Friday, 22 August 2008

Classical music and boredom

Another thing Maria and I have been talking about of late is the issue of "boringness" (for want of a better word) when it comes to music. To simplify matters, Maria, of course, is into The Smiths, whilst I listen to Mahler (the twins have yet to throw their lot in with one or the other).

Anyway, one morning (probably a 4.15am feed), we were listening to Radio 2, and I said that I found a particular song boring. It was repetitive, the lyrics were uninspired ("you" rhyming with "too" and "through", and so on), and formulaic. You knew exactly what was going to happen from the first bar.

I pointed all of this out, saying it was sending me to sleep. And Maria made an interesting point. She said that most people (who are into pop music) think that fans of classical music complain about pop because it is (a) too loud, (b) too aggressive, (c) not relaxing enough, (d) too discordant, etc. etc. In short, pop fans think that classical fans don't like pop because it's not as soothing as classical music. And, of course, a lot of classical music is marketed (on radio and on C.D.) as "relaxing," "meditative," "therapeutic," blah blah blah.

But the things that get chosen and labelled and sold as "relaxing" are often really strange: I find nothing "relaxing" (in the soothing, soporific sense of the word) for example, about the Adagio from Khachaturian's Spartacus (gosh, it's anything but relaxing), Barber's Adagio (gosh, it's harrowing), the second movement of Tchaikovsky's Pathetique (gosh, it's the Pathetique, for goodness sake, the least relaxing piece of music one can think of).

No, none of these things are conventionally relaxing, except insofar as we're told they're relaxing by marketing executives and second-rate DJs. They might be relaxing in a different sense (a cathartic sense, for example). But the point is that the popular idea of classical music as inherently relaxing ("ahh, isn't it nice?", "ahh, what wonderful music for a dinner party") is not a view shared by many of the more dedicated listeners. There is nothing relaxing in the soporific sense about Mahler, Bruckner, Tchaikovsky, Khachaturian, Beethoven, Mozart (how relaxing is the last movement of the Jupiter symphony, for goodness sake?), and so on.

So pop fans are often mistaken about why classical fans don't like certain kinds of pop songs. It's not that we find them too loud or too exciting for our feeble, sensitive dispositions. It's that we find them TOO "relaxing", boring, repetitive, dull, samey. There's no development, nothing unexpected, nothing beyond the well-established formulae, no key changes (apart from a crunching one towards the end), not enough dissonance or harmonic daring (as opposed to too much), no climaxes, no emotional intensity.

I'm only talking here, of course, about the lowest end of the pop spectrum - and there's plenty of boring classical music out there at the lower end of that spectrum. But I think Maria's right: the reasons why dedicated classical fans don't like certain kinds of pop are often mistaken and misrepresented.


Patty said...

Hi there. I landed at your blog because of the classical music reference.

I don't like music that is trite. I don't like music that is poorly written. I don't like music that is petty or so predictable (for it's time, mind you). So much of what I write, though, is subjective. Something that might make my stomach turn will enrapture someone else. But what can ya do?

Both classical and pop music, by the way, can fit my dislikes. It's more likely, though, that "classical" (in the general sense) will last longer for these ears. Pop is, for the most part, passing.

Alex said...

"Well, popular song is very useful. It provides the soundtrack to courting, to loss, to love, to doing the dishes, to various chores. It has a real utalitarian aspect. That's what I love about it, that people have been able to use the songs as the background to important moments in their lives."
[Leonard Cohen, the Word, July 2007, p. 89]