On classifying music

Posted on December 9, 2012. Filed under: Uncategorized |

Why do people want to classify anything at all and in particular music? On the one hand because classifying is the human need to understand and control. On the other because it’s practical. For instance, if you have lots of music in a shop, in your library or in your itunes library, classification can help you to find something you’re looking for more quickly. In a way, this relates directly to the first reason, for understanding and controlling is an evolutionary adaptation that derives from the experience that young buffaloes are more tasty than old ones and that coral snakes kill while scarlet snakes don’t.

When I wake up in the early morning I may think of a particular piece of music that I would like to listen to, by the famous late morning composer Cronelli of Babylonia. Knowing that this music falls in the category of depilated silence programs I move quickly to room VII on the 3d floor where I expect to find the appropriate score under the alphabetic code of “C”. Score? Do you listen to scores? Of course! A real – or rather royal – musicologist wouldn’t dream of listening to silly interpretations of the real – or royal – thing. Some people may think that the football club named “Real Madrid” is the only the real Madrid, as opposed to the false Madrid that spreads around Plaza Mayor, but the word “real” is really “Ray-Ahl” which means royal. And in that sense, many times when we write “real” as in “reel” we really mean royal.

On similar note I should mention an etymology that struck me as I was walking down the Avenida Brigadeiro Luís Antônio in São Paulo. The very word brigadeiro, known in English as brigadier (a military rank) and in Dutch as brigadier (a rank in the national police force), derives from French brigade, a kind of battalion, which again derives from the vulgar western latin briga (a quarrel) or brigar (to quarrel). Which again confirms what we already knew; that police and army are not around to keep the peace and order but to quarrel. On the other hand, a brigadeiro is a typical Brazilian sweet, and considering that in Brazil the verb “comer” means to eat but also to have sexual intercourse, comer um brigadeiro has an interesting double meaning.

The most common classification of music, that is created by the dictatorship of consumption, as reflected in the record/cd-shops, the concert circuit and the media is in classical, jazz, pop, folk and world. In other words, it is a Marixist-materialialist classification. From a musicological point of view jazz and world don’t belong in this list. And classical is a misnomer. Therefore, a better classification is art, pop and folk. According to Narayana Menon yet better is religious, art, pop, folk and tribal. This classification is based on the division of society into the hierarchy of (1) the clergy, (2) the rulers, (3) the (pre-)industrial masses of the city involved in services, labour and handicrafts, (4) the masses of the land tilling the soil and herding the cattle and (5) the tribals living in the inaccessible regions and maintaining their original lifestyle.

Ashok Ranade refined this list and added two types of music: primitive music (which according to him is not tribal music) and fusion. Now things are getting slightly complicated. I’m not entirely sure what Ashok means with the distinction of primitive and tribal. I would suggest that instead of primitive we should speak of primordial. With this, we refer to the beginnings of music making. When man started this devious and pathological behaviour it must have been something very basic, very primitive indeed. Maybe rhythmical beating, banging or pounding, maybe melodic hooting or moaning. Some scholars (Mithen) believe that melodic vocalisations were anterior – which would imply women invented music (what do you hoot with?), other believe the rhythmical element came earlier, leaving the honours to the male (bang bang). To cut a long story short, for the (fully developed) musics of extant peoples the term primitive should be eschewed. As an example let’s look at Leonard Meyer’s definition:

If we ask, “what is the fundamental difference between sophisticated art music and primitive music” (and I do not include under the term “primitive” the highly sophisticated music which so-called primitives often play), then we can point to the fact that primitive music generally employs a smaller repertory of tones, that the distance of these notes from the tonic is smaller, that there is a great deal of repetition, though often slightly varied repetition, and so forth. (Meyer, Some Remarks on Greatness and Value in Music, 1959: 493-4)

I admire the work of Leonard Meyer but here he got himself entangled in a crazy trap. On the one hand he goes in the right direction when he says “the highly sophisticated music which so-called primitives often play”, but on the other hand the rest of definition reminds me awfully much of Indian art music, possibly the most “sophisticated” music around on this planet. In fact, the rest of the artice doesn’t really go very far in convincing me of anything at all.

Back to Ranade’s second addition “fusion”, which is even more confusing. For, though people may think of certain musics as “authentic”, “original”, “pure”, “autonomous” and indeed primitive in the sense of primordial, I strongly surmise that no music has developed in complete isolation and that therefore all musics are hybrid. And that not only holds true for the music of ethnicities, nations and regions, but also for the categories that we’re discussing here. So in the end:

¿There are only two types of music: good music and bad music?

How often have I already heard this cliché? And it’s usually the “professional” musickers that blurt out this one-liner. Good music is their music and whatever they like. Bad music is the rest.

You may have guessed; I don’t agree. There’s more to it. For instance, “interesting music”. Interesting music is music that doesn’t do anything to us, but that we also cannot ditch right away. We’re puzzled, it evidently holds secrets, we don’t really understand it. Maybe it’s not music at all, but it perks the ears. Maybe we find it pretty disgusting, but we don’t know why. And if listen a number of times we may start to like it, or part of it.

But interesting isn’t all there is to music. Now I’ll get down to the nitty-gritty of perfect, terrible, sublime, irritating, pleasing, dull, pompous, exciting, easy, tasteless, cheap and sad music. And possibly I’ll go beyond adjectives, in Roland Barthes’ footsteps.

In previous blogs I examined the questions “is music necessarily an art?” and “can we meaningfully keep aside a category of music as art music?” Both questions were answered in the negative. In both phrases art is a noun. In the compound “art music” the first noun functions as a qualifier to the second, like in the case of a “paper bag”, which is a bag made of paper (or a bag to carry your paper), not a baggy paper or a paper made from a bag. Similarly art music is music done in an arty way, not art done musically. The latter would be music art, which is something else, something postmodern that we probably want to stay far from. Living is dangerous Riobaldo correctly observed.

Art is something wonderful, it is exalted and elevated, it is good and great, marvellous and sublime, etc. etc., sometimes it is even fine (though music is not a fine art because it is performed). I contend that all these qualifications have a very simple background: “My music is art music > art music is superior > my music is superior”. Moreover, because I am my music, I am superior. So far so good, but what about the rest? If we are clever we say, “your music is almost art music”. That sword cuts on both sides. It re-establishes the superiority of our music, but it also suggests to the second person other (you) that ‘your’ music is better than yet other other music, that of them (third person plural). Them – despicable, bah! This is called divide and rule, or the patronage system. Let us not forget however that the two-edged sword is dangerous – one false movement and your own head is rolling over the cobbles.

I don’t think it is outright meanness that makes people do this, they genuinely love their own music (whatever music they consider their own), and cannot understand that other people love other music. And if they insist on doing so we will make clear to them that they are fools. Which brings us to the second strategy: “Your music is popular music > popular music is inferior > your music is inferior” etc. etc. You may think this is all outmoded, but that would only prove that you are a dozy left-wing postmodernist. Almost all writings on music are concerned in one way or another with those hierarchies and ways of establishing and reinforcing them. Now since the large majority of musicological literature in modern european languages is written by people who love what they usually refer to as “classical music”, it is mainly that music that is being promoted. Leonard Meyer, one of the musicologists I most esteem, does it too, in a very subtle manner. He explains in detail what makes the “sophisticated” music that he loves so “great”, opposes this to the quick and easy popular forms, and projects “the highly sophisticated music which some so-called “primitives” play in between. In passing he redefines primitive music – which we gather is really popular music, and not what some primitives play. And surely, I do it too, for the musics I love definitely want to be praised, and the music I love even more wants to know it. The debate between Tomlinson and Kramer, with Marion Guck’s commentary might be useful further reading.

The way in which musicians and musicologists ingeniously manipulate language to pull off this trick is sometimes shocking. Take Boulez, who says “Indian music is perfect, but because it is perfect it is dead”. Or take Barthes, who brings in the mysterious grain of the voice to prove that his deeply beloved teacher Panzera is really much better than the widely adored Fischer-Dieskau.

Sophistication, complexity and artfulness are some of the most widely used characteristics that distinguish musics from each other. Or so we think, because these three characteristics are very tricky and relative. A piece by Bach may be complex in its use of several voices and many instruments but it’s melodic structure and rhythmic organisation will be much more simple than the single voice & drum duet of Indian music. And as Meyer puts it, “the highly sophisticated music of some so-called primitives” is really very artful.

I propose a new classification as follows:

  1. Meaningful music
    1. Sad music
    2. Grandiose music
    3. Nice music
  2. Meaningless music
    1. Useful music
    2. Interesting music
    3. Bad music

Useful music is a very important category. It is meaningless because it doesn’t tell anything, it helps people to do certain things, it has a function like to make people dance or work. In principle this is true for all music.

Interesting music is music that is meaningful to people who know it but not to others. When I listen to a music I have never heard before I may think “I don’t understand it, but it seems interesting”. It’s like listening to an animated conversation in a language you don’t know. In principle this is true for all music.

Bad music is meaningless because the maker is not competent and cannot communicate anything through it. It’s like when you have done a starter’s course in a foreign language and you talk to a native whose eyes grow wider and wider. This is not true for all music, but it can be.

Sad music is the music that most profoundly stirs our soul. But the sadness of music is not the sadness of (daily) life. It is cosmic sadness that brings about empathy, compassion and oneness (in multiplicity).  In principle this is true for all truly great music (haha).

Grandiose music is the music Hanslick likes; mainly massive instrumental orchestras. It is often heard in British documentaries that attempt to move us through the exaltation of genius and greatness.

Nice music is nice. We like it, but it doesn’t move us. Interesting music can be nice also. In the end, all music is nice music, depending on the way you listen to it.

The distinction between sad music and grandiose music (that could also be called imperious, overbearing, domineering, magisterial, pontifical, pompous, affected, pretentious, stupifying) is culturally very important. The nineteenth century Anglo-German project in which Hanslick played such an important role was all about countering Rousseau’s criticism of noisy symphonies and instrumental ensembles. Rousseau propagated the importance of delicate inflections of the natural voice that could bring out the most subtle inners meanings of texts. But in the nineteenth century emotionality became something for fainting women (and queirdo’s); it made people weak and soft, unfit for battle and leadership. But why sad and not something more encompassing like “emotionally meaningful”, thus including merry, angry, amazing, erotic, boisterous, fearful, disgusting…? One the one hand because I do agree with Hanslick that the specific emotions as named here in the English language are not very relevant to music. Music expresses different things than language in a different way – they are mutually untranslatable. On the other hand because I agree with Bhavabhuti that the “sad” or “compassionate” lies at the basis of all emotional experience. It is a stratum beyond the classical drives of fear and eroticism, that lead to exitement and disturbance, whereas the stratum of compassion (karuna) and surrender (samarpan) will turn us back to the peace before and after (following Abhinavagupta).

There are many more ways of categorising and by that implicitly evaluating musics. I would like to draw attention to a particularly nasty one, “pest music”. This compound noun to refers to loud music that some people play in much the same way dogs piss agains poles. They think it’s great and invest in powerful blasters to let everybody know they’re there. They are aggressive little devils desperately want to splatter their genes around but as a substitute or preparation quirt those musical memes around. More about this in Momus’ blog “Hell is other people’s music“.


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