This post has the potential of being rather controversial, but let me start by saying that controversy is not what I’m after, I just want to share my views on a subject that has no right or wrong answers, but that is prone to generating strong opinions. I’m talking about whether certain musical genres can be considered higher on a qualitative scale than others. Is it possible to establish a hierarchy at all?
The music industry is alive and thriving, but not all genres have equal acceptance or popularity. This is normal and healthy but at the same time it is the product of educational outreach, or lack of it thereof. In other words, I don’t think every music consumer has had the exposure to enough musical genres in order to make an informed decision. As a result, musical genres that enjoy the greatest amount of publicity are the most popular. Mainstream pop music is a clear example. Most people are exposed to what is called “Top 40” (the forty most popular songs at a given time) and many of them leave it at that. It is also a matter of personal curiosity, and in this day and age, when almost everything can be found online, ignorance is becoming more of a choice.
I grew up listening to “Top 40” and it was not until I reached twelve that I discovered classical music. It’s true that I had been playing an instrument since I was five, so that must have made me more receptive to more kinds of music than the average kid, but I was not exposed to the classical repertoire until my early teens, and when it happened I couldn’t let it go. I was attracted by the beauty and complexity of Bach’s music, and that opened a completely new world for me. It seemed to me that no other kind of music could reach the soul, touch the heart and stimulate the mind in quite the same way –a thought that I still hold true till this day. For those who disagree, I admit I am completely biased; after all I wouldn’t have become a composer if I didn’t think this to be true. But keep in mind that I am also a listener and I also have my favorite kind of music, just like everyone else does. In the end, listening to music is a very personal experience and our musical preferences stem out of personal reasons.
The truth is that, as a creator of music, it can be sometimes frustrating to witness the worldwide dominance of disposable music. Again, I’m not saying all Top 40 is bad, but most of it is simply not good. Now and then one might encounter some brilliant musicians like Michael Jackson, The Beatles or Queen, but for the most part pop music is an industry that relies on formulas repeated ad nauseum with the only purpose of generating the greatest amount of revenue. In contrast, art music follows an ideal that lies beyond profit, and when it achieves it, it can produce a timeless masterpiece. How many pop artists of today still follow that ideal? Not many. Now, I must also admit that most art music being produced today is not so good, but this is inevitable because a true musical genius is born only once every few decades, and that’s just how things are. Why don’t we know more about Mozart’s contemporaries? Because, justly or unjustly, he overshadowed them with his talent. Some of them still managed to make a name for themselves, but many, although good, were simply not able to attain the same degree of mastery as Mozart or they were simply not able to capture the public’s imagination as the child prodigy from Salzburg did. Again, this is not to say that all of Mozart’s music is great, in fact many of his works are perfectly forgettable, but he did reach a pinnacle so high that it can still be clearly seen more than 200 years after his death.
Now, for those of you who know a little of my music you might be surprised with some of my remarks. After all I have written an orchestral work inspired in Techno. I embrace eclecticism and I love the fact that there are many different kinds of music, I just think that the standards that are expected in most music genres are not as high as the ones in the art music tradition. If we asked ALL musicians to excel at an instrument, learn music theory (counterpoint, harmony, instrumentation, etc.) and have a deep understanding of music history and analysis, the quality of the music being produced would be much higher. This is the average education that a conservatory musician receives, and I think all musicians should have the same degree of basic knowledge. Then they can move on and cultivate any genre they wish. Notice how I have not mentioned Jazz musicians or Indian classical musicians for example, and that’s because they also undergo a rigorous education. Bottom-line is, musical preference is a matter of taste and a musician’s degree of achievement is the product of self-determination, discipline and talent, but we should draw a line in terms of quality, and in order to raise the bar in this respect we need to be less tolerant of bad quality music. The thing about music and art in general is that, unlike medicine, for example, there are no lives at risk if an uneducated musician goes on stage. Or unlike architecture, no one will lose their lives if the musical construction of a piece collapses into pieces. We all have the right to perform music as a hobby and not everyone has to go to a conservatory (there are excellent self-taught musicians) but one must have the desire to cultivate one’s art in the highest possible way if one is to achieve a decent level of music-making.
I wrote my first orchestra piece when I was sixteen and I hadn’t studied harmony, counterpoint or orchestration before that, so I was working solely based on my intuition. That is all good. But had I not sought further education, I wouldn’t have been able to develop any further, and I’m glad I did because I myself can see the progress. But in the world we live some of our values are inverted. We don’t necessarily appreciate these qualities and when judging the work of a musician we are instead drawn by superficial traits. Perhaps this is just human nature and there’s nothing we can do about it, but if you are a young musician and you are reading this, please do not let yourself be carried away by anything else than your own core values. Time is a harsh judge and what remains is the quality of your work alone, not how many prizes you won, how much popularity you attained in life or how much money you made.
In any case, and going back to my two initial questions, I think it is possible to establish a hierarchy, but not based on a specific music genre. And although I love music written in the classical tradition above all (especially orchestral music), I don’t think it can be unequivocally classified as the highest form of musical expression. All genres of music have the potential of reaching the pinnacle (be it jazz, pop, metal, classical, house, etc.) as long as: 1. They are not driven by commercial values 2. Those who produce it have undergone a rigorous education and 3. They aspire at creating a work of art that is challenging and satisfying at a spiritual, mental, emotional and physical level. If those three conditions are met, you are on the road to creating something worth listening to.