Guest Editorial: Is Film Music Great?

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This guest editorial by composer John Graham explores some questions that arise when considering film music’s place in the arts today, and perhaps going forward.

Where Does Great Music Come From?

I bet on music written for an audience, paid for by someone else.

Arm’s length transactions, I believe, have generated the best results historically. Art-for-money has brought us Shakespeare, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Bach, Fielding, Raphael, Rembrandt, Dickens. All worked for money, whether for single patrons or a broader, paying audience. All suffered through the petty vexations of commerce: whims of patrons; popular enthusiasms; losing a coveted job to charming or “connected,” but less-able rivals; and the scramble for good players and nice venues at a reasonable cost.

A few great creators were rich, or at least were born into enough money that their financial worries were eased for some part of their lives – Richard Strauss, Alban Berg, Tolstoy. But not too many. So, while allowing for important exceptions, for the most part, the artists of the past whose work has lasted beyond their lifetimes worked for money.

This definition of money-for-music captures Beethoven, Mozart & co., but also includes Gershwin, John Williams, Waxman, Zimmer et alia, Rogers and Hart, The Beatles, Eminem, Lady Gaga, Snoop – whatever. I think there’s a reason why each of them has been called “a genius” by various composers at various times.

Sure, there’s plenty of popular rubbish out there that will not Stand The Test Of Time, but I will be very surprised if the art that does meet that test fails an essential measure:

That many people simply want to hear it (or to view it, or to read it) without being motivated by something beyond seeking diversion, curiosity about the thing itself, or “just liking” it. In other words, people take an interest not primarily because they have to write a paper on it or need a dissertation topic, and certainly not because its greatness only becomes apparent in the pages of an analytical explication, but because it gives pleasure.

The details of how great art is actually generated – how the artist zeroes in on the set of ideas, craft elements, and feelings that actually produce something personal and unique and fresh and “forward” – I think that varies but, however it comes about, I think nothing lasts in the long run without the ability to provoke the reaction, “I like it” in an intelligent but unindoctrinated audience.

Do Motivations Matter?

Despite the fact that some might consider the motivations and goals of the artists as an important measure of whether a work of art could be considered great, I am skeptical about including the artist’s motivation as an important measure. It doesn’t matter to me (except out of idle curiosity) what the purpose of the writing is, whether it’s a lofty goal or, by contrast, a desire to impress a girlfriend / boyfriend, trying to make money, escaping a soul-destroying job alternative, rivalry with other composers / band-mates, seeking everlasting greatness, or sheer vanity.

And that’s because it’s hard to discern motivation, even if one sifts through letters and other documents from an artist’s life produced contemporaneously with the work. Motivations slip easily away from view, even from the artist himself. Although seeking money almost certainly stimulated a large part of the past’s artistic output, most of the time, for most composers, the impulse to sit down and write something is hard to capture in words.

On the other side of the transaction, I don’t think it matters what the motivations are of those paying (up to a point). Teenagers wanting to dance, trying to seduce or impress someone, an impresario / producer trying to make money, or just fun. Each of these has produced great art, and each has produced a good bit of forgettable work.

So I argue that, whatever the specific notion in the artist’s or consumer’s mind at the time – the motives of the buyer and seller are so hard to pinpoint and may be so various and contradictory, that I believe focus on them obscures rather than illuminates the work itself. While it’s certainly interesting to the curious, we don’t really need to know the motivation in order to love the work, because we have the work itself, which, when it’s as dazzlingly attractive as Beethoven or Shakespeare, speaks for itself.

Where Doesn’t Great Art Come From?

These days, many papers and books are being written in academe about popular music. And from time to time in the past, music departments have included composers in residence – Schoenberg being a conspicuous example.

But even allowing for exceptions, and perhaps a growing change in mood that may eventually alter the situation, over time, in effect if not by intention, the academic world has been content to navigate almost completely unmoored from engaging the majority of paid, living composers and their work.

Some of the reasons for that are of course understandable. A large proportion of media music is artistically unambitious, for a start. In addition, the academic hot-house has always given shelter to those whose creations are interesting, if not widely understood or popular. That’s fine and that’s part of the role, as I see it, of universities.

On the other hand, if all of that work, or nearly all, requires shelter from the storm, is it because it’s all great but misunderstood? Or is it the Emperor’s new clothes, with some of those composers seeking academic harbors because they shun any risk of having their music validated or rejected by the outside world, by shepherding into channels that will expose their work only to those who are going to accept it?

Part of the relentless history of condescension (or at least neglect) of music-for-hire by the insular elite stems, I believe, from a conflation of, on the one hand, money and popularity with, on the other hand, the low-brow and bourgeois. Put differently, this line adopts the supposition that anything written for money and served to a mass audience automatically is disqualified from a “serious” musician’s consideration.

And it’s of course fair to ask whether anything that’s popular among the masses could be considered “great.”

What Do We Get from the Experts?

Whether or not, however, mass art can produce or is producing art worthy of the name, as I look around, I don’t see the world festooned with Great Art jetting forth from the academic world, or from the cartloads of art paid for by well-meaning organizations that are supporting arts that can’t support themselves (in other words, government-grant art / music / literature).

Not that there couldn’t be some great, or potentially great composers in academe; undoubtedly there are. But what audience are they getting? How many players do they get? A handful of soloists and recorded or electronic sound sources can produce some intriguing music, but it’s born amid departmental academic expectations and, often, constrained further by budget to minimal resources. In those straits, I am not sure how the natural impulse to compose can escape being mangled, or how, even if it fights through, we will ever hear of the work.

While there is certainly a lot of energy in the academic world directed at topics that formerly would have been off-limits, study of, criticism of, and research into music remains burdened by the legacy of a clutch of false premises still echoed in know-it-all circles generally:

1. That only professors or “those qualified” are able authoritatively to identify, dissect, and specify genius;

2. The popularity of a work renders it automatically suspect and reveals it to be dangerously lacking in requisite musical rigour;

3. Academics and the otherwise-degree’d are not susceptible to vogues, fads, and trendiness;

4. That great composers in the olden days – Bach etc. – were higher-minded, devoted purely to the Pursuit of Art, possessed only well-justified (if sometimes large) egos, were exempt from petty rivalries and fame-seeking, and generated Great Works unsullied by pursuit of girls, free drinks, a cushy place to work, and so on;

5. That the analyze-able elements of music – form and symmetry, or scale systems or other mathematical elements, or sociological significance – offer insight into why the pieces are enjoyable or interesting to us or, at least, make the piece “valid;” and

6. That merely emotional music / art / literature, however powerfully loved (Dickens, Tchaikovsky being two examples), while it must be tolerated, is in actual fact beneath the notice of serious academics.

And I base my case against the legacy of critics, academe and their impact on the arts not just on these arguments, but on their results, which in my opinion have been totally disastrous.

Where Has the Insular Elite Left the Arts?

So what is the result of the “insular elite” seizing the helm and steering the arts? For answer, I look to the marketplace.

How busy are concert halls? How many poetry magazines are there today? How many people, even the educated, feel free to like or dislike a work of art or a piece of music without reference to whether it’s on some “approved” list? Are scalpers charging $400 a ticket to any symphonic concerts? Does one feel susceptible to being made a fool of if one expresses dislike of, or bewilderment with, a piece of art only to learn that, say, the V&A paid millions for it because it had been approved by critics as “groundbreaking?” Does the announcement of new works of the sort championed by academics excite anticipation or, instead, a desire to flee?

I think we know the answers to all these questions. Few people, even among the educated, anticipate with pleasure new music, poetry or art, and I place the blame squarely on the Academy’s failure in leadership.

The history of this debacle goes back at least 50 years. Championing a combination of what, by around 1945 or 1950, had become a rigid and almost unassailable “canon” of Approved Old Guys, plus a more recent crop of dissertation-ready music, with its systems to analyze, structural rigour, and harmonic ideas rooted not in enjoyment but physics or some other realm of intellectual novelty, The Academy ground the fun and natural enjoyment out of new music so that by now we see the legacy in too many empty concert halls and a feverish urge, even among regular concert-goers, to hasten away from any music labeled “modern.”

How is that good for music? Hasn’t the same contempt toward popular work produced the same scorched earth seen in many of the arts? Serious poetry, to take one example, has been relegated to oblivion nearly everywhere in the West. Young people look for thoughtful art that can help them make sense of their crazy lives, and find it only at iTunes.

Meanwhile, academically-sponsored art itself seems engaged in extended seppuku, crabbed and tangled with explicit and implicit rules for art that surely throttle the natural creative impulse.

How likely is Great Art to appear from the hand of the average professor-composer suffering a full teaching load, with time to write at most a 20-40 minute piece in an entire academic year that he or she knows will be subjected to some kind of analytic scrutiny instead of just heard and liked, or not-liked? How likely is Great Art to appear from a composer-in-residence whose main obligation is to generate music that the faculty and / or the committee approving his re-appointment will prize?

My guess is not too likely.

I am not sure whether a film composer has or will overcome the shortcomings and pressure of the medium, and produce something so good that “they would not willingly let it die.” It’s very early to be sure what, in 50 or 200 years, will still be admired. But I’d bet that commerce, over time, will beat the products funded by the “difficult and dense” school of composing or The Committee To Destroy All Arts Via Committee.

Ironically, the result of decades of strenuous efforts of critics seeking to guard us from low-brow music is that the overwhelming majority of new orchestral music is produced for media, rather than the concert hall. Of all orchestral music written in the last 20 years, what proportion was written for film and TV? 90 percent? 99?

I am willing to place my bets there, in music-for-hire, rather than any Milton Babbitt or Luciano Berio or other composer whose work is so dense and difficult that it requires an instruction manual, or “historical perspective,” or decades of study to appreciate.

Who has the time? I listened at age 12 or 14 for the first time to Beethoven’s third symphony, and that was it – instant admiration, astonishment; powerful feelings of all sorts, with no study, no manual.

And while that instant recognition of something you want to hear again is naturally not the only criterion for greatness, the academics’ near-automatic rejection of such instant delight, to me, is a sure sign of a institution that has missed the forest for the trees.

Popularity is Not Enough

Lest a misunderstanding emerge, I think it important to emphasize that I don’t equate popularity with artistic merit. The one does not automatically grant the other. But, I am saying that it remains widely fashionable to assume that there can be no connection between the two, to dismiss in horror even the consideration of the artistic merits of anything that actually is popular.

Even worse, a healthy proportion of scholar-composers actively seek to offend or displease an audience, even trying to out-do each other in driving audiences up a wall. I have seen reviews chortling about how some piece made members of the audience leave, and what a success that was. A New York Times piece by an active composer repeated the now taken-for-granted saw that, without offending someone, a piece couldn’t possibly have any artistic value or be considered daring and new.

To me it is nonsense to link the two; and not merely harmless nonsense. Indeed, it has had the pernicious effect of driving ever more people away from new music.

Of course one has to acknowledge that it’s possible to write something that upsets some people but that, nevertheless, has real artistic merit. But it’s equally possible that such pieces are merely sophomoric, irritating bilge.

It may be that a great new work will offend, but offense doesn’t guarantee greatness. Just because audience members storm out does not mean one has written “Le Sacre du Printemps.”

Has the Academic Tide Turned?

Clearly, film departments at universities have grown in number and accreted a degree of respect. And even a cursory glance at the titles of books and papers reveals that academics are directing meaningful energy at popular music. Serious work appears about Wagner and Copland, to be sure, but also about James Brown and Eminem. Even heavy metal music gets attention, along with practically every area of jazz, barbershop quartet, Stephen Sondheim’s musicals – unquestionably there is meaningful energy spent on popular works nowadays.

Even so, these papers and compositions seem written for and largely consumed by peers only. In some cases, it is clear that they are stuck applying traditional yardsticks to validate the music they are examining, and that the pieces’ or composers’ quality is in those circumstances measured by the degree to which their music uses analyzable structures or techniques.

In other cases, the titles of these efforts appear to tangle the music with social or other non-musical issues. Phrases in a few titles such as, “the Musicological Skin Trade,” or “Charles Ives and Gender Ideology,” can’t help but make one wonder whether academic legitimacy, when writing about popular music, derives in those cases more from the music itself, or the reliably meaty arena of sociology.

Bolstering for academic legitimacy a popular or folk music topic with sociological issues, by implication, undercuts the legitimacy of the music itself, in my view. Moreover, it reinforces the wrong-headed predilection in academic circles for social relevance in the arts. The arts have been sold as “good for you” repeatedly. This may help when seeking more money for one’s department or funding from the government, but the arts wouldn’t be valued as they are by millions of people if their therapeutic value constituted their main purpose. Conflating art and social or other non-artistic issues gives rise to, in my view, another destructive muddle.

As a result, it is not clear whether such music is taken seriously, or is serving mainly as an as-yet-unexhausted topic for a paper or book to be read by other academics.

I have been told that Jane Austen initially wrote primarily for her family and friends, in order to entertain and divert them. Whether apocryphal or not, that desire – to entertain and divert – needs to be rehabilitated from decades of condescension and contempt if we are going to reinvigorate the concert repertoire, attract an excited new audience to concert music, and restore a positive link between music as it is actually practiced and the halls of academe.

Who knows whether any particular composer in the popular sphere is producing works that anyone will value in 100 years? What we can say, I think, is that most music which today we consider great, including that of Beethoven or Bach, was created for some fairly prosaic purpose – a church service, a feast day, an opera with a plot hastily hashed together, a concert on such and such a date. Of course, some commissions were spurred by coronations and other Great Occasions as well, but anyway, when the message came in, “we need some music” I assume it wasn’t “we need music that will Stand The Test Of Time,” but “we need music that The Guy Paying For It Will Like.”

It saddens me, both for composers and audiences, to picture the tortured, narrow channel into which composers seeking concert performances have been forced by critics and other cerebrals. Over many years, this has generated a catastrophic rupture between new music and audiences. We need to reset our criteria for selecting Important New Music so that it no longer seems explicitly to ignore anything likely to excite / interest / move / entertain or otherwise please an audience.

The scribbling tribe has for decades behaved as though determined to crush any compositional impulse that might be recognizable as something that might originally have motivated the production of composers like Bach or Beethoven. That should end.

I hope that the symptoms in academia reflect a tide that has turned decisively, and that we will therefore eventually see an embrace by concert halls of music (and poetry and art) that audiences would enthusiastically pay to experience. Imagine what, say, James Newton Howard might produce for the concert hall if he were to receive the sponsorship of someone influential in that arena?

In the mean time, I believe film and game music, for good or ill, has replaced symphonies, opera and church music – the mainstays of former times. And, if one accepts that idea, I believe that if we are to see great music written in our own time, it will be in media where we find the bulk of it.

For more information about writer John Graham, visit


  • Joseph Nicoletti Consulting/Promotion
    September 9, 2010 @ 8:46 am

    Film Music Brings the Script/actors and Setting to “LIFE”….who would even Question this!….if you have ever seen film Footage “Before” music insertion and all the Sound track work that goes into it. you would be “SHOCKED”…an you even imagine “Sta@cox.netr Wars” with out scoring/Music ?…. Joseph Nicoletti Consulting/Promotion P.o.Box 386 Laguna Beach California 92652 USA ph 949-715-7036 E-mail: musicbiz

  • Joseph Nicoletti Consulting/Promotion
    September 9, 2010 @ 8:49 am

    OOPS! not know How the bad spelling Happened..that is “Can you Imagine “Starwars” with out Music/scoring… Best regards Joseph N.

  • Joseph Nicoletti Consulting/Promotion
    September 9, 2010 @ 8:51 am

    That is Joseph Nicoletti Consulting /Promotion 386 Laguna Beach California 92652 USA ph 949-715-7036 E-mail

  • Adam West's Batman
    September 9, 2010 @ 9:26 am

    Well written. I agree with most of this, however, I disagree that the bulk of great music in our own time will be found in “media music.” Most music for media is total rubbish. I’m with you with respect to the difficulty of certain composers such as Berio, Schoenberg, Boulez and the like, and I’m a sucker for Beethoven’s 3rd as well – but most media music is just so poorly written and is so, so very boring to listen to. This is a mix, in my opinion, of composers with little to no chops composing ‘sound design with notes’ (made largely possible by the advent of electronics, giving anyone with a pulse the opportunity to “compose”) and directors/producers, sometimes a team of 10 of them, all telling the composer how to write, expecting it to sound like the most recent shitty Zimmer score, only to be washed out by horribly written pop songs and eardrum bursting sound effects.

    This is unlikely to change for several generations.

    I write a lot of music for both media and the concert stage, and believe me, the bulk of great music is still being written for the concert stage. John Williams is a dying breed and along with him the plentiful number of directors that let the composer truly soar (not that this matters a whole lot anymore as so many media composers can’t write good music even without their wings clipped).

    While I totally support commissioning “film composers,” (I fuc*in hate that term) to write for the concert stage, we as a musical community are MUCH more likely to create better music by bringing composers from the concert stage into film than the other way around. I think this Gorfaine/Schwartz package deal with the Dallas symphony is commendable, but the music produced will not be amazing, except by maybe Newton Howard who truly has chops, even though his last 10 ‘for the money’ scores would lead us to believe otherwise. I love how this Dallas Symphony project is called The Masters of Film Music but doesn’t commission a single master of the craft, save maybe Newton Howard. Gotta love agency package deals put together by shitbag agents! I long to hear JNH compose again in the style of Waterworld, or Grand Canyon, Outbreak, The Fugitive (and yes, most of his scores to Mr. Ego Shyamalan are wonderful but so few directors let composers fly anymore).

  • September 9, 2010 @ 4:09 pm

    While I think most of what you write is true, isn’t it also somewhat obvious? Throughout history, most Great Art has also Commercial Art. (I’ll bet if the true story of the Lascaux caves is ever discovered it will turn out to have been a gig for somebody.) The more salient question might be, is academic art of any value? To which I would answer, yes – with caveats. Certainly, without having to satisfy a popular audience, artists can investigate pretty esoteric areas which may not be very satisfying in and of themselves but might employ new techniques that could be useful down the line. Riemann Geometry was a mathematical oddity until Einstein used it to describe the shape of the Universe. Most musique concrete is unlistenable – but it laid the foundation for sampling. Musical R & D?

  • September 10, 2010 @ 4:59 pm

    I cannot resist jumping in despite being between meetings and not having read the piece carefully, as it clearly deserves. John’s writing is sufficiently nuanced that I fear my ‘top of the head’ remarks will have omitted the qualifiers the piece may have of some of these assertions.

    1. Correlation is not causation. Almost all great composers were white men – will you conclude maleness and whiteness essential to greatness?
    a. Since academics get awards for their music and their pay is partly tied to the production of music, the mapping of paid/unpaid, media composer/academic composer seems too loosely drawn to capture the distinction you want to make.
    b. Shakespeare and Beethoven are snazzy examples. But Beethoven was on of the first purveyors of music to the public as an enterpreneur. Where does that leave Bach and Vivaldi and the “academy of St Cecilia” and Palestrina and Gesualdo? How are you counting the patronage of the Church in the Middle Ages? Are they the equivalent to you of the government sponsored music that the NEA and academia produce? And the kings of Europe – when they hired the composers, were not those composers on a government stipend?
    Or are you folding those older systems into the private enterprise system of today, putting them on that side of the ledger.
    c. The most juvenile argument I will make, (and I hope you treat it with the disdain it deserves!) is this:
    If private money for an interested audience correlates with greatness, the poorest composers are the worst? Bartok, Kafka (I know he didn’t write) were miserably poor. Beyonce’s doing better. Therefore…

    I’ll write more later, I can hear my wofe’s footsteps coming to get me !!!

  • Mike
    September 11, 2010 @ 12:33 pm

    “In addition, the academic hot-house has always given shelter to those whose creations are interesting, if not widely understood or popular. That’s fine and that’s part of the role, as I see it, of universities”

    To some extent, but where do they draw the line? 4’33”? 4 minutes and 33 seconds of people coughing and snorting isn’t music to MY ears.

  • Mike
    September 11, 2010 @ 12:44 pm

    And I agree, I’m sure that JNH could do something great for the concert arena… At the same time, imagine what some of the concert composers could do for film if they had the stomach to learn all the technology and listen to directors telling them to take the oboe down half an octave.

    Would film composers be taken more seriously if they have put out concert music? If so, I think more would do that. Didn’t Picasso prove his skills with realism before going Cubist? Somewhere along the line, we got to a point where you can go straight to cubism (musically speaking) and you are immediately revered as a genius.

  • allie
    September 11, 2010 @ 7:51 pm

    “This is a mix, in my opinion, of composers with little to no chops composing ‘sound design with notes’ (made largely possible by the advent of electronics, giving anyone with a pulse the opportunity to “compose”)”

    I sense a little snobbery in this. what makes you think that ‘sound design with notes’ (I assume your implying that the music is ‘simpler’ (I prefer ‘minimal’ myself) with less melody, and sound production taking a bigger role) might not best fit the relationship between music and modern film. maybe a less classic style of film-making calls for a less classic and more contemporary type of film scoring.

  • Mike
    September 11, 2010 @ 11:38 pm

    Adam West’s Batman, I think your fixation with JNH is a little weird after thinking about it. I mean, out of all of the film composers, he’s the one that you long to hear do more stuff for concert setting? Really? … Out of all of them? Because if he is the only guy you think of who “truly has chops”, it makes me wonder …you know….

    And if you don’t think George Fenton is a master of the craft, think again my friend.

  • […] begins an incredible article by composer John Graham. Read it […]

  • The3rdManable
    September 16, 2010 @ 10:56 am

    The best “takeaway” from this editorial is simply that great art can come from anywhere. Those that believe, to the extreme, that “their” model for supporting the arts is “the best” is simply wrong, as no such thing as “the best” exists when it comes to the arts (either in terms of a best financial model, or a best work of art in general).

    I once had a cancer stricken alumni of my university, at deaths door and presenting his work for perhaps the final time, proclaim how thankful he was for being a part of the only real music making in this country. That without academia, we’d all be writing “songs with three chords.” That single, close minded proclamation invalidated the entire academic composer communities perspective, and nailed home just how out of touch (and deaf) many academic composers are to the great music being made outside of tall walls of the university system.

    That said, I also agree that most media music is throwaway. Infact I sustain that most art is medicore at best, no matter where it comes from. No one can predict when they sit down to write whether or not what comes out of them will stand the test of time. It just happens, or it doesn’t.

  • JImmy V
    September 18, 2010 @ 3:36 am

    Very interesting POV’s.
    I think at the end of the day a modern composer better be well rounded.
    One no longer needs a classical Comp & Theory appraoch to become engaged.
    I have years of training and various degrees and was surprised I could actually be inspired by some ideas my son came up with using Fruity Loops…!!!
    If you love music, and can generate an income, what’s more inspiring than that.?


  • Composer, lover of music
    September 18, 2010 @ 9:12 am

    There are so many things wrong with this article that it is difficult to decide where or how to begin. I guess I’ll just take a plunge! First off, about all of this “academic inner-circle insular elite” nonsense. My feeling is that Mr. Graham has either 1) never had any actual experience or interaction with an academic school of music, conservatory, or music department (which is totally okay by me!) or 2) Had an experience with one of the above that was so absolutely vile and demoralizing that it has permanently embittered him against the so-called circles of “know-it-alls.” Which would be too bad. It’s hard to tell, however, since, besides never even once addressing the main issue at stake (“Is Film Music Great?”), there is not a single concrete example throughout this lengthy and somewhat aimless diatribe. The whole thing reeks of an irrational prejudice against all things unfamiliar and seemingly “difficult.”

    What Mr. Graham so blatantly ignores, intentionally or not, is that music created by composers-professors throughout the country runs pretty much the entire aesthetic gamut and has been written for almost every conceivable purpose and ensemble (commissions, university performances, faculty-performer-friends of the composers, church choirs, films, or no particular reason whatsoever – maybe just to try something new!). Graham cites such “difficult” composers as Babbitt and Berio. Has he not heard of Joan Tower, David Lang, Kevin Puts, John Corigliano, Jennifer Higdon, Richard Danielpour, Pierre Jalbert, or other stuffy “academics” (and recent Pulitzer or Rome prizewinners)? Of course not – Mr. Graham doesn’t care to look past the very juvenile prejudice that music that “sounds weird” and is not immediately “likable”(and I could go on and on debating that very point as well) has less intrinsic value. The fallacy of such a claim is so self-evident I’ll leave it at that.

    What troubles me most about Mr. Graham’s article – and the reason for my comment – is that it is this VERY attitude (ignorant, prejudiced, dismissive) that can and will do the most damage to the art of music and to composers in all genres. I’ll leave off with a counter-anecdote to that of Mr. Graham’s:

    When I was 18 (and newly matriculated into the ivory tower!) I knew what I liked. Some rock music, some jazz, Beethoven, Chopin, Bach. Music that knew how to reach an audience, music with a strong melody or harmonic progression. Music that Stood The Test of Time. And I heard the first movement Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time and hated it. Dense, impenetrable chords with no direction! No clear differentiation of melody and accompaniment! Clearly this music existed only to stick a thumb in the face of own musical convictions and to show how much smarter, better, and “in-the-know” it was. This was confirmed by the fact that in Music Theory, taught by some tweed-coated man with credentials from other, even more elite ivory towers, we dissected the score like soulless scientists in a sterile laboratory, probably using some “instruction manual” as a guide, picking apart the mangled, disgusting mess of disagreeable tones.

    But then I heard the piece again. And at some point again. And of course with the other movements. I learned about historical reasons surrounding its composition; it’s first performance (not that this was necessary!). And I heard it again. Slowly I felt my ears becoming trained to Messiaen’s imagination. It was like the music was teaching itself to me. Its own syntax, methods of development, musical arguments. The chords sounded less like dissonances without closure, more like blankets of sonority shifting subtly, the melodies not “themes” but fragmented, mystical calls from the beyond interacting with the lush harmonic resonances as a kaleidoscope, exploring the possibilities of infinity….

    And I heard it again, and again, and again. And thank God I did.

  • globelyokel
    September 18, 2010 @ 5:50 pm

    Composer, lover of music spoke.

  • Tim
    September 24, 2010 @ 7:32 am

    @ Composer (and a few others): I think that the point he was trying to make was that too much music these days is being made to sound wierd simply for that sake alone. Not enough music is being made in order to be *enjoyed.* I personally love music that can do *both,* but not enough has been put out there on massive display for me, a general member of the public-at-large. So instead, as the author implies, I listen to Bjork, whose aesthetics are usually far from the pop standards, but after a few listens are simply addictive.

    If more of the ‘high brow’ arts could do this, they would probably be a bit more popular and exciting to more people.

    Instead, we get the aforementioned (in the comments) 4’33”.

    And John Corigliano is also an Oscar-winning film composer, on top of his other concert works. :-P (The Red Violin, Altered States)

    Give me more John Adams!

  • Ben
    September 24, 2010 @ 9:06 am

    I’ve worked in both academia and the world of TV and Film. Some observations…

    1 – When I wrote TV/Film music, I wrote *a lot* more music. Writing 80 hours a week produces a lot of music. Teaching 40 hours a week will obviously limits composing time.

    2 – The music I wrote when I was writing full time was, on average, vastly inferior to the music I wrote while teaching. The average piece I wrote for TV/film was composed on little sleep with espresso in hand. Good enough to get approved…then on to the next. I didn’t even care if I liked it. I just wanted it approved and in the show, so that I could move on to the next cue and hopefully see my girlfriend sometime this month. This didn’t make for very good music. The average piece I wrote will in academia… Well, I worked on it until I liked it. Yet another reason my academic output was smaller than my professional output.

    3 – Despite #2, the sheer quantity of music I wrote professionally meant that the top 5% was just as good as the music I wrote in academia.

    4 – The music I wrote professionally is heard by many, many people. Millions. Probably billions. The music I wrote while in academia is heard by much fewer people. Thousands.

    5 – The people listening to my “professional” music pay little attention to it. Add dialogue, sound effects, plot and general indifference… The average film-goer, TV-watcher just isn’t paying much attention to the music. The people listening to my academia music focus just on the music and are much more engaged with it when listening.


    Where will great music come from? I honestly don’t know, but I’ve heard a little great music by both professionals and academics and a lot of bad music by both professionals and academics.

    There are limitations to both forums. Academia music is limited by the fact that it has a small audience and lacks a formal distribution channel to the general public. Film music is limited by the fact that it is married to a film and rarely played on its own…and that film is rarely played after 10 years. The fate of film music is tied to the fate of the film…and that fate is generally not good.

    But… I’d argue great music arises in both places that transcends these limitations.

    Penderecki is a product of academia and his music is used in film regularly and “emulated” by film composers constantly. Holst was an academic and The Planets is obviously used and “emulated” in film all the time. The list of academic music crossing into and/or influencing film music is not short.

    Williams is obviously a great composer and his music is regularly analyzed at colleges and performed in concert halls.

    In other words, great music comes from both places. And when it does, it transcends barriers…

    Just my two cents.

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