What is serious music?!

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(in main menu, under WAM)

I’ve just added a lengthy article on the demotion of WAM, and the flawed concept of “serious music”. It’s based on the stimulating work of Richard Taruskin on the “classical music crisis” prompted by the defection of critics to pop music since the 1960s, as he challenges “centuries-old cultural assumptions” such as the myth of musical autonomy. This is typical of his bracing style:

The question that throbbed and pounded in my head was whether it was still possible to defend my beloved repertoire without recourse to pious tommyrot, double standards, false dichotomies, smug nostalgia, utopian delusions, social snobbery, tautology, hypocrisy, trivialization, pretense, innuendo, reactionary invective, or imperial haberdashery.

On the evidence before me, the answer is no. The discourse supporting classical music so reeks of historical blindness and sanctimonious self-regard as to render the object of its ministrations practically indefensible. Belief in its indispensability, or its cultural superiority, is by now unrecoverable, and those who mount such arguments on its behalf morally indict themselves.

I go on to query his recourse to the term “serious music”, broadening the topic to musicking in other societies.

If there are so many “serious” genres all around the world, what seems exceptional about WAM is its apologists’ sense of mission, and their concomitant sense of embattlement. Without wishing to discourage ongoing research, perhaps we should just leave the WAMmies to get on with their arid defences of a waning prerogative. So we might simply ignore labels like “serious” as a nervous attempt by an impotent elite to claim that “our culture is superior to yours”.

That’s just a taster for the article—now click here!


4 thoughts on “What is serious music?!

  1. I think the key to understanding the problem lies in your comment ” The sophisticated and creative musicking of James Brown was quite lost on me until I saw the BBC documentary Mr Dynamite .” The problem is not with the critics trying to force certain music into categories but with the narrowness of the mind-set of those involved in music making. A musician who is unaware of what actual music making is going on round him, is like an artist who wears a blindfold all day long. The difficulty for most practicing musicians of trying to make a decent living, leads them to the false belief that really “amateur” musicians ( meaning those who don’t rely on playing music as the main source of their income) are less talented, and therefore the music they produce must be somehow inferior to their own product.
    Surely there is a parallel with the Renaissance artists, who according Hockney , kept secret the use of camera obscura, to achieve results that weren’t possible otherwise. So for the most part musicians, from your local private piano teacher to the top specialist music schools, fiercely protect their own vested interests, and that usually means rubbishing somebody else’s music making efforts.


  2. Pingback: [Music] What is serious music?! — Stephen Jones: a blog | A Miscellany Of Tasteful Music

  3. So what is serious anything? What’s the difference between a serious love affair and a frivolous flirtation? Between a serious objection to a course of action and one that is no big deal? Maybe the degree of consequence?


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