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Modern music ain\’t music

Modern classical music is so widely disliked by audiences because the human brain struggles to find patterns it needs to understand the compositions as music.

So, let us start at the beginning. Music is what the human brain recognises as music: if it ain\’t so recognised then it\’s noise. Humans do not recognise \”modern music\” as music therefore it is not music, it is noise.

Research has shown that listening to music is a major cognitive task that requires considerable processing resources to unpick harmony, rhythm and melody.

Quite. Those are indeed the three essentials of music. And speaking purely personally I find that in order to recognise something as being music (no, not going so far as to say music that I enjoy….that\’s a much more subjective matter) two of the three need to be held constant.

Dave Brubeck\’s \”Take Five\” (or \”Unsquare Dance\”) for example, takes harmony and melody as something not to play with while experimenting with rhythm.  Jaques Loussier\’s \”Play Bach\” does something very similar.

But when you try and play with all three at the same time (I\’m not sure I can think of anything that holds one constant while playing with two) in, say, freeform jazz, then certainly I\’m lost. It just ain\’t music any more.

No doubt this is a private failing….although this research seems to indicate that it might not be.

8 thoughts on “Modern music ain\’t music”

  1. Well, up to a point, Mr Worstall. We might agree that there is some stuff which is simply “not music”. But then arguably different people have different levels of tolerance/skill in extracting patterns from relatively “difficult” stuff. Just as some people would be willing and able to read (say) a long and abstruse treatise on economics, and others (perhaps most people) wouldn’t.

    Also, respectfully, it won’t do to take two representatives of the Second Viennese School, Schoenberg and Webern, and generalise then up into something called “modern classical music”. They are just one school, and (if you’re using the term chronologically) also they are hardly very modern any more – they died in 1951 and 1945. What about Shostakovich, Steve Reich, Arvo Part, John Adams, Philip Glass, Michael Nyman, Henryk Gorecki, John Tavener?

    Tim adds> Phillip Glass_ They guy whiose most famous piece features a complete absence of rhythm, harmony or melody?

  2. Emperor’s New Clothes, a lot of it. Harrison Birtwistle somehow got knighted for his noise.

    This isn’t to say that we don’t want experimental music, but that the free market has evolved musical forms far more successfully than classical music has. The likes of Radiohead, Aphex Twin, Sonic Youth, Brian Eno and The Fall are all experimenters who sometimes make complicated works which don’t provide an easy hit.

    And these artists have influenced others, while the modern classical noise typically exists in a vacuum.

  3. IIRC, the late Sir Thomas Beecham, when asked what he thought about Schoenberg, replied “I think I trod in some once”.

    Or, Yehudi Menuhin commented that he occasionally played Schoenberg and the like “to remind himself how much he liked Beethoven”…

  4. @Tim – Which Glass piece are you thinking of, please?

    Tim adds: 4 minutes 11 seconds or something isn’t it?

  5. Thanks. I think the piece you have in mind is 4’33” by John Cage.

    Tim adds> Well, of course I’ve never heard it so it’s difficult to place really….

  6. Brian, follower of Deornoth

    The real problem that classical music faces today is that the compression algorithm used to produce MP3s turns it into an appalling racket. That’d be without the help of Schoeberg and other Guardian readers.

    Is there any technical solution to this problem? Can I play decent music on an Ipod somehow?

  7. @Brian
    Then don’t use MP3s. Use instead whatever lossless encoder you device supports. But are you blaming the encoding for the limitations of your headphones/speakers?

  8. Brian, I encode classical at 320 kbits/s. That yields essentially no audible loss of fidelity. Anyone who says differently is selling something. I means I can only get 2000 songs on my iPod nano instead of the advertised 4000, but Amdahl’s law applies to music as in so many things: you spend 80% of your time listening to 20% of your music collection (one of the best features of iTunes is the sort-by-most-played setting. Readers of this blog will recognise it as revealed preferences in action.)

    Somewhere up in the loft at my parents’ place is a tape my father incredulously recorded off Radio 3 of a performance of Birtwhistle’s Xenakis Ais. It sounded like the contents of a cat shelter being fed through a wood-chipper. Fantastically awful rubbish. The man is an utter, screaming, copper-bottomed, ocean-going mountebank. His knighthood is in the same class as Yasir Arafat’s Nobel Peace Prize. A friend – frighteningly brilliant in a Rain Man-esque way – enthused to me about ‘aleatoric music’ one time. As far as I could tell, that was just shorthand for randomly churning out musical tones, like a toddler banging on a piano. Modern ‘classical’ music (an oxymoronic term) seems to share much with modern art, in that a lot of creativity is chasing a very small pool of craftsmanship. There should have been a special task force set up by UNESCO to ensure that John Cage was punched in the cock at least once a day for being such a complete and utter piss-stain.

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