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Music Unbound - Forum







Resuscitating Art Music (NARAS Journal), John Steinmetz

Subject: Defining Art Music

In this article, John Steinmetz needs to create a working definition of his subject, "art music." He allows that this is very debatable, but for the purposes of his discussion settles on "music that you have to pay attention to" to get it. The implication is that it's harder to pay attention to these kinds of music, whereas it's more "automatic" to listen to other, more popular music.

I have a chicken-egg question: is the reason that this music takes more effort to pay attention to because of an intrinsic quality of the music itself, or because of qualities of the audience? Perhaps this music is harder to pay attention to, for most people, simply because they are not used to it. I find that music I like is very hard not to pay attention to, and that music I don't like is either hard to pay attention to, or annoying because it imposes itself on you so unrelentingly.

So, the question is really: is this truly an adequate definition of "art music" or is it really getting at "non-popular music" -- and what is the difference? Is there "art" in commercial forms of music? There's clearly a difference between muzak or some kinds of commercial music, and a program designed for live performance, but does this capture it well enough?

Personally, I think the definition certainly works in the context of John's article, but I also think that the arguments put forth there apply beyond just "art music," and that there are similarities between music of all kinds, when it comes to the problems of finding an audience in the midst of today's rigidly-categorized commercial business structure.

-- Dan Krimm
posted 4/13/96