Who Needs Classical Music? Cultural Choice and Musical Value

By Julian Johnson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1.
MUSICAL VALUES

A MATTER OF TASTE?

Perhaps nothing seems more futile than a dispute about music. To argue about the relative merits of different pieces of music appears as fatuous as arguing about the superiority of spring over autumn, or of red over blue. Common sense suggests that we should instead celebrate the differences and concede that individual preferences are never anything more than “a matter of taste. ” And indeed, the circular and vacuous nature of most arguments about music offers ample reason to avoid them.

Yet we do make such comparisons all the time. Our own musical preferences are shaped by judgments that, however unexpressed, impart greater value to some music than to other music. To consider some music “good” implies the possibility that other music might be less good, or even bad. Some people insist that their judgment is entirely personal and has no claim on anyone else, but others feel that their judgment has a wider validity, that some music simply is good and that its quality is more than a matter of individual opinion.

Whichever position we adopt, we make a similar assumption: that judgments about music are concerned with its quality and that its quality is related to its value. The more we value music, the more likely we are to defend its qualities against the opinion of others. And the more passionately we feel about the music we value, the more we feel that we are right and that our judgment is somehow objectively true, regardless of other people's opinions. But to voice such an opinion and to become involved in a dispute about musical quality proves to be frustrating and circular. The argument is irresolvable because, in the absence of any objective criteria, we either fall back on the subjective claims of “taste” and agree to differ or make ourselves ridiculous by stubbornly reasserting our own position.

Our frustration is deep-seated. It arises because music is not a purely personal matter: it is a shared, communal matter, even when we enjoy it alone. Music is communal property, made and played as a shared activity

-10-

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Who Needs Classical Music? Cultural Choice and Musical Value
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Acknowledgments *
  • Contents *
  • Who Needs Classical Music? 1
  • Introduction 3
  • Chapter 1 - Musical Values 10
  • Chapter 2 - Uses and Abuses 33
  • Chapter 3 - Music as Art 51
  • Chapter 4 - Understanding Music 72
  • Chapter 5 - The Old, the New, and the Contemporary 91
  • Chapter 6 - Cultural Choices 111
  • Bibliography 131
  • Index 133
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