What is great music and why isn’t Beethoven that great after all

Dave Dyet
© Dave Dyet

In the era of digital age and technology, computers and digital media changed our perception and values regarding making and consuming music. However, it seems to me that history (and specially western academia) haven’t reflected that change and still regard on values connected with symbolic musical notation to write their values – what was adequate to judge and value music that goes c. 1300 – 1950 in western world, is still being used as a paradigm in many circuits, and often, erroneously applied to other musical traditions that do not and ever depended on that paradigm (namely popular music). I will try to challenge all those assumptions.

In order to do that I will state my own basic assumptions, to avoid later misunderstandings, and so, in order to disagree with my conclusions, I believe one has to start by challenging my basic assumptions.

No human being lives in a void. Every human being is part of a system, is integrated in a society, in a culture, and thus, embedded in a system of values that shapes his understanding of the world around him. Therefore, I use mainly tools coming ethnomusicology that are themselves based on methods from anthropology, sociology, linguistics and even biology and neurophysiology to integrate the perception of that individual in his context.

Based on these studies and tools, I’m assuming for a fact that:

Music has no intrinsic qualities – All is attributed externally. This doesn’t mean a judgment on music. It just means that our perception of music is determined by each individual within his own cultural system of values. If anyone disagrees on this particular point, regarding the universals on music, I’d be very happy to discuss their evidence before we move on to the next step. My main reference concerning the lack of universals in music, except for a few ones stated by biological and physical factors comes from the reading of Bruno Nettl [1] and Patel [2].

Drawing on these studies I was able to formulate theories on why do we make music, how do we make music, how and why do we perceive music and how and why do we value music the way we do. And that has lead me to question a series of almost sacred assumptions people have in the western world, namely, people often assuming Mozart and Beethoven to be examples of greatness.

I had to wonder «What’s so great about them? I can see thousands of people nowadays writing equally great to them (they just don’t have the same visibility).» As much polemic this questioning might be it was legitimate to be done after I’ve realize how this assumption has been made in the first place.

One has to think what made Mozart, Beethoven being valued today as great, when there were at least two thousand composers in Vienna at that time and no one can recall them now. Political factors? The writing of history? Innovations? Were they the first ones to do something, that become banal afterwards and entered the “canon”?

When something is repeated into the exhaustion it becomes true. The typical “canon” of the western world regarding Opera, for instance, is about seventy works from German-French-Italian composers, roughly from XIX century. That’s the “canon”. That’s all the music there is to be given their massive repetition in concert halls and the media. [3] Is this what one would call great music?

All the western music from countries besides those is virtually non-existent, in those same circuits. It is not performed in the “great houses”, it is not shown in the media, it is not taught in schools, it is absent from the discourses that legitimate great art by those who usually do that. Those factors in themselves justify part of the “problem” or the skewed perception and ideas we’re grown into.

Not to mention, all the great music from the other places in the world. Chinese music, music from India, Persia or Java. There are masters out there, no one hears about them, in the western world. They seem to be “local phenomena” without repercussion outside of their own scope. I went to a workshop about Indian music and theory. I was appalled with so many names I new nothing about, a system I couldn’t understand and a lot of ancient masters and composers highly gifted and crafted I totally ignored and still ignore. Because I’m outside that livelihood and context, and I’ve never been exposed to that knowledge by academic or western media.

Somehow great music is, so often, equated with orchestral music. Technology brought us new pallets of sound, endless possibilities. One should wonder about progressive rock, for instance. Not my cup of tea, for personal subjective reasons, but there is a lot of craft and work there.

I find genius and mastership on Bosques de mi Mente. On Bjork (not consensual, I don’t like her either, but I find her experiences great). And on Manu Chao. Manu Chao is absolutely delicious – the perfect example of a “crafter” – he has been collecting samples for over twenty years all over the place and they keep appearing all the time everywhere with a lot of wittiness. It’s a whole art of recombination. His craft equates his personal life experiences, travelings and interactions with real world. That has enormous value to me.

«Everything is a remix». If one equates greatness with craftsmanship and inventiveness then one will not find great music nowadays in the genres he expects because novelty has been somewhat exhausted on those contexts. One won’t find it in the scales, pitches or even rhythms – given the very nature of their existence in the western tradition, constraining them to very limited combinations. They have to be found in the people who are producing and remixing new things – on the use of effects, plugins and automation. Those are craft in themselves Old ideas with new ones. Some spectralists are great. There are a lot of great masters out there, one just don’t know they are masters yet because the criteria and context to become a “master” has changed.

One has to perceive how the “canon” and “history” is being written now, and how it will be written in a thousand years. Was Bach considered “great master” in his time? And what about one hundred years later? And how often was he played… moreover… will Bach still be great five hundred years from now?…

What do we attribute value at? If a music video is watched by more than one hundred million people is great? I guess Gangam style is great and a work of master then. It was not predicted. It was not planned that way. It happened. Viral phenomena are the greatest challenge nowadays, everyone wants to be one… but no one can make one before it happens.

If it happened the question is: why it happened? People must have seen something great in there.

So now one just has to extrapolate that to someone doing that over a lifetime and consistently.

Considering film/classical music what do we have regarding XX/XXI century? Bingo: John Williams. I have little doubts he will be an iconic figure, regarding western tradition – because he has been consistent year, after year, after year, keeping all the standards that make him appeal a reasonably vast audience inside his “niche” or “canon”.

Do we have any other so consensual? One has to look up the various niches, and there we will find our guys. What is the living and most consensual Chinese guy? Bollywood guy? etc…

And then analyze their work. Probably we won’t find anything special per se, analyzing just the typical parameters of harmony or melody. As I can’t find anything that special in Mozart or Beethoven. A lot of V7-I and great melodies. And then a lot of other tiny details that make a difference (the interplay and the ability to manipulate expectancies of the listeners who are inside the conventions of the style?).

In the end – it’s the whole over time that makes someone great. Consistency, context, coherence. And when one has someone like that – eventually we’ll consider the works of that someone memorable, examples of a great “style”, “voice”, “genius” or whatever one wants to call it. And they will enter the “canon” pushed by the media and the many, many fans.

That’s why I believe Bjork and John Williams are examples of great music nowadays (in “Western Canon”, there are other “canons” as I’ve exposed); just like Stockhausen, Xenakis and Berio were the most “recent greatest” ones in the “Art/academic western music canon” – they’ve already made into the “history books”, they are being analyzed and taught in universities and they are being deemed as “important” and “relevant”.

Within the western stylistic conventions, it is so easy to be seduced by “Anyone who composes singable melodies in diatonic temperament” that all our own barriers and prejudices fall when listening to their music. That is the ultimate power of a great composer. He will touch your soul even if you resist. It should be that simple to listen and appreciate music. No pre-requisites.

That’s my own personal empirical requirement so far perceived, all the rest is built. Perhaps I’m not a good example because of that but I’m deeply moved by music with a beautiful syncopated melody and two chords… I keep asking professors and all around why does that happen. If I’m an analyst and I should know better bla bla bla, why simple melodies over two chords are the ones that keep “working” and “move me”… (context? life experience? some kind of universality in predictability? In human interaction?). I guess the main reason is because I really was brought up listening to that kind of music and created good memories and associations regarding it. As me, many of my contemporaries living in similar environments share this same tastes.

The ones that are seen as “great” composers often use singable-beautiful-melodies as the base of their works. And pop music respects that. And modern contemporary western classical composers have forgotten that in most part, that’s why they are mostly forgettable too inside the communities that appreciate the formers.

Those are my two cents on music that touches my soul without asking permission. Subjective and probably culturally related to the western context I was grown into.

Actually not all levels of musical creativity are equal as art. The external attribution of value does exactly differentiate them.

When one says “pop music is a lower form of art” one is indeed establishing a series of personal/social/cultural values and criteria to reach that conclusion.

If one believes that spending an entire life working a craft is a value, he’ll treasure a work that comes out of that mind and put it into a higher place.

If one believes that the product by itself is the value that he’ll value it regardless of who produces it with whatever means.

If one believes that symbols mean nothing and he only cares about sound he will end up only liking acousmatics and devaluing pop or even classical music…

So in the end, I do not see how exactly how one can challenge the basic assumption that music has no intrinsic value, yet (We’ll get there).

One often hears: «Well, some music simply contains so much soul that it’s still relevant hundreds of years later». That’s the whole point – it does NOT.

That “soul” is the external value attributed by one and by the hundreds, thousands, etc of his cultural community/society/species, whatever, because he (solo or group) interpret that way.

For someone who could not make sense of those frequencies the soul lying there is zero.

I bet there must be a community where whistles around 25 000 hz make sense and are the great work of the creator, I’m not able to interpret them and give them a value.

Moreover, I think that the “soul” one is referring to, most of the times is attributed based on several other parameters than the mere “sound” – concerning Beethoven is attributed also regarding the concept that “Beethoven was a man, learned a craft, his work reflects a suffering, a living, an experience on the planet, represents symbolically a whole set of values that are praised in our civilization, etc, etc, etc”. But all those “values” and “characteristics” are given subjectively and from the exterior.

If one is trying to seek some kind of universal argument in music that is “ineffable” and “intuitively understood” by human beings just because they are “human”, I’d go for biology/physiology and neurophysiology, and look out for what is present in every human being that can really connect us all.

If everything is externally attributed because it is within ourselves and not in music – then we must find out what is inherent and equal in everyone of us.

That being said, we all have a heart beat that is somewhat steady around 60 beats per minute…

This is one objective and mensurable reason for our inner time and pulse to have a common feeling regarding steady beats and rhythms and perceive slow music as calmer and fast music as exciting.

Also there must be something universal that can be deducible out of the harmonic series or the harmonics, although I don’t know exactly what, after being baffled discovering that there are actually some cultures in Indonesia area that have “larger octaves than octaves” and thus breaking the “universality consensus around the octave pattern”.

I think the path might be somewhere along these lines – one will have great music when knowing exactly what makes great music great, or even not knowing that, accidentally striking one of those “things” that are “universal” to every (or almost every) human being living in the world, in whatever time and context.

Often people say that «there are objective standards that make music great (and any other art for that matter). We all recognize them, I think we all agree about most of them».

Now we’re just going in circles. I believe there are not objective standards. No one has ever shown me a single one. Please show me a single objective standard in music that hasn’t been built by a system in a culture, and that is universal. I’ve exposed the only one I known is the heartbeat equating rhythm. All others are artificial and not universal.

When I’m trying to have an objective discussion about this subject, many people lose themselves with personal beliefs instead of arguments. That is why no one goes nowhere.

I often hear «music is about depth»; Then what is depth? «Oh it can’t be defined» – if you can’t define something then it’s a personal belief to you and you don’t expect others to understand what you’re referring to.

I say, Beethoven is not great nor deep. Now what?

«You’re stupid».

«What’s so great about him?»

«If you can’t really see, then I can’t tell you!»

These kind of discussions arise all time. Well, these are not discussions, because someone refuses to have a point at all! What is obvious to him, might not be for others, think about that when one expresses a point. One can’t assume that music has some kind of universal and intrinsic quality that is expressed in itself, and can’t be defined, and the ones that can’t grasp it are “untalented” or “ungifted” or “uneducated” and are missing out the greatness and depth in music. That’s just a matter of faith.

It seems it’s obvious for most people around the western culture that Shakespeare and Beethoven are great. I keep insisting they aren’t (at least not for the reasons most of the people I know believe they are).

Pretend I’m the African native that just heard Beethoven’s 5th for the first time, when ethnomusicologists from the mid 40’s arrived in Africa with gramophones and I fled running afraid of the thunder noise!…

«You are not expecting an African native, a savage to understand the beauty in Beethoven?? He doesn’t have the knowledge to understand it!»

Exactly. Because it’s not universal. It’s a culturally built concept (chords, harmony, etc), and one has to be exposed to some kind of cultural knowledge and background to understand it! If one is exposed to another form of base-knowledge their values will be different and he will be unable to see the greatness in Beethoven. He’ll see the greatness in other things.

I have a friend that only listens to electro-acoustic music. only sounds. That is great music. He finds melody and harmony boring. He never listens to it and fails to see the value in it – he understands the concept but doesn’t feel it. Because he was never grown under those values.

If one really think there is something great and universal about music that can’t be explained – then he should think twice, three times, research more until he really finds out what is it and why so many people are not grabbing it… perhaps it’s because… well, there isn’t!

I can “understand” all the hype in Beethoven and Bach and Mozart – they were inventive, they mastered a craft (but a craft that is only relevant in West after 1300 – symbolic notation – despite being invented much earlier, its use was not common nor standardized), and they were socially relevant (noble connections, etc) to the point that they were mediated and made their ways to the scholar system when other valid and crafted men were totally forgotten. These are some of the factors that I believe contributed to their hype, and they are all subjective and cultural and artificially built.

Honestly most of the times they don’t “push my buttons”… (2nd movement of Beethoven’s 7th does, but a thousand other works from many other composers also do that). On the other hand Dulce Pontes, Satie, Yann Tiersen and Danny Elfman do. They are the greatest!… I know my background and my values and I get excited when I hear them in action, it’s intuitive, I don’t have to think about it!… I was grown to feel that way.

So, in the end, all I ask is for the defenders of “universals” and “objective things in music” to prove their point by pointing out concrete things so I can understand their point and learn. While they refuse or can’t do that, I will just remain ignorant.

Exactly this.

We are humans. We have access to the world through our senses and we build reality and a sense of reality based on that. On perception!

Some people seem to have a concept of an ideal music, and ideal reality that is there beyond us. Some people seem to conceive a world that just lies there indifferent to us.

Well, they might be true. Reality is out there. but our only way to access it is to our flawed, imperfect, skewed perception.

My perception of reality is mine. Yours is yours. And everyone else’s is everyone else’s. That is why there are no universals concerning music, art, science or whatsoever.

The consensus is built trough language (Wittgenstein studied this very deeply, how our language was our world) and a series of cultural conventions. We only share some things out of sharing the same background and cultural conventions, yet we differ in so many other things because we grew up in so different conditions…!

So yes. My mind is closed because I can only see that dark alley… My senses only show me that..

But guess what, yours too! and everyone else’s! We only have access to a tiny portion of reality.

So one’s ideal that music is there, and great music is there and there is a way to grasp it without using our flawed senses and our cultural constructs seems very suspicious to me… seems more faith or romanticized than anything else.

One might believe that he can grasp that ideal out of nowhere with paranormal senses. I don’t think so, I have no evidence of that whatsoever. Therefore I believe we only grasp that with our senses and only what we perceive is real.

«Beauty in in the eye of the beholder»… the cliché is true.

When we talk about music we are talking about ourselves not about the work[4]. Me enjoying Dulce pontes says a lot more about me than about Dulce Pontes. One admiring Beethoven and believing in extra sensorial capacities says a lot about him too.

I reaffirm what I said before: I only believe in universals when it comes to things that we all share. Like a heart beat at around 60. That sense is universal. It’s objective, it’s there.

Now “the interplay in Beethoven” is symbolic and it’s only in the mind of those ones who grew into that tradition and studied it. – so it’s tautology : only the ones who studied those values will perceive them. Only the ones who perceive them are “privileged” to realize they’re there! Not everyone can grasp them. Of course not, because not everyone had those values in the first place. So the values make you perceive greatness, and because you perceive that greatness you assume it was there regardless of you perceiving it or not! Oh my…

This is not necessarily stupid. This just fits the purpose of enlightening a discussion and provide some background for new perspectives pertaining the topic. As an ethnomusicologist after having these assumptions sorted out, one can understand easily that if you can’t measure great music outside a scope of social and cultural values, this will lead that what is relevant is not “music” but “the processes”. What happened in order to get “the music”.

And that is the main point of this topic. Because the technology that became disseminated in the West during the XX century changed the whole process of making and consuming music, in a revolutionary way, like the use of symbolic notation did in Europe after middle ages. It changed the values and perception of those living in those cultures.

One is judging all that greatness in orchestral music after Bach, roughly because he was the first composer to achieve a consensual “greatness” in mastering the craft of European symbolic notation (and even that consensus was much posterior to his own existence)! Prior to the era of symbolic notation, in Europe, there was no way to register the craft, there was not a tradition of music based on symbolic notation at all – the tradition was invented at that period and because of that.

Well, we are living a new paradigm now, because we have the computer, a new tool that also enhances the possibility of making music in a whole new way – namely mastering the craft of synthesis, of sonic objects, sampling, impossible textures to obtain in real life, and even impossible spaces or combinations.

A composer of the digital age approaches the craft in a different way of pen and paper. Most of the times the approach is much more fragmented, because there is not a real possibility for an ars combinatoria in the same sense. When one was writing polyphony or making canons, retrogrades or inversions, one was crafting symbols in a paper, and it was doable. Orally it would be impossible. Now, with a DAW and real time playing, layering, one tends to approach the combinations in a different way: more linear, more copy/paste, more loopable. The main details of the craftsmanship goes into the production, effects and not so much for the symbols. One tends to craft the “sound” itself, not the symbols.

Basically, this new craft is setting a change in the way music is faced, valued and judged. History is always seen according to the past and constantly rewritten.

So, what I am saying – again – is that the great music and composers are already out there. But they are still not being evaluated according to those values, at least by not many of his peers, historians, neither taught in schools. A tradition based on manipulation of sound as data, and all its potentialities, regarded as an extension of the previous written one, is yet to be established in western academia and media, and to be legitimated discursively. And not dichotomously.

The process is not moving yet!…

In conclusion:

I believe in 200 years or so, people from that time, living under those values will look back, put all into perspective and say «Composer X was a master in crafting all these tools – not only he understood symbolic notation perfectly, he dominated technology as well – he was the greatest.»

We are not able to see the world through those lenses yet, so we can’t predict exactly who are they going to be. I’m just saying they already exist.

And if the world population changes in shift the centers of power (which is already happening) – for instance the Indians really having a bigger impact on the planet and its history, then you can even re-write history from another not euro-centric perspective and reach the conclusion that an indian Bollywood composer was the greatest – because he dominated several theoretical systems and crafts and that Lata mangeshkar was for sure the “greatest singer of all times” (anyone wants to contest on this one? – I can easily see this happening).

It takes time, but it will depend on what society we will have in the future and what values will be valued. They keep changing. That’s all I am saying. So yes, Bachs and Beethovens are “the greatest” now, under our western skewed glasses, but there already other “greatest” ones out there under other glasses and time will make justice for them.

A tiny more “provocation” or not into the fire: I can easily see it happening and already have some evidence that the process could go that way – that Frank Zappa was clearly the greatest composer of the XX century. He mastered and fused the relevant concepts and worlds, and left behind a legacy of theory and aphorisms and explanations to support it. He has all the “ingredients” to be picked up by future peers and historians to get mediated into the relevant canons.

[1] B. Nettl, The study of ethnomusicology: thirty-one issues and concepts. University of Illinois Press, 2005.

[2] A. D. Patel, Music, Language, and the Brain. Oxford University Press, 2008.

[3] A. P. Vargas, Música e Poder. Edições Almedina, 2011.

[4] T. Videira, «Describing Music: Perception and Metaphor», The international Journal of the Arts in Society, vol 6, n 4, pp 255–262, 2011.


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