Why does modern music sound so bad?

FLAGSTAFF, Arizona, November 19, 2001 -- I've always had trouble with contemporary "classical" or serious music. Much if not most of what has been written during the past 50-75 years or so seems at best difficult and at worst unlistenable, to my ear. For a long time, I thought it was just me -- but apparently, this is not the case.

Awhile back, a publication called Jazzletter, written and published by jazz critic Gene Lees, carried an article about the late Henry Pleasants, a music critic and, in later years, CIA spy. Pleasants was the author of a controversial book called The Agony of Modern Music, which came out in 1955.


In today's music world, one is no longer allowed to say, "This is junk -- it's not music, and you ought to be ashamed of yourself for putting it on a concert program."


Although The Agony has long since gone out of print, I got hold of a used copy -- not difficult to do, in this age of e-commerce: I surfed over to alibris.com, typed in the name of the book, and got a list of at least half a dozen copies they had in stock -- I bought the cheapest one, a paperback in good condition.

"That stuff sounds like cats in heat!"

For reasons that should be obvious, The Agony of Modern Music was one of the most controversial music books of the 1950s. The author sets out to debunk the "it's always been that way" myths about contemporary music, he blasts academic composers who perpetuate audience-alienating music, and he dissects the reasons why most modern music sounds bad, analyzing the problem in terms of "crises" of harmony, melody, and rhythm.

Pleasants examines the contemporary role of the composer in society and contrasts the present situation with the one that existed in previous centuries. Essentially, he argues that the composer has come to be seen as a genius who uses music as a way of conveying his brilliant insights to us mortals:

The composer is regarded as a source of spiritual and cultural enrichment and, as such, deserving of the encouragement and support of the less sublimely endowed. He is also assumed to know better than society what is culturally good for it. He is, thus, not only permitted, but even encouraged to write his own ticket. [...]

The result... is to separate the composer from society. In free societies he is assumed to be responsible only to his Art, as interpreted by what he calls his own artistic integrity. In totalitarian societies his special calling is recognized. He is simply held responsible to his government for the manner in which he responds to it. In neither case does a popular estimate of his value, as evidenced by popular enthusiasm for his product, carry any weight.

This state of affairs, Pleasants argues, contrasts sharply from that of earlier periods of music history, in which composers such as Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms had to sell their music for money (even if in some cases the buyers were wealthy patrons of the arts). Today, the composer gets his money from government or foundation grants -- his ability to actually sell it to the listening public is considered subordinate to his "artistic integrity."


Pleasants explains why music that sounds good is no longer taken seriously, and music that is taken seriously no longer sounds good.

Such composers write music without regard to whether or not anyone actually likes or understands it. Meanwhile, music that actually sells is considered beneath serious consideration:

[T]he popular music audience... is amply supplied with a down-to-earth music of its own which the serious composer, by definition, cannot write, and with which his own product cannot compete, if only because its down-to-earthiness has an intellectual cast neither charming nor intelligible to the popular audience. In short, the composer would like to please, but is not pleased to write what pleases society, or at least that part of society which comprises his audience. Society would like to please the composer, whom it regards as an ornament and as a comforting guarantee of cultural continuity, but it is not pleased by what he writes. The situation is tolerated only because both composer and society have been persuaded to believe that this is the way it has always been.

Society's concept of the composer-audience relationship is as distorted as the composer's. It imagines the present situation to be a replica of what has been happening for generation after generation for a century and a half -- which it isn't -- and assumes that the next generation will be listening to this music with rapture -- which it won't.

Ouch! Pleasants goes into considerable detail to document how the audience has become so alienated from the composer, and how composer and critic have developed a contempt for the idea that music should appeal to people. And he debunks the idea that great music has always been misunderstood in its own time. This mythology was spelled out in Nicolas Slonimsky's famous Lexicon of Musical Invective, which was "an anthology of critical assaults upon composers since the time of Beethoven":

The animating purpose of this book, the author tells us, "is to demonstrate that music is an art in progress, and that objections leveled at every musical innovator are all derived from the same psychological inhibition, which may be described as Non-Acceptance of the Unfamiliar."

From his own analysis of the anthology, Mr. Slonimsky even deduces a time-table for the assimilation of unfamiliar music by the public and the critics. "It takes," he says, "approximately twenty years to make an artistic curiosity out of a modernistic monstrosity, and another twenty to elevate it to a masterpiece." Elsewhere he refers to this as "the law of a forty-year lag in the integral acceptance of a modern masterpiece."

Pleasants illustrates, with many examples, that Slonimsky is wrong -- that although modern works are often misunderstood at first, the "law" of a forty-year lag between publication and acceptance is more often just an excuse for the fact that most new music is bad.

How bad is it?

The meat and potatoes of the book are three chapters describing the "crises" of harmony, melody, and rhythm. These crises are at the heart of why 20th-century music (in Pleasants's world, all of it -- in mine, only the majority) lacks appeal.

Pleasants argues that Wagnerian chromaticism was the beginning of the end for harmony, because it removed the tonal center and focus that give Western music a sense of direction. Quoting Sir George Grove, he implies that when music can no longer be said to be in a key, it loses its focus:

Keys and their relations are... postulates on which melodic, harmonic, and formal arguments were alike founded. It was by an unfailing sensitiveness to these values that composers were able to display a wealth of imaginative fancy and yet preserve a formal balance and coherence that made an extended movement an artistically proportioned whole.

The implication of this is that music that uses dissonance without any relationship to consonance "has robbed dissonance of its tonal properties of tension and suspense; and left it merely a tiresome ugliness."

Pleasants goes on to examine melody and rhythm in the same way, and arrives at the same conclusion: by throwing out the elements that originally made music coherent, modern composers have lost the ability to create music that can be understood without resorting to having it explained. He quotes Artur Honegger on the problems that gratuitous rhythmic complexity can cause:

By denying the listener a tonal frame of reference, the effort to free music of tonality left the listener incapable of harmonic participation. Similarly, the effort to free rhythm of the constraints of easily recognized patterns deprived the listener of a rhythmic frame of reference and rendered his rhythmic participation impossible. Here... we have confirmation from the thoughtful Honegger: "I myself," he wrote, "remain very skeptical about these rhythmic refinements. They have no significance except on paper. They are not felt by the listener... After a performance of Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements the players in the orchestra all remarked: 'One has no time to listen or appraise. One is too busy counting eighth notes.'

That's not music -- it's sound!

Although The Agony of Modern Music is 46 years old, it's just as topical now as it was when it first came out -- perhaps even more so, considering what's happened since 1955. A few years ago, I went to a concert of contemporary music, at which a friend of mine played some excellent piano music of his own devising (I don't remember if it was composed or improvised). Afterwards, we went out for coffee and dessert and were joined by a composer friend of his. This guy started talking about his latest compositional opus: a piece consisting of the amplified sound of a vibrating compass needle. I sat silently and nodded politely while he expounded at length about what inspired him to "write" this piece of "music," but all the while, I was thinking, "Who the heck is this guy, and how does he get off claiming to be a composer, with stuff like that? Can he write a fugue? Why did he spend four years in music school, and what, if anything, did he learn there?"

In today's music world, anything goes. Criticism is considered obsolete -- one is no longer allowed to say, "This is junk -- it's not music, and you ought to be ashamed of yourself for putting it on a concert program." This contrasts sharply with any pre-20th-century time period -- even in the early years of the 20th century, new music was subjected to brutal evaluation. When a composer wrote junk, the critics said so. Not anymore.

One problem is that these days, music gives you nothing to go on -- each piece is all new, with no reference to anything written in the past. It's as if every new book were written in a new language, so that the reader had to learn the language first, then read the book itself.

If Henry Pleasants were around to hear the amplified-compass-needle piece, I don't know if he'd be more likely to laugh or to cry -- when he wrote The Agony, at least most of the music that was coming out was still making some attempt at creative expression using conventional methods and instruments. It wasn't until more recent decades that ambient sound, random notes, and vibrating compass needles came to be considered music.

Can you C that?

I once played second trombone in a performance of an orchestral piece by Morton Feldman, in which no actual notes were written in the score. Instead, there were rectangular boxes of various lengths positioned in "high," "medium," and "low" portions of the staff. These boxes represented high, middle, and low notes, which were to be held for lengths of time represented by the length of the boxes (at least the time signature was 4/4). The actual pitches were left up to the discretion of the players -- i.e., you could play anything you wanted.

As it happened, Feldman had ended the piece with a couple of bars of brass alone. This presented an opportunity to make a musical statement -- or so the trombone section decided. "Why not end the piece on a nice C-major chord," was the thought that occurred to us. After all, the composer allowed us complete freedom to choose the pitches we wanted to play. So, in a spirit of rebellious conspiracy, we decided on our notes, then easily persuaded the trumpets to go along with us and play their own C-major triad.

Unfortunately, the horn section refused to go along with our little scheme -- they played random notes of their own choosing, so the piece ended on a C-major chord with a few "blue notes" thrown in. It was close enough to the composer's intent that I don't think anyone noticed anything funny -- the conductor appeared not to, in any case. But our idea was to say, "Hey, if the composer is going to give up any attempt to write music, he's got no beef if we decide to play some on our own!"

Erban legends

All of the above isn't to say that there is no good music being produced these days. A few years back, I attended a performance of Donald Erb's trombone concerto, with Miles Anderson as soloist. That concerto knocked my socks off -- and Erb was in attendance, so I was able to tell him in person. I've heard plenty of other good contemporary pieces, too -- the stuff is out there. Pleasants goes much too far in his broad-brush condemnation of all modern music. In doing so, he weakens his own argument; although it may be true that the wellsprings of harmony, melody, and rhythm have been thoroughly tapped, there's still room for creativity.

Pleasants appears to dislike essentially all 20th-century music -- he blasts Stravinsky, Hindemith, Shostakovich, and others who, it's hard to disagree, wrote some pretty good stuff. It may not be fair to assess the book this way -- but on the other hand, Pleasants does state in the preface, "All modern music is affected more or less by the problems under discussion, and it seemed advisable to concentrate on the problems rather than dissipate the argument by a discussion of the comparative success or lack of success of various individual composers in coping with them." At least you know where he's coming from.


As Schoenberg is said to have remarked, there's still a lot of good music left to be written in C major.

I don't buy Pleasants's argument that orchestration and the primacy of orchestral over vocal music in the 19th and 20th centuries are at the root of what's wrong with modern music. These arguments are laid out in the chapters following the ones describing the "crises" of harmony, melody, and rhythm. Pleasants argues that Beethoven was the first composer who really elevated orchestral music above vocal music, and that it's been all downhill from there. Wagner, he says, was "the last really modern serious composer... Those of his successors who have achieved genuine celebrity -- Bruckner, Mahler, Strauss, Debussy, Ravel, Sibelius, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartok, Berg, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich -- may be described as Strauss once described himself, as triflers 'who had something to say in the last chapter.'"

As an enthusiast of 19th-century and early 20th-century music, I don't buy that. Pleasants should have stuck to the "crises" of harmony, melody, and rhythm, and let it go at that. But be that as it may, the book is the best explanation I've read concerning what happened to composers, audiences, and critics in the 20th century -- and why music that sounds good is no longer taken seriously, and music that is taken seriously no longer sounds good.

As Schoenberg is supposed to have remarked, there's still a lot of good music left to be written in C major. The "great music is never appreciated in its own time" excuse is a bunch of nonsense not borne out by historical fact. Pleasants hits the nail on the head when he says that most present-day composers are "secretly aware that they cannot match or surpass their predecessors," so they perpetuate Slonimsky's myth that there has always been a time lag between the publication of a masterpiece and its appreciation by a conservative public.


While jazz musicians were abandoning listenability and ignoring their audience, "newgrass" musicians simply bypassed jazz altogether and grabbed the audience for themselves.

What is to be done, I hear you asking. Well, I can't say I know for sure. Pleasants seems to feel that jazz has (or had, in 1955) taken over the role of serious-but-listenable music in the 20th century. It would be interesting to see what he'd say today, however. One could make a pretty strong argument that over the past 30 years or so, the same thing has happened to jazz that happened to concert music earlier in the 20th century: the original fonts of inspiration were exhausted, and the "avant garde" artists abandoned their audiences, created ever more abstruse, unlistenable music, finally reaching the stage where only a few snobs and critics bother to listen to them at all.

While jazz musicians were abandoning their audience, other types of musicians simply bypassed jazz altogether, started doing something different, and grabbed the audience for themselves. In particular, the "newgrass" movement, exemplified by bluegrass-derived artists like Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer, Mike Marshall, Jerry Douglas, Joshua Bell, and others, took the ball and ran with it. While jazz became stultified and unlistenable (except, of course, for neo- and retro- artists), the bluegrass/newgrass players chose to ignore critics, categories, and record-store bin labels, and moved on. That's what creative musicians do.

"Free jazz" is jazz no one will pay you to play

Pleasants argues that you can't fool the public -- the critics can say what they like, but ticket buyers will vote with their wallets. It's no accident, he says, that they still pack the opera house for Ada and La Traviata, because those works appeal to them. In 1955, he noted that bebop and modern jazz were starting to stray from their roots -- and from the song/dance elements that made them popular in the '20s, '30s, and '40s. Again, I think he overstates the case a bit -- the heyday of jazz, as a creative art form, continued at least until the late '60s -- but you get the picture.

Applying the same principle today, it's no accident that when I attended a Bela Fleck concert a few months ago, the auditorium was bursting at the seams with enthusiastic fans. How many "free jazz" musicians draw that kind of a crowd? Meanwhile, Fleck and the newgrass guys are playing music that has just as much content as any jazz from any era. However, they see no need to turn their back on the audience and ignore the fact that music is, at the core, a means of communication. If you're not communicating with your audience -- or if you don't care whether there's an audience at all -- why bother making music in the first place?

Copyright © 2001 John J. Kafalas


Feedback?  Fire off a letter to the editor, and I'll post it on the letters page. Letters may be edited for clarity or length.


Return to the home page