Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
The designation “art music” has come under fire in recent years. As a synonym for “legitimate music,” “serious music” and other labels rife with elitism, the term generally refers to notated music composed with advanced structural frameworks and theoretical tools. It is regarded as distinct from “lesser” types of music, which are commonly heaped into two overcrowded categories: folk and popular. Many contemporary scholars and performers refrain from applying these distinctions, and those who do tend to be critical of the old assumptions they carry.
The objections center on two main issues. First is the notion that only Western classical music (in the various ways that descriptor is used) is sophisticated enough to qualify as “art.” There are numerous examples from rock, jazz, soul and other sources that display a level of complexity exceeding that of the usual fare. Second is the belief that technical refinement and difficultness are prerequisites for artistry. This view ignores the dignity intrinsic to all kinds of music—no matter how simplistic from an analytical standpoint—and creates an artificial hierarchy in which complicated means superior.
To these criticisms can be added a third. If we take “art” to mean works of human skill and imagination that express beauty and emotional power, then no music should be considered artless. Whatever guise it takes or genre it fills, music is designed with and directed toward aesthetic sensibilities. In this basic way, it is inaccurate (and disingenuous) to identify certain music as artistic and other types as something else. Doing so reveals more about one’s biases than it does about the music itself.
Part of the problem is that when it comes to music, art is understood in terms of style and substance rather than attraction and effect. For those set on distinguishing art music from the rest, things like intricacy, instrumentation and theoretical considerations are the deciding factors. However, none of this makes the music automatically more beautiful or emotionally potent than a simple folk tune or popular hit. In fact, the opposite is often the case. It is as though the parts comprising music—harmonic progressions, tonal variety, colorations, etc.—are of greater significance than how listeners respond. By these standards, the most artful music is the most advanced with respect to performance demands, occurrences of modulation, number of notes and the like. And it is almost a plus if the music has limited audience appeal—a sign that it is artistic in the most elitist sense of the word.
This is not meant to suggest that all music is of equal quality or that classification serves no purpose. There are objective measurements by which musical creations can be judged and categorized, especially when examining structure, range, meter and other compositional elements. The point here is that music, in all its incalculable manifestations, has the potential to move listeners in profound ways, regardless of the box it fits or doesn’t fit into. From a results-based view of art, in which art is something that happens when a person is touched aesthetically, virtually no music can escape the label.
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