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In the spirit of the late Don Andrews, Angelo does not want to make you a clone of himself—he wants you to be all you can be as an artist.

Superior Music?

In the academy and in the minds of the so-called intelligentsia, western ‘art’ music is deemed to be superior to all music, including popular musics (rock, jazz, etc…) and music from other cultures. Is this a reasonable statement? In tackling this question, one must first ask what is meant by superior, and whether the question can be answered using reasonable arguments, both truthfully and without personal, political or ‘religious’ bias. Is it superior to study classical guitar as opposed to studying jazz, blues, or children’s songs? You need to think about this because studying guitar is an investment in your life in both money and time.

Superior music: superior in what way?

One must look at the function of the music. Is the music of superior aesthetic value, economic importance, political influence, cultural value, or moral value? Does the music have superior lasting value; i.e. will the music be played 200 years from its composition or creation? Does the music require greater skill from the performer in the presentation of this music, thus making it superior? Is there greater value in its musicological study? These are questions that I have struggled with as a performer of classical guitar, as well as Jazz, Blues, Gospel, and children’s music. In this article I will discuss aesthetic value and the economic importance of music. I will explain some ways in which the music industry is providing revenue to the government, which in turn, subsidizes the musical activities of minority cultural groups, including composers and performers of Western Art Music (WAM).


All people are biased by what they believe. This is the case in all fields of study, including musicology. What one believes about other people determines the measure of respect he or she will have of him and his music. “Belief refers to more than simply what someone believes to be true. It refers to the knowledge system about the world…which arises from a set of principles believed to be true” (Walker, 1990, p.16).
The origin of humans has been a heavily debated subject for many years. Whether one believes that “early man…was quite unaware, as he stamped on the ground or slapped his body, that in his actions were the seeds of the earliest instruments” (Sachs, 1940, p. 25) will bias his view of the music of other cultures. Some of the extreme Darwinists have cited folk music as “containing evidence of Darwinian evolutionary progress toward the more “perfect” diatonic Western scale system since the incipient diatonic intervals could be “observed” in “primitive” music” (Walker, 1990, p.15). Curt Sachs (1943) states:

I feel embarrassed to write down such a truism; but unfortunately it is necessary to lay stress on the plain truth that the singsongs of the Pygmies and Pygmoids stands infinitely closer to the beginnings of music than Beethoven’s symphonies and Schubert’s lieder (p. 19).

It is obvious that these people actually believe that music produced by those of a less technologically dominant society to be inferior on an evolutionary basis to western music, which is in turn founded on their initial beliefs in the origins of humankind.
Another example of bias is shown by the claims of Babbit and Boulez and the actions of the avant-garde lobby within the higher education system.

Babbitt’s claim that music will cease to exist if the academic music is not publicly subsidized rests on an extraordinary assumption: that there is really no other music. Boulez’s argument acknowledges the existence of other artifacts parading as music, though he summarily dismisses them as commercial. (McClary, 1989, P. 63).

McClary also states:

American popular music, when taught at all in music departments is usually presented as part of “ethnomusicology-the culture of the “primitive”….More often such music is left for American Studies or sociology departments to deal with on the grounds that it isn’t really music at all (ibid. p. 67).

Music apart from WAM never gets into the race as it is a non starter to begin with.

Other types of bias are set by the way the music’s value is measured. An Artist and Repertoire (A&R) manager of a record company will find that music that keeps him employed is far superior to music that is not successful but only costs his company money (Simpson & Seeger, 1994).

Superior Aesthetic Value

“There are enough kinds of good music to suit every taste, fill every need, match every mood….All of it is valid as long as it gives us satisfaction and pleasure” (Haas, 1984, p. 3). Simon Frith, a rock critic, poses the question:

Can it really be the case that my pleasure in a song by the group Abba carries the same aesthetic weight as someone else’s pleasure in Mozart? Even to pose such a question is to invite ridicule – either I seek to reduce the ‘transcendent’ Mozart to Abba’s commercially determined level, or else I elevate Abba’s music beyond any significance it can carry….[However, ] Abba’s value is no more (and no less) bound up with an experience of transcendence than Mozart’s; the meaning of Mozart is no less (and no more) explicable in terms of social force….The question facing sociologists and aestheticians is the same: how do we make musical value judgments?( 1987, p. 134)

I recall an instance where I invited a good friend, and an excellent blues guitarist, to sit with me and listen to J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 4. We were both serious listeners of “Blues” music for many years. He was totally unmoved by the concerto while I was in rapture. He believed the music had no “feeling” while I believed the opposite. Who is right?

In a concert I attended, Friedrich Gauwerky performed R. Barrett’s Ne Songe Plus A Fuir for amplified cello. I was very disturbed by the work. I felt ill for days and felt that my ears had been poisoned, which resulted in my failing an aural test at university that afternoon. Colleagues of mine who were familiar with avant-garde music found the music interesting.

When I would play guitar for my family in Sydney, they did not enjoy any of the music I played. However when I would play on the harmonica, they would listen and enjoy. I was invited to play at weddings and feasts, but never on the guitar. However, in Newcastle, I am often invited to play classical guitar at functions and parties. Both of these occasions were for the pure pleasure of listening to music. Which of the two types of music I played was of greater aesthetic worth?

Haas (1984) states

I find it difficult to be a lover of good music and, at the same time, to tolerate that deterrent to true musical enjoyment known as “background music.”…This wall-to-wall intrusion is designed with the questionable purpose of making us feel “pleasant.” In theory I suppose there is really nothing wrong with “background music,” and many people actually enjoy it. However, the problem is that this constantly bland, innocuous music becomes habit-forming and can adversely affect our capacity to listen to what I like to call “foreground-music” (p. 6)

I have found that people who enjoy listening to any kind of music actually make it a part of their life; meaning that they actually live with the music. Walker (1990) states “The general problem in music thus hinges on the difficulties experienced by the outsider attempting to decode communications that are known by the insider – someone who has grown up with the system” (p. 13) It is possible the reason the academy believes WAM is aesthetically superior to other musics, in the same way all cultures believe their music is aesthetically superior to other musics, is that they avoid listening to, or rather “living” any other music, thus making it unlikely they would understand the meaning of that music.

Economic Importance

‘Persons of high degree who patronize music,’ said Kuhnau, ‘do so for reasons of state, in order to distract the people and prevent them from looking into their cards.’ But these were no principles to attract Montiverdi, Bach or Haydn. If the motives of patronage could be interpreted in so Machiavellian spirit, what induced the greatest of composers to seek service in such courts? Money, of course, features prominently (Hogwood, 1977, pp. 9-10).

One cannot ignore the economic importance of music. “The [Australian] music industry currently employs 80,000 people, generates approximately $110 million in export earnings and is worth over $2 billion to the Australian economy….In jazz, classical, folk and multi-cultural styles of music,…[the] activities are often subsidized by the government” (AUSMUSIC & Hawkes, 1993, p. 7).
Music travels from the artist (provider) to the audience (consumer) in many ways, including concerts, records, printed music, motion pictures, television commercials and radio. Employment is found in the recording industry, live performance, music publishing, the media, advertising, computer software, retail, instrument manufacture, teaching, theatre, health and local government. WAM holds only 5% of the market in Australia, where Rock music holds 43% of the market with Pop coming in second at 17% (AUSMUSIC & Hawkes, 1993).
Records, particularly the long play album, made classical music and opera, which were previously an exclusive hobby, available to the general public.

It [opera] was threatened with near extinction at one time because of the cost of mounting performances….Records meant that virtually anyone could own a complete opera – and play it in their own home. The most recorded orchestral work – Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”- was an obscure and almost lost piece of music before an American chamber orchestra recorded it (Simpson & Seeger, 1994, p. 213).

Record companies are often criticized as being adulterate and concerned only for money, as their commodity (music) is regarded as something cultural. “Criticism of the profit motive ultimately misses the point. If they are to survive, the record companies…have to generate sufficient profit from their activities to meet running costs and have enough left over to re-invest in artists and recordings” (Simpson & Seeger, 1994, pp. 222-223).
One particularly interesting amalgamation of commerce with music is in the advertising industry.

It is generally accepted that this sector of the industry was born on New Years Eve 1928 when a local Minnesota radio station broadcast a little song asking “Have You Tried Wheaties?”…Many composers make their entire living (and a very good living too) writing jingles for radio and television advertisements and other corporate promotions. Others find that songs they have already released on record can enjoy a whole new financial life if they get used in an advertising commercial (Simpson & Seeger, 1994, p. 417).

In effect, the advertisement becomes the medium by which the composer’s music is heard.

Self proclaimed “serious” musicians often make a great deal of the artificial demand created by means of advertisement and image manipulation. But an interesting irony here is that much of the university curriculum is devoted to a usually futile attempt at instilling a very artificial demand for academic music (McClary, 1989,p. 68).

Simpson & Seeger (1994) point out “Quirky gimmicks may get you noticed, but in the end, it is the quality of your music that determines long term success” (p.19).


People in the music industry, including Agents, Artist and Repertoire in record companies, Personal Managers, and Professional Managers in publishing companies are all in a position to make judgments about music. They are biased by what they believe in the same way academics are biased by what they themselves believe. Aesthetic value is purely biased on personal preference and bias. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is an old but true proverb. As for economic value, that also depends on your political views; whether your are an extreme left, wanting to destroy the capitalist system; or an extreme right, wanting to eliminate the minority groups from draining vital resources and energy for the benefit of only themselves. The answer cannot be made truthfully and without personal or political bias; and that result was influenced by my beliefs and bias. So in the end, you choose for yourself why you want to play a particular style of music and don’t let anybody cut you down. At the same time, however, don’t expect everyone to agree with you.


AUSMUSIC & Hawkes, J. (1993). A summary of the music industry, career pathways and courses currently available in music. In Music business management short course: resource book. Melbourne: AUSMUSIC

Frith, S. (1987). Towards an aesthetic of popular music. In R. Leppert & S. McClary (Eds.), Music and society: the politics of composition, performance and reception (pp. 133-149). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Haas, K. (1984). Inside music (2nd ed.). Sydney: Pan Macmillan.

McClary, S. (1989, Spring ). Terminal prestige: The case of the avant-garde music composition. Cultural Critique 57-81.

Sachs, C. (1940). The history of musical instruments. New York: J. M. Dent & Sons

Sachs, C. (1943). The rise of music in the ancient world east and west. New York: W. W. Noton & Company Inc.

Simpson, S. , & Seeger, C. (1994). Music business. Sydney: Warner Bros. Music.

Walker, R. (1990). Musical beliefs: psycoacoustic, mythical, and educational perspectives. New York: Teachers College Press.

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