Battle in Print: Each to his iPod, or great music for all?

Anca Dumitrescu

Great music, pop music: two almost self-contradictory ideas. One can only deplore this fallacious dichotomy, which sets great music, often defined as classical music, at loggerheads with pop music. It means the battle of musical genres will not occur, because the real fight is elsewhere. Music is a medium for communication and creation; at its best, great music has the power to bring us closer to the act of creation itself. Only great music, irrespective of its cultural or musical genre, can reveal the unbearable and beautiful lightness of our being in the world.

Is music universal? A not so universal question…

It is noticeable that the issue of universality in music is a very contemporary concern in today’s post-industrial societies. The question doesn’t even arise in traditional societies, which have not undergone (or at least not to a sufficient degree) processes of political and economic democratisation.  In traditional societies, music is a fact of life in the same way as neighbourhood solidarity or inter-generational care are part of a community’s customs. However, the universality of music, and especially that of classical music, seems to be a recurring debate today. Understanding why we ask the question in the first place is to already find half of the answer we are looking for.

For many centuries, Western European music was primarily associated with regions and social communities. From the Italian tarantellas played in the countryside and drinking songs sung in suburban taverns, to Rameau’s compositions for the Versailles Court - all later to be coined ‘classical music’ - each region and community produced its own distinctive music. Whether the Neapolitan peasant could understand Scarlatti’s music was not a relevant issue, as these two social classes were not meant to mingle. The economic and political transformations brought forward by the Industrial Revolution enabled a vibrant and full of appetite bourgeoisie to access what was until then mostly confined to royal courts. And classical music, especially chamber music - Schubert being a perfect example - became one of the favourite passe-temps of the bourgeoisie in its attempt to emulate the aristocracy.

In keeping with the adage that history repeats itself, the post-war democratisation that benefited the working class emulated in a striking way the post-Enlightenment emancipation of the bourgeoisie against the old aristocracy. The long-lasting influence of the social democratic critique encompassed all social activities and submitted them to the trial of mass access. Classical music did not escape the social democratic tide. Supposedly, the master crime of classical music is its elitism, its bourgeois component. But were it not for its bourgeois audience and elegant venues, would classical music be so harshly vilified?

The mass democratisation of culture, albeit laudable, has created what we call a mass diktat, which functions like a sword of Damocles over today’s politics. Our politics has become the prisoner of the equal opportunities issue, which shapes every possible debate, even in the realm of art. To preserve its social and intrinsic legitimacy, (classical) music is meant to be accessible to any individual, notwithstanding their level of knowledge, intelligence or sensitivity: it must be ‘inclusive’ and ‘accesible’. While pop music carries the demagogic aura of pandering to the people, the crime of classical music against democracy is its inherent elitism. The mass access argument, this ultimate yardstick used to assess the role of music in our society, does not question individuals themselves and their (often) insufficiently developed judgement in the musical realm. Instead, it expects music as an artistic discipline to lower its standards in order to please the anonymous citizen. This unpardonable misconception does not make music more accessible, but contributes to the impoverishment and levelling down of music itself, which has now become the pasture of the poor.

Reign of the ‘cool’ and downfall of the aesthetes: why good music should be elitist

All good music is by nature elitist. However, educational possibilities for sharpening one’s musical judgement should not be elitist, economically and culturally reserved for a social category. Educational elitism occurs when social or economic barriers are erected, which prevent individuals from acquiring and exercising a cognitive judgement about a specific subject. Practising classical music has certainly become as affordable as practising squash or skiing. If the economic barriers to classical music have been considerably lowered, cultural barriers remain deeply entrenched. Democratised though education has become, national curricula allocate little room to music compared with mathematics or literature. National curricula provide a set of technical criteria, through textual analysis and dissertations for instance, that help individuals distinguish good literature from the average. If most students will not become poets or fine connoisseurs, it is still possible to develop a basic appreciation by attending literature classes. Acquiring the technical tools to shape our mathematical or literary judgements is a painstaking and long-term process. Considering the sheer inexistence of any serious musical teaching, it would be absurd to expect individuals to fully understand classical music. Analysed through this lens, classical music is elitist in practice because educational policies do not provide students with an adequate framework for developing their aesthetic judgements.

The obsessive critique of classical music hides a deeper obsession with pop music and its overrated importance in the collective psyche. Our daily lives are infused with pseudo-relaxing cool music designed to make us happier, consume more muffins and buy more clothes. No high street fashion retailer broadcasts classical music in its stores for fear of ridicule. Comically enough, hospital waiting rooms and luxurious lounges are probably the only places where classical music is still suitable as background music - albeit often in the form of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

When compared with pop music, the charge brought against classical music is actually its lack of ‘coolness’. Rock and R&B is irremediably seen as fashionable music; attending concert halls is considered pitifully bourgeois and outdated. The iron law of ‘coolness’ implies that those who are not abiding by its rules are backward and anti-progressive. This dichotomist way of thinking, based on the ‘with us or against us’ idea, is profoundly intolerant. Between cultural imperialism and cultural elitism, I will always choose the latter, because elitism does not result in the suppression of individual freedom. Cultural imperialism, on the other hand, does not tolerate differences and poses a real threat to music, which should be the manifestation of individual freedom and creativity.

Beyond the socio-educational intricacies of the debate, the allegation of elitism in classical music deserves to be discussed at a more philosophical level. Rather than being a good reserved for a certain social class, I define elitism as the intrinsic quality of an object. The Latin ‘eligere’ means to choose, and elitism is the quality of ‘being chosen’. An object is deemed elitist if it possesses rare or exceptional qualities that others lack. Similar to rare texts, a tedious learning process needs to take place before music’s beauty can be relished. In as much as the elation from classical music requires a certain judgement that is neither obvious nor instinctive, it is elitist and rare. Yet, are these qualities sufficient to make music truly universal?

Universality and music: a three circle tale

A lullaby song, a Baka pygmy Song For Gathering Mushrooms, Schubert’s Lieder: these songs are equally called music, yet can they all reach a universal level where their particular social or cultural function becomes unimportant? And why does it matter if music is universal? Like onions, ideas are better sensed and understood when dissected. By peeling back the idea of music into three different circles we may approach the substance of music and better understand how it intermingles with the issue of universality.

At the first level, music can be read as a social system. Historical records point to the existence of music as a customary human activity. In most cases, music was the support for various social rites. In so far as its existence is intrinsically linked to the existence of human cultures, music is anthropologically universal.

The second circle, which incorporates the first one, is where music forms a cultural system. Despite being a fact of life for all human cultures, its form and features vary considerably from one culture to another, since a culture’s music is a partial reflection of how it senses its relationship with the universe. Thus, music is not universal, but relates to specific communitarian values and supports various rites (see Andy Palacio’s Garifuna music of the Caribbean). The ‘cultural thickness’ of any piece of music is particularly visible when non-educated ears are confronted with a new set of musical sounds and scales. Much more than the North Indian classical music played by the emblematic Ravi Shankar, it is the Carnatic music from Southern India that offers the best example of how music is first and foremost a cultural set. Long hours of careful listening combined with a basic learning of the raga rationale are the pre-requisites to understanding the beauty of this music. Even those musical patterns that have become wholly natural to our ears (pop music, jazz, Latin American music) are in fact musical patterns relating to a culture which we have become familiar with.

In the third circle, music rises to the level of the universal. Some pieces of music transcend the social and cultural levels and reach a more universal level, the artistic sphere. But what are the pre-conditions for music to become universal? Is pop music condemned to remain a social manifestation and collective entertainment while classical music is the unique form of universal music? What if pop music were the truly universal music, on the grounds that pleasure and entertainment are human conditions universally shared? The only criterion that matters here is not the musical genre itself, but the intrinsic quality of music, irrespective of its genre or cultural belonging. Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven does not differ in quality from other pieces of great classical music. The three-movement song, building an harmonic and rhythmic progression, uses the hard rock technique to explore in the most original way the development of a simple yet strikingly beautiful melodic theme. With its elaborated guitar harmonics, Stairway to Heaven is akin to an echoing and awe-inspiring cathedral.

The three circles in music

What is the essence of the third circle? Can all works of music achieve this spiritual and universal component? Although Ali Farka Touré‘s music is culturally richer than ABBA’s songs, they are both the expression of cultural patterns that are alive at a certain point in time (second circle). Beyond this point, only the ‘happy few’ (Stendhal) will ascend the staircase to heaven, where music becomes art. ABBA’s melodic and rhythmic patterns are catchy, but the feelings of happiness or sorrow aroused by their songs remain superficial. What I will always remember from ABBA is probably a tune and a few repetitive lyrics that come almost mechanically to my mind. On the other hand, my memory of Led Zeppelin will always carry an overwhelming feeling triggered by a singular music, which resuscitates a web of feeling and thoughts deep in our consciousness. Ali Farka Touré, Bach, Ella Fitzgerald and the Beatles have gone beyond entertainment: through their compositions or performances they have sung about the fundamental nature of our being, about love and loss and about beauty. And this is achievable only because the form used to express these feelings is original and totally mastered. Led Zeppelin’s exploration of harmony and rhythm association, Ella Fitzgerald’s instrumental use of her voice in scat singing and Bach’s unmatched contrapuntist constructions have the power to arouse essential feelings that touch upon our earthly existence. Great music not only creates but also multiplies simple human feelings into an unexpected spectrum of transcended sensations. These ‘transcended sensations’ are neither worldly concepts nor noumenons (Kant); rather they are the very passage whereby the human mind can partially contemplate the spiritual, where Truth can be approached through beauty and form perfection.

Anca Dumitrescu has a classical music background and she regularly contributes with music reviews for Culture Wars ( She began studying music as a child at the Music Academy in Romania, later emigrating to France where she graduated with a piano diploma from the Lyon Conservatoire. She then concentrated her studies on political science (most recently at the London School of Economics), worked for an international organisation, and now works in finance in London.

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