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Why Do So Many Smart People Listen to Such Terrible Music?

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arete1952
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So, what...does simplistic music make for terrible music? Each person has some kind of special connection with the music that they choose to listen to and enjoy (even if it's just a silly one). Not everyone is going to love the classical tunes this dude bangs out (and the ones he bops to in HIS car). I wish I understood it myself.

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The guy in the article package-deals everything into "popular music". You cannot dismiss popular music, or being more specific rock, pop, etc. as a whole. Some artists are absolutely brilliant and others are worthless. To think that only classical music is good is a fallacy, used by many people to avoid the task to actually think critically about the popular music they hear.

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To think that only classical music is good is a fallacy, used by many people to avoid the task to actually think critically about the popular music they hear.

The task of thinking critically about popular music is not one I avoid at all. As a trained composer I AUTOMATICALLY listen/think critically when listening to any type of music and I would bet that the author of the article is also very capable of critical thinking/listening.

The point is, if I listen closely and critically to rock or rap or metal or any other type of popular music, I hear virtually no musical sophistication, no subletly, no depth, no richness, nothing of any real musical beauty or greatness or profundity. To put it bluntly, speaking on a purely musical level, any type of popular music offers very, very little. At best, if I find the music attractive for some reason, I am entertained and I can enjoy it and accept it at that “entertainment” level. But that is about it.

Edited by arete1952
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You may as well be asking why people don't spend more time reading "great" literary novels, or why do they watch simplistic TV instead of some great movies by Kurosawa or Welles or someone.

Hey it is good to read a trashy novel which is light and fun every once in a while, and I'm sure everyone has an objectively shallow TV show they enjoy watching.

Life is short.

Have some fun.

Not everything needs to be "deep".

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I hear virtually no musical sophistication, no subletly, no depth, no richness, nothing of any real musical beauty or greatness or profundity. To put it bluntly, speaking on a purely musical level, any type of popular music offers very, very little.

What about Mike Oldfield? R.E.M.? Nick Cave? Nothing deep or subtle there?

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The point is, if I listen closely and critically to rock or rap or metal or any other type of popular music, I hear virtually no musical sophistication, no subletly, no depth, no richness, nothing of any real musical beauty or greatness or profundity. To put it bluntly, speaking on a purely musical level, any type of popular music offers very, very little. At best, if I find the music attractive for some reason, I am entertained and I can enjoy it and accept it at that “entertainment” level. But that is about it.

If the situation is as bad as that, I would conclude the issue must lie at least in part with you the listener rather than the music itself. Or perhaps your exposure to popular music is extremely limited. I would agree that *most* popular music offers little of profound value (to me), but that would apply equally to *most* classical music. The way this article is presented, assuming some kind of dichotomy of sophistication between classical and popular music, represents an archaic cliché among snobby classical composers. The fact of the matter is, we are still a long way from understanding why anybody reacts to music the way he does, so nobody can objectively say "this music is sophisticated, and that music is offensive."

But as far as subtlety, greatness, and thought of composition go, what strikes me isn't the distinction between classical and popular music; but more so the distinction between music of past and music of present. It seems to me that in popular and symphonic music alike, there has been a continual decline in the beauty and emotional scope of musical compositions over the past hundred years, greatly accelerated since the 1960s. I believe there is a cultural and ultimately philosophical explanation for this. But then, it is hard to point to anything concrete, because of the impossibility of establishing any objective criteria for judging music as it is presently understood. One can only point to similar declines in other arts which are vulnerable to objective scrutiny.

Why do smart people respond to terrible art in general? I would recommend reading Ayn Rand's essay "The Esthetic Vacuum of Our Age" in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal as a potential lead to discovering some of the causes.

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You may as well be asking why people don't spend more time reading "great" literary novels, or why do they watch simplistic TV instead of some great movies by Kurosawa or Welles or someone.

Hey it is good to read a trashy novel which is light and fun every once in a while, and I'm sure everyone has an objectively shallow TV show they enjoy watching.

Life is short.

Have some fun.

Not everything needs to be "deep".

punk:

I agree with everything you wrote...100%.

The light, "trashy", simplistic stuff is what I consider entertainment as opposed to art...and entertainment has its place.

Entertainment, at its best, can be enjoyable, fun, etc. There is some popular music which I enjoy very much (although 95% of my listening is to classical) and there have been TV shows and many of what I call "popcorn" movies (Star Wars series, etc.) that I have enjoyed. And I have read and enjoyed my share of "light" reading. About entertainment, however:

1. I see it for what it is and do not attempt to validate or justify my consumption of it by making more of it than is, which means:

2. I place it realistically and objectively in my values hierarchy, i.e., on a much lower level than art, which means:

3. I limit (severely) my consumption of it

Now I have to go watch an episode of "Mystery Science Theater 3000".

Best,

Ken

Edited by arete1952
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What about Mike Oldfield? R.E.M.? Nick Cave? Nothing deep or subtle there?

I guess it depends on one's standards, one's "highest values". My highest musical values are J.S. Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Monteverdi, Palestrina, Wagner, Dvorak, Schubert, Stravinsky....so using their music as my standard, I would answer your question:

"No"

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The point is, if I listen closely and critically to rock or rap or metal or any other type of popular music, I hear virtually no musical sophistication, no subletly, no depth, no richness, nothing of any real musical beauty or greatness or profundity. To put it bluntly, speaking on a purely musical level, any type of popular music offers very, very little. At best, if I find the music attractive for some reason, I am entertained and I can enjoy it and accept it at that “entertainment” level. But that is about it.

I agree. I would like to add that jazz is, at the least, equal to the level of classical music in the terms you mentioned above. It's freedom and flexibility allows it to evolve at a pace unmatched by any style of music which gives the listener a greater opportunity to appreciate a much wider variety of styles (bob, fusion, smooth etc.). Jazz is also the place where most of the great instrumentalists have gravitated to for the last 100 years.

If you're smart, jazz, like classical, is a great style of music to listen to.

*Currently listenin' to Sex Pistols so what do I know :D

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Well what about all these Progressive Bands which combine the mathematical complexity of Bach or Paganini with the funner, more accessible stylings of rock and metal music? They satiate both the body and the mind. In my opinion the Swedish group Opeth is currently one of the most incredible musical forces on the planet. Combining free-form jazz, classical guitar, and heavy metal elements with a lyrical style reminiscent of Poe and the storytelling of Shakespeare. Definitely worth checking out.

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The big unanswered question in all of this is: what is quality music? What is the objective criterion for determining what is and is not quality music? This is presented as if it’s a given that we all just know what it is. This is why that article is lacking in substance. It takes for granted the subject that is being talked about, as if we all are supposed to know and to me the most interesting question to answer is “what is quality music?”

I note that the guy who wrote the article is a jazz pianist. Well, as much as I appreciate some jazz, jazz is often weak in the most essential element of music: melody. A melody is the thread that holds any piece together. Any piece that lacks it is more of a floating disconnected jumble than music. And this is not to say that I don’t like jazz, because there are definitely pieces I enjoy, the Pink Panther Theme song, for instance. But, Jazz surely doesn’t rate as highly as quality opera or classical.

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nobody can objectively say "this music is sophisticated, and that music is offensive.""

I am not quite clear on what you mean by that.

There is plenty of simple, inoffensive music and plenty of sophisticated, offensive music. Sophisticated and offensive are not opposites.

If, however, you mean it cannot be objectively stated and demonstrated that classical music is more sophisticated than pop music, then you are wrong.

I can easily demonstrate how classical music is much more sophisticated than popular. For example, if I can sit down with someone and present a comparison of, say, a Bach fugue with their favorite pop song I can show how the Bach fugue displays much greater musical sophistication (formal, contrapuntal, harmonic, melodic, rhythmic) and required far more compositional technique. I can even use a much less complex piece than a fugue...let's say a Schubert art song (which actually is more direct comparison, i.e., art song vs. pop song)...same result.

And that brings up the very limited formal aspects of pop music...but it is time for bed, so more on that tomorrow.

Best,

Ken

Edited by arete1952
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I note that the guy who wrote the article is a jazz pianist. Well, as much as I appreciate some jazz, jazz is often weak in the most essential element of music: melody. A melody is the thread that holds any piece together. Any piece that lacks it is more of a floating disconnected jumble than music. And this is not to say that I don’t like jazz, because there are definitely pieces I enjoy, the Pink Panther Theme song, for instance. But, Jazz surely doesn’t rate as highly as quality opera or classical.

Right, and adding to this: the author, implicitly, is saying that what he is looking for from his music is the complexity of structure to it - i.e. for the piece to do something "clever," musically. This is also the meaning behind the "smart people" thing - because it is required that one be smart to be able to enjoy a piece of music in this way.

There's just one problem with that - not everybody wants to get that particular kind of enjoyment out of music. Some of us - yes, even smart people - aren't interested in the structural complexity and cleverness of a piece - we're interested in whether is sounds good (i.e. harmonious) or not. We're interested in the particular emotions that a piece expresses and accesses.

In fact I would go so far as to say that it is only musicians who are entertained by a piece purely on the level of its structure (i.e. apart from its overall harmony), because they study and understand composure itself. Music that is particularly concerned with that structure, often (but not always) to the exclusion of harmony, is generally referred to as progressive - and it exists in many schools of music including jazz, rock and roll, and even metal.

But the mistake I think people like the author (and his fellow musicians) make is that no non-musician has any reason to care about or appreciate music in that way. It's kind of a by-artists for-artists art. It doesn't make them smarter or more sophisticated - it is at best purely a professional interest, and at worst a form of pretentious rationalism that utterly misses the purpose of music - i.e. to be enjoyed emotionally.

So what if it's simultaneously working three levels of structure which switch on every third stanza or whatever. Does it sound good? What does it do on an emotional level? Is all that complexity acting in the service of harmony, or is it just getting in the way of it? Or worse, is there no harmony at all, with the complexity being there for its own sake? (which is not only useless, emotionally, but in the extreme could mean that there isn't even a song at all - just a bunch of cleverly composed noise!) Those are the questions that the end users of music are concerned with.

So while you do have to be smart to appreciate progressive music, it doesn't make necessarily any better than anyone else for doing it, nor do all smart people have to do it. So to look down on people or get all worked up because they don't spend their time appreciating progressive-style music is erroneous.

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What is an objective standard for "good" music versus "bad" music? It would seem to me that these are relatively subjective standards anyways, so why is one person's subjective idea of "good" music more correct than others? How does complexity in a musical work somehow make it better than a more simplistic piece just because it's more complex?

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What is an objective standard for "good" music versus "bad" music? It would seem to me that these are relatively subjective standards anyways, so why is one person's subjective idea of "good" music more correct than others? How does complexity in a musical work somehow make it better than a more simplistic piece just because it's more complex?

My sentiments exactly.

Consider The Fountainhead. Take every criticism Rand makes and replace architecture with music. What made Roark's architecture objectivist was that it was simple and new. What made everyone else's altruistic was that it was ornate and complicated. Looking to the past to what others have done before you (i.e. Bach, Beethoven, etc.) is exactly what Rand was AGAINST. Cite one example where Rand grabs something from hundreds of years ago and says "this is better". I believe as long as something is new and original and the marketplace wants it, it can be held to be objectivist.

Let me point out the scene in the movie Mr Holland's Opus. Mr. Holland (played by Richard Dreyfuss) is a high school music teacher in the 1960s trying to get students to appreciate music. But they don't care about Bach and Beethoven, so what does he do? He starts playing contemporary "rock" music to show it's musical similarity to classics written by Bach. At one point, when trying to get a clarinetist to appreciate the classical music she is trying to play, he takes out a record a "Louie, Louie" and points out that the band completely lacks any musical skill whatsoever so they just keep playing the same three chords over and over again. Then he asks why she likes it then? and the answer - because it's fun.

Edited by KevinDW78
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I can easily demonstrate how classical music is much more sophisticated than popular.

No doubt most classical music is more sophisticated or complicated than most rock music. Is "sophistication" (complexity) a necessary quality of "good"? Restated, is sophisticated music necesarrily better than rock music.

Within classical music itself, certainly Beethoven "Da Da Da Daaa" is less sophisticated than some of Bach's complicated fugues. Does that mean that a fugue is necessarily better than Beethoven's relatively simple "Da Da Da Daaaa" theme.

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Cite one example where Rand grabs something from hundreds of years ago and says "this is better".

Aristotle. Victor Hugo. Rachmaninoff. There's three.

"New" does not equal "better", nor is it a necessary requirement. Roark's stuff wasn't better because it was new (The Gallant Gallstone was also new - and terrible), but because it addressed the problems properly. He identified the requirements and filled them. The others copied old architecture for the sake of copying.

Being new and original for the sake of originality is fashionable non-conformity.

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I agree with Chops' previous statements regarding "new". Something else that needs to be mentioned is the fact that architecture is not art--and even if it was, one can't replace one form of art with another in determining if a piece is "good" or "bad".

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Within classical music itself, certainly Beethoven "Da Da Da Daaa" is less sophisticated than some of Bach's complicated fugues. Does that mean that a fugue is necessarily better than Beethoven's relatively simple "Da Da Da Daaaa" theme.

In the case of Beethoven's Fifth and the famous motive you quote: yes. the motive itself is very simple. But the manner in which Beethoven constructs a four-movement symphony, using this motive IN EVERY movement so as to achieve unity and integration is extremely sophisticated.

There is much more to great classical music than great melodies. Arguably the greatest achievement of Western art music (the proper term for what most people call classical and from hereon referred to as WAM) is the development of large-scale forms. Form is never mentioned in these threads (and I know the reason which I will not get into here) but it is a crucial element which should be considered in the evaluation of music...and popular music's lack (extreme lack) of any kind of formal interest is a prime reason it must be considered far less sophisticated than WAM.

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But the manner in which Beethoven constructs a four-movement symphony, using this motive IN EVERY movement so as to achieve unity and integration is extremely sophisticated.

As much as I'd like it to be true, this is debatable. From the Book "The Life and Works of Beethoven" (pgs 280-281) about the symphony:

A rhythmic affinity between the movements can pointed out. But the similarity (and it is nothing more) should be kept within the bounds of a superficial observation. Beethoven may not have been even aware of it - he was too deep an artist to pursue a unifying theory.

Whether or not it was intentional, my point stands. The first movement is the same few chords chasing each other around the score with very little harmonic variance.

When compared with some of Bach's incredible use of counterpoint, it is indeed simple in comparison, yet I prefer Beethoven's 5th over any Bach Fugue.

Inspector's argument applies here: even if the 4 note theme is intentional throughout the Symphony, Inspector's point applies. For most situations, it takes a musician to recognize and appreciate form. Just as it takes a programmer to recognize just how amazing Google Maps was when it first launched (to the normal person, it's just a nice map, to a web-programmer, it's practically a revolution).

Then comparing Classics like Beethoven and Bach to modern atonal music, with it's crazy harmonics and irregular rhythms, it's much more complex than some other forms of music, yet (I think) it's mostly terrible.

What quality is a requirement for music to be "good"? To get fundamental, that implies "good for whom"?

There's a significant difference between enjoying something because others do, and enjoying it because you actually enjoy it.

Edited by Chops
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Aristotle. Victor Hugo. Rachmaninoff. There's three.

"New" does not equal "better", nor is it a necessary requirement. Roark's stuff wasn't better because it was new (The Gallant Gallstone was also new - and terrible), but because it addressed the problems properly. He identified the requirements and filled them. The others copied old architecture for the sake of copying.

Being new and original for the sake of originality is fashionable non-conformity.

Oops!

Edited by KevinDW78
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This comic is relevant here:

The Perfect Sound

Often, someone will recommend a piece of music, and their description of it sounds so good, but then I listen to it, and I just don't "get it."

So, here's one for everyone else to "not get":

Queensryche - Real World

I personally think it's an example of a very sophisticated and well-structured rock piece. But, as the comic above indicates, "your mileage may vary!" :D

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I don't think it's possible to say, with any accuracy, that new = bad or new = good. The age of something is irrelevant. However, "good" is a subjective term that is difficult to accurately define. So far, there have been arguments about the complexity of music, but complexity isn't necessarily a sign of quality. A simple, but pleasant melody is far better in my mind than a complex but horrible sounding noise that can't be properly called "music".

So, it's impossible in my opinion to answer a question of why smart people listen to "bad" music, since it's so difficult to define "good" and "bad" music. To those smart people, they'll probably tell you that they don't listen to bad music, just different music. Therein lies the problem.

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Whether or not it was intentional, my point stands. The first movement is the same few chords chasing each other around the score with very little harmonic variance.

I would be happy to post an analysis of this movement to prove your statement false,

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