Just Because You Don’t Like It, Doesn’t Mean It’s Not Music

I can’t begin to count how many times I’ve heard a friend, in response to a piece of music or film or some other piece of art, proclaim, “It’s rubbish,” (or use much stronger language 😉 ) when actually what they mean is, “I don’t like it.”

That bugs me a bit.

Don’t get me wrong though, I’m not losing sleep over it.

“It’s Not Music”

However, what really gets my goat is when someone will simply write off a piece that doesn’t fit their specifications for tunes that they enjoy listening to by the sweeping statement: “It’s not music.” It drives me up the wall!

Objectivity vs Subjectivity

I was playing violin with an orchestra recently, and there was a Karl Jenkins piece on the programme. Now, not all of Karl’s music is my cup of tea, and he really takes the recycling of his own material to the extremes, but equally, on the other hand, there are some of his pieces which are really quite gorgeous.

But you, dear reader, are under no illusions that this is nothing but my opinion. You could hate or love all Karl Jenkins’ music and I would respect that as a subjective opinion also.

So, back to the story of the concert… one of the pieces we were playing had the exact same rhythmic pattern on the violins on the same note (and most of the time in the other strings, I think) for going on 50 bars or so: a fairly long time. A little mind-numbing to play, I must admit. Not the most fun, however the percussive effect was particularly impressive at completely apt at that point in the piece. Great fun to listen to (though that did mean I kept losing my place… must concentrate harder… but it’s soooo pretty… etc)

The young violinist sat next to me agreed on the mind-numbingness. But then continued on to designate this piece, “not music.”

I could have screamed.

“No,” I replied (as calmly as I could, blood slowly rising to boiling point).

“It’s not music. Look at it,” she said, pointing to the fifty bars of repetitiousness.

“Just because you don’t like it, and don’t enjoy playing it, doesn’t mean it’s not music,” said I. “Karl didn’t write this piece for you to enjoy playing it, it’s all about the effect.”

She just looked at me. We silently agreed to disagree. I think.

This seems to be a common attitude that I encounter most days though. There’s a pretentiousness, a condescension that’s pretty pervasive in the ‘Classical’ music world which looks upon any music that is remotely commercial as objectively ‘not music’. They are mistaking their subjective opinion on the quality of the music for an objective reality.

Just because it’s commercially viable, because it appeals to the masses, does not immediately discount such a piece as not being music! (yes, I am on the verge of pulling out my hair right now…)

It works both ways. There are some completely crazy ‘Classical’ music pieces out there written in the last hundred years or so that the average joe would be hard pressed to define as music.

Most famously, John Cage’s 4’33”, or four minutes, thirty-three seconds of silence, is one that really pushes the boundaries, forcing the audience to truly listen to surrounding, ambient, random noises in a more musical way… because that frame’s been put around these sounds with the structure given by the title of a duration, a start and a finish, so these ambient sounds become music.

Because that’s what the composer intended. He (or she) doesn’t care whether you agree or not. 😉

Music is simply organised sound in time. It doesn’t matter if you don’t like it: once it is ‘framed’ and designated as music, it is music. There’s no escaping it.

Rant over. As you were. 😉

5 Replies to “Just Because You Don’t Like It, Doesn’t Mean It’s Not Music”

  1. Is there any time when someone could say “This is bad music”? Or, if it is truly all subjective is that not a possible option? Of course we can always begin with “In my opinon” … which allows for the second half “and to me this is bad music”. That works, right? 🙂

    But can anyone declare something flat out bad?

    I’ve puzzled over this. I’ve played some music I truly dislike (I won’t say “This isn’t music”, though), and I might *guess* it won’t go very far into the future before the piece dies a quick unheard of death. Are there objective things that can allow for someone to say “This is bad”?


    Just pondering.

    Hope you don’t mind a random person jumping in here.

    1. Hi Patty! Thanks for posting.

      You’re well within your rights to say, ‘this is bad music,’ – absolutely everyone is entitled to their opinion, just as there are some kinds of music I hear and/or play and I can’t stand, I accept that there are people who think the complete opposite and would think my taste in music is appalling! 😉

      That is a subjective viewpoint, still entirely valid, but subjective nonetheless.

      My main bugbear I’m trying to get across is when someone will outrightly declare ‘this is not music’ simply because they don’t like it. Perhaps I’m arguing semantics here ;-).

  2. Saying “This is not music”, for some people, means, “In my opinion this is not music”, and maybe we have to accept that even if we disagree. I think it can be interpreted as “I don’t like this music.” Sort of like you run into an idiot of a man and say, “He is not a man.” It can’t really mean the guy isn’t male. Just more that he’s a jerk or something.

    Or maybe I’m being silly? I dunno. I’m a wishy washy sort who never wants to make an absolute statement. Well … except that last sentence was a statement, wasn’t it?!

    I’ll be following your blog now that I’ve “discovered” it. 🙂

  3. I completely take your point Heather and have known several people that have made similar comments about genres such as Hip Hop for example. Whilst it may not be my cup of tea I can still recognize that it has merit as a piece of music.

    I also relate to the part where the other violinist said the section wasn’t music- just because it was repetitive and a bit boring to play. I have worked with so many musicians that fail to take a step back and listen to the whole sound and feel that they are helping to create that goes for an orchestra or a 4 piece band. It’s all about the song/piece- not the individual parts.

    Ok- that’s my rant over! Thanks for an emotive post.

  4. I think that the “good music/bad music” is just as much of a semantic argument than whether something is music or not…I tend to view qualitative statements like that to be pretty meaningless–or at the very least they should be translated into what they really mean: “this is bad music” generally just means “this is music I don’t like.” It’s not actually objectively BAD; it cannot be, as there are no established criteria for the relative goodness or badness of music.

    On the other hand, as you say, music = organized sound in time. We have an objective definition that contains no ambiguity. We can absolutely point to what is and is not music.

    In other words, uh, I agree with both of you. Carry on…

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.