What is serious music?!

Surely you can’t be serious


Here I’d like to explore two main themes: the demotion of “classical music”, and the flawed concept of “serious music”.

Following on from the reported abolition of world music, even if we can agree on a definition of music itself, among many ersatz subheadings (classical, art, traditional, court, popular, commercial, folk, religious, ritual, light, entertainment, and so on) one occasionally finds the term “serious music”, used mainly to describe “classical music”. In the wider context of musicking around the world this is surely an unedifying category—but first let’s consider it within the confines of Western urban societies.

My argument sets forth from the partial mindset that I’ve noted on both sides of the WAM–pop fence (see e.g. Singers of the world?, and Just remind me again, what is music?!; see also Popular culture in early modern Europe and Das Land ohne Musik). The discourse is bedeviled by the old binary adversarial mindset; it’s more fruitful to think in terms of continuums.

The rest is noise
Leonard Bernstein gave an early, popular outline of some issues in defining “classical music”. An insightful book that I’ve already cited in several posts is

  • Alex Ross, The rest is noise (2007).

Ross qualifies what seems like a steep decline in audiences for “classical music”:

Magazines that once put Bernstein and Britten on their front covers now have time only for Bono and Beyoncé.

He notes that Mahler

codified the modern concert experience, with its worshipful, pseudo-religious character. Opera houses of the nineteenth century were rowdy places. […] Emperor Franz Joseph, the embodiment of old Vienna, was heard to say: “Is music such a serious business? I always thought it was meant to make people happy.”

Now, far be it from me to lend credence to the blithe comments of a remote unelected monarch (see the Monty Python and the Holy Grail clip in Bach and patronage!), but he had a point.

Ross equates “20th-century music” with the “classical” tradition. Sure, he goes with the flow in admitting some popular music into his elite club; but the subtitle “Listening to the 20th century” reveals precisely what he’s not doing. To learn about the whole soundscape of our times inevitably involves considering all kinds of popular and indeed folk musics. In geographical scope too it needs qualifying. Ross is writing about the Anglo-American world; not about listening to the 20th century in Angola, Bali, Venezuela, or Zambia. I’m not arguing with his focus at all—just checking that we’re all clear about it!

I’ve already discussed the stimulating book

  • Richard Taruskin, The danger of music (2009)

for his insights on early music—indeed, his definitive observation that the latter movement is actually a modernist project relates to our topic here. He constantly challenges “centuries-old cultural assumptions” that still hold sway among many scholars and performers of “classical music”, such as the myth of musical autonomy. Indeed, he implies that classical music deserves its loss of dominance.

Taruskin sometimes refers to “Western music”—again mainly referring mainly to the “products of a composing and performing elite” (p.7). There’s also the peculiar “modern music”, used narrowly to denote “modern classical music”. I’ve explained why the term “Western art music” (WAM) is more apposite.

He is clearly aware of ethnomusicology: while he has reservations about John Blacking, Christopher Small, and Jacques Attali (pp.5–6), he cites Susan McClary with approval (p.13):

“[…] The traditional taxonomic distinction between high and popular culture becomes irrelevant in the eclectic blends characteristic of this new music, and indeed many of these new composers are as often as not classified as New Wave and perform in dance clubs. A new breed of music critic (such as John Rockwell and Gregory Sandow) has begun to articulate the way the world looks (and sounds) without the distortion of that distinction.”

In ethnographic mood, Taruskin praises Blair Tindall’s Mozart in the jungle.

One of his most pertinent accounts of the WAM crisis is chapter 37,

  • “The musical mystique: defending classical music against its devotees”,

where he reviews three books (by Johnson, Fineberg, and Kramer), dismantling them with typical verve.

As with rising gorge I consumed the books I had agreed to review, 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.

Nostalgia for an imaginary Golden Age of WAM, agonizing over its dwindling prestige, makes a peculiar lament of the WAM intelligentsia. But

What makes the classical music crisis suddenly newsworthy is itself a question worth asking. When has the place of classical music in society ever been secure?

Taruskin (p.335) notes the defection of critics since the 1960s, led by William Mann and Ned Rorem on the Beatles (and we may add Wilfred Mellers: see Sgt Pepper):

Since the “British invasion” [of pop music] nearly half a century ago, it has been socially acceptable, even fashionable, for intellectuals to pay attention primarily to commercial music, and they often seem oblivious to the very existence of other genres. Of no other medium is this true. Intellectuals in America distinguish between commercial and “literary” fiction, between commercial and “fine” art, between mass-market and “art” cinema. But the distinction in music is no longer drawn, except by professionals.

But surely music isn’t so exceptional here. WAM pundits may feel particularly threatened, but as boundaries have become porous, all the arts have had to face the challenge of taking popular culture on board. Scholars like Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams were pioneers in addressing the broad issues. And as the lyrics of Dylan have become widely valued, academics have had to justify the continuing appreciation of Shakespeare—a debate that features regularly in the media.

And I’m not seeking at all to belittle WAM. As you can see throughout this blog, I personally delight in it (along with “all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse”); I believe people should be able to experience WAM as audiences and performers; but I also believe they should equally relish more popular traditions in their own and other societies. In the end, with the supposed superiority of WAM being hard to pinpoint, it looks like a claim for the superiority of its producers, consumers, and contexts.

The sophisticated and creative musicking of James Brown was quite lost on me until I saw the BBC documentary Mr Dynamite, which suggested (to me, at least!) that as a bandleader, with his exacting standards, he was on a par with Bach. I can’t find the documentary online, so hey, here’s Sex machine:

—not least since it reminds me of the mellifluous tones of BBC Radio 4 newsreader Charlotte Green’s demure delivery of the words “like a sex machine” while announcing his demise. But I digress…

Like pop, WAM too can appear to feature plenty of ephemeral, meretricious bubblegum, in both lyrics and music; yet here, as in popular culture, what seems so may turn out to be affecting in performance, in living context.

Still, as Taruskin notes, the old status quo “is now a veritable mummy”. Classical music has adapted to the new pressure by accommodating (“a normal part of the evolutionary process of any art”) and dumbing down, or by holing up. He unpacks the German history of aesthetic autonomy and universal values, “the symbolic embodiment of human freedom and the vehicle of transcendent metaphysical experience”—

the most asocial definition of artistic value ever promulgated.

Turning to (indeed, on) Johnson (“the musical equivalent of the religious right”), Taruskin savages his assertion that classical music is distinguished by its claim to function as art, as opposed to entertainment:

The whole book is an elaboration of this categorical, invidious, didactically italicized, and altogether untenable distinction, the purpose of which is to cancel the claims of consumers on the prerogatives of producers.

And he criticizes the scholarly denigration of pleasure:

There are all kinds of pleasures: guilty pleasures, altruistic pleasures, animal pleasures, spiritual pleasures, perverse pleasures, the pleasure of a good meal, of a good cry, of worthy accomplishment, of self-improvement, of self-possession, of exclusion, or ascendancy, of dominion, or revenge.

Citing one of Johnson’s “harangues”, Taruskin observes:

commits virtually every one of the sins I enumerated above, from the false dichotomization of the material and spiritual (as if classical music did not have a material presence), to the double standard whereby the reification of classical music in the form of recordings and other manufactured goods is overlooked, to smug nostalgia for an uncommodified golden age, to the utopian delusion that such a paradise might be regained, to the hypocritical stance of moral superiority in the face of the author’s obviously mendacious (unless stunningly ignorant) reduction of the other [popular culture] (as having only “one sound, one timbre, one kind of material”). The social snobbery borders on racism (we have minds, they have bodies) and the browbeating is blatant (assent or be lumped with Them). A page or so later, losing all self-control, Johnson tears into a description of people who don’t seem to need classical music, in thrall to “prerational immediacy”, lost in “libidinal energy”, athirst “for the luxury of blind, adolescent emotions”.


It is all too obvious by now that teaching people that their love of Schubert makes them better people teaches them nothing but vainglory, and inspires attitudes that are the opposite of humane. Julian Johnson’s tract suppurates with attitudes like these. To case esthetic preferences as moral or ethical choices at the dawn of the 21st century is an obscenity.

Taruskin finds political correctness a “discredited euphemism through which privileged people have gone on the offensive in defense of the their privileges”. He defends pop music, asking “Do the touted geniuses of classical music always achieve timelessness?” And he dismantles “objective” criteria of musical worth. As always he has some fine turns of phrase:

the twelve-tone school, now celebrating eighty years in the desert.

He goes on:

What draws listeners to music—not just classical music, but any music—is what cannot be paraphrased: the stuff that sets your voice a-humming, your toes a-tapping, your mind’s ear ringing, your ear’s mind reeling. And that is not the kind of response that anyone’s books can instill. It is picked up, like language, from exposure and reproduction, which eventually lead to internalization.

He doesn’t often explicitly place popular music on an equal footing, but on a chapter by Kramer on song (p.350), which asserts that

because of its emancipated accompaniment, art song can convey complexity of feeling—irony, ambivalence, self-reflection—whereas popular song can offer no more than a good tune and an uncomplicated emotional payoff

he comments


He does at least approve of Kramer’s discussion of film music, “transcending the silly opposition of the classical and the popular”:

To ask “what does it mean?” is death for music; but to ask “what has it meant?” can be illuminating.


Change is not always loss, and realizing this should not threaten but console. […] Autonomous art, the recent product of a chance concatenation of circumstances, will last only as long as circumstances continue to permit. But its origin, whatever it was, and its end, whatever it will be, are points on a continuum.

Serious music?!
These are all excellent points, caustically made, worthy of the far-sighted counsels of ethnomusicology. So I feel churlish to quibble when I find Taruskin slipping in references to “serious” music—like “classical”, referring mainly to serious Western music, notably WAM, whose inflated claims he otherwise punctures so effectively. Indeed, even the adjectival “art” in Western art music needs unpacking.

His opening chapter is adapted from a lecture,

  • Et in Arcadia ego: or, I didn’t know I was such a pessimist until I wrote this thing”.

It’s stimulating as ever, and I share his own delight at his polemical style. As he states straightaway, his comments on the future of “music” refer to

Western classical music, the only music about which I am qualified to pontificate.

Despite his broad-minded insights cited above, on the very first page he uses the term “serious musicians” twice, bemoaning how they are marginalized—quite the opposite tack from that he later adopts. In a nice turn of phrase he then suggests the adjective is ambiguous—but without discarding it (p.4):

Our serious musicians […] are regarded by our society not as shamans or prophets but at best as comedians, at worst as cranks. In no case is a serious composer really regarded as a serious person in our society, not are his works taken seriously, if we measure seriousness by the amount of opposition they may arouse.

Already in the Preface he commented (p.xvi):

But such reckonings are necessary, however agonizing, if serious music is to regain a respectable place in the academy, to say nothing of the wider world.

By p.6 he does essay a kind of definition:

By “serious music” I mean the kind that requires a bit of memory involvement and cognitive skill, that inculcates truly music-based expectations and responses, and induces truly musical joys and satisfactions, regardless of where it comes from or what kind of instruments are involved. It could be Bach, it could be jazz; it could be Beethoven, it could be West African drumming; it could be Brahms, it could be Indian ragas, so long as competent and committed teachers may be found and exacting standards are set, whether or not they’re met.

This almost looks promising; but it’s precisely reading Taruskin’s meticulous unpackings elsewhere of lazy thinking among his colleagues that makes one quibble. I can think of few genres in human musical life that don’t involve “a bit of memory involvement and cognitive skill”—they’re evident in Romanian funeral laments and punk, for example. Maybe Taruskin would care to quantify a worthy amount of memory involvement; in that case, WAM might come off poorly compared to an illiterate Tibetan epic singer—not least because most WAM musicians are chronically dependent on notation.

And whatever are “music-based expectations and responses” and “truly musical joys and satisfactions” supposed to mean? Surely he’s not setting “truly musical” apart from the enjoyment of musicking in performance and social interaction—he goes to excellent lengths to warn against that. Or is it an attempt to banish physical responses such as those embodied in dance music?

I’ll discuss below the standard, harmless concession of admitting jazz and raga to the elite club. As to “competent and committed teachers” setting exacting standards, I think of my outcast shawm players in China, or family groups in Rajasthan, never exactly “teaching”, but bringing up their children in a very demanding practical environment, without recourse to notation. The demand for rigorous training evokes the old rebuke that upstart pop bands “only need to learn three chords”. But complexity is no criterion for efficacity; lullabies require no rigorous training, but they’re serious and meaningful, as are northern soul and Morris dancing.

Taruskin can’t quite join in the “new classical” movement’s celebration of “the impulse to dehierarchize musical styles and genres, and the concomitant proliferation of eclectic practices” (pp.12–13). He cites John Schaefer, who “devotes chapters to a dozen other trends that cross the usual frontiers between high culture and low, classical and folk, East and West, electronic and acoustic”; and he notes the trendy eclecticism of the Kronos Quartet.

Now, I’m perfectly happy to join him in swatting away at world music fusion—I’m not on the lookout for trendy new genres to exploit, I’m suggesting that there’s no logical basis for ranking the diversity of world cultures in order of merit. So I would include the Sex Pistols, film music, Orthodox chant, and so on and on: not certain genres, but everything, as long as it means something to some people. I might say “something deep” there, but then we’d have to start analysing what “deep” might mean. Whatever it is, it’s not merely what the classicists mean when they read [sic] a Beethoven score.

Going on to express doubts that the “new romanticism” can rehumanize “our” music (pp.15–16), Taruskin summarizes:

So these are among the reasons why not only the public for serious music but also to an unprecedented extent the musical profession itself has been losing faith in the work of “serious” living composers, and why serious music seems for now irrevocably confined to the margins of our cultural life.

I don’t think he tries out the word “profound” for size, but terms inherited from German romanticism like “spiritual depth” arise. Such vocabulary only seeks to diminish the variety of human experience embodied in expressive culture. Fustier academics seem to claim the rights over a “correct” way of listening—indeed, if it’s really necessary to listen at all, rather than contemplating the score in silence. They elevate a cerebral response, informed by familiarity with sonata form (unlike Mozart, apparently). Experiencing music as the great majority of audiences does is, it seems, not good enough.

Indeed, since we saw Taruskin criticize the denigration of pleasure, then why now valorize “serious”, above exhilarating, hilarious, intoxicating, sensual, funky? It’s part of the myth of reified, autonomous, cerebral music, denying the body, which he, along with McClary and others, have debunked. Even if we could ringfence the “serious”, it’s not always a desirable quality in life, or a suitable response to many valid social experiences. I’m unconvinced by a counter-argument that serious music sublimates the more joyous, physical expressions that in their unmediated state, supposedly, are less than serious.

Tristan gets away with being sensual in the service of a Higher Cause, but Turangalîla once got a rough ride from some critics for being too kitsch, too ecstatic (cf. Taruskin on Saint François d’Assise). The experience of listening to Bach is not merely cerebral; you will only refrain from dancing to his trumpet-and-drum music if your surroundings discourage it. The rearguard attempt to claim superiority for the narrowly cerebral now seems so absurd that it’s hardly worth disputing. It misrepresents all music, not just WAM.

Taruskin of all critics unpacks the outdated entitlement of such an approach, which is quite at odds with the lives of real people today. In a fine chapter on the use of Beethoven to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall, he observes (p.72):

The true musical emblems of that glorious moment were the guitar-strumming kids in jeans atop the wall playing a music that would have landed them in jail the day before. They were the ones who symbolized Freiheit. What did Beethoven symbolize? Just packaged greatness, I’m afraid, and all that that implies of smugness and dullness and ritualism. Just what the revolutions of ’89 were revolting against.

And that is why classical music is failing, and in particular why intellectuals, as a class, and even the educated public, have been deserting it. The defection began in the sixties, when all at once it was popular music that engaged passionately—adequately or not, but often seriously and even challengingly—with scary, risky matters of public concern, while classical music engaged only frivolously (remember radical chic?) or escaped into technocratic utopias. By now, the people who used to form the audience for “serious” music are very many of them listening to something else.

The best evidence of that is the drastically reduced press coverage classical music now gets, and the correspondingly greater attention paid to pop music in all the serious media. Some classical spokespeople, deploring this, seem to think it is a symptom of some new preoccupation with entertainment in our culture. But no, the center of gravity in our culture has shifted; the pop critics are often the more serious ones, and very often the more interesting ones.

They are the ones who take the risks these days. If there is any real musical controversy to cover, like the recent one over rap lyrics, the pop critics are the ones who get to cover it. Classical critics, for the most part, just spend their time packaging and repackaging greatness. No wonder their space is diminishing.

The example of Beethoven

established the masterwork—the fixed and “timeless” musical text rather than the ephemeral performance— as the primary object in which “art” music trades. The whole difference between art and pop music as musical categories depends on this distinction, one we so take for granted that we forget it has a history, but one that no pre-Beethoven composer would have understood, not even Mozart.

So it is to Beethoven (that is, to his commanding example) that we trace the ritualism of our smug, dull concert life; by celebrating and yet again repackaging the great and undeniably great and daring fountainhead of our undeniably narrow, pusillanimous performance rites, we ward off threats to our complacency. But anxiety lurks withal.

In a postscript to the chapter, just like a good ethnomusicologist, he criticizes the partiality of Paul Griffiths’ unflattering, rash comparison of Cambodian court music with Beethoven.

After all, WAM is no monolith; it’s not all Bach Passions, late Beethoven quartets, and the Ring cycle. WAM allows itself plenty of lighter moments (such as the irritating phenomenon of the musical joke in the classical symphony), but wants to have its cake and eat it: again, the jocular is all part of the Higher Cause (cf. Just a bit of harmless fun).

Equally, not all jazz is bebop—how about “lounge music”? It can be funny, exhilarating, and so on. The outer movements of Mozart’s Prague symphony are intoxicating, yet they count as “serious” on grounds like:

  • It’s by Mozart (Q.E.D.)!
  • He wrote it down! (Notation is a mainstay in the assertion of worthiness.)
  • We “cultured people” listen to it in concert halls, with attention, in pious silence (unlike Mozart’s own audiences—e.g. Mozart’s famous account of the first performance of his Paris symphony)!

Italian opera is an interesting case, again requiring an adjustment in any simplistic definition of “high culture”. Taruskin (pp.454–5) discusses the work of Philip Gossett, who

was among the intrepid group of scholars who in the 1970s won academic respectability for Italian opera, until then regarded as performers’ music rather than scholars’ music (or as we say in the trade, music of the repertory rather than the canon). That academic respectability, however, was won on fairly paradoxical grounds. Those grounds were textual. Prof. Gossett labored to restore the text of Rossini’s operas to their original authorial state and then became a self-proclaimed “crusader” on behalf of the texts he had restored, insisting on their authority in preference to the socially mediated versions prevalent in the repertory. Turning Rossini’s texts—that is, Gossett’s texts—into fetish objects comparable with Beethoven’s texts amounted to turning Rossini into a composer comparable with Beethoven, at least insofar as academic practice was concerned, and that is what got Rossini through the door. […]

Although Prof. Gossett claimed to derive his authority from the composer, he in fact held it above the composer’s authority as soon as the composer left his composing desk (or in Rossini’s case, his bed) and entered the socially mediated world of performance.

I can quite see that it might be useful to have a term to distinguish Messiaen from the soundtrack to Tom and Jerry—though as I noted, they can sometimes sound pleasingly similar. One might concede that the ouevre of Amy Winehouse, and even punk, are serious; but can we deny serious, meaningful experiences to the audiences of Dolly Parton? To go to extremes, beyond the quaint terms “easy listening”, “muzak“, and “bubblegum”, elevator music (not deemed elevating), or the jingles of ice-cream vans, serve valid functions (cf. this discussion of musical garbage trucks in Taiwan!)—though again I can see that it’s worthwhile to distinguish those functions from that of the Matthew Passion. Of course, the social use of music can change, as it has for baroque music (cf. Mozart at the tube station).

Serious world music?
Taruskin and Ross are prudent in limiting their discussion to Western classical music, and their main counterpart to it, (Anglo-American) pop music. But their thoughtful work may prompt us to seek the wider picture—and if we spread the net to embrace genres around the world, the concept of “serious music” looks even more untenable.

A growing number of “classical music” scholars are aware of such recent approaches (see e.g. ed. Henry Stobart (ed.),The new (ethno)musicologies); but they may still be in a minority. Meanwhile, as if the media defection to popular culture wasn’t bad enough, ethnomusicology is the devil in disguise, a parallel intruder into academia, lowering the tone with pop studies and world music—even daring to subsume WAM within its remit. As ever, I recommend the works of Bruno Nettl.

We should consider both technique (sound) and function, which tend to be elided in discussion—it’s strange that in Taruskin’s account of “serious music” he mainly addresses the former, since he is at pains to expose the fallacy of “autonomous music”.

Again, technical complexity is no measure for the “success” of any piece—though the journal Analysing world music shows how technically complex folk genres can be (in structure, rhythm, instrumentation, heterophony, timbre, and so on), with different parameters to those of WAM. And in function, much musicking in the world, performed for life-cycle and ceremonial rituals, is “serious”. The concert hall is an exceptional venue: flamenco, performed in bars and family juerga parties, is based on “deep” (jondo) expression. And (to exhume another justly discredited adjective) the more “primitive” the society, the more “serious” its music.


Taranta exorcism, Salento 1959.

You can compile your own lists, but I might randomly adduce the songs of spirit mediums and ashiqstaranta (whose instrumental music, taken out of context, the uninitiated ear might not assume to be serious), Romanian funeral laments, aboriginal dream songs, reciting the Qur’an, musics of Iran (whose folk genres are just as serious as its chamber genres of “art” music!), the haka, and so on and on. Festivals around the world are serious…

As to China, the qin zither is clearly considered serious, meeting all the usual criteria (old, notated, the preserve of an elite)—but as I showed in Dissolving boundaries, its music turns out to be of less complexity than the suites of the lowly Chinese shawm bands (for what that’s worth). As to the repertoire of Daoist ritual specialists, I’d include not just the cosmic sublimations of the elite Daoist, but rituals like the Invitation of ordinary household Daoists like the Li family. Indeed, in Daoist ritual studies I see parallels with our debate: again, scholars focus on collecting disembodied early written texts, rather than the messy changing realities of performance in modern society.

Still for China, where scholars rashly adopt the term “classical” to characterise some traditional genres, I listed various criteria:

  • old
  • prestigious (music, musicians, contexts)
  • documented (in notation, and so on)
  • strictly transmitted by specialist musicians
  • equipped with music theory (e.g. terminology for key, metre, instrumentation, structure, and so on)
  • widely distributed
  • musically complex 

All these flawed criteria need unpacking, for China and elsewhere. It’s a rather short step from such ranking of genres to the whole UNESCO heritage flapdoodle.

Taruskin would presumably admit Western genres like Gregorian chant—in which case we would have to include Ethiopian, Islamic, and Tibetan chant too. More distressingly serious are Serbian gusle songs extolling the virtues of the “rambling, inconsistent, sentimental, bouffanted crook” Karadzic, as well as Orange Order marching bands.

First pundits admitted certain exceptional pop and jazz artists to the elite club, and now we find certain select “other classical traditions” magnanimously invited—raga, gamelan, qin, and so on (see Michael Church, The other classical musics). But for ethnomusicologists, expanding the membership from Western Art music to World Art Music isn’t the point; they are concerned not to establish a league table but to validate all kinds of musicking around the world—folk, art, and popular. Based on rich experience, they can speak deeply [sic] to people; all their sonic aspects, as well as their social contexts, deserve appreciation. This may seem like a Pandora’s box, but learning to treat, um, seriously all kinds of performance doesn’t demand that we abandon labels—we just need less tendential ones.

* * *

So even a brief consideration of musical activity in diverse global societies will confirm that “serious music” is not a useful category. Performers and audiences, immersed in activities that are meaningful to them, will not pause to worry about it. Masters like Li Manshan may be deeply attached to their tradition, but don’t feel a need to evangelize.

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”.

Well folks, I guess that’s just about it for tonight!