Not much that I can add here, but my answer will be long. I agree and disagree with both sides. It definitely takes more depth to understand the music we are referring to but is it better than Lady Gaga or whoever? I certainly think so, and have worked to have others see it as superior also, but why is it? In the end I think all sound that can affect emotional response is as Eric said — determined by the individual who values it. @Jesse: Classical music was never really popular.
So why has “our” music (I am trying to avoid calling it classical or instrumental, so you guys don’t criticize me) attained this level of respect and establishment? I would say it is because of intellectual consensus coming from the higher echelons (whether in wealth or education) of our society, and their influence on us. European courts — the members on average would most likely have had more wealth and better educations than the rest of their society — where the original proponents, and to this day are emulated. Also, lets not forget the even more important ecclesiastic use of music throughout history. I feel that both of these social structures put what we may now call “academic music” on a pedestal, and kept it largely away from a general audience. For better or worse, this music is scholarly music, because the complexity it has attained beyond what other western forms have, makes it hard to produce in some instances. This complexity compels composers to pick up their pen and paper (or Sibelius) in order to manage their respective form, rather than just simply jam toward an almost finished product. This seems like a lonely process. At this moment neither listener criticism, patronage, or technical demands on musicians needs to matter to the composer, therefore tempting them to break into unheard theoretical frontiers. I wouldn’t call this bad, as most of the historical music that we remember now does the same; but if I had a time machine to prove my point, I would safely bet that even during the heyday of classical music, very few actually listen to it, most likely less than now, even though we complain about the tiny concert attendance. There I’m excluding the occasional spikes in interest that’s found from time to time. I doubt you will hear a folk or street entertainer playing Bach, or a blind violinist playing Mozart as Pushkin wrote in “Mozart and Salieri” — well, maybe some Mozart. Therefore, academic music is still “elite” and “popular” music equivalent to that of the street jester, but one who is now able to reach a wider audience. What America or the World thinks of elitism is not my problem.
This theoretical complexity in academic music is most likely what creates a consensus among intellectuals such as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Sal Macchia and Bob Eisenstein (they probably never thought anyone would ever use them in the same sentence as Scalia) — and us through them or our upbringing — believe in the superiority of this kind of music over pop music. The complexity indeed makes it harder to understand and receive gratification from.
I can make an assumption that most of us who are posting on Keiths thread are in college or already hold at least a bachelors. According to the 2010 National Center for Education Statistics pie chart (http://ow.ly/4K00T), only around 30 percent of Americans have a bachelors degree or higher! Add another 9% to include those with Associate’s degrees and you still get less than half. As I always say, if you are still doing undergrad in college, you might think that most people at least get a bachelors. In reality, most of us are in college because our families are either highly educated, or value education, and being in such a minority puts us into an elite class, whether we want to be there or not. Why are we surprised when we say that our music requires depth of thought and maybe some learning but nobody seems to understand it?
Although here is where I have a problem with a lot of modern music and its composers:
1. We deify living composers uncritically, putting them with Bach and Beethoven, without having them naturally achieve recognition or withstand the test of time; only because they are “modern.” I believe this results from having been spooked by the stories we are taught in music history about how some now widely accepted masterpieces, premiered to a negative reception. Because we are told to like, or maybe actually like one composition or another, the critics at those compositions’ premiers look pigheaded and backwards. We have forgotten their arguments and they are now on the wrong side of history. We really don’t want to end up like them, do we? That’s why we take every precaution possible to accept even the worst that the world of composition has to offer — just in case. Certainly, this makes us lose something that is truly important. A critical ear towards music, I believe, creates real understanding of it. I too would have rioted at the premier of the “Rite of Spring.” The Pulcinella Suite was the direct result of my past life’s angry letter; scared that S.O.B. into Neoclassicism. .
2. There are few incentives for composers to write good music. Back in the day, there where patrons, employers, churches, theaters, and most importantly — an audience. Now, besides Hollywood and a few other things, there is no incentive for a composer to compose anything to serve a purpose other than his own self gratification. Music can both gratify the audience and the composer. The audience needs to set the bar high, the composer needs to raise his own standard and appeal to both. I am not saying that composers need to strive for Lady Gaga popularity — that would be detrimental to quality because indeed it is easier to understand simpler, formulaic or bad music — but if nobody hears the composition, or thinks it is worthwhile, it is as if it was never written (unless this composer writes on paper and it is found 100 years later for some reason). It would be similar to a professor who has researched and written but has never published.
3. Demanding or assuming that the audience holds at least a Ph.D. in Music Theory. This I think is the most important rant that I have. Many composers seem so fixated on their “mental masturbation”-like quest to break new ground in theory, they have forgotten that the goal of music — is, has been, and will always be about human emotion and experience. It’s true that the great composers contributed to theoretical developments, they nevertheless directed their music towards some purpose: sacred, emotional, etc. Was Tchaikovsky preoccupied with music theory while composing? I’m certain that he knew theory front to back but saw it only as a tool rather than an end. With the notable exception of Berlioz (whom I despise) — and I’m sure there are some composers that we have forgotten — composing music for theory’s sake seems to be a 20th century phenomenon. Indeed, it is harder to come to understand academic music, but it should be crafted so that it can be understood, at least on a basic level, through feeling — not by studying scores.
4. Finally (unless I can think of something else later), the cultural effects of the previously mentioned criticisms have, in my view, resulted in the death of humanity’s soul. Even the most educated today listen mostly to popular types of music. Even those who say they like classical music, few actually know what they are talking about and do not know how to “feel” as listeners, or even “emote” as performers. So there are people who listen to one note for half an hour and call it music. Anybody seeing this but had not been versed in the finer points of liberal political correctness would immediately call bullshit.Through our human progress, we have become “Laputians,” doing complex math and listening to the “music of the spheres,” while unable to build a house or make clothing.