Contemporary Classical Music: The Emperor’s New Music?

All about good music, bad music and why we don’t get those nice melodies any more…….

Music lovers and bloggers I have a question: have all the nice tunes been used up?

Andrew_portrait approved 24 July 09The world’s population has more than doubled since the era of the Beatles – have there been any rock composers since then to match the output and enduring popularity of Lennon and McCartney?

The world’s population has increased seven-fold since 1800 so why has it been 100 years since we had a classical composer who even approached the stature of Bach or Mozart or Beethoven or Verdi or Puccini?  (Shostakovich is the only one born in the 20th century that I can think of.)

Are we living in a melodic desert?  Or are we unwittingly subscribing to the musical equivalent of The Emperor’s New Clothes?

The Emperor’s New Music:  Acoustic or electronic noise with no melodic or harmonic merit but which is publicly applauded by persons who would never voluntarily listen to it in the privacy of their own homes.  It is optimistically called “music” by some.  The compositions are most frequently contemporary although they can be found throughout the history of music.  In nightclubs the music is sometimes made more endurable by ingesting, inhaling or injecting illegal substances.  (Source: Andrewpedia……)

For most of us music is a large part of our lives but those of us who enjoy tuneful melodies are being short-changed by contemporary composers and songwriters.  We want to get back to our musical roots, melodies that make us happy, melodies we can whistle or sing.  But nobody seems to want to compose for us.  Do you agree?  If so then please support me!

To start let’s dispense with the caveats, and if you want to check out my bio you can visit my web site.

Caveats (aka covering your butt)

Musical taste is subjective.  The noises that offend one set of ears will be pure pleasure to another – and vice versa.  This is one of the really exciting qualities of music!  I have no desire to convert anyone to my tastes; to do so would completely contradict what this blog is all about.  Read on.

The second caveat is that my argument is full of sweeping generalities.  Hopefully the general drift of my argument comes through and nit-picking will be minimal.

My comments are based on my New Zealand experiences but they will apply to many other countries.

Although my musical preference is now for classical, I still enjoy popular music and my comments apply to both genres – as well as musicals and jazz, which I also enjoy.

Good music / Bad music

Music is usually described as being “good” (nice to listen to) or “bad” (unpleasant or boring to listen to) but I prefer to define “good” music as any music that any person enjoys for any of the following reasons:

  • Would you like to hear that music again?
  • Did that music trigger a reaction – did you want to dance, sing, laugh, cry or just stay very quiet and listen?

Of course the converse applies for the definition of “bad” music.

(By this definition there is probably no such thing as bad music because someone, somewhere, will enjoy listening to it!)

However for me and my friends, and I suspect many others, “bad” music in the classical genre usually consists of contemporary atonal, often experimental, music.  It is often (euphemistically) referred to as being “less accessible”.  Sure, there are people out there who like it, but they are either very few or they don’t go to concerts.

In the realm of popular music, “bad” music for me consists of tuneless noise with no soul.  Most of it is contemporary.

This is not to say all contemporary music is “bad” and all old music is “good”.

Also good lyrics cannot rescue bad music.  Good lyrics equal good poetry.

Not very technical but hopefully you see where I’m coming from.

Who am I to comment?

Let me establish my credentials.  In my younger days I only listened to popular music (which incidentally met my criteria for “good” music), and was even lucky enough to see The Beatles live.  Now my preference is classical.  My partner and I attend a concert, recital or “other musical event” once a week on average, and subscribe to whole seasons of orchestral, choral, chamber and opera.  This means that we go to a lot of concerts that include unfamiliar music, not just concerts containing the safe and well-known.  We belong to supporting groups for classical music organisations.  We socialise with audiences, musicians and composers.  I am an amateur composer myself and my first composition is available for downloading.

Although I have no formal tuition in music appreciation, performance or composition, music is a major part of my life and most of my discretionary income is spent on music.

In other words I am a good customer for the providers of music.

What do the public – and our friends and acquaintances – think?

Without the benefit of formal polling, my observations and conversations indicate that:

  • Working composers enjoy contemporary music and are enthusiastic about it.
  • Some musicians are enthusiastic about contemporary music.  I have also talked to musicians – from amateurs through to some of the world’s greatest musicians – who intensely dislike much contemporary music.
  • Audience members who regularly attend concerts – and who provide the money and support for the musicians and composers – reject most contemporary music.  I say “most” because occasionally we hear new pieces that have melody, harmony, orchestration, whatever, and they strike a chord (pardon the pun!) with the audience.

A New Zealand example of “good” contemporary music is an early composition by David Farquhar (1928 – 2007) called Ring Around the Moon Suite.  It is frequently played on Radio New Zealand and every time I hear it I turn up the radio.  Why?  Lovely simple melodies, catchy rhythm.  It is not necessarily a favourite of critics, and even the composer once said it was not a favourite of his.  But it is undemanding, simple music at its best and this is demonstrated by the air time and consumer support it receives.

Coming soon: What do Abba and Mr Beethoven have in common?

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Published in: on November 10, 2009 at 1:00 am  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I agree wholeheatedly with your comments on “contemporary atonal, often experimental, music”.
    It was a delight to hear your “Classical Romp” music for the first time – I await with great anticipation the orchestration of some of the other melodies that are “running around in your head”.
    Well done Andrew!!

  2. Remarkable! Its actually awesome article, I have got much clear idea regarding from this post.

    • Thank you! As a matter of interest I am in my final semester of a BMus (Composition) degree and re-reading my blog after all those years, nothing has changed much in my thinking. If anything I am even more sure of my arguments now. Happy listening!


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