another post on why modern classical music sucks

Joe Queenan, over at the Guardian, has a nippy essay on why modern classical music has been wretched for nearly a century. As music snob, it’s an issue I care about. But until I read this essay, I don’t think that I’d encountered an explanation that quite nailed the issue. Queenan’s argument boils down to a few simple points:

  1. Music that is purely about sound effects and gimmicks has extremely limited appeal because…
  2. People need some driving, often traditional, aesthetic to maintain their listening experience.
  3. Music that employs harsh tones makes people physically uncomfortable, unlike paintings that use nasty images, which people can process at their own pace.

This argument explains why other arguments about contemporary music’s suckiness are just wrong. For example, it’s often said that CCM (contemporary classical music) is unpopular because it’s abstract. That’s hogwash – there is lots of abstract music that’s fairly popular. Bebop, hip hop and new age all have large bodies of relatively popular work that have little in the way of lyrics or other traditional musical structure. Abstractness by itself does not make music bad.

Queenan also points out that this explains why CCM is popular in very select contexts, such as film scores. Embedded in larger works, people can take a little CCM as long as it’s motivated by other stuff, like film images. But few people can handle an hour of the stuff by itself. Also, the argument quickly points out that people don’t hate CCM becuase they aren’t versed in music history, the music is either too gimmicky or noisy for the human ear.

I’d also argue that this theory explains well the success of abstract music in other realms, such as jazz or funk. The most successful abstract music doesn’t abolish traditional structure. Rather, new technique and abstraction makes traditional music more exciting. For example, Albert Ayler is notorious as the noisiest jazz musician ever. But once you listen a few times, you realize that he’s just playing church songs, but the squeaking draws out an intensity in the music that few people thought was in there (e.g., Ghosts from the Spiritual Unity album). CCM failed because it tried to abandon too much, rather than hybridize.

Finally, Queenan’s argument explains why CCM won’t be another example of a music that is derided now, but eventually accepted. Successful new music (bebop in the 40’s, for example) usually has much in common with older musics. It’s just that the new technique allows people to show an exciting aspect of the older music. In Bebop’s case, you could use all sorts of tricks (diminished chords, tritone subsitutions, off beat syncopation) to really spice up and expand what you could do with something as simple as 12 bar blues in b-flat. In contrast, CCM doesn’t redeploy older music in quite the same way, unless you count references to other CCM. By having a more traditional and time tested core, bebop could eventually attract followers who could appreciate what was happening, while CCM doesn’t have that and probably never will.


Written by fabiorojas

July 15, 2008 at 3:05 am

9 Responses

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  1. I’m not a music guru, so this might be a dumb question. I like the minimalist music of the 20th century (e.g., Phillip Glass) and often have it as background music while I work. Wouldn’t it classify as CCM? Perhaps some CCM is wretched, but the stuff I like works well for me. Or maybe I like wretched things (don’t tell my wife I raised that possibility).

    Liked by 1 person


    July 15, 2008 at 4:12 am

  2. I don’t get it. Edgar Varese, Philip Glass, Gorecki, Ligeti, Boulez… Mr. Queenan is just nostalgic.


    Michael F. Martin

    July 15, 2008 at 5:13 am

  3. I put on a concert in the UK, a world premier of my first symphony. I “hired” a local amateur symphony orchestra and looked to the university I was attending for support. The orchestra did well to play the music, but did nothing for getting people into the audience – one comment I was told was when I asked why they didn’t publicise the event “This wasn’t our concert.” As for the university, they thought of it as a student concert (so what, it has no value?) – and only a couple of lecturers attended.

    I was amazed at the lack of support in what I thought would be a huge event for both the orchestra and the university. They could have leveraged the idea that they were playing a world premier of a 1st symphony. IF I become famous, even remotely, they will likely want to claim some responsibility for it. And yet, there was practically no support in publicising the event initially.

    What does this say about classical music? It says, the performers and educators aren’t really interested in a public. They appear to be “doing it” for some other reason. If CCM dies, it is due to apathy from the very people who ought be it’s staunchest cheerleaders.


    Chip Clark

    July 15, 2008 at 12:05 pm

  4. OK, I read the essay you link to, and I’m not sure how you got the above three bullet points out of it. It’s mostly about how people love Mozart, and know next-to-nothing about his music but know they’ve heard of him. [Like little anecdotes about how at the time his compositions were accused of having “too many notes”.]

    The article does lament that there are noisy composers and crappy composers working today, but to say that modern classical has problems because the worst of the bunch are lousy is not a very coherent argument. As commenters above have pointed out, there are several people working in the last few decades who are stellar and in no way screechy, but can’t fill a concert hall because they can’t possibly develop the mass-market reputation of Mozart over the course of a few decades. I mean, if you equate contemporary classical with screechy experimental music, the question of its small audiences answers itself, but that’s a false premise and avoids the real questions.



    July 15, 2008 at 4:05 pm

  5. I don’t agree with what you said that CCM will never have a following. Sure, it might not be time for it yet and yes, we have “classical” composers who suck at composing “classical” music music, but I personally like CCM. Everheard of milk tea? it’s kinda like that, you need to listen to it several times and you will realize that you like it.



    July 16, 2008 at 9:11 am

  6. Fabio: Interesting post (and an article I would like to read). I’ve always thought that CCM is tough to appreciate upon a first listen, and hence it fails quite miserably as expected when presented to a typical audience. But, it is fun to play, in part because it is dense, challenging to master, and often contains hauntingly beautiful moments that are rewarding to discover and then deliver. So, in the end, performers and conductors like it, but audiences don’t.

    The question in my mind is whether repeated listening by non-performers results in them liking it more. I would guess not, in part because I have never come to love any CCM that I have not played (though some has risen to the level of ‘like’). If that is generally the case, then I suppose CCM is doomed and will remain something that orchestras only engage in to appear cutting edge and to give their members a break from Mozart.


    Steve Morgan

    July 16, 2008 at 8:00 pm

  7. Great post and many thanks for the link!
    Fabio, I think that you got it wrong about modern music ‘quoting’ or ‘redeploying’ earlier material. 20th century music is littered with examples of such quotes: stylistic-structural (e.g. Carl Orff in Carmina Burana), thematic (e.g. Stravinsky in symphony of psalms, Olivier Messiaen), rhythmic and others, and this is before we mention IRCAM and sampling.



    July 19, 2008 at 1:07 pm

  8. I stumbled upon this site while looking for something more specific, but honestly, I find such blanket arguments, dismissing an entire realm of music in one fowl swoop, grossly ignorant.

    Let me first make the point that ALL music is abstract. The only reason we might consider otherwise is when the music we are listening to is so firmly rooted in what we have become accustomed to that it doesn’t seem outside our own boundaries of thought. These boundaries, however, are learned and completely arbitrary.

    When you were very young and hearing music for the very first time, a major chord (to pick a small arbitrary example) would seem abstract, even dissonant to you. Then you hear a few hundred more, a few thousand, and now you’ve formed a relationship with that major chord. It’s now a part of your comfortable musical and emotional spectrum and you accept it as one of the foundations on which “normal” music is made. That doesn’t make it any more meaningful than any other harmonic combination though, which could be used to communicate something different but equally specific.

    So as music evolves, the people who look for something new to express are usually the ones written off bytraditionalists, who are so firmly comfortable in their conventions that they ignorantly believe them to be somehow more “right” or “real” than anything outside of them.

    In truth, however, with an open mind and some patient, contemplative listening, you can broaden your barriers and refine your emotional sensitivity to encompass and resonate with a more complex musical palette. Of course, it’s your choice if you don’t want to. I’m not saying you have to enjoy the music of contemporary composers, but to try to concoct an argument which “proves” contemporary classical music to be valueless is plain arrogance.

    I, for one, have had some of my deepest and most cathartic emotional experiences with the music of Shostakovich, Ligeti, Penderecki, and many others, and certainly minimalists such as Reich and Glass. Listen to “Music for 18 Musicians” right through in one sitting, preferably with closed eyes and a desire to embrace it, and tell me you haven’t just been cleansed in the same way that you might be cleansed by Bach’s more godly moments.

    As for harsher, more dissonant music making people “physically uncomfortable”, that all depends how much you’re fighting what you’re listening to, or how afraid you are of experiencing unfamiliar emotions. When Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” debuted, it had people screaming in dusgust. To those who listen to it with a genuine intent to hear what it’s trying to say, it’s among the most evocative pieces ever written. You need only surrender yourself to the music, and allow it to fill you.

    If you prefer not to explore complex and unfamiliar emotions, that’s your choice, but please don’t even try to convince yourself that your point of view has any objective bearing on the music itself. Music is an entirely subjective and incredibly personal thing to experience. To make conclusive statements about even one piece of music, let alone a whole genre, let alone a whole ERA, is utterly absurd, entirely meaningless, and dismissive (potentially even insulting) to others who can and do appreciate the music all the time.



    October 22, 2008 at 8:19 am

  9. So if you can’t see the Emperor new clothes the problem is obviously yours, as not everybody can appreciate its finesse



    December 3, 2008 at 5:24 am

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