Is there really such a thing as bad taste in music?
Even if it isn’t it opens up an interesting set of questions; is there really such a thing as bad music? And, if there is, what kind of criteria do you judge the music by to deem it unacceptable? Is occidental “classical” music really the “pinnacle” of music as some proponents suggest? Or is there really no way to objectively decide? Let’s see how classical measures up to other types of music, and if we can come to some conclusion about whether or not it is fair to hold other genres to the same strict standards.
Compared to the Carnatic music of southern India, our classical music it extremely wanting in melodic complexity. In general (not counting the modes as different scales) only four scales are really used in traditional classical music, the major and three flavors of minor (natural, harmonic and melodic). As you go forward in time toward more modern music, you start to see other constructed scales such as the whole-tone scale and the “octatonic“ scale leading all the way to the emancipation of dissonance with the full use of chromaticism from such composers as Schönberg and the rest of the Second Vienesse School. If measures of complexity equal “good” (which they don’t) than surely buy pure number of scales Carnatic music exponentially better than western music. The Mēḷakarta system in southern India contains seventy-two(!) different parent scales. Contained within their scale scheme are all of the of the seven tone scales seen in the occidental system as well as every other combination possible without changing the interval between the tonic and the dominant. These scales provide the foundation for other Janya (derived) raga which could be seven, six, five or four notes, different ascending and descending, more than one octave, etc. Granted, the chromatic scale contains every possible note within the 12T equal-temperament tuning system, and in-fact, one could argue that different pitch set-classes could be made to mimic all of the Mēḷakarta possible, but we are talking about a system of melody that has been around for almost 500 years. But does all of this make Carnatic music inherently better than western music?
What about rhythm? Western music after the turn of the century (into the 20th century, old habits die hard) definitely took a turn toward a more complex rhythmic structure. Of course there were composers before then that experimented, like Telemann’s “Gulliver’s Travels” suite (although it was done as satire) which has parts in 3/32 or 24/1 or Bach in the 26th variation from his Goldberg Variations has 18/16 in one hand versus ¾ in the other, or even mensuration canons from the renaissance. But how does that compare to the rest of the world? If one was looking for part of the planet where rhythmic complexity is the most advanced, one would be hard pressed to find a better candidate than Africa. One of the main aspects of African music is the concept of cross-rhythms or hemiola, the simplest of which is the ratio of 2:3. Think of a measure of ¾, the measure could be divided into three equal beats of a quarter each, or two equal parts of a dotted-quarter each. If you play them together you get a rhythmic ratio of 2:3, sometimes called the tresillo in Afro-Cuban music. This specific rhythmic seed I find particularly intriguing.
The ratio of 2:3 is also of extreme importance to the harmony of western music, being the interval of a fifth it is the foundation upon which the bulk of occidental music is built.
But back to rhythm. There is a clear African influence in American pop music, most notably in Jazz as well as in the Caribbean and the aforementioned Afro-Cuban. African rhythms provided a level of complexity and syncopation that little to no Classical music could provide. Near the middle of the twentieth-century minimalist composers such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich experimented with other rhythmic ideas such as additive rhythms and phasing. Other composers like Stockhausen experimented with extreme time signatures like 34/8, 42/8, 87/8, 142/8 seen in his Klavierstück IX. Things got ridiculous with the involvement of electronic and electro-acoustic instruments. Henry Cowell and Léon Theremin came together to created what could be called the first electronic drum machine, the Rhythmicon, capable of playing patterns derived from the harmonic series, including the 2:3 ratio that we began with. Other pieces written for electronic or mechanical instruments included timings that could, theoretically, be impossible to play like Nancarrow’s “Study for Player Piano” which has the craziest time signature I have ever seen:
I am going to be honest. I have no idea how you would ever count that.
With the invention of electronic instruments a renaissance of timbre ensued. With control over and modulation of every aspect of a sound, from waveforms, attack, decay, sustain, release, and filters, timbres never before possible can be coaxed out of wood and wire to create unique mosaics of tone. With traditional instruments the color gamut can be somewhat… limiting. Beautiful sounds have no doubt been pulled from acoustic instruments for generations, but none offer the absolute absolute authority over the whole of it as electronics. Composers such as Penderecki in his “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima” comes to mind as an impressive example of creating a soundscape of novel ideas using traditional instruments, in this case strings only. When listening to the piece one can’t help but be reminded of the horrors of war. Traditional uses of the instruments lend themselves to traditional sounds. Even established techniques can have new life breathed into them with the addition of electronics. From simple piezo-electric or magnetic pickups connected to a amplifier either directly or with the addition of effects units or through more complicated programs like MAX/MSP or Pure Data, new doors of color can be opened. The electronic techniques employed today is like turning up the saturation on a photo, but that is not always a good thing, sometimes the best picture is in black and white.
Most successful compositions employ some sort of form or another. Traditional structures like the Sonata Allegro or Rondo have been staples of the art form for years, all the while adapting and evolving to meet the needs and tastes of the times. Many dance forms, for example, changed dramatically over time as dances fell out of fashion and gave way to purely concertized forms sometimes unrecognizable from how they began. Back to the twentieth century. Composers like Belá Bartók made it a point to experiment with form. The first movement of his “Music for String Instruments, Percussion and Celeste” is a mirror image of itself but compressed around the axis of symmetry. Forms like the “blues” became mutated into standard jazz forms which in turn influenced other rock and pop forms. Extreme examples of manipulation of forms also showed up in various pop genres. Bands like Queen famously went against the established norms of the basic “verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, chorus” song structure.
As complex as a pop song gets it rarely strays from what is called a homophonic texture, that is to say a melody with accompaniment. Classical music ostensibly has the market cornered on texture. The rich polyphony of melodies and counter-melodies wrapped in the blanket of harmony is as complex as it can get. Throughout history the west has explored a multitude of different textures, monophonic, polyphonic, homophonic, all have extensive examples in the omnibus of classical music. One texture that, not until recently, has not been thoroughly investigated is heterophonic. The heterophonic texture is strange, it involves two or more voices performing the same melody with variations. At first glance it might not seem too different than polyphony, but whereas polyphony is two independent voices, heterophony is a symbiotic relationship. Interestingly enough, heterophony is widely used in many non-western musics, from Arabic classical music to the orient. As interest in other cultures grew in Europe, so too did the use of that particular texture in European music. Examples of heterophony can be found from composers that were particularly influenced by non-traditional influences, like Debussy or Stravinsky.
But with the larger texture that naturally came with the polyphony of the west came its most unique feature: harmony. Simple drones accompanying a melody are frequent in music around the world, it is even a staple of the previously mentioned Carnatic Indian Classical Music. But no other culture has cultivated a sense of harmonic movement like the Europeans. I could try to list examples of the use of harmony with greater impact than western music but I don’t think I can. If searching for the summit of harmonic achievement can one climb higher than the ranks of Wagner or Scriabin? (Full disclosure, I am not counting the use of atonal harmony, since the whole idea behind it was to circumvent harmonic language.) Even the popular music of today, having budded from the same musical family tree as classical, has regressed to a simpler vocabulary, focusing mainly on simple chords with the occasional extension.
But how does all of this comparing and contrasting and ranting have anything to do with my starting question? My point is you cant judge in a vacuum. Every kind of music has things it does better, and things it does worse than other kinds of music, which leads me to the most important aspect of music: context.
It might be controversial but I believe context is the single most important part of music; what is it for and does it do its job representing what it should? See not every piece of music has to be a masterpiece, expertly crafted and executed flawlessly. Not every song is going to make you think, make you cry, make you question the very existential nature of life itself. Sometimes all you want to do is dance, and that’s ok. Music is first and foremost an art about expression, sometimes emotions are complex, sometimes they are the simplest thing in the world. You cannot adhere bubblegum pop to the same standards you would a Beethoven symphony, just as you wouldn’t judge Citizen Kane the same way you would Pokémon. Sometimes you want something that takes thought and understanding to fully appreciate, and sometimes all you want to do is stare at the pretty colors.