Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Why is modern music so ugly? (Make Classical Music Great Again!)

So…some election, huh? I don’t know about you, but I was surprised (and honestly, horrified) by the outcome. In addition to my fears for the future, I also feel profound confusion because the results of the US presidential election showed me that the world isn’t exactly how I thought it was. I realize that my perception of the political landscape is shaped by being a white woman who has lived in liberal areas for most of my life. I had no idea that Donald Trump had that much support; I didn’t know how many people supported—or at the very least, could overlook—the very behaviors I found unacceptable. I thought the country was mostly like me, and the election tells me this is not the case.

I take my identity as a scholar very seriously, not just in my work, but in my life. When I am confronted with evidence that contradicts something I believe to be true, I should not ignore it. Though it would comfort me to look for other, different evidence that would confirm my previous worldview, that’s ultimately bad practice for a historian. I’m still trying to make sense of the information we received last week, and this blog post is part of that.

A few weeks ago, I received a message from reader Kenichi Ikuno on Facebook. He sent me a link to a blog post proclaiming that “Modern Classical Music is Dead,” and feminism killed it. He thought it would be a good addition to my ongoing series on snobbery, since the author, Max Roscoe, repeatedly asserts the superiority of classical music (up to a certain era) and supports his opinions with assumptions not supported by history. Normally, that is ideal fodder for this blog!

Yet as I considered how to approach a blog post on this, I decided that I probably wouldn’t touch it. Roscoe accuses Social Justice Warriors (or SJWs) of forcing people to pretend they like ugly music. I tend to ignore people who consider “SJW” a pejorative, as they use it as a catch-all label for “people who speak out about opinions different from mine.” They’re usually set in their opinions, particularly those that affirm white, male superiority, and they certainly wouldn’t be swayed by a female academic.

The blog’s founder, Roosh, is a major figure in the Pick-Up Artist (PUA) culture, which tells men that the best way to convince women to have sex with them is to assert dominance over them (and if she doesn’t respond to that tactic, she’s not a woman you’d want to have sex with, anyway). I became aware of Roosh after his comments about the mass shooting that occurred at UCSB while I was a student there. His blog is extremely popular among Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs), who have a history of abusing people who disagree with them. Criticizing them carries a real risk of being harassed, doxed, or worse.

I didn’t want to go kicking a hornet’s nest.

After last week, though, I realized that I can’t keep ignoring opinions like Roscoe’s. He’s expressing beliefs that reflect the way our culture views classical music, and he’s not alone in that respect.

In his post, he claims that modern music is dissonant and forgettable, destined not to last. He elevates Beethoven as the ideal composer, an opinion shared by many who have never even heard of SJWs, PUAs, and MRAs. He connects dissonance to feminism and other progressive movements, claiming that they want us to accept ugliness as beautiful.

Ahh, Beethoven's Fifth. So relaxing!
This argument rests on the assumption that music’s primary function is to be “beautiful.” He even says, “The purpose of music is to relax, to express our emotions and our humanity,” which is a cliché I plan to unpack in a future post. This is a common view, but it is not an objective fact. Some people use music to relax. Some people use music as a form of expression. However, these are not universal truths—they aren’t even completely true of the classical works he mentions! Composers and musicians are under no obligation to conform to his expectations.

If Roscoe wishes to consume music in this way, that’s his prerogative. He’s certainly welcome to dislike some styles of music. But his opinions are not facts and do not determine the value of ALL music. His assumption that “Classical music is beautiful,” leads him to believe “Therefore, music that is not beautiful has failed to be classical music.” To him, music (like a woman) exists to please him and others like him. His opinion is the only opinion that matters because he believes it to be actual reality. This is why he views feminism and most postmodern philosophies as dangerous—they challenge his authority to determine reality. To him, they are lies because they deny what he believes to be a fundamental truth of existence.

Note his invocation of mathematics as the basis of tonality, proof that consonance is more beautiful than dissonance. This is a common tactic, and I even see some music theorists teach their students that ratios are the basis for harmony. What’s often overlooked is that the math doesn’t work out. As a string player, I’m intimately familiar with the Pythagorean comma—tuning fifths to a perfect 2:3 relationship means that eventually it will not line up with tuning octaves to a perfect 1:2 ratio. The distortion is perceptible even across the four strings of a viola, so we must account for failure of mathematics to conform to our concept of tonality whenever we tune our instruments. Mathematics alone is not the basis of beauty.

Elsewhere, I’ve mentioned how, even in tonal music, consonance and dissonance depend on context. I consulted an ethnomusicologist friend of mine, Jason Busniewski, for non-Western uses of dissonance, and he sent me a fascinating link to Bulgarian singing, which embraces dissonance. He pointed out that Balinese gamelan purposely uses dissonance to give the sound a shimmering quality, and that the scales of Javanese gamelan have no relation to the overtone series aside from the presence of octaves. He also sent me a video of traditional Irish music, which historically used notes in between the twelve notes of Western tuning for color. These examples demonstrate that “beauty” is not a universal constant. Roscoe’s sweeping statements about music reveal his ethnocentrism. It’s not that he would deny that these examples exist, but he would probably say they are inferior to Western classical music, as John Halle strongly implied in his post on Musicology Now. It is uncomfortable to point out the assumptions of white supremacy that underlie many conversations about classical music, but they exist.

Roscoe’s charged rhetoric makes his post easy to dismiss, but his opinions are not limited to the MRA and PUA communities. Take, for example, British music journalist Norman Lebrecht. He is a prolific blogger, posting several times a day with news about the classical music world. Some of my colleagues refer to his blog as a tabloid (and they won’t be happy that I’m giving him extra attention), and his provocative posts earn him that reputation (for example, here and here). Nevertheless, he’s an influential voice in the English-speaking classical music community online, and he reaches an audience whose love of classical music forms part of their identities (as it does for mine).

Lebrecht’s blog skews conservative, with a major distrust of multiculturalism, feminist musicology, and other progressive philosophies. A site-wide search for the phrase “post-modern” reveals that he often uses it as a pejorative, an indication that things are not as good as they used to be. His audience also tends to be socially conservative—check out the comments on this post about women conductors: “I’d feel very awkward if I have to watch a standing woman’s back for 2 hours at such close distance.” This is a community of mostly white men who view themselves as the norm in the classical music community, with people of color, women, and liberals as outsiders. To them, it’s not even a matter of opinion; they believe it to be objective fact.

I would prefer to think that the classical music community—as I had assumed about the country prior to the election—is mostly like me: progressive, intellectually curious, and welcoming of differences. The election suggests that many people in this country also see people of color, women, and liberals as outsiders in society, reminding me that many classical music lovers likewise do not see the world as I do, and I’m being intellectually careless when I ignore that.

In a previous post, I reflected, “One of the uncomfortable paradoxes of classical music is that, while musicians skew liberal on social issues (at least in my experience), a not-insignificant portion of the audience is socially conservative.” My point was to show how music history has been shaped by conservative tastes, leaving out unsavory parts because they make people uncomfortable. People want history to conform to certain expectations because it helps them make sense of their world. It’d be too easy to call this a conservative trait, but my surprise over the election reminds me that this is true of people all over the political spectrum.

As someone who studies the nineteenth century, I often encounter statements and incidents in which people I otherwise admire act in a way I would find deplorable today. For example, I’ve praised Clara Schumann for being a badass, but she and her husband also made several anti-Semitic comments about their friend Felix Mendelssohn (although comments like that today might get you appointed senior advisor to the President). It’d be easier to ignore that aspect of the Schumanns, but as a scholar, I understand that history has no obligation to conform to my expectations.

So, where do we go from here? My goal with this blog is, as it has always been, to reveal ways in which the popular stories surrounding classical music are inaccurate, and to explain why people prefer to believe the myths. This means questioning assumptions and facing the possibility that we may be wrong. I also hope to show what is lost when only a narrow demographic writes the story, as has been the case in music history for generations. I am not looking for history to vindicate my political convictions, but I hope that how I practice history—on this blog and in my scholarly research—can be a way to put my politics into action.

Special thanks to Kenichi Ikuno for sending me the link, and to William Cheng, Felicia Miyakawa, Jason Busniewski, and Andrew Dell’Antonio for their feedback on the many drafts of this post.


  1. Beauty and dissonance need one another to coexist and make a musical work come to life. In fact the chromatic notes are the agents of development and strategy, as outlined in the pathbreaking discoveries made by Henry Burnett who examines how they control a piece's destiny, from DI Lasso to early Schoenberg. See his perceptions in action at:
    No one troubles over how non-classical practices were fundamental to musical innovations such as Haydn and Brahms being swept away by Gypsy music and what Bartók achieved. A tacit policy of keeping ethnic or nationalistic elements at a distance or confining them to a secondary status are responsible for the academic boredom that overflowed in "new" works.
    Roscoe should just pick up a tanpura to "experience" its fundamental drones and make sure that no singing or sitar interferes with his onanistic reveries and dictums.

  2. This guy (Roscoe) is simply ignorant, and not even deserving of the carefully considered and nuanced response you provide here. I've been in the classical music world for 30+ years, and this is the first I have heard about this deeply weird line of argument (feminism = dissonance???) I am afraid we are entering a very dark time....

    1. There's "wrong," and then there's "not even in the same universe as right." That's another reason why I almost ignored this link. But his ideas didn't come from nowhere--he's using aspects of how our culture perceives classical music to reinforce his worldview.

  3. Charles Ives famously thought "beautiful" music was for sissies, while real men embraced thorny, dissonant music.

    1. I'm an Ives scholar, FWIW, so this comes from a place of absolute love for his music and many aspects of his personality as well. But while we might want to celebrate Ives's declaration of the true beauty of dissonance, we should also remember that his rhetoric was troubling, too. Roscoe claims that dissonance is a product of feminism, whatever that means. But Ives believed that the status quo of consonance was a product of effeminacy and emasculation, loaded words in his time. These comments should absolutely be understood in the context of turn-of-the-century gilded age cultural politics, at a time when changing geographies and growing technological innovation created a fear of feminization in American culture (as Ann Douglas has written about). So, as much as I wish it wasn't true, Ives's comments are an example of straight, white, Christian men deciding what should be called "good music."

  4. Can I get clarification on "classical?" Did he mean all concert music or are we talking about the era specific to Haydn, Mozart etc...?

    1. He mentioned Wagner and Tchaikovsky (of all people!), so he meant it in the sense of "Western art music" and not "music of the late 18th century."

  5. I'm in full sympathy with what you say - but there's one thing that I feel never gets admitted in this kind of discussion, which is that the great bulk of 20th-century and more recent classical music is, in fact, really awful, especially the repertoire that gets played by orchestras. I say that as a composer who has spent his entire life writing about modern and postmodern music. Of course it's not awful because it's atonal, or because it's not in sonata form, or for any of those superficial reasons that are the only ones musically unsophisticated people can think of.

    I have studied, and even teach, a lot of mediocre 18th- and 19th-century music, because I think we learn just as much about creativity, the canon, etc., from where music goes wrong as where it goes right. And what virtually all of that music has in common is that the composer followed the rules and, thinking that was enough, made no attempt to delight the listener, didn’t do anything really special, didn’t jump beyond the conventions of the idiom to spark the listener’s imagination. “I followed the rules correctly; isn’t that enough?” And when 20th- and 21st-century music fails, it’s generally for exactly the same reason. Of course it’s possible for atonal music to grab the listener’s attention and inspire wonder and delight. Every time I play Carl Ruggles’s Sun-Treader, a swath of students instantly fall in love with it. The opening gestures of Morton Feldman’s For Philip Guston are arresting, and create a curiosity about what’s going to happen afterward.

    Forgettable, uninspired music has been around for hundreds of years, but we do need to account for the very common perception that modern classical music, as a whole, is particularly bad. The answer, I think, falls into two parts. 1) The academic milieu in which composition is taught often encourages young composers to have contempt for the audience and to justify themselves when their music is disliked with the thought that their listeners aren’t capable of understanding new music, freeing them from the responsibility to write music that can be understood from listening to it. 2) Composers’ careers these days are made primarily by having gone to the right school, having a powerful mentor, and becoming good at networking; the quality of the music rarely becomes an issue. And so dozens of composers doing really wonderful work are ignored, while ambitious social climbers who write crappy music get lots of press.

    Of course there is plenty of wonderful music being written today, but even I, who listen to tons of new music, have to admit that it’s difficult to find, and the usual commercial and cultural channels are not likely to lead a casual listener to it. Of course the superficial reasons Philistines give for this state of affairs are way off the mark, but to avoid granting the validity of the perception is to let an entire profession off the hook and free to avoid admitting its mistakes, excesses, and faulty aesthetics and pedagogy. I feel my argument here has been perhaps too brief and elliptical, but I hope the point is clear.

    1. I think perhaps a third reason why contemporary art music at least *seems* more 'bad' than music did previously is because we are receiving it all, the good and the not (and I find the previous writer's suggestions as to why some of it isn't good persuasive), in 'real time' as it were, without the filtering or winnowing (and re-discovery) that we benefit from with regard to music of the further-past.

    2. I wish the comments section had a "like" capability like Facebook, because you both bring up excellent points.

    3. >we are receiving it all, the good and the not (and I find the previous writer's suggestions as to why some of it isn't good persuasive), in 'real time' as it were, without the filtering or winnowing

      Well, don't forget that atonal music first appeared a century ago and to this day, there is still a huge gap between atonal music and the classical music audience.

  6. Bravo! Great post, Linda. Who is this Roscoe guy ?? Love the Bulgarian singing you linked to - wow.

  7. Reminiscent of the degenerate art arguments in the 1930s.

  8. "White noise" or multiple sounds using a large portion of the audible-frequency range is highly dissonant. But, very often that sound is considered to be most peaceful: the sound of ocean surf crashing on the beach, or rain falling on a resonant surface.

  9. But Linda, setting the culture wars aside for a sec, don't you think there is SOME element of natural law behind the Western tradition? And indeed, every musical tradition? I think Fred Lerdahl makes some great points about this in "Cognitive Constraints on Compositional Systems".
    In a nutshell, he points to a disconnect between modernist "compositional grammar" (highly artificial, mathematical concepts) and the natural "listening grammar" of the human animal (more attuned to look for regular metric structure and repetition and elaboration in music) as the primary source of audience dissatisfaction with "modern" music.
    That music is an attempt at communication from human to human is taken as a baseline tenet. And he borrows some ideas from Linguistics research to delve into how humans listen and experience music, offering compelling arguments that this "how" is not all a matter of conditioning, it is part of our animal nature. The problem is that listeners (even trained ones) are at a loss to make "mental representations" of what they're hearing in much modern music, because all the predictable (in the pure, non-pejorative sense) elements have been ruthlessly expunged from the music. At the extremes, this is interpreted by audiences (fairly, I think) as contempt.

    1. I do think there are SOME natural elements at play (though not the ones that Roscoe thinks, as his explanation is very muddled), as well as biological ones (our innate skills for pattern recognition). At the same time, I believe that those alone cannot be used as proof of "quality."

      As for atonal or post-tonal music, I have to confess that despite the way I defend it, most of it isn't my favorite. (I hesitate to say I dislike modern music, though, because it's SUCH a blanket term that encompasses so many different styles.)

      I had trouble playing such music, too--but one of the violists who went to grad school with me has the ability to make atonal works make sense on the first listening in a way that I've rarely heard. When he plays, I can recognize motives and hear coherence in ways that surprise me. He does something extra that bridges that gap for the audience, and, academic that I am, even I'm at a loss to put that in words.