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Hello,

 

I am studying composition at a university and one of my optative subjects is "Musical Sociology". For that subject I am writing a short paper about the accessibility of contemporary music. More specifically, I am studying the hypothesis that two elements, form and musical discourse, are more important than the musical language used in a given work in determining it's accessibility.

 

For anyone interested in helping I have, at the moment, two questions. The first is: among contemporary works written using non tonal idioms, which would you consider to be more accessible, and why? I also ask the opposite question regarding works written in a more traditional tonal idiom. Which of those « works would you consider to be less accessible, and why?

 

Thanks for the help, and sorry for any mistakes.

 

 



 

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musical discourse

 

 

 

 

First off, great topic. What do you mean by 'musical discourse'?

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To me, most important is the usage of "good old fashioned" elements of music: rhythm, melody, harmony or at least some sort of vertical organization. I generally like anything within contemporary idiom (atonality, aleatorics, clusters, sound layers) if music is active, energetic and has enough contrasts. My favourite composers of contemporary music are Olivier Messiaen, Henri Dutilleux, Marc-Andre Dalbavie, Erkki Sven Tüür, Magnus Lindberg, some works of Einojuhani Rautavaara.

I don't like composers such as John Cage, Morton Feldman, Earl Brown, Karlheinz Stockhausen because most of their compositions are static and boring.

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1.) Music which to some extent acknowledges precedent. More specifically, I think the sense of a musical 'line' is very important. Ideas and development: something must 'stick' (though not necessarily at the immediate beginning of a composition). I really do enjoy music where ideas are developed in such a remote way that the realization of relationships are an exciting moment for the listener.  

 

Another thing is that something needs to happen. Consequence. This actually doesn't occur in some of the music I enjoy, but those pieces engage me in an entirely different way. Either way, I'd expect this to be necessary for 'accessibility'. 

 

2.) Naturally, those pieces which avoid what I just described. I also think that the music which fulfills the 'Atonal horror music' stereotype fits the bill as well.

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To me, most important is the usage of "good old fashioned" elements of music: rhythm, melody, harmony or at least some sort of vertical organization. I generally like anything within contemporary idiom (atonality, aleatorics, clusters, sound layers) if music is active, energetic and has enough contrasts. My favourite composers of contemporary music are Olivier Messiaen, Henri Dutilleux, Marc-Andre Dalbavie, Erkki Sven Tüür, Magnus Lindberg, some works of Einojuhani Rautavaara.

I don't like composers such as John Cage, Morton Feldman, Earl Brown, Karlheinz Stockhausen because most of their compositions are static and boring.

 

Brown and Stockhausen.....static?  :longface:

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Brown and Stockhausen.....static?  :longface:

Pretty much in terms of tension and relaxation. Dissonance after dissonance and frequent slow tempos with some fast lines is not enough for me.

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Pretty much in terms of tension and relaxation. Dissonance after dissonance and frequent slow tempos with some fast lines is not enough for me.

Well, Brown's music is written in such a way that color and texture are at the forefront (both of which are highly varied and create drama in his music). Stockhausen approached music in so many different ways in his life, it would be silly to attempt to describe any consistent traits as specifically as you have.

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the most accessible piece of contemporary music i know of is

 

in general, experimental (first-wave modernist) music is accessible to a broad audience, while traditionally tonal music is accessible to a small audience of specialists, and second-wave modernist music is accessible to an even smaller audience of specialists. john cage is a much bigger deal than john adams, who is a much bigger deal than witold lutoslawski. etc. 

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the most accessible piece of contemporary music i know of is

 

in general, experimental (first-wave modernist) music is accessible to a broad audience, while traditionally tonal music is accessible to a small audience of specialists, and second-wave modernist music is accessible to an even smaller audience of specialists. john cage is a much bigger deal than john adams, who is a much bigger deal than witold lutoslawski. etc. 

I wouldn't say John Adams is a bigger deal than Lutoslawski. :longface:  And also: where'd you get the idea that tonal music is accessible to small audience? :facepalm: I cannot imagine Mozart having only a small number of fans.

 

The experimental music is generally considered to be accessible to intelectuals, but not everywhere in the world.

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IMO some accessible "atonal" composers would be: Bartók, Scriabin, Szymanowski, Prokofiev, Stravinsky (not the serial phase), Dutilleux...

 

I guess that's because despite not using a conventional tonal language, their musical "conception" still is loosely based on it, or they use modes and synthetic scales. They don't use all 12 tones indistinctly. They aren't diatonic, but they tend use sthings like the acoustic, whole tone or octatonic scales.

 

... form and musical discourse, are more important than the musical language used in a given work...

 

I always thought the opposite. There are many serial Darmstadt school works with perfect mathematical structures, but the human mind can't perceive those tone rows.

 

Last day I was reading this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_Constraints_on_Compositional_Systems

 

Also, a lot of minimalist works don't have much internal structure, but their simplistic harmonic language makes them very accessible to most people.

 

 

 

 



 

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the most accessible piece of contemporary music i know of is

that's my ringtone.

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And also: where'd you get the idea that tonal music is accessible to small audience? :facepalm:

 

i am obviously referring to contemporary tonal music since that's what the thread is about.

 

music based on classical principles (whether tonal or not) is primarily appreciated by the classical audience, which makes up ... 2% of all listeners, generously. experimental music is appreciated both by classical and nonclassical audiences, and is much more likely to act as an influence on pop musicians. look at Ives, Cage, Stockhausen, Penderecki, Xenakis, etc (and first-wave minimalism—Glass, Riley, Reich—which is basically part of the experimental tradition). nonclassical listeners have also heard of Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Vivaldi, Bach, Tchaikovsky, and if they're total hipsters, Debussy, whom they listen to for relaxation purposes.

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First off, thank you all for your answers.

 

I'm not sure how to define Musical Discourse, in Portuguese "discurso musical" (which I translated literaly) would be immediately understandable. Maybe, to define it as the flow of musical ideas/textures would be apropriate, but I am not sure.

 

Albert Pensive, let me give you an example (however acnowledging that this is a very subjective matter). Take "Le Marteau sans Maitre" by Boulez. Boulez uses mostly a serial language in that work. However, a diferent treatment of that language can lead to extremely diferent results. For a long time I didn't listen to the full work, because I didn't like the way it started, as the first movement is pretty chaotic (or at least it souds pretty chaotic on the first listenings, so one could say it is not really accessible). However, the second movement, is completely diferent musically, and I though it was very beautiful from the first time I listened to it. I think that the main reason for that is the rythmn. In both movements the language is serial, but the rythmns used in the second movement are a lot simpler and you can sense a pulse. So, to make it short, the language is similar, the treatment of the language is diferent, and thus, the flow of the discourse is very diferent in the two movements, and one is a lot more accessible than the other, i'd say :-)

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Thanks for the definition; actually, before you posted it I was about to post this wall of text:

 

Wow, what an interesting and complex topic!

 

Just a few thoughts...

 

I think one of the most important elements that combine to form the phenomenon we call "accessibility" is that of familiarity. The non-tonal works that seem to be the most accessible (in my mind, at least) are those that incorporate some sort of familiar element or musical structure. In the absence of tonality, some other familiar element—be it a predictable metric or rhythmic structure, a recognizable form or method of organizing the piece into sections, or even the grouping of timbres and textures to create a particular mood—helps the listener take in the non-tonal aspects of the composition without being overwhelmed by the unfamiliarity of its constituent elements. The listener then has something to “latch onto” in the event that they cannot comprehend the unfamiliar elements in a given composition.

 

I also think there are some cognitive factors that come into play here. Sometimes the mind simply cannot process everything that happens within a given piece of music.

 

Take total serialism, for example. While very deliberate in its construction, this particular style ends up falling flat for many audiences because it sounds random (much of the time); listening to the piece often reveals no immediately discernible structure in the music. Their minds cannot comprehend the music's structure, in part because 1) the musical language is so unfamiliar to those raised on the tonal language, regular meter (and predictable rhythms), and melodic continuity found in popular music and because 2) the discontinuity of the composition’s elements (lack of an easily determinable musical line, etc.) and the swiftness at which these elements are often delivered make it difficult to immediately categorize, remember, and ultimately organize into a meaningful structure.

 

…which seems to reinforce your argument about a work’s “musical discourse” being a key element of “accessibility.” However, I think form could fall under your category of musical discourse (as a familiar or easily recognizable element, which of course would depend on your audience’s past musical experiences or musical culture).
 

P.S. You probably already know this, but definitely include a definition and explanation of those terms in your paper. ;)

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'Discourse' is certianly a highly important element in a composition, not just for the structural unity it provides but for facilitating much of the engagement with the listener. As far as I can see, the most successful works of the contemporary canon are those which address the latter purpose, whilst not simply parodying the eighteenth- and nineteeth-century dramatic elements that performed this function.  Where works become weak is if other, more decorative, features overrule the discourse, or if the composer is too inexperinced or technically deficient to realise a coherant narrative. What's interesting is that this premise doesn't exclude serial, atonal, electronic works etc from being successful according to these terms, provided the composer can handle the elements and provide some subtitute for common-practice melodic and harmonic features (or else adapt them satisfactorally to the new style).  Schoenberg was very aware of this, and it shows in almost all of his early atonal output. The main mistake of the later twentieth-century composers was to presume that even a highly-developed musical ear would be able to perceive highly complex structures.

 

Essentially, art must contain drama to engage, even if this is at the most subtle level.

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Nobody listens to anything anymore. You'll just have to listen for yourself.

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I think in terms of musical discourse the minimalist and process composers are the most accessible. It is very easy to tell or feel what's going on. 

 

Now in terms of non-musical discourse, I think Schoenberg, Webern, Cage and, again, the minimalists, are the most accessible. It is in turn very easy to explain the basic principles behind most of their pieces. 

 

Less accessible tonal composers would probably be people who used complex or modified harmonies such as Wagner or Prokofiev.


 

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Now in terms of non-musical discourse

 

 

 

It's probably worth mentioning that there is very often a disconnect between perception and technique/theory. For example: most people aren't going to 'hear' the music of Webern as a bunch of permutations on a series of pitches, nor some of the music of Reich as a realignment of parts.

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It's probably worth mentioning that there is very often a disconnect between perception and technique/theory. For example: most people aren't going to 'hear' the music of Webern as a bunch of permutations on a series of pitches, nor some of the music of Reich as a realignment of parts.

This is an important distinction. When we talk about the accessibility of music are we talking about the accessibility of the music as an aural experience, or are we talking about the accessibility of the foundational theory behind the music. If we are talking about the theory side of the music, then yes, tonal music is VERY inaccessible. However, if we are simply talking about the aural experience I would argue that it is very accessible, as almost every culture that tonalism has been introduced to has accepted it in one form or another.  

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I wouldn't say John Adams is a bigger deal than Lutoslawski. :longface:  And also: where'd you get the idea that tonal music is accessible to small audience? :facepalm: I cannot imagine Mozart having only a small number of fans.

 

The experimental music is generally considered to be accessible to intelectuals, but not everywhere in the world.

 

He is bigger in America than anywhere else.

 

He's got super-star status in the composition world at my university. ahhah.

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It's probably worth mentioning that there is very often a disconnect between perception and technique/theory. For example: most people aren't going to 'hear' the music of Webern as a bunch of permutations on a series of pitches, nor some of the music of Reich as a realignment of parts.

 

In a sense there is always a disconnect. Theory purports to explain semantically what's going on musically and to occasionally use said knowledge to construct pieces. 

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Well, accessibility is dependent on sociological conditioning and what the listner can compare it too.  Here is a good example

 

Which would be more accessible Richard Strauss or Mahler to a listener only mildly acquainted with classical music? Straus probably because his orchestration has a sound that much film music has used for decades if not the past century.   Also, Strauss has written some shorter work, I forgot to mention length does determine accessibility. Even devout classical listeners that think nothing of spending six hours with Wagnerian opera is a bit uncommon - a scena, overture, or a portion fine. 

 

There is no such thing as atonal just something that does not use a commonly found scale or pitch class system.   I am not sure what is inaccessible. For those not familiar with classical music some of the songs from Peirrot are extremely difficult to get - but only some.

 

The poster's experience with the Boulez is enlightening as an interesting rhythm can cover severe weaknesses (think of what gets on the radio because as one person told me music has to have a "beat") or make palatable a very intricate design that requires multiple listening for its beauty.

 

Finally, social condition ing is huge - I recall a concert where a guy into drum and bass sitting next to me loved the loud dissonant sections of Rite of Spring and quickly fell asleep when things quieted down.

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what begat my love for contemporary music first started with old classical composers, primarily Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Smetena, Sibelius, Strauss and Mahler.

 

What changed this habit of listening to classical composers was the early music of Arvo Part. Before his tinntinubulum stage where he was writing serial music with lots of extended techniques on the instruments. It was his symphonies and cello concerto that sold me and then from there I back tracked to Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Webern, Messiaen, Takemitsu etc.

 

I remember listening to his cello concerto and just being frightened and in pain, but now I'm not afraid of it, I infact relish in it lol Elliot Carter's string quartets also have a similar effect on my psyche.

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The death of a musical tradition begins when its practitioners start to become more concerned with accessibility than authenticity.

 

In the case of the classical music tradition you're all familiar with this death started in the early 20th century when performers and critics rejected figures like Varèse, Russolo, Ives and Skalkottas in favour of figures like Rachmaninov, Puccini and Gershwin. This led to most of the audience leaving for more fertile musical pastures leaving only a small core of devotees with the unusual characteristic of being attached more to old music than new music (that would be most of you guys). Hence the demand for modern classical composers, since no one can listen to Bach and Beethoven forever (contrary to popular belief, if you were dropped on a desert island with the complete works of Bach, you would probably get scurvy and die, or be eaten by a shark or something. Your "desert island discs" should have been audiobooks like How To Build A Raft and Spear Fishing for Dummies. Moron.) but at the same time anything with more chords than Wagner is objectionable.

 

So if you want to write modern classical music you have to embrace the fact that you're making music for a museum, pieces that will be DOA and never get a chance to live and breathe and grow. I like to do this by referencing other musics in various ways, as a form of recycling some of the vast amount of music that already exists rather than contributing even more. When I want to do things that involve actual creativity, I do them in different genres. Simples.

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