What we call ‘music’

4th January 2013 | Musings, Teaching | 8 comments

Melvyn Bragg’s excellent Radio 4 Series on ‘culture’ has been a thought-provoking companion every morning this week. Various guests on the programme, talking about ‘high art’, have commented that older forms of music have been overtaken and overshadowed by the vast popularity of pop. While some speakers have advised that the treasury of classical music should be celebrated, others have suggested (sometimes sadly) that its day is past, that it is fading from cultural relevance, and will inevitably fade even faster once UK schools drop music as a core subject. One speaker in today’s round table discussion even used the word ‘invalidated’, which drew a soft moan of protest from the studio audience.

As if to underline the point, at the New Year many newspapers, radio and TV  programmes produced guides to the music to look out for in 2013. In many cases, this didn’t include classical music at all. Pages and pages were devoted to pop, and some of the showiest features were about performers who have come from nowhere in a very short time, often with very little training.  ‘Music’ now usually means just pop, whereas ‘classical music’ is identified as a sub-genre and confined to its own little section at the end. As a classical musician I find it unbelievably spooky and depressing that ‘music’ is now used by a whole raft of editors as a term which excludes classical music. It feels like a form of linguistic manipulation designed to shunt us to the margins. Since when were we not ‘music’?

The situation is much worse with music than with other kinds of art. You never open a newspaper to find that ‘theatre’ now means only ‘plays written last year’ and that there is a mere half-page at the back in which several hundred years of ‘old theatre’ are given a token nod. The visual arts, keen as they are on novelty, never forget older artists whose ideas are still inspiring today.

It’s only in music where there is such media prejudice against ‘old  music’. And it’s only in the pop world, a commercial enterprise like no other, that people can rise without trace and be celebrities five minutes later.


  1. peter

    Sadly, I think this is part of a general trend in modern society against expertise. Anyone can write what they like on Wikipedia, for example, except actual experts on a subject, since the rules prohibit people quoting their own work.

  2. James B

    May I add one more sentence? What about: … and forgotten five minutes after that!

  3. James B

    I don’t want to sound insipidly sweet, Susan, but I have just been listening to your recording of the Mozart Piano Concerti arranged for chamber ensemble and I really do believe that it’s one of the (italics on ‘the’) great recordings of the modern day. I don’t remember its original release or whether it received many mentions in the press, but it is truly magnificent.

  4. Jimmy Altham

    I don’t think the outlook for classical music is quite that bad. There is a lot of activity that gets little publicity. There are many many children across the world who are learning instruments and playing serious music from Bach onwards. Some of them keep it up as adult amateurs. The choral tradition still flourishes in our chapels and cathedrals. Opera is followed avidly, and Bayreuth remains a much frequented and hallowed shrine. The Proms, the Wigmore Hall, etc continue to draw audiences. Many will continue to hunger for music that is richer and deeper than what they can find in pop. Pop may be the food of sex, but REAL MUSIC is the food of love.

    • Susan Tomes

      You’re right, of course, there is a huge amount of musical activity going on, both at amateur and professional level. But if you picked up on a note of sadness in what I wrote, I think that’s because it sometimes feels difficult to be a classical musician in a world which is so obsessed with other kinds of music. It maybe feels different to be a practitioner as opposed to a listener.

  5. Rob4

    No, it’s pretty boring as a listener too. Someone else made this comment on your blog in the past, that a love of classical music in 2013 is the love that dare not speak its name! Mention the fact, while in the pub, that you’ve been loving Ian Bostridge’s recording of the Schwanengesang and you’ll be laughed at as a pretentious twit. However, at the Barbican last week, in a concert of the most inaccessible modern ‘classical’ music by the LA Phil, there was barely a seat empty.

  6. Rob

    Of course it is entirely possible I am a pretentious twit, but that’s not the point…


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