The ideology of musical notation
November 16, 2014 12:51 PM   Subscribe

"[P]eople who read staff notation ... were middle-class; and those who used alternative notation systems, such as the Tonic Sol-fa method, which was widely used for choral singing in the nineteenth century ... were predominantly working-class." Sociologist Anna Bull on how classical music, and the way it is taught, reproduces class inequality.
posted by dontjumplarry (111 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
 
Today, instead of Tonic Sol-fa, alternative notations might be guitar tabs, or music technology software.

Rings true for me, when I was learning sequencing, something like an on-screen piano-roll seemed very sensible to me, whereas staff notation just seems to encompass a bunch of arbitrary decisions that make it hard to read (I like to be able to count the semi-tones).
posted by memebake at 1:33 PM on November 16, 2014


WHY NOT COMPROMISE? WHY NOT SHAPE NOTE?
posted by The White Hat at 1:46 PM on November 16, 2014 [8 favorites]


Jacobin disagrees!
posted by kenko at 1:46 PM on November 16, 2014 [8 favorites]


This article strikes me as remarkably bad and poorly argued, and based mostly on suggestion and innuendo.
posted by kenko at 1:49 PM on November 16, 2014 [7 favorites]


I take your point Kenko, and still I feel that something unearthed here gets at an explanation for the complete dominance of guitar tablature, or tab, notation, on today's internet. I'm unsure whether this type of notation was invented for the internet, but it certainly has become the standard.

Perhaps not the only explanation, but class as a cause of the hegemony of internet guitar tab notation seems right.
posted by riverlife at 2:01 PM on November 16, 2014


I recognize that she's writing about the UK, but I wonder what she'd say about the US, where classical music training has become a social-advancement cul-de-sac, chiefly occupied by children of parents who fail to understand that they'd do far better to focus on lacrosse or crew if they want to get into the Ivies.
posted by MattD at 2:08 PM on November 16, 2014 [2 favorites]


there are other reasons for tab to exist - for one thing, there are several places on a guitar that one can find a certain note - an E played on a B string will sound different than it does on an E string or a G or D string - an experienced guitarist might be able to figure out how a group of notes is played by notation alone, but even then, there are significant ambiguities that come up

tab tells you exactly where on the guitar the note was played

the second reason for tab to exist is that it has notations for harmonics, hammer ons, string bends etc etc

someone would have to prove to me that class had something to do with the distribution of musicians who read notes, who read tab, and don't read anything at all - all three types can be found in the middle class, speaking from a US perspective
posted by pyramid termite at 2:12 PM on November 16, 2014 [3 favorites]


This seems silly on many levels. Sort of like complaining that that pesky old periodic table of the elements is so damned hard.. why don't we simplify it to another system widely used historically, "earth, water, air, metal and fire". And kids who do well in school puzzlingly seem to be the ones who like school.. hmmmm a quandary that one. And besides, they don't really need that fusty old Bach, just let them make it up on their own. Music conservatories mainly used staff notation, sigh. And books are written with the letters of the alphabet too, how clearly bourgeois. Of course their are many systems of music notation in this world, but serious art music, as it is performed and understood anywhere all over the world, is just kinda hard. You don't get it by just chiming in and plunking away. Whether you're learning Mozart, or Indian Ragas, or trying to play like Miles Davis or the Japanese Samisen... You don't bring the education to the child by turning it into vanilla pudding, but by seriously investing into all of the things the child needs to learn the subject in question. Reinforcing class system? Utter shite. How about reframing this, as helping kids to love beauty, hard work, opening minds to the world around them in all it's complexity and not assuming they are too stupid or their attention spas are hopelessly too short to learn anything requiring extended training. This idea presented, of seeing "the child as a fully-formed person in their own right, rather than investing in the person they are going to be" is such a viciously false black or white red herring, how about both?
posted by anguspodgorny at 2:14 PM on November 16, 2014 [14 favorites]


Sort of like complaining that that pesky old periodic table of the elements is so damned hard.. why don't we simplify it to another system widely used historically, "earth, water, air, metal and fire".

This is not an apt analogy.
posted by robcorr at 2:15 PM on November 16, 2014 [6 favorites]


Tab is just easier to read because it's kind of an instrument specific notation. It takes a lot less effort to learn and what it expresses is much more immediately comprehensible without more extensive training. I mean, hell, it's like a picture of strings with the notes being played on them. It's so much more concrete and accessible for a learner. Maybe class has something to do with it in a purely incidental way, but there are a lot of simpler, more obvious explanations for its popularity online.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:18 PM on November 16, 2014


i thought of a 3rd reason - some guitarists use alternate tunings - good luck finding your way around that without tab
posted by pyramid termite at 2:18 PM on November 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


Tab is also easy to disseminate via plain-text, which was a huge benefit during earlier Internet days.
posted by Greg_Ace at 2:21 PM on November 16, 2014 [5 favorites]


Jacobin disagrees!

Is there a Jacobin article where that would not be the appropriate link text?
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:21 PM on November 16, 2014 [15 favorites]


This article strikes me as remarkably bad and poorly argued, and based mostly on suggestion and innuendo.

But suggestion and innuendo are valid and meaningful modes of argument in many traditional and working-class cultures. The insistence that arguments must be well thought out, make a coherent point, and rely on facts, only serves to perpetuate... etc., etc.
posted by officer_fred at 2:25 PM on November 16, 2014 [13 favorites]


"based mostly on suggestion and innuendo"

Hey sexy I really like your f holes, wanna come over here and show me your g string while I show you my grand staff?
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:27 PM on November 16, 2014 [11 favorites]


I've never had the slightest insight into how Shape Note Singing notation is supposed to make anything easier for anybody. Do I have this straight? They don't use key signatures or sharps and flats. Instead the system encodes a note's scale degree, using an idiosyncratic modification of solfege syllables, so that a B on the staff, written with one shape, may actually be a Bb, for example, if we are in the key of F, not the key of C.

Maybe it makes more sense if you come to it without knowing traditional notation.
posted by thelonius at 2:29 PM on November 16, 2014


I recognize that she's writing about the UK, but I wonder what she'd say about the US, where classical music training has become a social-advancement cul-de-sac, chiefly occupied by children of parents who fail to understand that they'd do far better to focus on lacrosse or crew if they want to get into the Ivies.

I think classical music is still a status marker for the older generation.

For those under, say, 50, I think cultural omnivorism is more of a status marker. Showing that you enjoy and respect MIA just as much as Mozart gives you much more cred than spurning pop music, which makes you look out-of-touch and a bit aspirational.
posted by dontjumplarry at 2:30 PM on November 16, 2014 [12 favorites]


What an interesting article. I like it when sociologists take on classical music. If you just looked at the education, you'd never know classical has under 5% of worldwide album sales. I love what El Sistema does in Venezuela. The concert I saw in the UK was really really bad. I could see the kids and parents loving it. But there's this taste of classical music being foisted on people whose world it has nothing to do with, because it's the pursestrings people's music.
posted by yoHighness at 2:30 PM on November 16, 2014


For one thing, the suggestion that music technology software (which generally requires a minimum investment of hundreds of dollars) is somehow more egalitarian than what you can do with a pen and paper is laughable.
posted by speicus at 2:30 PM on November 16, 2014 [5 favorites]


How Popular Musicians Learn
posted by yoHighness at 2:32 PM on November 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


But there's this taste of classical music being foisted on people whose world it has nothing to do with, because it's the pursestrings people's music.

also it's big in China
posted by thelonius at 2:33 PM on November 16, 2014


For one thing, the suggestion that music technology software (which generally requires a minimum investment of hundreds of dollars) is somehow more egalitarian than what you can do with a pen and paper is laughable.

Pretty much any laptop or tablet can now be used to sequence, play and record music. Whereas paper and pen are cheap yes, but violins and tubas and whatnot tend to be quite expensive.
posted by memebake at 2:33 PM on November 16, 2014


not so sure about that, speicus - how much does it cost to hire and rehearse a symphony orchestra compared to using kontakt 5 on a good computer?
posted by pyramid termite at 2:33 PM on November 16, 2014 [2 favorites]


Following on from my thought above, I think liking just classical music now could be a bit of a sign of being "non-U" – that British term for how middle class people opted for terms like "serviette" and "toilet" that were perceived as slightly too fancy, French and pretentious, where the aristocracy will just say "napkin" and "loo".
posted by dontjumplarry at 2:34 PM on November 16, 2014 [5 favorites]


the current Snap Judgement opens with a story that has zero to do with notation but everything to do with the class in classical music.
posted by mwhybark at 2:35 PM on November 16, 2014


holy cultural capital, batman
posted by yoHighness at 2:37 PM on November 16, 2014


anguspodgorny: And kids who do well in school puzzlingly seem to be the ones who like school.. hmmmm a quandary that one.

In the UK, there's a strong correlation between parental income and the educational attainment of children.
posted by memebake at 2:45 PM on November 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


Note that middle class in the UK is basically the upper class in the United States. And even the middle class in the US is now really a descriptor for upper middle class. I forwarded this to my husband, who says this article effectively described his path in music, as a way out for him and other friends who did not grow up rich.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 2:52 PM on November 16, 2014


kenko >

This article strikes me as remarkably bad and poorly argued, and based mostly on suggestion and innuendo.

I think there are several problems here.

The argument benefits rhetorically from some editing, which is unfortunate because her ideas are more interesting than they seem here, I think. Here's how I would restructure the material from the linked article, if a student submitted this to me as a research project:

The empirical question

In recent years there has been a worldwide explosion of music education programmes which bring classical music to children in deprived areas, following the model of El Sistema, a Venezuelan music education project....However, in the UK more generally classical music is overwhelmingly played and listened to by the middle and upper classes. Does this gap between classical music’s usual suspects and its new recruits matter?

So that's what is trying to be answered. As a student of sociology, I feel only a little bad saying that "Does this matter?" is one of the least helpful ways of framing an argument that I can think of. Obviously it matters enough to talk about, at least to the author. So it's fair to assume that, for the purposes of her research, it does matter. Her actual research question seems to be something more like, How do we account for this disparity?

The hypothesis

To answer this question, we need to examine the links between classical music and class. Prevailing explanations for the dominance of the middle classes in classical music tend to be economic, suggesting that inequalities are simply a question of access.

So her argument is that the disparity is a function of class.

Data

Clearly, economic barriers are very important. Indeed, a recent report from the ABRSM (who run the grade exams) found that private instrumental lessons – especially on classical music instruments – are much more likely to be undertaken by those in what are called the AB social groups (i.e. middle and upper classes).

But is that disparity noted above just a function of economic class, or is something else going on?

However, new research by Erin Johnson-Hill shows that the class divide which was built into these institutions in the late 19th century was around people who read staff notation – what we would call standard notation, who were middle-class; and those who used alternative notation systems, such as the Tonic Sol-fa method, which was widely used for choral singing in the nineteenth century, who were predominantly working-class. The major classical music institutions, the grade exam boards and music conservatoires – used staff notation.

...[research has found that] those who do music degrees are drawn more from the middle class, while those who study music production or music technology tend to be working-class boys. Students who do music degrees are likely to have taken A-level music, which requires the ability to read staff notation. This suggests that broadly speaking, there is still today a class divide around different forms of musical literacy.

So, to sum up:

1. Despite efforts to bring classical music and its presumptive-but-undefined "benefits" to the culturally impoverished morlocks sub-middle classes, most people involved in playing and listening to classical music are still middle-class (and perhaps above). Why might that be?

2. Well, class, probably. But how?

3. Not just through financial resources, but deeper patterns of culture, including various elements of habitus such as techniques of musical literacy, self-conception in relation to practice and self-actualization, and more.

So, it's kind of a neat line of inquiry, and the data she does cite supports the idea that class differences account for a lot of the variation in engagement with classical music, and not only because of money itself (she's a Bourdieuian).

However, the argument that differences in music education themselves account for class reproduction is much less solidly supported, because she doesn't seem to have data that, for example, shows actual class mobility with variation explained as a function of differing rates of adoption for the middle-class paradigm. It's more accurate to say that principles of distinction associated with class are also evident in music education, as in so many other areas.
posted by clockzero at 2:55 PM on November 16, 2014 [10 favorites]


As a bassist, it always seemed to me that the big limitation of tab (from watching many guitar players and bassists over the years) is that its great for decoding and memorizing, but you can't READ it. Music on a staff enables a musician to sight read at pretty high speed, because the notes are drilled into muscle memory and easily decoded while "in motion." I've never met a guitarist or bassist who could sight read tablature at any kind of speed ... It isn't linear, for starters.

Unless a performer has an unusually excellent memory or a very small repertoire, their repertoire will eventually outstrip their ability to memorize, and that's the point where I've always seen very talented tab-only guitarists learn the staff.

Its definitely elitist to be able to devote the time to fluently reading a second language, but I think in the end staff music simply has more flexibility and utility than other current forms of notation for most musicians.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:55 PM on November 16, 2014 [14 favorites]


I think I basically agree with the (rather sketchy) conclusions of the article. I've loved classical music all my life, and while I vaguely wish I'd been forced to learn piano as a kid (and definitely wish I could read traditional notation more fluently), I don't feel a real need to *play* classical music, except for the fact that even playing Bach badly would improve my appreciation of a good performance (just as playing mediocre electric guitar deepens my awe of great players).
But I do think kids with even the smallest interest and aptitude should be getting music education from somewhere. I'm with Nietzsche when it comes to the importance of music. So when the author suggests "getting students to play with musicians from other genres, improvise, and learn how to use music technology", I'm down with that (although personally I'd hold off the technology until the kids learned their way around an analog instrument). Improvisation in particular seems sadly lacking in the classical music world -- maybe Jacobin could do an article about that.
Anyway, it's understandable that classical music is still kind of an upperclass thing -- it certainly started out that way -- but it's a shame that it's not everybody's property by now. There was a time when you needed to be the king of France to have an orchestra play for you; now we have CDs and MP3s. And most of us have hot and cold running water, unlike the king of France. Someday I hope we'll all have hot and cold running Beethoven.
posted by uosuaq at 3:00 PM on November 16, 2014 [3 favorites]


Note that middle class in the UK is basically the upper class in the United States. And even the middle class in the US is now really a descriptor for upper middle class.

Sorry, can you explain what you mean here? Maybe I'm just not following you, but neither one of those assertions makes sense to me.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 3:03 PM on November 16, 2014


The classical music establishment is unequivocally mired in classism and has a particularly vitriolic relationship with music technology and any instruments which are not part of the orchestra / wind ensemble / choral set. There is also a line to be towed of what is Real Music and what is not. Surprisingly, even well-known composers like Carl Orff, John Cage and Erik Satie fall on the wrong side of that line, mostly because of their unabashed populism, which is only accepted when it takes the "look at the music of the simple folk" form of Copeland or Bartok.

Anguspodgorny's comment above about "serious art music" and its fundamental inaccessibility to the masses is a good example of this viewpoint.
posted by grumpybear69 at 3:05 PM on November 16, 2014 [6 favorites]


I was lucky enough to have music class once or twice a week in elementary school. We had a unit where everyone had to get a plastic recorder and we learned how to read enough standard notation to play simple songs like "Muffin Man" - nothing even remotely classical (or classist.) When you're introducing someone to music for the first time, teaching them to associate a note on a staff with a note on the recorder isn't going to seem particularly harder to them than mapping a little diagram for each note of the melody, unless you make a big deal about it. Standard notation also contains information about count and note duration, which can be harder to suss out in some tablature systems. But, after recorder lessons and a little bit of trumpet, I took up guitar. My teacher used tablature, and it was decades before I came back around to standard notation... and curiously enough, it was by way of the banjo.

As has already been mentioned, notation gets tricky for stringed instruments because you've got the same note occurring in multiple places on multiple strings. Tablature removes the extra layer of mental processing required to figure out what fret position and/or string(s) to play a on by just telling you "6th string, 3nd fret." With tablature you don't need to know what note that even is. This is sufficient to purpose for probably the vast majority of players of fretted, stringed instruments... it was how I learned pretty much all of the tunes I know on guitar and banjo until 4-5 years ago, when I went down the rabbit hole of early banjo music.

There were a number of banjo instruction books published from 1855 on, chock full of little practice melodies and popular songs of the period - and written in standard notation. Some of these old books have been republished with tablature, but the originals can be downloaded for free while the tab versions cost money... so for a while I would take 150 year old banjo notation and painstakingly transcribe it into tablature so I could learn the song. That's a huge pain in the neck, and I finally got tired enough of it that I made a real effort to work through the material at the front of the books so I can just read the music and play it. This set me up to jump into classic style banjo, a style whose repertoire also exists entirely in standard notation (in many cases classic banjo scores do provide additional banjo-specific hints about fingerings and barre positions.) People have tabbed some of those songs out as well, but the more comfortable I've gotten with reading standard notation, the less I like tab even when it's more immediate. The thing about standard notation is that it's an abstraction layer, and makes you think about the structure of the music itself apart from whatever instrument you're playing it on. I could take a piece of sheet music written for banjo, sit down at a piano and plunk it out (albeit slowly and poorly); you can't do that with tablature.

Something about this piece bugs me. Not the argument put forth, which I think has some validity... but the baby/bathwater, all-or-nothing tone seems overly simplistic.
posted by usonian at 3:12 PM on November 16, 2014 [11 favorites]


The article points out that classical music has always been a middle-class thing; staff notation can be used elsewhere, but is a part of the the classical music tradition… so we are surprised that staff notation is part of perpetuating this middle class activity without making it less class based?

In the UK, there's a strong correlation between parental income and the educational attainment of children.

Education in the modern sense (i.e. having the goal of higher education rather than merely getting the basics of the three Rs and leaving school to work at 14) is another nineteenth century middle-class institution. Obviously there are many individuals who escape their backgrounds, but getting an advanced degree is an inherently middle-class aspiration.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 3:12 PM on November 16, 2014


A related point: Its fair to say that certain pieces of music generally evoke certain emotions, right? As in, everyone experiences it differently of course, but you can generalise a bit. Some pieces of music are euphoric, some angry, some melancholy, and so on? When I listen to classical music - lets say I get a 6 CD set of famous classical pieces, and pick a few at random - they generally evoke a feeling of "twee-ness" in me. The prevailing image is of a betighted prince skipping through a wood. There are some famous pieces that aren't twee, and those are generally the ones I like. But overwhelmingly, the emotion that classical music evokes in me, is twee.

I appreciate there's a lot of clever structural pattern stuff going on in classical music. But perhaps to really get into classical, you need a high tolerance of twee.
posted by memebake at 3:17 PM on November 16, 2014 [3 favorites]


Wow, I never thought the most enraging comment to ever appear on metafilter would be in a classical music thread.

Live and learn.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:23 PM on November 16, 2014 [11 favorites]


Metafilter: a lot of clever structural pattern stuff
posted by uosuaq at 3:25 PM on November 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


It's less enraging than it is completely tone deaf.
posted by Wolof at 3:28 PM on November 16, 2014 [2 favorites]


I have seen many battles about tablature, and have fought in some myself. Here is the mightiest blow against tablature that I have heard yet, a blow aimed at the ambitious young guitar student. It's probably from Jeff Berlin or some other curmudgeon of music education.

There is no situation, as a working musician, where someone will hand you tablature to play. They may hand you a written score, a lead sheet, or a Nashville Number System chart, or they may just play you a song and expect you to learn it by ear and come up with a part. So you should learn how to play from those situations, and not be dependent on tablature to learn songs.
posted by thelonius at 3:36 PM on November 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


OK, sounds like its just me on the twee thing. Fair enough. I'll stick to autechre.
posted by memebake at 3:42 PM on November 16, 2014


Absolutely, thelonius, only we're not all looking to become working musicians, is all. Without tab I wouldn't be able to play guitar at the mediocre but very enjoyable level that I do now. I still want to be able to read standard notation fluently, but it's something I've decided to put off until I retire (assuming there's still such a thing by then) to stimulate my brain in my old age.
posted by uosuaq at 3:45 PM on November 16, 2014 [2 favorites]


Something that I am not having much luck putting together to say, but I wonder if this is going to vary by country and region? Where I grew up, there is a strong race and class division in school between kids who go into band and those who go into orchestra. Most of the black and working class or poor kids who learned instruments went to band, while white middle-class and some aspiring kids (or kids of aspiring parents) went into orchestra. Band music has stuff that isn't classical: marches, arrangements of movie themes and popular music, jazz, things written specifically for wind band (Alfred Reed, Percy Grainger). But we all learned to read music on the staff.

(And we all had music class once or twice a week in elementary school, where we started with reading music on the staff, although whether most kids remembered any of it past sixth grade I don't know).
posted by dilettante at 3:46 PM on November 16, 2014


No, I feel ya on the twee thing, memebake. For much (though not all) symphonic music, anyway.

Not for solo piano. I defy you to call Schubert's Moment Musical No. 2 twee.
posted by dontjumplarry at 3:48 PM on November 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


uosauq - that's what the "aimed at the ambitious young guitar student" clause is for - tab is probably consumed mostly by hobby players who just want to learn the songs they like, and, I agree, that's fine. Not everyone wants to become a guitar monk.
posted by thelonius at 3:50 PM on November 16, 2014


There is no situation, as a working musician, where someone will hand you tablature to play.

Maybe not, if you don't count hastily drawn tabs on the back of bar napkins. Apart from that, you might also get the guitarist just showing you the chords like "so it's Aaaa.. then C.. D.. C.. A..." and so forth. I guess there's a time and a place for any kind of music language. My partner, who is insanely good with music, even uses this software program that lets her write notation like other people type words. It's pretty nuts, and downright sorcery to someone like me who can't even read it. But I'd like to, as I realize this would broaden my ability to learn songs. I guess I don't see this as a perilous choice between tabs OR notation.
posted by Aya Hirano on the Astral Plane at 3:50 PM on November 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


So you should learn how to play from those situations, and not be dependent on tablature to learn songs.

True, and not that I disagree with your main point; but how many amateur/hobbyist (or just young and starting out) music players are likely to find themselves in a situation where written scores or Nashville charts are being handed out? What's best for the master isn't necessarily best for the beginner.
posted by Greg_Ace at 3:52 PM on November 16, 2014


I said nothing about serious art music's inaccessibility to the masses. It's more like actually playing it is inaccessible to anyone who hasn't actually learned how to play it. Hidden in the article's point of view, is the very conservative idea (default assumption for almost all Americans btw) that the arts are somehow less useful and socially important than 'real' learning, whatever that may be, and thence should just be left as a kind of play time with no connection to the whole history and body of work by artists who have developed a high level of achievement. This should be uncontroversial. If you want to learn Latin, you don't just make it up, you have to learn Latin. Great art in any style, from anywhere, from any time, is serious stuff that requires some commitment.
posted by anguspodgorny at 3:55 PM on November 16, 2014 [5 favorites]


I've never met a guitarist or bassist who could sight read tablature at any kind of speed

Huh? When playing guitar or bass, I almost definitely read tab faster than I read standard notation. I'm not a particularly good guitarist--I'm experienced, but not particularly deft--but I can sight-read tab pretty readily if I know the rhythm.

In any case, I think the difference between instrumentalists who've learned from standard notation versus those who've learned from alternative notations is partially one of innate understanding. The shape of standard notation exposes patterns more easily, I think, than something like guitar tablature. I learned to read standard notation at a very young age, and had a couple of years of violin and maybe two or three years of piano before I hit high school.

When I switched to guitar, I learned and played largely from tablature. But it wasn't until I played bass, reading from standard notation, and played some old sheet music on guitar that I really "got" the instruments. I think there's some understanding baked into standard notation that isn't there in a mostly-functional notation like tablature.
posted by uncleozzy at 3:56 PM on November 16, 2014


I used to be real elitist against tab, like it shouldn't even exist, but I have decided that was ridiculous of me. It's useful, it's not evil, it gets the job of showing you how a song goes done. It's also really old - there was a tab-like system for the lute. But I still can't keep myself from promoting learning to read notation also, even just a little. It's not that hard. It's good for you. It gives you incredible access to information.
posted by thelonius at 3:57 PM on November 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


memebake: "OK, sounds like its just me on the twee thing. Fair enough. I'll stick to autechre."

I'm just really struggling to resist the urge to shove better music at you in enormous quantities until you stop being wrong on the internet! ;)

But no, really, if what you've heard of classical music has all been twee, people have been making you listen to BAD CLASSICAL MUSIC and I am genuinely sorry nobody's ever blown your mind with something AWESOME.

posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:11 PM on November 16, 2014 [7 favorites]


I was thinking a MeTa on non-twee classical music would be kind of fun. If somebody wants to start one, that is.
posted by uosuaq at 4:19 PM on November 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


Pretty much any laptop or tablet can now be used to sequence, play and record music. Whereas paper and pen are cheap yes, but violins and tubas and whatnot tend to be quite expensive.

Yeah, my friend the cellist has an instrument that cost $50,000 dollars. I have literally never had that much money all at once in my life and likely never will. Humming is cheap, too, if it's about jamming econo. We used to use two cheap tape decks hooked up together to make recordings with overdubs as a kid. Way cheaper than even a cello concerto, once you take all the costs of a performance into account.
posted by saulgoodman at 4:42 PM on November 16, 2014


non-twee classical music

That'd be pretty much most of it then, if one isn't being judgemental... I say this as someone who doesn't listen to a lot of classical music, but even so the "twee" label seems a bit parochial.
posted by Greg_Ace at 5:02 PM on November 16, 2014


Oh, for Pity's sake!
posted by carping demon at 5:05 PM on November 16, 2014


I do wonder if the connection between class and musical notation is as strong in the US as she suggests it is in the UK. I went to ordinary public schools. In elementary school, beginning in kindergarten, we had music class twice a week, which was primarily singing and included the basics of reading music. In 5th grade, we had the option of joining band or strings, and I would say 2/3 of the kids did (mostly band). The school had instruments they could loan anyone who couldn't afford one. Band remained pretty big through jr high. Some of the kids in strings had had Suzuki or they learned to play fiddle from their parents, but all of them learned to read music, too.

By high school, the numbers had dwindled down to the kids who really liked it, but that wasn't really a class thing. There were plenty of kids on free lunch who stayed in band all the way through, and some of them were talented, all-state musicians. Our band director provided private lessons for free for people who couldn't afford to take them elsewhere. I do wonder if the availability of and cultural importance of marching band and jazz band (probably not a thing in the UK schools?) provided an attraction for kids who did not grow up going to hear symphonic music.

We also had highly successful choral groups of various types, and all those kids learned to read music, too. But again, I grew up in the Southeast US, and an awful lot of the best choral musicians got their start in church choirs, which may be less of a thing other places. Some of the best choristers learned piano and organ so they could be church musicians--again, probably not as much of a thing other places (and probably going away now that so many churches have trashed the choir and organ in favor of "praise music").
posted by hydropsyche at 5:09 PM on November 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


And I apologize for making this all about the US, it just struck me that my experiences were in contrast to what she is reporting and that made me wonder about different roles of music in the US and UK
posted by hydropsyche at 5:11 PM on November 16, 2014


It's worth noting that tablature, pretty much exactly as used today, is in fact quite a lot older than recognisable five-line staff notation, with a clef, sharps and flats etc
posted by iotic at 5:46 PM on November 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


I am grateful for the information about the history of tablature, and regret that my ignorance and too-broad claim have caused this derail. My point that guitar tab was a modern analogue to the So-fa method described in the article was tangential, at best, and certainly not well-formed.
posted by riverlife at 6:04 PM on November 16, 2014


In other words: I'm sorry.
posted by riverlife at 6:08 PM on November 16, 2014


If Anna Bull ever finds out about jazz it's going to blow her mind.
posted by motty at 7:04 PM on November 16, 2014 [3 favorites]


Wait until she discovers the debates about ethnomusicological transcription. Notation as such is an instrument of hegemonic power. It's connected to a broader history of writing (and inscription, recording, etc.) more generally.
posted by spitbull at 7:09 PM on November 16, 2014 [5 favorites]


I can't say I necessarily agree with the premise of the article, but I have been fascinated by the history of pop music notation recently (as I get better at sight reading from fake books but am still terrible at sight reading full piano arrangements) and have been digging through old sheet music to try to understand what was used at what time.

In the US, the history is reasonably clear: In the 19th century, staff notation was universal, even for guitar solos that would now be written in tablature. The huge historic shift was in late 1923, when May Singhi Breen singlehandedly brought ukulele chord diagrams to pop music. Guitar chord diagrams started to appear occasionally in 1926, as did the practice of giving the names of chords instead of the diagrams. Guitar diagrams began to outnumber ukulele diagrams around 1935. Finally, in the late 60s, the slash notation for bass notes also began to appear, and things have been more or less stable since.

But if you look at UK sheet music from the 20s, there's a lot more going on notationally. You get the standard staff notation, you get ukulele symbols above the staff, you get chord names below the staff ("for piano accordion and guitar," and with occasional reference to bass notes, decades earlier than in the US), and above the staff you always get solfege note names, accompanied by some punctation whose meaning is not entirely clear to me.

I don't know how long this lasted—at least into the 40s—but it seems like the UK traditionally took solfege much more seriously than the US ever did, and now no longer does. If you learned to sing from it, and then it disappeared, it's probably as upsetting as losing any other familiar thing that you depend on.
posted by enf at 7:13 PM on November 16, 2014 [4 favorites]


> black or white red herring

That was beautiful!
posted by aws17576 at 7:22 PM on November 16, 2014 [2 favorites]


Eyebrows McGee: "memebake: "OK, sounds like its just me on the twee thing. Fair enough. I'll stick to autechre."

I'm just really struggling to resist the urge to shove better music at you in enormous quantities until you stop being wrong on the internet! ;)

But no, really, if what you've heard of classical music has all been twee, people have been making you listen to BAD CLASSICAL MUSIC and I am genuinely sorry nobody's ever blown your mind with something AWESOME.
"

No offense, but there's an entire genre of BAD CLASSICAL MUSIC called baroque. Music written to be danced by and discussed over top of isn't worth a good sit-down-and-listen, no matter how much of it they wrote four hundred years ago. It's not like we expect people in 2314 to sit down and absorb the witty couplets behind Sexy and I Know It.
posted by pwnguin at 8:12 PM on November 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


There is also a line to be towed of what is Real Music and what is not. Surprisingly, even well-known composers like Carl Orff, John Cage and Erik Satie fall on the wrong side of that line, mostly because of their unabashed populism, which is only accepted when it takes the "look at the music of the simple folk" form of Copeland or Bartok.

Um, what? I perform with a major symphony orchestra and I've seen all three of those composers performed on our main stage. Carmina Burana is in my top 5 most performed works.

I will always live and die by classical notation because I'm a singer. Ain't no tabulature for that. Shape-note attempts it, but can't replicate a full diatonic scale and is useless for shifting tonal centers. I've managed, by dint of working at it mercilessly for decades, to become a pretty good sight-singer -- good enough to make money at it. I don't know any working studio musicians who can't read classical notation; even if that's not exclusively what they encounter, they can all work with it.
posted by KathrynT at 8:24 PM on November 16, 2014 [2 favorites]


No offense, but there's an entire genre of BAD CLASSICAL MUSIC called baroque.

PISTOLS AT DAWN, SIR.
posted by KathrynT at 8:25 PM on November 16, 2014 [9 favorites]


But no, really, if what you've heard of classical music has all been twee, people have been making you listen to BAD CLASSICAL MUSIC and I am genuinely sorry nobody's ever blown your mind with something AWESOME.

It's not just in whoever's music selections, it's in our cultural view of classical music. I think Americans are basically programmed to try and interpret all classical music as highly emotionally colored film scores for their imaginations. So, so SO many people can't appreciate a piece of music that doesn't telegraph a narrative image, like a twee prince or a twee ballerina or a twee stag romping through a twee enchanted forest. Children are explicitly taught to listen to music in these stiflingly personal terms.

There's a Curious George episode my three-year-old has now watched like 17,000 times, where Curious George goes to the symphony and the music is very exciting and George imagines himself zooming through space on a rocket. Fine, but then later in the episode the conductor misinforms George about the difference between tempo and meter. And then the orchestra gets all confused and plays the wrong notes when a dog runs on stage! No real orchestra is going to be just lost in the Magic Flute Overture because there's a dog there! ARRGhhhhggh...

the point being, many many people are constantly breathlessly panting about how classical music is simultaneously both inherently classist and also dying out, and almost always the implicit burden is on classical music to change and become more marketable or relevant or whatever, and SURE there are many bad cultural practices surrounding classical music, BUT I for one am tired of classical music somehow always being the misunderstood whipping boy bearing the cultural burden for the ever-widening gap between upper and lower middle class. I'm tired of every damn ignorant person thinking their opinions about music are equally valid not just in application to their own listening tastes and habits, but also to what we should all learn about music or accept or reject it.

In any case, I remain of the opinion that actually learning to read music on a staff is pretty essential, and this article blithely ignores the failure of our culture to recognize music reading and theory as an essential skill for children, one that should be mandated in the public schools much better than it is, and saying that classical music skills are elitist is pretty much like saying reading at a high level of comprehension is elitist: maybe it is from a point of view where nobody deserves or is entitled to any kind of education requiring future commitment or a life with enough time and ease to do anything other than struggle to survive. And if so fuck it, I'll be the most elitist music educator there is.

No offense, but there's an entire genre of BAD CLASSICAL MUSIC called baroque. Music written to be danced by and discussed over top of isn't worth a good sit-down-and-listen, no matter how much of it they wrote four hundred years ago. It's not like we expect people in 2314 to sit down and absorb the witty couplets behind Sexy and I Know It.

No offense, but Baroque is a stylistic period, lasting more than 250 years and filled with a ridiculous variety of genres, mediums, topics, and aesthetic purposes for music. But how nice that you learned just enough to be dismissive of yesterday's "dance music"! Oh, but sorry, how elitist of me to defend any music that requires more than the barest understanding of music theory to appreciate.

(mic drop, comes back onstage and checks mic for damage, because mics are expensive)
posted by daisystomper at 8:33 PM on November 16, 2014 [14 favorites]


There's a certain snobbery among some classical musicians which involves them assuming that the rest of us - other musicians working in other branches of music - can't possibly be advanced enough - like they are - to have learned to read the dots - or as she puts it, "staff notation".

But - and this is purely the anecdotal experience of a folk / rock / jazz / blues guy in his 40's who earns a (precarious) living from music - the dots are really good, they communicate pretty much everything you'd want them to - and anyone serious about playing music in any genre is well advised to learn them eventually or miss out.

Sure, tab is a good way of telling you how to play a thing on a guitar or banjo or uke, up to a point, but it doesn't give you what the dots do, which is the rhythm. Personally I like to have things written out in tab *and* dots if I'm going to learn it, and I'm happy to write that out myself because that's how I learn.

Meanwhile, sites like folk melody database thesession.org provide an option to give you melodies written out in dot form because duh. And a lot of people in the non-classical world who claim they can't read music are either straight-up lying or mean that they can't *sight-read at speed* - which is entirely different.
posted by motty at 8:51 PM on November 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


So the alternative notation vs. standard notation thing comes from legitimate and interesting research on the demographics of music programs in the UK (which is admittedly not necessarily generalizable to the US) which is part of the MusDig project, which while being pretty academically dense is also pretty cutting-edge in terms of analyzing the ways in which music fits into broader cultural trends. (I'm reading Patrick Valiquet's dissertation on the Montreal Electroacoustic Music scene right now and finding it pretty enjoyable).

But in the context of this discussion, I think the notation thing is a bit of a difficult point to successfully argue. A better point of criticism of el sistema and similar 'bringing the benefits of classical music to poor people' is just to look at their stated goals, in which are deeply embedded western puritanical ideals of self-advancement and success through internalizing the values of the hegemonic culture:

• Every human being has the right to a life of dignity and contribution, filled with beauty.

• Every child can learn to experience and express music and art deeply, can receive its many benefits, and can make different critical life choices as a result of this learning.

Overcoming poverty and adversity is best done by strengthening the spirit, creating, as Dr. Abreu puts it, “an affluence of the spirit,” and investing that affluence as a valued asset in a community endeavor to create excellence and beauty in music.

posted by ianhattwick at 9:04 PM on November 16, 2014 [4 favorites]


And I'll just add that piling onto people who don't 'get' western classical music comes off to me as a bit bullying* - for hundreds of years people have worked really hard to make sure we all recognize that music as intrinsically superior. Most people in western culture are willing to agree that learning classical music is a valuable addition to any child's education. What people like Anna Bull are asking is whether there is a better, more inclusive way to approach music education that carries less baggage. Even for those of us who think there could be, articulating what form that should take is difficult.

*Maybe facile would be a better word.
posted by ianhattwick at 9:15 PM on November 16, 2014 [2 favorites]


baroque. Music written to be danced by and discussed over top

Including the dance tunes and wallpaper music of Handel's Messiah, Bach's B Minor Mass, and his Toccata and Fugue in D minor.
posted by straight at 9:32 PM on November 16, 2014 [3 favorites]


In any case, I think the difference between instrumentalists who've learned from standard notation versus those who've learned from alternative notations is partially one of innate understanding.

Yes. Learning to read standard notation, you're much more likely to pick up how music (even "simple" pop music) works, how notes and chords fit together. You can also learn that stuff if you only read tablature (or don't read music at all), but it's also possible to learn to read tablature in a mechanical way without understanding what notes you're playing and how they fit into the rest of the music, much more so than you could do if you were reading standard notation.
posted by straight at 9:42 PM on November 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


Sort of like complaining that that pesky old periodic table of the elements is so damned hard.. why don't we simplify it to another system widely used historically, "earth, water, air, metal and fire".

A much better analogy would be Science and Math. It's certainly possible to be a scientist without using math, and we know poor kids have a much harder time learning math. But it would be utter folly to conclude that the best way to get poor kids into science was to stop trying to teach them math.
posted by straight at 9:49 PM on November 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


Fascinating. Tablature (in european music) was made popular as notation for middle and governing class amateur string players. Lute, violas da gamba and d'amore, cittern, harp, and so on. Professional musicians were lower class and generally either played by ear (for secular music, particularly dance wind/brass bands and non-fretted string instruments such as the violin-viola-cello da braccio) or staff notations for church musicians (singers, organ, other wind instruments).

I'm an early/renaissance/baroque viola da gamba player. Almost all my working early and renaissance parts are transcribed from tablature. I spend a great deal of time re-notating tablatures to modern staff. Baroque varies between a little tablature, a lot of "figured" bass (using chord degree numbers as a basis for standardized improvisation styles) and staff notation.

So the class of player using tab vs staff has almost completely inverted. I come from a upper-middle class background where playing a classical instrument was a matter of course along with tennis and swimming, but have only been a declasse working musician since leaving my professional job. So, more anecdata for you.
posted by Dreidl at 10:01 PM on November 16, 2014 [10 favorites]


uosauq: I was thinking a MeTa on non-twee classical music would be kind of fun. If somebody wants to start one, that is.

OK, here's an Ask thread on it!

I know that classical music ranges accross a very broad spectrum of emotions, but whereever it purports to range I still find a lot of twee-ness in it. Even in the really thundering pieces there's often a twee bit. I think the emotional palette for music must have shifted quite a bit over hundreds of years. And perhaps its something to do with symphonies always trying to use every part of the orchestra.
posted by memebake at 12:41 AM on November 17, 2014


motty: If Anna Bull ever finds out about jazz it's going to blow her mind.

I don't understand this rather condescending comment. As the hypothesis put forward is specifically about classical music, why would jazz be relevant, or why would you assume she doesn't know anything about jazz?
posted by memebake at 12:45 AM on November 17, 2014


@thelonius: I've never had the slightest insight into how Shape Note Singing notation is supposed to make anything easier

Yep - and it ties into the original topic of this post. Shape Note definitely falls into the non-classical non-elite egalitarian approach to music. While in theory I find it hard to disagree with that philosophy, I'm a musician (not classical elite) and I find it gratingly ramshackle: you get a bunch of people with a tin ear for pitch trying to part-sing using a system inherently bad at handling pitch. Check out Babylon is Fallen for an excruciating example.
posted by raygirvan at 1:38 AM on November 17, 2014 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I get the twee feeling too. That's an excellent way of putting it, in fact. I'm entirely happy to admit I wrong in this matter of personal taste, and that it is the highest form of art. It just sounds twee to me.

Being aware that this is discordant with the tastes of many smart, artistic people, I've attempted to listen to more classical music: in my limited attempts, I've found my taste as always runs to the pop end. So I like Tchaikovsky's 1812 , a few arias and duets from operas, most of THE BARBER OF SEVILLE, the fourth movement of Beethoven's NInth. But the rest of it? Twee. And yes, baroque especially.

Thanks for the AskMe, I'll go check it out, always happy to discover new great things!
posted by alasdair at 2:03 AM on November 17, 2014 [1 favorite]


In any case, I remain of the opinion that actually learning to read music on a staff is pretty essential, and this article blithely ignores the failure of our culture to recognize music reading and theory as an essential skill for children,

it's essential for musicians, but i have a hard time saying that it's essential for everyone
posted by pyramid termite at 2:37 AM on November 17, 2014


Classical music is a bit like haute cuisine. Key commonalities are: difficulty/rigor of execution, high information complexity, economic privilege—relative to other cultural activities.

I happen to enjoy both, i.e., I think they are the shit. But the author's criticisms hold, and happen to fit a broader academic literature on problematic (but interesting, stimulating) cultural/institutional aspects of art. And I find that the take-home is not a point but a question: how can high art change to better itself—really, to better express its own principles and ethics?
posted by polymodus at 2:41 AM on November 17, 2014


And a lot of people in the non-classical world who claim they can't read music are either straight-up lying or mean that they can't *sight-read at speed* - which is entirely different.

The excrable practice of using the term "sight-reading" to mean any and all ability to read music is responsible for this. Most readers of music are learning a part from a written score, not nailing a strange piece of music with the tape rolling like Tommy Tedesco or someone like that.
posted by thelonius at 3:49 AM on November 17, 2014 [1 favorite]


"Twee" is a word that seems a little more fluid to me than the average word... I'm not sure if it means "affectedly dainty or quaint" or "silly-cute". And either definition seems hazardous in context of this topic -- what does "affectedly quaint" mean when we're talking about music that's older than your grandparents? "Silly-cute" is marginally easier to work with, but then again, silly and cute are (a) things people do with music intentionally and (b) not really an apt description of the total output of any aesthetic era I can think of.
posted by weston at 4:03 AM on November 17, 2014


It means that they associate classical music with cartoon bunnies.
posted by Metafilter Username at 4:34 AM on November 17, 2014 [2 favorites]


Does anyone else hear "twee" as a homophobic slur here? As a classical musician growing up, the word I recall being lobbed as a rejecting insult by my rock playing buddies was that classical was "queer," "gay," or "faggy." (Luckily for me, my classical training made me a hell of a rock lead guitarist in my youth, so I'd get "what do you see in that queer shit?" More than "you're a fag for playing it." But then maybe that's why I took up the guitar as an American boy who loved classical music in the 70s.)

"Twee" sounds like a PC substitute, implying effeminacy, fussiness, aestheticism, and performative self-expression.

I never listen to classical music now, but not because it's "twee." Quite the contrary, as someone whose main focus is now indigenous (Native) American music and culture, to me European art music sounds violent, racist, macho, and arrogant. Its discourse of musical "quality" reads to me as a justification for colonialism (and a way of laundering ill-gotten colonial gains through the production of elite "culture").

And just to assert I'm not ignorant, I could re-harmonize a Bach chorale, sight reduce a Haydn symphony from score, or improvise a two part fugue at the keyboard right now if I cared to. I could needle-drop ID nearly any major work in the repertory in 10 seconds or less (I'm listing the things we had to do to pass a music major at a fancy college in the 80s). It isn't about appreciation or reading music. It's about knowing too much history to hear it as just music, twee or not. Musically, some of it is simply amazing to contemplate. So what. I find most music fascinating not for itself but for what it reveals about the minds of its creators. And I do find western art music ("classical" is so ideologically loaded I just won't use it normally) fascinating as a document of its society. But I don't feel I have much more to learn about that history from its music either.

Adorno, Said, and many others have found ways to critically reconcile the fact that this is the music of an elite class who oppressed people to get that way with some notion of transcendent beauty or autonomy from politics. But then, they both identified more with those elite classes than I do.
posted by spitbull at 4:40 AM on November 17, 2014 [7 favorites]


"twee" for me is is more that kind of OK Go, Pompalamoose, look-how-clever-we-are-and we-look-cute-too, indie pop, not classical.
posted by thelonius at 4:42 AM on November 17, 2014


PS I drive my classical music colleagues insane when I routinely refer to "upper classical" music. They used to hate the implied relativism of "western art music," but now that's become a neutral term and widely used (to the point people just say "WAM" now).
posted by spitbull at 4:55 AM on November 17, 2014


Do you wake them up before you go-go?
posted by Wolof at 5:18 AM on November 17, 2014 [1 favorite]


I half-learned to sight-read staff music when I was taking drum lessons as a kid (and during a brief stint in band in high school), have completely forgotten it, and don't really miss it, but I'm sure for a lot of people, being able to represent and think about music more abstractly through symbolic representations is very helpful. I don't have time to learn to read staff notation better now; too busy making music in the rare moments between family and day-job duties. I usually compose improvisationally straight to tape, so there's not much time for writing it all down or thinking too abstractly about what we're trying to do with a piece.

Point is, I don't see the big deal. Knowing music notation, if you've got the luxury of time to put into learning it, is probably very convenient and useful, but it doesn't give you super powers. I know lots of musicians who can read but that doesn't necessarily make them great composers.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:22 AM on November 17, 2014


spitbull: Does anyone else hear "twee" as a homophobic slur here?

Not the slightest bit. It fits well with how it is used in other musical/cultural contexts. Yes, it is being used as a contrast to "macho" or aggressive, as it is with indie pop. It's a term indie pop bands have used to describe their music.

And I was confused by calling classical music twee too but this

memebake: I know that classical music ranges accross a very broad spectrum of emotions, but whereever it purports to range I still find a lot of twee-ness in it. Even in the really thundering pieces there's often a twee bit.

makes it clear to me that this isn't about entire pieces being twee but there being soft, quiet, beautiful sections used as contrast for violent, fiery sections. The idea isn't that classical music pieces are, overall, twee, but that they have bits that are. So to listen to an entire Beethoven symphony to get to the fiery bit with the piccolos going one needs to be OK with there being some more mellow sections.

I once had a friend ask me what was the "punk" of classical music, what was constantly loud, fast, driving. I didn't really have an answer in part because that isn't really how classical music works, especially the longer, broad pieces that I favored.
posted by mountmccabe at 9:01 AM on November 17, 2014 [2 favorites]


Paganini would be, I guess, the metal
posted by thelonius at 9:04 AM on November 17, 2014


To be clear I wasn't calling memebake's usage here of "twee" consciously homophobic, but I think the point about the use of the term in Indy rock solidifies my case. "Twee" is opposed to macho. Twee is sensitive. Twee is aestheticized and fussy. It's soft. As a term of disdain it names qualities that were overtly called "queer" or "gay" in classical or pop or art rock (as performed by male musicians especially) by the overtly homophobic (70s metal and 80s punk) rock musicians I grew up around. I guess "twee" marks progress but it still means "precious" and it still has a feminizing valence to my ears. And much of what is being offered in counterpoint to the "twee" assertion is stereotypically more masculine in European aesthetic history.

Maybe I've read too much Susan McClary. But there's gender trouble in them thar concert halls.
posted by spitbull at 9:49 AM on November 17, 2014 [2 favorites]


"I once had a friend ask me what was the "punk" of classical music, what was constantly loud, fast, driving."

It's fuckin' Wagner. I broke my favorite bow on Wagner. Dynamic range is f to ffff. I still miss that fuckin' bow.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:22 AM on November 17, 2014 [2 favorites]


Harry Partch is punk classical music. Or Fred Frith.
posted by spitbull at 10:43 AM on November 17, 2014 [2 favorites]


Even in Moment Musical No. 2 I can hear "twee". It appears in the introduction section, which is recurrent, and it is that stylized sweetness that serves as a important contrast to the romantic outbursts that are the highlight for the listener. In other words, Schubert probably knew and intended those parts to be slightly cloying. That would be the irony of the piece, that the twee was conceived as part of the work. This kind of drama, which can be explained conceptually in terms of the musical structure/organization, is one thing that make classical music so interesting to listen to.

Classical music is heavily stylized, for better or worse. In-groups call this "acquired taste" and out-groups have called it worse things than "twee". But this divide perhaps should be better thought of as a symptom of what this article is really about, i.e. the continual claim to art made by the classical tradition as it is now situated in a diverse, modern musical world.
posted by polymodus at 11:10 AM on November 17, 2014 [3 favorites]


And perhaps its something to do with symphonies always trying to use every part of the orchestra.

This is . . . just not true? Instruments will routinely have 50 bars of rest, 80 bars of rest, be tacet for entire movements. During rehearsals, our brass players frequently bring a book, because the sections where they don't play are so long and so numerous. There's an old cartoon about the percussion section playing poker on the timpani during a performance, even. What symphonies are you listening to where the brass, percussion, and winds all play constantly?
posted by KathrynT at 11:45 AM on November 17, 2014


Even in Moment Musical No. 2 I can hear "twee". It appears in the introduction section, which is recurrent, and it is that stylized sweetness that serves as a important contrast to the romantic outbursts that are the highlight for the listener. In other words, Schubert probably knew and intended those parts to be slightly cloying.

This really seems like you're talking more about yourself, your musical context, and the way you perceive music, than the music itself (if there even is such a thing). I still don't really know what you mean by twee, am really unsure whether you're accurately characterizing what Schubert intended, and am not sure it would matter if you were.

The fact that some people here find Baroque music too twee, and some people find it too aggressive and butch, just shows how silly it is to try to talk about classical music in an abstract sense, rather than how particular works of music intersect with particular musical cultures. daisystomper's comment about how movie scores have trained many people to try to make sense of classical music by imagining a narrative for which it would be an appropriate soundtrack seems like a more helpful approach to this kind of thing.

Surely there's nothing inherently elitist about classical music notation (except for the "elitism" inherent in any approach to trying to learn to be a better musician). It has been elitist in some contexts, but I think the differences people have mentioned already between, for instance, music education in the US (i.e. the role of high school marching bands) and the UK demonstrate that it's misguided to blame elitism, where it exists, on the tools.
posted by straight at 12:35 PM on November 17, 2014 [1 favorite]


What symphonies are you listening to where the brass, percussion, and winds all play constantly?

Of course I didn't mean constantly. Wow, what would that even sound like? I was merely referring to the tendency to let all the instruments have a go at some point during the duration of a piece.
posted by memebake at 3:06 PM on November 17, 2014


Surely there's nothing inherently elitist about classical music notation

Depends what you mean by elitism. The role of literacy as a technology of domination in modern history is not really in doubt. It's also a technology of liberation, of course. But, for example, under US copyright law and before the dawn of widespread home recording, the first person to write down a song (using musical notation then essentially structurally unavailable to most folk musicians in the days before music education was widespread) in the oral tradition could claim copyright on it. And that's just getting started.

I always like to point out how little music notation actually notates.
posted by spitbull at 3:16 PM on November 17, 2014


memebake: " I was merely referring to the tendency to let all the instruments have a go at some point during the duration of a piece."

Not sure if this is the kind of thing people generally know or that you have to have played symphony music to know, so sorry if I'm stating the obvious, but there is no "standard" orchestral instrumentation and composers will leave in instruments they want and take out ones they don't want. In practice, this means that those musicians leave the stage for pieces they aren't needed for (or switch to another instrument) so you don't see a whole mess o' saxophonists sitting there not playing if the piece doesn't call for saxophones.

So all the instrumentalists on stage will probably play at some point during the piece, but not all of the instruments available to the symphony will be used.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:34 PM on November 17, 2014 [1 favorite]


What symphonies are you listening to where the brass, percussion, and winds all play constantly?

Sounds like my memory of Bruckner.
posted by spitbull at 4:09 PM on November 17, 2014


you don't see a whole mess o' saxophonists sitting there

Well, I mean, you kinda generally won't see a whole mess o' saxophonists sitting in a symphonic orchestra regardless . . . . .
posted by soundguy99 at 6:00 PM on November 17, 2014


If my comment about jazz seemed condescending, memebake, it merely reflects the massively condescending nature of the original post and its thesis. In order for it to make any kind of sense at all you need to assume - as it would appear to - that the vast bulk of music written in staff notation is classical.

But this is simply not the case, though it becomes the case if you take the condescending view - which I have encountered from time to time among classical players - that non-classical music written in staff notation pretty much doesn't count and can be ignored. It is not clear whether or not Bull takes the view that non-classical music printed in staff notation doesn't count, and I am not suggesting that she does. But she certainly ignores it, and that totally undermines her thesis.

Because there's reams and reams and reams of the stuff. If you want to examine the link between music notation and class you can't ignore material that is inconvenient to your thesis. Well, you can, and Bull does, but it's really condescending to do so, and liable to get a condescending reply from me.

Some examples. Without particularly trying I seem to have amassed a small personal collection of late-nineteenth century and early twentieth century popular songbooks, all of which are written in staff notation, both melody and piano arrangement. This is music hall and pub singalong material which the middle classes then would have sneered at so hard their noses would have fallen off. But someone was printing it, someone was buying it, and someone was playing it. Who? Why? How? Apparently the dots don't belong to the classical elite after all. Bull seems blissfully unaware of this. Tonic Sol-fa my butt.

And there's more. So much more. Ragtime was and is entirely disseminated in staff notation form, from before what was arguably the first 'hit' - Maple Leaf Rag - until the present day. What version of Maple Leaf Rag was the hit that sold so well it kept Scott Joplin mostly solvent for his entire life? The sheet music. The dots. And who was buying it? Who was playing it? Who was reading this stuff?

There are stories of one or two great jazz players who claimed to be unable to read staff notation but they were a) a tiny minority and b) in my opinion, probably often lying. Meanwhile, the entirety of the big band era of jazz? Arrangements in staff notation. None of it classical. Are we retroactively admitting all the big band musicians to the middle classes now? Shame we couldn't do that during their actual lifetimes.

Bull's thesis is based on either the deliberate total erasure or sheer ignorance of a massive swath of music printed in staff notation which was widely read, played and enjoyed by lower and lower middle class people for almost a century. As such, I think my reply was actually quite polite.

Oh, and rereading the OP, there's this: "Furthermore, sociological literature on parenting and class shows that it is middle-class parents who prioritise investing in their child’s future. By contrast, working-class parents are less likely to be able to afford the time or money to do this. They tend to be more likely to see the child as a fully-formed person in their own right, rather than investing in the person they are going to be.".

Bull certainly wins the My God That Was Condescending prize here.
posted by motty at 6:35 PM on November 17, 2014 [14 favorites]


soundguy99: "Well, I mean, you kinda generally won't see a whole mess o' saxophonists sitting in a symphonic orchestra regardless . . . . ."

Chose saxophone on purpose because it's not a "traditional" symphonic instrument but has been beautifully featured in the last 150 years in many very familiar pieces (Bolero, Ravel's orchestration of Pictures, Prokofiev's R&J, etc.), so they'd be more likely to be appearing/disappearing instruments at a symphony concert. Also because I like to say SAXOMOPHONE.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:47 PM on November 17, 2014 [2 favorites]


Good point.
posted by soundguy99 at 7:25 PM on November 17, 2014


I was merely referring to the tendency to let all the instruments have a go at some point during the duration of a piece.

. . . why would you pay musicians to sit on stage and not play? Everyone who's at the gig is there because their part is called for.
posted by KathrynT at 9:30 PM on November 17, 2014


This really seems like you're talking more about yourself, your musical context, and the way you perceive music, than the music itself (if there even is such a thing). I still don't really know what you mean by twee, am really unsure whether you're accurately characterizing what Schubert intended, and am not sure it would matter if you were.

Well, the score is on page 3. Just in the first two measures, I see aspects of each: a) notated tempo, b) rhythm, c) harmonization, d) melody, that signal dolce, twee, dainty, or any other similar affective descriptor.

Yes, artistic experience is subjective, and projection is a pitfall to be avoided. But there is evidence, musically as well as historically, e.g. if one reads about the composers, their letters etc., that point towards certain ways of understanding what they were doing. To point out that all this merely amounts to my interpretation is a triviality; because, interpretations are meant to be shared.

The concrete point I want to make is that dontjumplarry's example incorrectly applies to the argument that there's "non-twee classical music", because the cited passage is taken out of context of the whole music. One actually has to listen to the piece, in full, to see the musical effect.
posted by polymodus at 10:06 PM on November 17, 2014


Ah yes, the core musical affects: pathos, despair, rage, transcendence, and twee.

Throughout the history of western art music, its affective discourse has been embedded in its contemporary moment's larger ideology of musical form, style, and meaning, and of course every subsequent era's musical ideology in which it survives in the repertory. In many cases the affective signaling of sweetness, simplicity, lack of care, and other "twee" virtues was mapped directly onto larger tropes that marked non-westerners, peasants, women, and children (and for that matter Southern Europeans, a la Rousseau) as simpler, more childlike, more innocent (or barbaric, depending), more communal and less rational than the Northern European ideal (represented in the valorization of male composers as solitary, innovating culture heroes to this day). Idylls and utopias were persistent themes also in the face of surrounding conditions of constant violence and disease and a stark division of society into haves and have nots, not to mention more cultural conditions identified by Weber as the Protestant Ethic (his specific writings on music -- especially "The Rational and Social Foundations of Music") speak to these matters directly and powerfully). Western art music has been intertextual with many genres, repertoires, and traditions not marked as art throughout the centuries, from which it has drawn renewal and inspiration, but which it has also frequently deployed in stylized ways meant to be understood by contemporary audiences as citations as primitive or vernacular or dance (as opposed to concert) music or -- latterly -- as exotic, otherworldly, utopian, etc.

"Twee," in other words, is a very reductionist label for the thing it appears to identify.
posted by spitbull at 7:11 AM on November 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


I seem to have amassed a small personal collection of late-nineteenth century and early twentieth century popular songbooks, all of which are written in staff notation, both melody and piano arrangement. This is music hall and pub singalong material which the middle classes then would have sneered at so hard their noses would have fallen off. But someone was printing it, someone was buying it, and someone was playing it.

This is a great point. We're all so immersed in recordings now that we forget that the first mass/popular music industry in the US was sheet music publishing, and it did big and broad enough business that laws and institutions established around it still survive.
posted by weston at 8:10 AM on November 18, 2014 [5 favorites]


Ah yes, the core musical affects: pathos, despair, rage, transcendence, and twee.

Haha : ) Look I know the twee thing isn't popular but its just my opinion. Some people seem to get what I mean so its been interesting to deconstruct it. Thanks for your comments spitbull and polymodus and mountmccabe. I'm going to shut up about it now because its a derail and there's an ask thread about it.
posted by memebake at 9:47 AM on November 18, 2014


Thanks for your longer explanation motty, I genuinely had no idea what you meant by your short comment. Your jazz counterexample is definitely relevant, but I'm not sure it torpedoes the thesis as surely as you think. I presume sociologists rarely deal in absolutes, and so are comfortable with some gray areas. To me the argument seems to be 'around the time and place when classical music education was being formed, staff notation was predominately used by the middle classes. Some class/notation division can still be seen today'. Or perhaps the argument coiuld be taken as being one-way: staff notation does not correlate totally with middle class, but alternative notations do correlate with non-middle classes. In a short piece like the OP you can't deal comprehensively with every angle. In a (say) full length book on the subject of notation and class, yes Jazz in the USA would warrant a treatment.
posted by memebake at 2:43 PM on November 26, 2014


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