate the newer stuff anymore?

posted by Aaron Swartz on June 20, 2006 #

Maybe one of the reasons old people like it is for what it represents. I’m thinking about my grandparents, they probably started going to hear classical music because it was what people from “good families” did. They associate a good feeling of status with the music, so the music sounds better than it is (also, they got used to it and learnt to appreciate it). In contrast, modern music may seem to them too mainstream? Even if you find modern music unknown to anyone else, it is still pretty cheap, right?

Or maybe they’re just deaf.

posted by xikita on June 20, 2006 #

While a lot of new music is bad, a lot of classical is too. However there is also a fair chunk of very very good classical music, that when played well can be just as captivating and moving.

Of course, to each their own and all that.

posted by PatrickQG on June 20, 2006 #

Your thoughts towards objective standards reminded me of an aesthetics class that I took a few semesters ago. I’m no expert, but I did learn that there are an infinite number of ways to look at beauty and perfection, both traits of ‘better’ music.

I do see a correlation to the passage of time and the evolution of music, though I know that more factors than building upon experience are involved, such as cultural and social experiences or the desire to be distinct and unique (e.g., blues or punk).

It’s certain that many artists try to be better than their predecessors, to take the older sounds and derive from it; but, it simply becomes ones own, and not necessarily better.

Looking at the soundscape now, I see so many avenues, veins, and alleys that I truly enjoy for their aesthetic, emotional value. Classical music, to a certain degree, takes me on that emotional trip. The post-rock band from Wales, Mogwai, takes me there too, but on a different road.

To some degree, I think you have a higher music which does explore and create new and exciting sounds. To the contrary, you have the music that just participates in what’s alraedy been cleared for them. In one hand, you have pioneers, and the other you have participants. True, both are active, but one is evolving, changing, and letting you experience new things, whereas the other is simply visceral.

This is not distinctly bad, though, because it is an experience. It just gives you the opportunity to chose which you like better: the more experimental, pioneering music or the more ‘traditional’ (i.e., normal, popular) music.

Either way, we like what we like for whatever reason at whatever time. I like Mogwai and I like Brahms, but I also like Tilly and the Wall, Arcade Fire, Death Cab For Cutie, Sufjan Stevens, and Bright Eyes. Some of that is experimental, while others (and parts of others) are popular.

Beauty is in the ear of the beholder. To some degree.

Sorry for the long comment.


posted by Matt Todd on June 20, 2006 #

Although I don’t really want to take part in your argumentation (dancing about architecture, you know)… there’s one nice circular definition that I personally find really interesting, time after time:

To many modern-day homegrown music analysts, music consists of music and lyrics!

Just to remind that often the definitions are a bit too loose to begin with… :)

posted by Tommi on June 20, 2006 #

“better music would be more appreciated by the “average person” or the majority of people or some such.”

So dogs playing poker and velvet Elvises would be better art than Picasso then? Appealing to the lowest common denominator is not necessarily the best metric for quality.

There is a lot of formulaic classical music in the world. There is also some totally mind-blowing amazing classical music. Part of listening to classical music is taking the time to understand and internalize the structures within which the composers were working, to understand the societal context they lived in. We don’t have to work as hard to understand today’s music because we share the same context as today’s composers. Does that mean that today’s music is better or just easier for us to understand?

I’ve had many transporting experiences with classical music. I don’t know if that’s because it was all that was played in my home growing up, or because I have many years of musical training. But good classical music can affect me far more deeply than any pop music; there is a depth to it that stands up to repeated listening. It’s not for everybody, and may not be for you, but that doesn’t mean that it should be dismissed entirely.

posted by Eric on June 20, 2006 #

For me, here’s the difference between your essays and Paul Graham’s: yours (at least this latest series, now that you’ve given up programming to become a writer) are just whinging, wrapped in a high falutin’ sophomoric sophistication.

They’re tough to get through, and leave a bad feeling.

Graham’s best essays, OTOH, are inspiring and motivational: you come away feeling that “hey, I CAN do that”, and the overall effect is positive.

I’m not trying to rain on your parade, but I did want to tell you how your current writing makes me feel.

posted by Jones on June 20, 2006 #

Isn’t it at least as reasonable to assume that anything we still listen to (or read or view) after a few centuries is well adapted? That the greatest work by Shakespeare or Mozart or Michelangelo comes closer to approaching perfection than the vast majority of what’s currently being produced?

The same argument can be made for Lisp or C: they may not be perfect, and many people produce ill-advised programs in Lisp or C, just as the pianist you saw in Chicago may well have flubbed notes or had questionable timing. But if you’re going to try to make an argument for the best programming languages currently available, don’t you first have to explain why so many people who are trained to appreciate languages’ subtleties still use Lisp and C? To me at least, that seems more reasonable than pointing to a straw man’s iffy code and deciding that Croma is the best programming language yet created by humans.

I understand your argument: Croma has benefitted from all the languages that came before it. But it will take decades before we’ll even be able to make a reasonable guess as to whether it’s a 100-year language or just the latest Aimee Mann record. If you were betting on music that will still be appreciated for its beauty 100 years from now, would you bet on Bach or Mann? And if you were betting on a computer language that would still be used in 20 years (let’s try to keep the ratios reasonable), would you bet on Lisp or Croma?

posted by Brett on June 20, 2006 #

Isn’t it at least as reasonable to assume that anything we still listen to (or read or view) after a few centuries is well adapted?

Not really. My argument said that if you make a couple of reasonable assumptions, then music is almost certainly getting better. What are the reasonable assumptions that lead to old stuff being good? I doubt there are any, since we do so much old stuff which is so stupid simply because it’s old.

Lisp is not a bad example, in that its proponents don’t seem to have examined many newer languages and their arguments fall down upon inspection.

posted by Aaron Swartz on June 20, 2006 #

I think the problem with your argument is that your assumptions only sound reasonable.

Replace ‘music’ with language, culture, design or fashion and you could make the same argument (but with one or more of them it might seem absurd).

It’s not fair to totally discount the staying power of some music just because there are some traditional things that stay around even though they are stupid.

posted by Daniel J. Luke on June 20, 2006 #

The ‘reasonable assumption’ that leads to old stuff being good is simple: survival of the fittest. There must be untold millions of melodies that haven’t survived to the present day, or if so are buried in archives. If any of them were really really good, don’t you think they’d still be well known? Conversely, it’s a fair assumption that thoese works that have survived and managed to keep people’s attention for a few hundred years are likely to be pretty good.

posted by PJ on June 20, 2006 #

Luke, can you explain how my assumptions are unreasonable, as opposed to how they’re similar to other unreasonable assumptions?

posted by Aaron Swartz on June 20, 2006 #

PJ, “survival of the fittest” is a tautology. Who survives? The fittest. Who are the fittest? Those that survive. In reality, who survives involves a great deal of randomness.

In any event, the fact that Bach’s music survived while that of his contemporaries didn’t may mean that Bach’s music was better, but I don’t see how it can mean that it’s better than today’s music, which hasn’t exactly died out yet.

posted by Aaron Swartz on June 20, 2006 #

There’s good & bad music in all categories. One thing I like about Bach is his experimentation with themes & recursion - have you read Godel, Escher, Bach? He’ll often take one theme, transpose it, reverse it and completely explore it.

What I like most in music is originality & a unique sound, as opposed to sound-alike pop singers. Most interesting music comes from indie artists & unsigned bands, since the big music companies are afraid to take a chance on something new.

Matt mentioned Mogway; the Icelandic band Sigur Ros is similar but more experimental. Their lead guitarist often plays his guitar with a violin bow and most of their vocals are in an invented language. The resulting sound makes me think of Iceland’s stark landscape.

Gogol Bordello is another group I like. They combine Eastern European gypsy music with punk rock.

I also enjoy Indian, Arabic & African music. My current favorite album is Orientation by Senegalese singer Thione Seck. He has a beautiful voice & combines Indian, Arabic & Senegalese styles in that one album. In fact I’m listening to it now.

posted by Mike Cohen on June 20, 2006 #

All art is subjective…

Ones musical tastes change over the years for sure. I couldn’t stay up through a classical concert until I was in my late 20s..then I woke up one day and found it beautiful. Not all of it of course, but a lot.

Also, about the old people theory: if you go to a one of the BBC Proms concerts for example, which are filled with people of all generations, that particular theory would go right out the window.

It’s the fault of the musical organization that their marketing can only reach a certain demographic. I think in the US in particular, with the possible exception of cities like NY, most classical music organizations only orient their marketing efforts to people with certain incomes.

posted by maki on June 20, 2006 #

Aaron, your “evolution” argument has a model which is very appealing, but also known to be simplistic (“Musicians will listen to old music, the majority of them will enjoy the good songs of the past, and they’ll try to build upon and improve that good material, following its patterns, creating even better music. And the next generation will do the same, from a further along starting point.”)

That says: There is a simple path, from lesser to greater, and we are progressing along it.

This is extremely attractive, it SOUNDS good. But it’s well-known to be highly misleading in many ways, some evolutionary biologists dislike it (do I have to dig up the Steven J. Gould reference, look for “evolutionary bush”).

Basically, the assumption IS the argument, so there’s not a whole lot to debate.

posted by Seth Finkelstein on June 20, 2006 #

That says: There is a simple path, from lesser to greater, and we are progressing along it.

Umm, no. Imagine the space of music, simplified, as a three-dimensional space, with each song as a point. All I’m saying is that over time, the songs have increased x-values. There’s nothing about a path in there or progression.

The Gould argument doesn’t work because nature doesn’t have a genetic endowment like we do.

posted by Aaron Swartz on June 20, 2006 #

Let’s look at your assumptions, then:

  1. Shared sense of musical appreciation
  2. This implies objective standards for measuring music
  3. Objective standards for music means that music can get better
  4. This implies that music will get better

For 1, you don’t really offer any evidence (in fact, your story is a good counterexample as many people appreciate Bach yet you did not).

2 is probably more reasonable, although I don’t see that some nebulous shared sense of music appreciation necessarily implies it.

3 requires that the objective standards of music depict an ideal form that could be approached.

4 seems to be the modern myth of inevitable progress.

… but if you’re going to use hand-wavy ‘reasonable assumptions’ to make your argument, I don’t see why you would object to me using similarly hand-wavy counter-arguments ;-)

posted by Daniel J. Luke on June 20, 2006 #

2 and 3 are conclusions, not assumptions. 4 is a conclusion from a premise you left out (music appreciation has a logical structure). Furthermore, 1 is simply posited as a possibility, I explicitly say I can’t prove it.

I don’t see why getting better requires an ideal form.

posted by Aaron Swartz on June 20, 2006 #

The assumption in 2 is that it is implied by 1.

Even if we accept 1, it doesn’t necessarily imply 2.

The assumption in 3 is that the existence of objective standards implies an ability for music to get better.

I’m not sure how you can avoid an ideal form (any music that meets your objective standards would be the ‘best’ possible music, and thus ideal).

posted by Daniel J. Luke on June 20, 2006 #

I would argue that classical music has been getting better, too. Listen to Marc-Andre Hamelin play Medtner. Cerebral, romantic, precise, inspired.

posted by Amitai Schlair on June 20, 2006 #

It seems to me that your basic argument boils down to:

  1. I don’t like Bach;
  2. I like Aimee Mann;
  3. [vague handwaving]
  4. Ergo, music is getting objectively better over time.

Yet you seem to ignore the vast number of people who believe that Bach is musically superior to Aimee Mann (including, I suspect, Mann herself).

Moreover, you can’t seem to explain why Bach has persisted over 300 years while so many later artists are ignored.

posted by Frankenstein on June 20, 2006 #

Classical music is not limited to Bach. Aaron, if you find Bach boring, you should check out Shostakovich. I can’t guarantee you will like his music, but it is very different in many ways from Bach while still being under the ‘classical’ umbrella.

Also, there’s the difference between the “easy to listen to music” and “good music that can be appreciated by all”. This kind of reminds me of Paul Graham’s essay on LISP and the Jane Austen comparison.

posted by on June 20, 2006 #

“Better” is perhaps not the word to use, since (as several note) it implies that there is a scale and getting better implies moving in the direction from the “not good” to the “good” end of that scale. (Better is a comparative, after all.)

Music has certainly gotten more diverse in several dimensions. We have a greater variety of instruments (while still largely retaining those of previous centuries) and better technology for every aspect of music making. Modern pop music synthesizes the influences from a variety of sources, including (esp. important in American music) other cultures and musical traditions. For example, Bach and Mozart did not use a blues scale, although it’s interesting to contemplate what they might have made of it. Contemporary music uses rhythms, scales, and harmonies that were simply not used in earlier times, at least not all in one place. (Some harmonies, such as the infamous tritone, were banished outright in ecclesiastical music.)

I suppose you could say that music is “better” in that someone who makes music has a much richer set of tools (musical and technical) to work with.

Classical music survives for the same reason that classic literature does — not because it appeals to popular taste, but because culturally it is considered high art, representing an exemplar of artistic achievement. Good classical music can pull off the trick of appealing both to the emotion and the intellect, and the best can do this even for the novice listener. (Crafters of popular songs have often swiped melodies from the classics.) Few people would argue that the Goldberg variations or the Titan Symphony are not more sophisticated than a three-minute pop song in structure, melodic and harmonic elements, and in the musicality required to perform them. As people learn more about crafting music, they generally find that the classics are respected for good reason. This is familiar to us from, say, Shakespeare, whose plays, while requiring more work to understand than an episode of Seinfeld, are rewarding to scholars and audiences alike.

Classical music survives, again like classic literature, because it manages from generation to generation to find new listeners. The audience is not large in comparison to that for pop music, but people from many cultures continue to listen to Bach and Beethoven and Brahms hundreds of years after their works were composed, suggesting that there is something universally appealing about these works. Pop music often appeals primarily to the generation that created it, often because it has emotional overtones that are not apparent to listeners from other generations. (It will be interesting to see whether recording technology will help popular music expand its reach to following generations; the fact that music from the 30s and 40s has a small but enthusiastic audience is a good sign.)

Someone earlier proposed that classical-music audiences are predominantly made up of older folks because those people were raised with the idea that appreciation of classical music was something to aspire to to be thought of as a cultured person. That’s probably true. It’s not necessarily untrue today — in the types of social circles frequented by the movers and shakers, it’s still considered a mark of sophistication to be familiar with the great arts, including classical music. (Who else would ever underwrite opera? Not us peons.)

Whether the people who make up this audience actually have a sophisticated understanding of the music — or its performance — is open to question, of course. But the same can be said of jazz audiences. In a couple of ways, jazz is the inheritor of the musicality of the classical composers, who were all outstanding improvisers and who, like jazz players, frequently worked by taking a comparatively simple melody and exploring what they could do with it. It’s a bit unfortunate that classical music has become fossilized into the performance of very precisely transcribed pieces; it would be very interesting indeed to be able to hear recordings of how the composers themselves played their music, and to see whether they embellished and improvised as the mood struck them. Pop music likewise opens the door to improvisation, although it differs from jazz in that in jazz, the focus is primarily improvisation, with the tune merely providing the framework.

Anyway, classical music will certainly survive; there will always be a small audience for its particular charms. It does not compete (nor should it) with popular music, and it’s narrow-minded to dismiss the one or the other (the one doesn’t like as much) as unsophisticated or dead or whatever. Like music itself, musical appreciation can expand to encompass all styles without necessarily losing anything in the process.

posted by mike on June 20, 2006 #

Did it not occur to you that audiences change over time and across different parts of the world?

posted by Ping on June 20, 2006 #

Interesting observation that Bach’s continued popularity may have been accidental. In his day, Bach was not really “popular,” since the sort of music he composed emanated from churches and royal courts. While Mozart respected Bach as a master, Bach was largely forgotten during the classical period following his death (what I think of as the Dark Ages). It was only during the 19th century that he became popular in the current sense. Still, once the virtues of his compositions were rediscovered, it was no accident they became popular; it was based on sound, deliberate critical judgement and feedback from an ever-widening audience.

Too bad, you probably attended a poor performance. Not my favorite work, either. Still, I’m particularly surprised because Bach tends to appeal to those with a mathematical bent. I don’t get a sense here how much Classical you’ve listened to to arrive at this damning judgement. It’s a rather bogus genre that covers an impossibly wide range of styles, from Palestrina to Ligeti (who died a few days ago). Still, I’ll recommend a few alternative works: the opening chorale to the St. Matthew Passion; the Brandenberg Concerti (which, performed on period instruments, sounds as raucous as a rock band); the solo cello sonatas; for sheer playfulness, the Goldberg Variations (later Gould performance if you must hear it on piano).

(P.S., I actually think Aimee peaked with “I’m With Stupid,” and has been increasingly formulaic ever since. Like you say, it occupies my brain for just a while.)

posted by Mike Sierra on June 20, 2006 #

Your writing is increasingly disappointing. One of the reasons Paul Graham’s essays are a better read is that he screens them through a cadre of friends and editors before he posts them. You might want to consider doing the same.

“So why do old people like classical music?” You might want to set up a poll and ask them. Who are you considering old? Were the people at the Bach concert you had an ADD meltdown in 180 years old? A 60 year old person was 25 in 1970. They probably don’t remember the olden days when people listened to Bach on the victrola.

posted by starkfist on June 20, 2006 #

Another reason Paul Graham’s essays are a better read is that he edits them. I don’t even read what I’ve written before posting it.

I don’t write stuff here for you, I write stuff here for me. Sorry.

posted by Aaron Swartz on June 20, 2006 #

There is a variety of things you fail to even dismiss. We listen to recordings of contemporary music, but only to interpretations of classical music. A mention of the transformative force of recording on the evolution of music is total absent from your essay, as is a treatment of what it means for attempts to compare classical and contemporary music.

Further, if we assume that that simply because there were far fewer people back then and relatively far fewer could afford to dedicate their life to music, far less music was being composed at all. If that is a reasonable assumption, then it’s almost inevitable that the bell curve of the quality of new music is widening and flattening rapidly. Is this a reasonable explanation of the fact that music from a few centuries ago survived for centuries but music from today fades into obscurity within orders of magnitude shorter timeframes? You didn’t think to consider any of this.

Lastly, you mention that survival of the fittest is relatively random, and there is definitely truth to that. On that basis, you could question the previous paragraph. It could also lead to questioning your conclusion that music is getting better, because from this assumption follows that you have no idea what the best music of the past was. How would we know that the truly brilliant music of the time isn’t simply lost in time? If we don’t, can we draw any conclusions about progress?

In summary, consider me unconvinced.

posted by Aristotle Pagaltzis on June 20, 2006 #

I’m 30 right now - probably old as far as you’re concerned. I’ve enjoyed classical music since my early 20s though.

You might want to try some Prokofiev, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, or Mussorgsky if Bach bores you (fwiw, I find Bach awfully dull too). If you want something to really move you, try Elgar’s Cello concerto (better still, watch the movie “Hilary and Jackie”).

Classical music probably isn’t for everyone though. My non-classical tastes are often far from the mainstream too (Plaid, Boards of Canada, Aphex Twin, Ravi Shankar…)

And that’s fine. Music is deeply personal. It would be a dull world indeed if we all liked the same tunes.

posted by William Bland on June 20, 2006 #

“Is this simply a flaw in my perception or has music really improved?”

It’s not the music, it’s you. Did you consider that perhaps a pianist performing with the chicago symphony is not likely to be flubbing lots of notes? No, of course not. It sounds wrong to you - obviously that stupid pianist doesn’t know what he’s doing.

Perhaps you’re assuming that because music is composed of sounds, and hey, you can hear sounds, that you are therefore equally well-prepared to appreciate all music. Well, you probably aren’t. If you studied classical music, you’d probably develop an appreciation for it. You might still not like Bach, but at the very least I bet you wouldn’t find it boring.

Do you really want to be the type of person who tries something once, doesn’t get it, and then pronounces it boring? You remind me of people who say “golf isn’t a sport”, having no earthly idea how hard it is to drive a golf ball in a straight line.

IOW, there are no uninteresting subjects, there are only uninterested people.

posted by mark on June 21, 2006 #

I like your blog, for what it’s worth. In any case, you seem frustrated that music isn’t universally understood or appreciated despite the genetic similarity between authors and listeners. But that doesn’t take into account cultural factors, such as language and the meanings we attach to symbols. Sure, Chomsky demonstrated that all languages are composed of essentially the same stuff, but that doesn’t mean I can begin to appreciate a Russian poem without knowing Russian, to use an extreme example. Some symbols don’t need a lot of explanation (e.g. a smile on a face or the sound of a baby crying). But that doesn’t mean, for example, a pop song can’t more eloquently communicate a topical idea between a group of teenagers than, say, Bach.

posted by ab3nnion on June 21, 2006 #

You remind me of people who say “golf isn’t a sport”, having no earthly idea how hard it is to drive a golf ball in a straight line.

The rest of mark’s post was spot on, but this assertion doesn’t make sense.

posted by Brett on June 21, 2006 #

Aaron: In any event, the fact that Bach’s music survived while that of his contemporaries didn’t may mean that Bach’s music was better, but I don’t see how it can mean that it’s better than today’s music, which hasn’t exactly died out yet.

Me: One can argue that it is likely to be better, as it is a statistical fact that on average great works endure more than mediocre works.

Personally, I think that the fact that any idiot can learn 3 chords and sing out of tune, yet still be the popular music darling of the month or year is the best argument. You didn’t say how your reasoning does not lead to the conclusion that Brittney Spears is better than Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven combined. Real musicianship takes 10 years to develop, if you’re talented. That rules out a large part of popular music.

posted by on June 21, 2006 #

Something about Eric’s earlier comment bothered me: Part of listening to classical music is taking the time to understand and internalize the structures within which the composers were working, to understand the societal context they lived in.

It’s fair to point out that we may have to work harder to appreciate the musical forms Bach worked with, as opposed to the sort of simple 12-bar blues or AABA structure that we hear so much of today. Still, I’d caution that this is music appreciation, which is not the same thing as music enjoyment.

E.g.: while you may enjoy knowing that the second movement of a baroque concerto will be slow, it’s not necessary to enjoy it. The same is true of Bach’s use of inversions and what-not that Mike Cohen mentioned. What’s important is not that a lot of this seemingly profound music consists of little musical hacks, but that we perceive the result as profound.

The idea that we have to more fully appreciate a certain kind of music in order to enjoy it has a certain circularity to it, and at any rate cuts both ways. As a silly example, imagine a classical music lover dismissing a pop song he hears on the radio as absolute tripe. A pop music fan might respond that he doesn’t appreciate the fact that it features two of the most influential songwriting talents of the last several decades: Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder. When we learn to appreciate such matters, we incorporate a lot of subtextual information into the experience of enjoying a work that has little to do with its substance.

posted by Mike Sierra on June 22, 2006 #

Aristotle: I don’t disagree with what you say, but I don’t see how it’s relevant. I didn’t say that music was necessarily getting better over time; I said that it was possible that the modern music we listen to today is better than the classical music we listen to today.

posted by Aaron Swartz on June 23, 2006 #

You didn’t say how your reasoning does not lead to the conclusion that Brittney Spears is better than Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven combined.

Generally one doesn’t have to say what their reasoning doesn’t conclude, but here goes. I was only saying that musicians could build and improve upon the past, I wasn’t saying that all would. I also never said that everyone would listen to or appreciate the better music (since the radio could prevent them from being exposed to it, etc.).

posted by Aaron Swartz on June 23, 2006 #

True enough, one doesn’t have to, but if the reasoning one uses can be used just as easily for conclusions that one wouldn’t abide by, it’s a sign that the reasoning is incomplete at best, and flat out wrong at worst.

Regarding your clarification, that you were only saying musicians could build and improve upon the past: I can just as easily (and justifiably [meaning ‘hardly at all’]) argue that it’s possible that musicians cannot build and improve upon the past. I could equally posit that appreciation of music and talent for making music is an evolutionary adaptation, and thus that on the timescales of hundreds of years, it is exactly the same now as it was in 1685. Check back in 5,000 years, maybe, or 30 years if artificial augmentation of human intelligence happens in the near future.

Having more knowledge of the past as a consequence of living at a later time is a very different thing than actual improvement, which is what you are suggesting. Knowledge does not imply skill.

What goes for music goes for many other things too, as others have noted. Your argument, as applied to literature, is essentially, “it’s possible that writers could build and improve upon the past, and so the writers of today must be better than the writers of Shakespeare’s day”. It could also be applied to just a subset of the population at each time in history, in which case it is certain that the best writers of today must be the best writers who have ever existed, which is plainly absurd. Not because the past is obviously better, but because there are so many past works of such rare levels of skill that it just isn’t plausible that today’s works (which I do read) are distinctly better.

I guess art today’s art must also be better too?

On a parenthetical note, it’s rather silly to go to such lengths to say that something is merely possible. You clearly want to show more than that it’s possible, but I think you are aware of how much hand-waving you’ve had to do that you take the easy-out of saying “I only want to show that it’s possible I’m right.”

Creationists might say that they are only trying to show that it’s possible that the world was created by God in 7 days, some 6000 years ago or so, and all the evidence to the contrary was put there by the devil in order to deceive us. To which most reasonable people respond that if all you can say is that it’s possible that what you believe might actually be true, you’re not really saying anything at all.

posted by on June 24, 2006 #

The last anonymous comment hits the nail on the head. I’ll also add that it’s a leap in logic to go from “if there aren’t objective standards for X then we’re lost” to “therefore, my standards for X are the objective standards”. Such reasoning is best reserved for Bible-thumping (or Quran-thumping) wackos who get uppity over Moral Relativism(tm).

An aside: was it a performance of the whole of The Well-Tempered Clavier, or just a selection? Because Bach wrote two volumes titled The Well-Tempered Clavier and each of them contains 48 pieces. And besides, all the pieces were originally written for a single clavier (keyboard), so to render it with an orchestra would require some re-arrangement.

posted by bi on June 24, 2006 #

Anonymous: I do believe the same is true of art and literature, although I experience less of those so I’m less certain.

bi: It was the entirety of Book II, Book I having been performed some days before. It was performed on solo piano (the conductor’s previous job apparently being a pianist of some renown). In addition, the program, as I recall, said that a recording of him playing WTC had been published on CD by a major music label.

posted by Aaron Swartz on June 25, 2006 #

A recent news story adds that the recording debuted at #17 on the charts and refers to the performance I attended.

posted by Aaron Swartz on June 25, 2006 #

Interesting thoughts. It’s been my experience that you have to sort of learn to listen to music, train your ear. I assume that you’ve listened to contemporary music most of your life and very little, if any, classical music. So naturally when you listen to The Forgotten Arm it deeply resonates with the music that’s “in you”.

I’ve gone through several genres of music that all made me cringe in the beginning: jazz, metal, classical music, reggae, and so on. I find that when you start listening to a new genre, you have to find an entrance: a piece of music that resonates with the music you’ve been listened to and enjoyed. Once you’ve found that piece of music, you can explore the genre even further by finding music that resonates with that piece, and so on. You’ll go from cringing to being able to determine what’s great, good, averange and bad within that genre. You’ll listen to its music and it will take your heart in its hands and play with it as it pleases.

Actually some of the records I love the most today took me years to discover like that. I remember listening to Van Morrison’s classic “Astral Weeks” for a year, somehow sensing something amazing, but at the same time having a hard time listening to it. Then suddenly one day I put it on and it touched me profoundly. And it still touches me like that.

posted by Simon Carstensen on June 25, 2006 #

To wit, about Simon Carstensen’s point, an excerpt from Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman:

The summer after the drawing class I was in Italy for a science conference and I thought I’d like to see the Sistine Chapel. I got there very early in the morning, bought my ticket before anybody else, and ran up the stairs as soon as the place opened. I therefore had the unusual pleasure of looking at the whole chapel for a moment, in silent awe, before anybody else came in.

Soon the tourists came, and there were crowds of people milling around, talking different languages, pointing at this and that. I’m walking around, looking at the ceiling for a while. Then my eye came down a little bit and I saw some big, framed pictures, and I thought, “Gee! I never knew about these!”

Unfortunately I’d left my guidebook at the hotel, but I thought to myself, “I know why these panels aren’t famous; they aren’t any good.” But then I looked at another one, and I said, “Wow! That’s a good one.” I looked at the others. “That’s good too, so is that one, but that one’s lousy.” I had never heard of these panels, but I decided that they were all good except for two.

I went into a place called the Sala de Raphael – the Raphael Room – and I noticed the same phenomenon. I thought to myself, “Raphael is irregular. He doesn’t always succeed. Sometimes he’s very good. Sometimes it’s just junk.”

When I got back to my hotel, I looked at the guidebook. In the part about the Sistine Chapel: “Below the paintings by Michelangelo there are fourteen panels by Botticelli, Perugino” – all these great artists – “and two by So-and-so, which are of no significance.” This was a terrific excitement to me, that I also could tell the difference between a beautiful work of art and one that’s not, without being able to define it. As a scientist you always think you know what you’re doing, so you tend to distrust the artist who says, “It’s great,” or “It’s no good,” and then is not able to explain to you why, as Jerry did with those drawings I took him. But here I was, sunk: I could do it too!

posted by Aristotle Pagaltzis on June 25, 2006 #

Aaron, as to your response:

I didn’t say that music was necessarily getting better over time; I said that it was possible that the modern music we listen to today is better than the classical music we listen to today.

I will readily concede that. Certainly, there is great depth in jazz, f.ex., so there is no doubt that contemporary music can be no less stimulating than the classical music we listen to.

posted by Aristotle Pagaltzis on June 25, 2006 #

Children are sometimes unable to conceive of anything better than hot dogs and oreo cookies. Given a taste of gourmet food, they might barely suppress throwing up.

These children might convince themselves that the old people (relatively speaking), some of whom actually love and are passionate about foods/things of which the children have little experience or understanding, must be ‘faking’ it, or that they must like the restaurant ‘atmosphere’ or the snob appeal or some aspect other than the raw experience.

posted by Joe Knecht on June 27, 2006 #

It’s very interesting that such a long discussion has been precipitated by someone who obviously has no understanding of how to interpret serious music. And music is developing—perhaps you could listen to some modern composers before you draw your conclusions. If only the uninitiated could perhaps try to look at something later than Bach before drawing their conclusions…there are a few people who have devoted their lives to serious music since the 1700s! Are you unmoved by Bach? Perhaps you could try Beethoven, Mahler, Ravel, Poulenc, Rachmaninov, Scriabin…

posted by Charles Radcliffe on June 30, 2006 #

Charles Radcliffe: darn, you beat me to it. I’d suggest going for Mozart first, since it’s probably the easiest to listen to. Then maybe Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, … As for Rakhmanoniv, Mahler, Scriabin, and Ravel, those are weirder and more adventurous.

Perhaps the difficulty of the Well-Tempered Clavier lies with the fugue form.

posted by bi on July 2, 2006 #

I grew up playing piano. I was drawn to what I thought were neat sounding patterns that my father played. He was capable in all styles, but as a kid, I remember being particularly captivated by several Bach fugues and one of Mozart’s sonatas. These tunes interested me enough to want to learn to play piano on my own, and I did. I now perform all styles of music proficiently.

Nevertheless, often I have had the experience you have described. I’ve had it with classical, and I’ve had it with jazz. I’ve had a particularly difficult time becoming accustomed to classic rock, country, and even blues. I now enjoy playing all these styles, but my mood will dictate my favorites.

Sometimes I really like Trent Reznor. Other times I just can’t get into him. Sometimes I wake up humming Debussy, perhaps after not caring to think of him for weeks. Since I know that my mood is variable, and it governs to a great extent my appreciation for music, I always give something new at least 3 chances before declaring a distaste for it. I’ve stumbled across many all-time favorites after an initial lack of interest.

I never thought Jimi Hendrix was anything special until I began to understand that nobody played like that before him. Now everybody copies his style, but that’s not equivalent to creating it. Likewise, I have learned to appreciate many classical pieces by considering the overall contribution of innovation by the composer. Today we must fight to tune out the constant noise of music playing in the background wherever we go. We take for granted today what took many years to form. Music evolved in a sense. It’s not an entirely separate evolution from our own either, and that’s a fascinating idea alone.

It is enlightening to consider our biological origins, or our technological breakthroughs of the past. And hey, the Pythagorean theorem sure isn’t anything groundbreaking today, but it was at one point in time. I try to imagine myself sometimes in the moment of these innovations, and it helps me to understand better what all the fuss could be about.

posted by Edmund on July 3, 2006 #

posted by Gina on July 3, 2006 #

OOps. Let me finish. As an oldster I can tell you that people over 40 nearly always loose some hearing in the upper ranges. Life experiences also intervene to move around our mental and emotional furniture. As a result, tastes simply change. Bob Dylon still resonates for me, bringing back the thoughts and feelings of my youth. Some new music resonates for me. Much doesn’t. I find some classical music, baroque comes to mind, soothing and mentally freeing. Though I’m in no way a classical music afficionado, I enjoy some of it. I also enjoy some jazz. Enjoyment of music is such a highly personal thing, I’d be reluctant to brush anything aside lightly that people have been listening to for centuries. Wait. Listen again at some future point. You may find the intervening years have brought you a fresh perspective - one you never could have anticipated. It is all part of the adventure, and is it ever fun!

posted by Gina on July 3, 2006 #

As humans, we clearly share a number of genetically-encoded similarities, perhaps with some variation. For example, we almost all have two eyes, although in different shapes, sizes, and colors. Imagine that we are similarly endowed with some shared sense of musical appreciation (or, put another way, emotional susceptibility). We all fall for the same musical things, again with some variation.

If this is the case (and while I can’t really prove it, it seems at least plausible to me that it is), then there would indeed be objective standards for measuring music

Are you familiar with the work of Ray Jackendoff? Jackendoff has been trying to approach music as a cognitive science (he is a Linguist but his research has often leaked to other areas of cognition).

posted by Tom Berger on July 7, 2006 #

Aaron, I am sure even Aimee Mann or Britney Spears are standing on the shoulders of giants like Mozart and Bach. They may or may not know it…but all music today is a mutation(as in genetic mutation) from classical music. Of course, some of the genes are introduced from Africa, Asia Pacific, Middle East etc. You can’t (fairly) dismiss or diss the genes and still like the result. For instance, many of us are the result of intermarriages between settlers, immigrants and such. Tiger Woods or Keanu Reeves will not appreciate being told that you are OK with part of their genes, but don’t appreciate the rest.

posted by Heidi on July 9, 2006 #

Everyone have a different perception of the same music because we are all different, have our own experience, education and projection about things. And it’s the same about musicians, the same piece is played differently depending of the musician and can fits what you want from music to be.

The music can be new because of the time it was written or because of the time you discovered it.

Some people like things because it’s everywhere and everyone are used to, like fast food. But others like more subtle taste and take time to develop and experiment with.

We can qualify music from an emotive, intellectual, formal or any other point of view… But at the end, things are… We are trying to give them values, qualities or a meaning.

I think the real question is, why I like or not something.

posted by Blaise Laflamme on July 10, 2006 #

At the risk of offending you with Shakespeare, read this quote from Merchant of Venice. T don’t think there is a right or wrong answer for Jessica/Lorenzo. You can focus on the music, and perhaps tear your skin with your nails. Or you can just think about RSS 4.0 specs(or whatever) while listening to the Bach performance, and you probably would be fine. By the way, one badly performed piece is not a sufficient reason to discard classical music as “unworthy”.

========================= JESSICA: I am never merry when I hear sweet music.

LORENZO: The reason is, your spirits are attentive: For do but note a wild and wanton herd, Or race of youthful and unhandled colts, Fetching mad bounds, bellowing and neighing loud, Which is the hot condition of their blood;

posted by Jill on July 11, 2006 #

Sadly, you are a man of limited knowledge. Cheers.

Oh, and by the way, since you don’t understand anything about true art, you should not write about it. You are a failure.

posted by A Classical Guitar Maestro Who Studied at Juilliard on July 26, 2006 #

You cannot even BEGIN to call this modern-music bullshit MUSIC. How is it music? It is a joke. This guy’s article is hilarious. I guess not everyone is scared to make a fool of themselves.

posted by Jim on July 26, 2006 #

Dude your argument is complete wack. First of all there is no way you put music appreciation into objective standards based on our genes. Music appreciation has to do with the way the brain develops, the electrical connections one makes.

That being said it is so very easy to understand popular music. It easy to understand its melodies and rhythyms on the first hearing. One, becuase pop music resonates with you because you’ve heard it all your life, and a lot of it is very entertaining/stimulating at a simple level.

However Classical Music is not as easy to understand. A began listening to music of the classical period when I started playing easy sonatinas in elementary school. I loved it, I progressed to mozart symphonies, and then to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, and on to other fine baroque and classical works. My liking of classical music progressed slowly. I finally picked up some modern tastes when I started playing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Now I listen to a ton of different classsical music such as Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Grofe, Ravel, many baroque and classical artists and such.

When one listens to a piece for the first time they may not fully understand it. There is classical music I don’t understand right now. I am slowly advancing the connections in my brain to enjoy a greater spectrum of classical music. I have a theory… Before I listened to much modern classical music I didn’t like it at all. I went to a symphony performance of Ravel’s Concerto in G and it went right by me. But later I downloaded a copy of it and listened to it many many times, and slowly I understood this wonderful piece the melody that I had completely missed the first time. There are many other instances like this one, but my point is that to understand classical music you have to take the time to make the electrical connections in your brain so that your brain will understand it. Mozart is very easy to understand at first, and then baroque, and then you can progress on to whatever you like, but it takes time and lots of listening to acquire the taste, however it is much much more rewarding than any pop music could ever be.

Did I like iced tea the first time I tried it? No! But I kept drinking it untill I understood it and now it my favorite most mind refreshing cleasing drinks.

Pop music is very easy to understand, and for me it has no depth.

Only classical music has been shown to have such profound effects on the brain, mood, and so many other amazing things. This refers to classical music of the classical period. Pop music could never achieve the same because it doesn’t make the brain work, it lacks complexity.

For those who do enjoy it, through understanding inside the brain, it is a deep gold mine, that will produce more enjoyable moments than any pop songs.

Second of all, I think you are seriously underestimating the popularity of classical music. On Rhapsody music downloads, Bach is the 57th most downloaded, and classical music has a huge fanbase dude, not that you would know about it. Classical music has so many proven health benefits, so much scientific evidence behind it’s amazing what it does to the brain. and it’s not like people would listen to it because they want to improve their brain even though they hate the music.

Just because music is changing does not mean it’s progressing, in my opinin music is degressing, except for a few composers alive today.

The main point I’m trying to make is that people don’t like classical music because it’s harder to understand, and requires more patience, and simple pop music is very easily understood by the brain. It can be enjoyable but it no where near as enjoyable as understood classical msic..

posted by Pianist on July 30, 2006 #

How can you describe to the blind to the beauty of a painting? I don’t give a fuck whether 17 or 17 million like it. Where’s the Rock n Roll hall of fame?

In Cleveland! Point made.

posted by arlo muttrie on August 14, 2006 #

Do you know what’s the difference in classical music? Than some pop, and rock? First it is proven that music is bad for you, while classical helps you. Second, heh, wow if you did that you probably don’t understand anything about classical music…some people may play it well, some may not… but if you hear a REAL artist like Martha Argerich, play say Beethoven’s fourth concerto, then the music wouldn’t be just NOTES, it would be a story. That is real classical music, in my opinion, it is more profound that the modern music…also you know people just don’t appreciate classical music that much anymore… that’s really sad. WHEN RADULUPU PLAYED A SOLO IN SEATTLE, ONLY HALF OF THE STUDIO WAS FILLED. You know your theories are pointless cuz you only show how worse people’s ears have gotten, not to mention their reaction to any good music…

posted by Anonymous on August 26, 2006 #

A lot of people who have commented on this article seem to think you have to study classical music to enjoy it. I don’t think this is true at all. Give me any instrument, and I couldn’t play ‘Mary had a little lamb’ on it. I still don’t what it means that a piece of music is in a certain key, and to be frank, I don’t really care.

In my experience, it’s all about repetition. It is completely normal to not like a particular piece of music the first time you listen to it. If you hate it the first time, listen to it again. If you still don’t particularly like the second time, listen to it a third time. By the third time you will probably be able to at least appreciate it, and if you listen to it enough you’ll hopefully begin to really enjoy it or even love it.

When you listen to classical music, my advice to people would be to just concentrate on it - don’t allow it to go into the background. But I don’t think you should try and analyse it at a theoretical level, unless you’re interested in that sort of thing. You should be able to appreciate it at an almost sub-concious level. I think that’s probably the only way that you can really enjoy music anyway.

Another point that other people have made that other people have made, but I want to reiterate is that the term ‘classical music’ encompasses I very wide range of music. There’s probably a bigger gulf between Bach and the likes of Sibelius as there is between Rock and Hip Hop. If you don’t like a particular composer that doesn’t mean you don’t like all classical music.

The last point I want to make, is that a hell of a lot of classical music is very, very ‘feel good’. Even when it isn’t feel good, it can be very exciting and even when it is depressing, it can be cathartic. I’ve probably dervived more happiness from listening to classical music than from virtually any other activity. I think it’s a shame that people don’t listen to it simply because they are too impatient to give it a go and / or they don’t think it fits with their image. Who cares if old people listen to, that it has a snooty reputation, that it is too intellectual. Just give it a proper go.

posted by Stuart on September 5, 2006 #

I thought i would post a few thoughts on this.i was awakened to how profound, how beautiful, classical music could be when i discovered the pathetique sonata by beethoven, i then found much that uplifted me, that connected me with with something utterly new,i assimilated an identity with certain music that was breathtakingly wonderful and my attempts to realise or describe it outside the experience was like trying to catch an ocean in a cup.

This was virtually unprecedented for me, i had been listening to lot’s of popular music which i loved, which i found profoundly moving also.

such experiences were rare though and i questioned what relevance this music had for me. I think that balancing this issue between objectivity and what we respond to individually is so delicate. I think it is wrong to say that popular music has no depth, that it is simplistic, it’s just simply not the case if you love it, if it speaks to you, and i found classical music outwardly arcane and ostentatious, and i largely do still, and i identify deeply with popular culture and what it says to me and so i cant really find a place for classical or it seems largely to be absent from my music enjoyment. attempts to galvanise my taste for classical ended in frustration, the elation, the identification gradually waned. So i remain kind of unresolved with where i stand, i Don’t think that music neccesarily gets better through time. Artists branch out, search for new ways to express themselves but the enjoyment comes down to preference thier really is no definite ‘better’ music, that is just too crude anyway i enjoyed this page, keep posting views!

posted by John on December 1, 2006 #

i agree with the post by the pianst. pop music relies more on studio production more than musical talent, and classical music is a bunch of people getting together and playing a musical piece in unison, something a synthesizer cannot replicate. but im not saying that pop music is bad either. im 19 years old but i have aprofound respect for musicians (of varying genres) and the unique abilities that one or many people can preform on an instrument. i listen to every type of music from rap to classical to jazz to blues to funk to rock to soul. you cannot say that music back then is not good because music refelcts times and situations. music may be better today because of technological advancements that can overdub sounds over sounds (e.g. Pink Floyd’s “Dark side of the moon” album; they had a recorder capable of holding up to 16 tracks which helped provide that spacey, elaborate sound) but you cannot disgrace the people who did not have such luxuries available to them. what about coltrane who only had the technology to record his solos on wax? what about the renaissance mandolin player who didnt have any technology at all? just because a particular genre doesnt capture your interest, doesnt mean you should say anyother one is better because all music is tied together, everyone learns from everyone, music evolves. people evolve. if it wasnt for that mandolin player then someone else might not have pick up a mandolin again. maybe if no one picked up a mandolin again then some great songs may have never been recorded. like Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California” with John Paul Jones’ mandolin that compliments Jimmy Page’s guitar. it sounds earthly and beautiful. yeah its ok to say that classical music is not for me but if you liek any types of music then you should respect the one that came before; the ones who paved the way and inspired the bands/artists that you DO like.

posted by Josh on December 5, 2006 #

Aaron, Maybe your music is boring, the same chords and the same BS rhythm over and over again,same lyrics over and over again. Man you truly must have no ear, because The Well Tempered clavier is one of the most well written pieces of music written to this day. Classical music isn’t for old people, it is the most difficult to play, the most difficult to write and is certainly, therefore the most difficult to listen to. Simply stated, you shouldn’t try to listen to classical music, as it may be too complex for your ear, you just aren’t ready for it yet. One day you will understand me. And frankly anything since the beatles on is so easy to play and write that I can train a Chimpanzee to do so.

posted by Sean Wilkins on December 18, 2006 #

I’d love to see you try to teach a chimpanzee to play something by Ludovico Einaudi. He’s a post Beatles composer,writing classical music for today.

Classical music isn’t just about composers who wrote music 100’s of years ago and died, it isn’t about old people trying to make a point about the different genre’s of music around today. It’s just another way of expressing life, experience and our world as it stood at the time.

Music samples from classical pieces are always being placed into modern dance, pop, and rap music, so quite frankly the poor sod who said classical music is only for old people probably wasnt aware that he too listens to classical music. Music is like literature, it can be traced back to the fathers who were doing it all for the first time. Writers like Chaucer and Shakespeare have influenced writing for generations after; it’s exactly the same with Beethoven & Mozart in music.

Artists such as William Orbit, Vangelis, Einaudi, Karl Jenkins, Mike Oldfield and loads more all take from those core composers. Even bands such as Nightwish, Cradle of Filth, Lacuna Coil and Within Temptation have wonderful elements of classical music that take their sounds to new heights.

And is this person not aware that advertising also deeply relies on classical music to sell their products? Car adverts, perfume, anything. Even the jingles played on the radio will be instantly reconisable because they are from classical pieces of music. Classical is important because it was the beginings of music as an escape, as enjoyment and entertainment.

Furthermore, whoever said that it has been proven that classical music is good for you and everything else is bad for you is referring to something called the Mozart effect. This was a piece of psychological research conducted a while ago that shows increased cognitive abilities for some people after listening to a certain piece of Mozart. This increase in cognitive ability is relatively small and lasts at most for 10 minutes. There is absolutely no proof that other types of music are bad for you, it just happens that for some reason that piece of Mozart raises our ability to complete certain conitive tasks for a little while.

To conclude, music is music. It has the same roots, it reflects us as human beings. With such wide variation within genre’s no-one can turn their noses up at one genre mainly because no-one can listen to everything that has ever been written. Dont be so narrow minded to conclude that classical music is for the elderly when todays modern music is clearly influenced by it. Honestly…how silly!

posted by Tasha Jackson on December 31, 2006 #

To those of you who consider classical music outdated and boring, you might consider this: There had to be a beginning for everything. Classical music was the beginning of every different music you hear today. It is just like Shakespeare, and Dickens, Defoe, Bronte, and others are considered “classical” writers. They started it… without out them, we wouldn’t have developed the written word nearly as much today. It is the same with classical music/musicians - without them, no other style of music would exsist.

posted by Alexis on December 31, 2006 #

Hi to everyone,

I would argue certainly pro classical music. I used to listen almost all kind of music, but classical style of music is the best what a human can create. Only deaf people think in opposit way. Excuse my english please..

posted by pd on January 15, 2007 #

Has anyone here seen the following website:


It seems to me to be a convincing and astute analysis of pop and rock music.

posted by Duncan Sassoon on February 21, 2007 #


I was at the same concert of a certain Chicago conductor playing the entire first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier by J.S. Bach. I was 25 at the time and was with my friend who was 26. We sat next to other people who were under the age of 30 but you are correct in saying the majority of the audience was “old”. I am a classically trained pianist who happens to know the Well-Tempered Clavier extremely well (having performed selections from it on several occassions by memory) and you were right - the pianist did “flub” some notes but his timing was never off. I also found the performance to be boring, the pianist’s interpretation was not well done and I suspect he was either ill-prepared or having an off-day as all performers do at times. Further, as a performance piece, the WTC has a lot of issues. First, it was never intended as a piece to play for thousands of listeners in a concert hall nor was it intended to be played from start to finish. Bach’s orignal intention for composing this piece was to give his son (Wilhelm Friedmann Bach) instruction on keyboard technique as well as compositional method. How do I know this? Because Bach wrote these reasons on the coverpage of the manuscript of the piece!The WTC is divided into two books/sets of 24 separate pieces called preludes and fugues. Most modern performers pick selections from this massive work which can come off quite successful but two hours of constant preludes and fugues is very monotonous. This monotony occurs for two reasons: 1. The piano itself has a homogenous tone which pianists have to constantly struggle to manipulate in order to keep things interesting. 2. The WTC presents 24 pieces written in basically the same two structures over and over again making the organization of the music very monotnous as well and further complicating the issue number 1. Both my friend and I are classically trained pianists with graduate degrees in music and we both agreed - the concert sucked. Sometimes performers can pull off performances of long, repetive pieces by keeping the audience engaged but this was not one of those times. Does this mean that Bach sucks? No. Does this mean that classical music sucks? No. Does this mean that music evolves to become better as time goes on? No. I will admit though that 90% of classical music is awful but then 90% of almost anything contrived by man is pure drivel. We perpetuate the other 10% (and it could be less than that) because it is the stuff that exhibits the best in human craftsmanship not because of “stupid” traditions. The WTC is an example of great craftsmanship but unfortunately it was poorly executed.

posted by on May 27, 2007 #

Works of art can be described as having an essence of eternal solitude and an understanding is attainable least of all by critique. Only love can grasp and hold them and can judge them fairly.


posted by q on June 8, 2007 #

Was this a Barenboim concert? Barenboim’s notorious for underpreparing his keyboard performances.

posted by on June 21, 2007 #

Nice thoughts.

If the purpose of music is to inspire and arouse emotion in the listener, then would the better music be whatever brings the emotion in its strongest form? Or rather, whatever directs the emotion most efficiently in the way it was intended? Though individual tastes and susceptibility are surely factors, the “improvements” upon classical music by modern music may be that the latter works toward the emotion more directly. Like many above me have rendered, classical music plays with your mind as well as your heart, in varying ratios as compared to modern music. Technically, modern music is no doubt more simple than the classical composers, though that is by no accord a bad thing. The greater works of each group does the same job in different ways. Assuming that the difference in ratios addressed earlier leaves neither path (direct vs. indirect) as the worse, perhaps the evolution in music isn’t a change in worth but rather a change in method.


posted by Aaron Schu. on June 27, 2007 #

WOW! What a discussion! I just want to say that I like classical music a lot, but I couldn’t really describe why I like it until now besides “I just do”.

My general idea of why I thought classical music and hardly any modern pop music was because of the sheer amount of skill it took to perform the music, how complex it was. I used to think I didn’t like modern pop music because it was simpler, more repetitive and not really enjoyable.

So do I really enjoy classical music or just appreciate the fact that they work harder? Both, but I’m hoping that doesn’t make me sound like “Classical music. Yay!” and “Britney Spears. Boo!”

I’m sorry, I wish I could make a deeper observation on Aaron’s raw thought, but I didn’t want to blab about things I don’t know.

To the few who have been replying back and forth, great job. Sharing this knowledge multiplies everyone’s knowledge in general and can make new, stronger viewpoints. Thank you very much.


posted by Borsch on November 5, 2007 #

If the evolution argument is to hold any water, ask a modern pop composer to write a fugue. Oh, you mean, pop composers don’t know what a fugue is? Surely they must have learnt about it during counterpoint class? What, pop musicians are not taught counterpoint? What kind of musical education do they have? Oh, most pop musicians are not musically educated, and many of them can’t even read a score?

I’m not saying there is anything wrong with being a musician without proper training. But the argument that someone can be better than Bach without knowing even 5% of what Bach knew is ludicrous at best.

posted by Cesar on November 3, 2011 #

That’s a bit like saying modern chemists should know what phlogiston is.

posted by Aaron Swartz on November 4, 2011 #

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