Why classical music snobbery doesn’t cut it today

When I was growing up the definition of music was simple: it was anything composed from about 1650 up to about 1910 involving orchestras, opera singers, pianos and similar instruments. And the definition of a musician was somebody who could perform this stuff.

Me practising the Carlos Santana Secret Chord Progression on my Roland Alpha-Juno 2, fairly recently. It still works. Mostly.

One of the conceits poured over me on that basis was that this sort of music was ‘complex’ and ‘sophisticated’, and to like and perform it defined being a musician; whereas ‘rock musicians’ (particularly) were talentless and ignorant, with no proper musical ability and no knowledge of real music.

It was a very narrow definition of ‘music’, but that was how the Royal School of Music practical and theory studies I did framed ‘music’.

The funny thing in terms of that conceit of ‘sophistication’ was that the theory was dead easy (for me anyway), a trivial exercise in rote-learning some very simple mechanics. My highest exam mark, ever, was Grade 6 theory in which I scored 98 out of the possible 99 total – meaning a result of 98.99 percent. To this day I am not sure what I did wrong. Even now I can plug words into music – as in, lyric writing – without hesitation. And I can spot, every time, when a poet fails to find words to match the meter they’ve established.

But was the ‘classical’ form the sole definition of music? The snobbish definition excluded jazz, ethnic music, rock music, electronic music and a raft of other stuff. Standard notation is incapable of expressing certain styles – an issue identified by composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen who replaced it with triangles and abstract shapes for his electronic compositions. (And yeah, I did a course on electronic music, way back when).

Matthew 1988 recording session 2
Here I am in my mis-spent youth recording something probably in C major on my Roland Alpha-Juno 2 back when it was new.

As for everything non-classical being unsophisticated – well, what about African rhythms, which are stunningly complex, awesome to listen to, and brilliantly devised? Or jazz? If you look at a lot of ‘classical’ pieces, most have a simple time signature, often 4/4 or 6/8, or 3/4 (this last was their equivalent of ‘disco’). Jazz? One of my favourite jazz signatures is ‘Thirteen’, which is alternating bars of 5/8 and 4/4, so the rhythm goes ‘one-two-one-two-three/one–two–three–four’.

It’s worse than that; a study I saw a while back used mathematics to analyse the underlying patterns of music and showed that the entire western conceit since early modern times – not just ‘classical’ but also rock, punk, synth-pop and the rest – was in just one corner of a potential spectrum, and they were all rather close in a technical sense.

I think I knew that already. Anybody heard gamelan? Exactly.

As for the conceit that only classically trained musicians were ‘proper’ musicians – well, wrong. There’s just as much training, practise and skill required to excel in any musical genre. Frank Zappa used to tell orchestras who stuffed up his material – with its complex, multi-layered rhythms and odd time-signatures – that his rock band could do it. So why couldn’t these ‘classical’ musicians?

The dissonance between ‘academic’ and ‘popular’ music had always been around, even during the ‘classical’ era; and as always the ‘academics’ believed themselves superior. It got worse in the twentieth century with the commercialisation of the popular side – which wasn’t easier to play properly, but was certainly more accessible than (say) Claude Debussy, unless you happened to be the Art of Noise.

This issue is true of a lot of the arts – hence the way that ‘literary’ writers look down on ‘genre’ writers, a problem that is particularly true here in New Zealand. And as always, it’s purely a matter of prejudice by the self-appointed snobs who exalt the ‘intellectual’ side of the field as a definition and validation of their own self-worth.

This sort of thing probably won’t go away entirely in the arts – but when I look at classical music these days, I can’t help thinking how far the snobby side has been marginalised. Plenty of people enjoy performing and listening to the classics, of course – I’m one of them. But the notion that this style of music, alone, defines ‘sophistication’ and ‘talent’ has faded. And about time.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2018

5 thoughts on “Why classical music snobbery doesn’t cut it today

  1. Even though I’m studying a Classical course, I couldn’t agree more with your point of view in this post! Very well made. I find it intriguing how so many people still think and act with this kind of snobbery. And yes, it doesn’t look like it’s going to end anytime soon… Thanks for the post Matt. 👍

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    1. Glad you liked it. Yeah, music’s music, whatever the genre – and the skills needed to learn and play it are much the same across the field. Nothing wrong with classical training, of course – that’s what I learned, and I figure it set me up very well to explore some of the other genres which, as they’ve unfolded to me, express a gloriously complex palette of rhythms, tone colours and concepts. I think this kind of view of music as a broader field is getting more traction of late: just last week the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra performed an intimate concert in a makeshift venue – deliberately – featuring Frank Zappa’s orchestral music. Quite extraordinary, I was sorry I couldn’t get there, and I’ll bet that even 15 or 20 years ago it’d never have happened!

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  2. I’ve decided it’s pointless to argue that any type of music is inherently superior to any other kind. At the same time, I have distinct likes and dislikes (which I’ll keep to myself). Everyone can exercise their preferences as they please without running down those of others.

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    1. I agree – everybody has their likes in music. And it’s definitely personal – and why not? It’s all about an emotional response, which by definition must be individual, and it’s all valid. I’m open about my tastes – I like just about everything from medieval chants to early modern baroque, classical, romantic, then on to jazz, folk-rock, etc etc (and yes, the list includes synth-pop and occasional moments of Scandinavian Death Metal). Some stuff I can take or leave. The only two genres that really do nothing for me are country and western…

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  3. Agreed there, although when I grew up (in the ’80s and ’90s) as a kid the idea of classical was it’s “boring” and “for adults”. That changed over time of course – for me, anyway, even if a lot of folks from my generation certainly wouldn’t listen to classical still.

    Some of the best rock/jazz players are way up there. Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Ginger Baker, Reni, the Lennon/McCartney song writing duo. Watching Buddy Rich play the drums is like an out of body experience.

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