Are You a Music Snob?

by Gary Guttman · 4 comments

I was just reading a humorous debate on a music forum regarding the topic of “art music” versus “entertainment music.” I say it was “humorous” because I’m always amused by the certainty that some people have in their opinions about what the function of music should be and how it should sound.

Several of their arguments I have heard for years, such as: most pop “musicians” don’t have any significant musical training. The word “musicians” was actually put in quotes, as if to question whether people who write and perform pop music are actually musicians. Pretty incredible. This reminds me of an interview I once read with the great film composer Jerry Goldsmith. He was demeaning another film composer because that composer couldn’t read music.

Now, I actually have tremendous respect and admiration for the works of Jerry Goldsmith. But he, too, fell into the trap of placing a value judgment on a musician based on the person’s musical training.

I have read for years that Paul McCartney can’t read music. Has that affected anyone’s enjoyment of his amazing melodic gifts, vocal talents, and instrumental skills? Is Sir Paul a musician or just a “musician?” I can guarantee you that one hundred years from now, Paul McCartney’s music will be just as beloved as Jerry Goldsmith’s music (if not more so).

In the above mentioned music forum, another concept that was being argued was that “entertainment music” doesn’t make you think, whereas “art music” does. I can’t speak for anyone else, but when I want to think, I’ll read a book by Plato. I choose to listen to music in those spans of time when I don’t want to read a book. Music is, first and foremost, a sensual experience. If you require intellectual stimulation during your pleasurable moments, that only speaks to YOUR needs, no one else’s. (There is nothing wrong with those needs, but they are your needs alone).

Science has recently discovered that we don’t experience music in just one part of our brain. We experience it in receptors throughout our brain. Scientists believe that one part of the brain might experience the rhythmic elements of music, while another part of the brain is experiencing the pitch. We know from our own life experience that people’s brains assimilate the same information differently. How else could one explain people’s varying opinions on food, art and even politics? Our individual brain wiring might explain why heavily rhythmic music might appeal to some while richly melodic music might appeal to others.

So, to classify music as either “art” or “entertainment” is simply absurd. We are all wired differently and all of our choices in life reflect this. Some people are very cerebral by nature, others are much more sensual, and still others are a combination of both. Music is not a contest, and people need to resist the temptation to turn it into one. (Unless contests are THAT important to you).

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Alexandra_Covington September 28, 2009 at 2:07 pm

I used to be the “uber”-Music Snob of all time. CLASSICAL music ONLY was important to me — although I did make allowances for Broadway Show tunes and movie background music, (which was mostly on the classical style anyway.)

What changed my mind? Watching “The Partridge Family”! No kidding! In one episode, David Cassidy’s character, Keith Partridge, (a rock musician), has a super-crush on a beautiful classical musician. He even tries to write his own concerto, in the classical style. Since this is NOT where HIS talents lie, his “concerto” is the worst-sounding and composed in history. So, he goes back to his own type of music…. During the last scenes, the Partridge Family is giving a concert in the style THEY do best. In the audience, Keith’s classical-musician girlfriend is seated next to her teacher. “That music,” she says, “is SO simplistic!” “Maybe”, replies her professor. “But it MAKES PEOPLE HAPPY…AND THAT’S WHAT MUSIC IS SUPPOSED TO DO!”

I still like classical music — and Broadway Show music and movie background music. But I now see the poetry of the Beatles, the joy-in-freedom of Elvis Presley’s music, the heart and soul which is so real in Country Music, and the joyous abandon in Latin Music. And just about every other kind of music, too!
Gregorian Chant or Hip-Hop….if it makes people HAPPY, then it’s MY kind of music, now!

Gary Guttman September 28, 2009 at 10:11 pm

Hi Alexandra,

I couldn’t agree more with your conclusion. I’m very happy you’ve greatly expanded your musical horizons.

– Gary

Epichorns May 28, 2010 at 11:15 pm

For my part I can’t see how one enjoys classical music solely as a form of intellectual fulfillment… And sometimes I still have reminiscences of my former grudge against serial music, aleatoric music, stuff that appeals to the rational mind but often attempted to do so without any respect to the emotional nature of music, by doing so alienating the public and destroying classical music’s place in the popular world… But classical music is still alive and kicking, and is still used today, even if hidden behind the curtains of cinematography or other visual mediums of the kind… Perhaps because it also hits the emotions and generates gut feelings right on the spot.

It was used to generate feelings of awe in movies like Jurassic Park, feelings of love in Spiderman, feelings of despair in Empire Strikes Back. All those examples mirroring those symphonic tone poems that attempted to do the same thing in an epoch when moving pictures were still nonexistent. I wouldn’t qualify it as pure intellectual fulfillment in order to contrast that aspect with pop music, far from it!

In that sense, classical music could be as pop as one can get. My guess is that snobbery of the few in power within the classical music world contributed to its separation from the public mind.

I’d say that classical music has the potential to appeal to everyone as much as pop music. The latter uses a fusion of music with language, poetry, a sense of personality exuding from the singer’s mouth, all of which combining to generate emotions. If we take a pop tune and we remove all those parts, it would probably appeal to way less people than it would with them.

Same for classical. Maybe it does seem intellectual to the majority without the help of supportive media such as the items listed above, but it would seem that the vast majority who would usually ignore this type of music do get heavily emotionally involved when that music is supplemented with an intuitive visual and verbal medium so as to clarify its purpose, like in movies.

Hopefully one day this will be acknowledged, and then there would be balance, reconciliation, and no one would refer to “pop” music or “classical” music anymore. What a dream this would be!

Gary Guttman June 4, 2010 at 6:49 pm

Hi Epichorns,

Very thoughtful comments and well written. It always surprises me that aesthetic pleasure is not the measure by which EVERYONE determines the value of an artistic creation. And it amazes me even more that some people claim to be the authority on what is aesthetically pleasing.

Unfortunately, all of this is a function of human behavior. Some people aren’t confident enough in their own opinions and they look to others to tell them whether something is good or not. Critics make a living off of this. Now let’s look at the role of art and music appreciation classes. There is nothing wrong with learning interesting facts from these classes, and you will certainly be exposed to works of art that you normally wouldn’t be exposed to. Those are all great things. But you shouldn’t need another person to tell you what music and art you should like. Listen to music and look at art yourself. If you like it, it’s good. Period.

And as I mentioned earlier, other people feel the need to determine for you, what is good or bad music. So it’s really up to us to expose ourselves to all of the creativity that is around us, and to decide for ourselves what we like.

– Gary

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