Serious Music

As I too often fall on the wrong side of serious-silly norms, I’d like to better understand what makes music fun vs. serious.   From What Every First-Year College Student Needs to Know About Washington:

Don’t dance at indie-rock shows. Maybe where you come from, dancing is acceptable or even fun. Not here. Music is serious, and being serious about music is serious, too. Seriously? Yes. You can smile in an ironic way. Or sneer. But keep those dancing shoes in the closet. You’ve entered folded-arms territory.

From the Sept. 8 New Yorker:

The modern classical-music performance, as audiences have come to know it and sometimes to love it, adheres to a fairly rigid format. … Before 1900 concerts assumed a quite different form. … The opera served mainly as a playground for the aristocracy. The nobles often possessed considerable musical knowledge, but they refrained from paying overt attention to what the musicians were doing.  Indeed, silent listening in the modern sense was deemed déclassé.  Johnson quotes a nobleman writing, "There is nothing so damnable as listening to a work like a street merchant or some provincial just off the boat." … Public concerts … [were] eclectic affairs at which all kinds of music were played before audiences that seldom sat still or quieted down. …

What changed? …. With the aristocracy declining … the bourgeoisie increasingly took control of musical life. … Programs favored composers of the past over those of the present, popular fare was banished, program notes provided orientation to the uninitiated, and the practice of milling about, talking, and applauding during the music subsided.  … By applauding here and not applauding there, the bourgeois were signalling their membership in a social and cultural élite. As Johnson points out, they felt obliged to reconfirm that status from year to year, since, unlike the aristocrats of yore, they lived in fear of going back down the ladder … Attending concerts became a kind of performance in itself, a dance of decorum.

There are important clues in here somewhere, if only I could understand them.

Added 17Sep:  Fortune has a nice quote about serious jazz in the comments.

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  • Mercutio.Mont

    The indie subculture is extraordinarily rigid in it’s own way. It’s always been rather comical in that respect, at least to me.

    The latter article, by the way, is very Fussel-esque. Not sure if you’ve perused Fussel’s book on social class. If you haven’t, I’d be surprised.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Fussel

  • Andy the Programmer

    My take is that the serious part is clearly identifying yourself as part of the ingroup. If you don’t do so correctly, then you’re not to be trusted – you are not OK. That’s what’s serious (to the participants, I mean – not in any absolute sense), not the music.

  • http://goodmorningeconomics.wordpress.com jsalvati

    You don’t have to be Indie to love Indie music. I go to indie concerts, and I always dance (unless it’s bad music, in which case I leave), and there are some concerts where everyone dances.

  • Curt Adams

    A major cause of the change around 1900, I think, is the advent of recorded music. Most people like having background music on during social activities. Prior to the phonograph (and to some extent the piano roll) people had to do this with live musicians. Once recorded music became available much of that activity transferred to recorded music and live musicians shifted to a more high-value market, production of “special event” music which was intended to be a primary or sole focus of entertainment.

    I find “serious” indie rock totally unsurprising. We currently have a situation where popular and serious music are almost totally divorced. Inevitably people who want to be serious about music but who have scarcely heard a bar of classical music in their lives outside of Bugs Bunny cartoons will create a “serious” music scene around popular styles. I’m just surprised it’s taken this long.

  • Lara Foster

    Ditto on the whole ingroup/outgroup analysis. Beyond that, I think people often identify themselves with music when they can’t properly express what they feel/want/need by themselves. Thus disliking or disrespecting a beloved song that they have associated with some inner-angst of their own is a rejection of them. I personally find that people take music-preference far too seriously, using it as a proxy for all sorts of opinions, beliefs, and personality traits.

  • http://facelessbureaucrat.blogspot.com Bill Harshaw

    Can’t say about music in Europe, but I vaguely recall from some book I read that in the mid-19th century everyone in America was into Shakespeare (recall Huck Finn). People rioted in NY over differences in actors. But as time went on, “entertainment” split, into popular culture and high culture. Of course, as Louis Hartz pointed out we never had an aristocracy in America. True aristocrats might be above paying attention, while our nouveaux riche had to be more serious to learn the cues that would mark them as fit for the leisure class.

  • Doug S.

    What can I say? Fandom is Serious Business.

  • komponisto

    Composer Milton Babbitt wonders why those seriously interested in music bother with concerts at all:

    “I can’t believe that people really prefer to go to the concert hall under intellectually trying, socially trying, physically trying conditions, unable to repeat something they have missed, when they can sit at home under the most comfortable and stimulating circumstances and hear it as they want to hear it. I can’t imagine what would happen to literature today if one were obliged to congregate in an unpleasant hall and read novels projected on a screen.” – from Classic Essays on Twentieth-Century Music, ISBN 0028645812.

  • Jess Riedel

    As I understand the situation in academia, serious music is distinguished from popular music because it must have some sort of intellectual component. It is claimed that serious music is objectively more complicated and amenable to academic analysis. It is by no means restricted to orchestral music.

    Popular music, on the other hand, is intended to be very enjoyable. This usually means that the music is relatively simple and intellectually uninteresting, but not always. There is certainly overlap between popular and serious music.

    The above remains true even if (a) many people may be interested in serious music merely to impress others and (b) there is less overlap between serious and popular music than in the past.

  • Caio Camargo

    komponisto, I think Babbitt’s is a bad analogy. I would sooner compare the difference between listening to a record and attending a concert to going to the theater vs getting a DVD or going to a museum instead of looking at posters. DVDs, posters and records are good enough, especially since they allow a much wider dissemination of the work, but the experience of a movie theater/concert/museum is quite different if you take the experts’ word for it (and my own, for what it’s worth).

    I can think of three possible reasons for this. First, the product is simply better: bigger screen in sensory deprivation for movies, original art (photography slightly warps the image, color balance is wrong, size is not the same, texture is eliminated), and possibly the experience of seeing the band/orchestra as the music plays. Second, other people: sharing the experience might make it more meaningful. Third, having to pay and to expend energy to go see the work in question makes you more likely to pay attention, thus enhancing your experience.

  • Jack

    Bad advice. People dance at every indie-rock show I’ve been to in DC.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Andy and Lara, but don’t people who have fun with music also have in-groups? Are serious music folk really any more tied to their in-group than fun music folk?

    Jess, all music has some sort of intellectual component.

  • http://shagbark.livejournal.com Phil Goetz

    I think it’s ironic and self-serving that the New Yorker blames the change in classical music after 1900 on the bourgeoisie. I blame it on the New Yorker.

    The New Yorker began publishing in 1920s – just before classical music died.

    What killed classical music was postmodernism, which manifested itself in music largely as the idea that there was no such thing as good music, so the best one could do was write new and different music. This resulted in good music being replaced, in the minds of the elite, by the painful compositions of Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Ives, etc. Even people who insisted on having some music in their music were bullied into playing Stravinsky as a compromise.

    If orchestral music died because of audience practice, or because of recorded music, you would find people buying CDs of 20th-century composers. They do not. 20th-century composers account for a minute fraction, probably less than 1%, of the orchestral music sold. This isn’t because of class differences. It’s because the music is crap.

    I haven’t read any issues of The New Yorker from the 1920’s; but based on its present output, I would guess that it was one of the catalysts of postmodernism in the arts.

  • http://shagbark.livejournal.com Phil Goetz

    Oops. The New Yorker wasn’t talking about the decline of orchestral music. So, while I stand by what I wrote, it was off-topic.

    Beethoven campaigned against the aristocratic practice of talking during concerts. If people started talking, he would stop playing.

  • Lara Foster

    Robin,
    If you are asking me to direct you to a ‘fun-music’ ingroup, I would suggest looking at the way different fandoms behave at concerts. People who go to German Death Metal conventions *are* going to rock-out, and are going to think you are a wussy if you sit quietly in a chair intently focused on the meaning of the lyrics. Well, actually, they will probably be too drunk, high, and moving too violently to even notice you sitting quietly in the corner, but still…

    You can of course also go to a contra-dance. Fun-loving, gregarious folks line-dancing all around!

    So, any suggestions for Robin where he might find a music-dance-fun ingroup to his taste?

  • Lucas

    Check out Girl Talk. They have some indie rock cred, but their concerts really are just big dance parties. Also some interesting copyright questions to think about when you listen to their music, which is just a mashup of a bunch of party music.

  • http://shagbark.livejournal.com Phil Goetz

    So, any suggestions for Robin where he might find a music-dance-fun ingroup to his taste?

    Well, Jaxx, DC’s premier German Death Metal nightclub, is conveniently close to George Mason, at the corner of Rolling Road & Old Keene Mill.

  • Jess Riedel

    Robin, it’s also true that all math problems have some sort of intellectual component. But some math problems are more interesting—and worthy of analysis—than others.

  • Charlie

    Regarding the fun music in-group: I highly recommend the band The Hold Steady.

    They have oodles of indie cred, yet they realize that music is supposed to be fun. And their fans have picked up on this notion. At Hold Steady shows, people sing along and dance and get every bit as rowdy as fans at, say, a Grateful Dead show. You can have all of this fun and still maintain your oh-so-important-serious/ironic indie cred.

    They are an important band, I hope.

  • http://www.iphonefreak.com frelkins

    I propose that music becomes “serious” as the musicians themselves seek to professionalize and gain status as artists, not mere entertainers, along with a rise in status-seeking in the audience, an audience that also wants to pose as distinctive, even rebellious, but not frivolous. Take us seriously, both artists and audience signal, we are different! We can understand what is unpopular and difficult – Respect us!

    This was true of the middle classes, who once sought recognition through a ritualized classical music, as it was of the jazzhound:

    “The young modernists who were heirs of the 1940s were also heirs of the pride that jazzmen had been taking in their expanded [musical] capabilities. . .By the 1950s, however, the concept of jazz as an object-in-itself, a non-functional music in the sense that it was no longer designed for dancing or background listening [while dining], had attracted a sizable new audience. . .The listeners, or most of them, accepted the new music on the players’ terms (emphasis added) and went to Birdland as if it were Town Hall.

    Older musicians. . .are often made nervous by the seeming passivity and stern concentration of the new serious audience. Anita O’Day, who is temperamentally of the jazz-as-entertainment tradition, speaks for the pre-modernists when she says ‘I feel more comfortable when the audience is balling it up a little. . .’ Several of the modernists agree with her but expect silence and sustained attention from an audience.

    A large part of the contemporary jazz audience, however, is more likely to be serious in its mien than in its comprehension of the music. Much of the audience, as has been true of every jazz generation so far, is more compulsive about seeming ‘hip’ to the newest innovations than in understanding the content of those innovations. These are youngsters who find in jazz a surface corollary to their own safely transitory ‘rebellion’ of adolescence. . .

    As a result, the jazzman . . .has become even more self-conscious about his work.” – Nat Hentoff, The Jazz Life, 1978

    And now this tendency has perhaps passed to a certain segment of the indie set, who use “seriousness” and non-dancing to demand respect & question authority – no need to even “raise your hand.”

  • Jacob

    I always say that humor is a tool of communication. You might think of it as frivolous, but often it can get people’s attention so that you can hold their interest and inform them.

    Music’s function, like humor, is entertainment. It’s primarily fun. But given that happiness (or satisfaction?) is the ultimate goal in life, music is very serious. My career focuses on artistic matters. I grew up thinking that doctors were more important than artists, that artists were unnecessary novelties. But without actually enjoying life, there is no purpose to being alive. Which reminds me of my favorite Catholic church song, “We are many parts… but we are all one body… and the gifts we have… we are given to share…” Is that song fun or serious?

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    frelkins, does anyone want to signal they are frivolous? And why would not having fun credibly signal that you understand more?

  • http://www.iphonefreak.com frelkins

    @Robin

    “does anyone want to signal they are frivolous?”

    Yes. All the time. Those who are incontestably high in any social order will put great effort into frivolity as a form of counter-signaling.

    Drunken frat-boy jocks, Old Etonians & Harrovians, starlets, the most successful sales guy who also gets the loudest at the corporate party, the real aristocracy, you name it. Comedy is a separate category; that’s a classical institution requiring its own analysis.

    “As I too often fall on the wrong side of serious-silly norms”

    Ponder instead that one is perhaps merely resting at the first of Schopenhauer’s 3 stages of truth. I sometimes now wonder if all those comic-book/anime/Star Trek loving nerds might also perhaps be counter-signaling against their massively obvious and otherwise intimidating overclock.