Some thoughts on classical vs. popular music from pianist Peter Donohoe

The pianist Peter Donohoe recently posted an interesting piece of text on social media, in response to a question posed on Quora: ‘Is classical music truly “superior” to the popular music of any era? And, if so, why is it?’. There has been many a debate within musicological circles on this issue, not least as relate to the shaping of curricula for music education. In Anglophone musicology, it is very rare to find many scholars who would argue for any primary importance for classical music, with the result often being that it is becoming increasingly marginalised in a good deal of institutions. Those who have read this blog will know this is not a situation I favour, and have posted various things relating to the subject: see for example this set of responses to a radio talk given by Simon Zagorski-Thomas on a related subject, also another set of responses to an article by Stella Duffy on the arts, elitism and community (and this follow-up), not to mention the debate on teaching musical notation in schools following an article by Charlotte C. Gill. I have also posted some related articles on musical canons, and this on deskilling in musical education.

The dominant ideologies within academia are by no means necessarily shared more widely in the musical world – indeed can be quite antagonistic. I believe it is very important to encourage a wider discourse, involving many who care about music, on these subjects, and so with permission I am posting Donohoe’s text here, and also part of a response of my own drawing on a paper I gave on a few occasions in 2018 in musicological populism.

I welcome further responses from any angle (but would request that people refrain from any personalised insults or abuse towards others, and just address the arguments).


The following is Donohoe’s response:

This is a reply to recent tweet asking me my opinion of this: The tweeter in question asks: ‘Could it just be an era thing?’

It is only related to the era in that the determination with which the mediocre seeks to defeat the excellent is gaining ground.

However good pop music is – I include all the other brackets such as rock, country, blues, etc – by the side of the best classical music, it is always primarily commercialised, it is always primarily aimed at a majority audience, it is always the product of less skill on the part of both performer and listener, and it is always short-lived – even 40 years, as in the lasting effect of The Beatles is nothing compared to the greatest classical music. Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, and The Beatles were all fantastic in their field, but not in the same field as the best classical music.

By what authority or standard of measurement is Jimi Hendrix the equal of Franz Liszt? The question also applies all the other absurd claims made in this piece. Dylan’s lyrics are more complex and deeper than the libretto of Mozart’s operas? The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds as complex as a Haydn string quartet? The Beatles were every bit as ground-breaking as Beethoven. Give me a break – this is utter twaddle and has no basis in analysis. And who said greatness equates to complexity?

Pop music does not need to be taught as it is at its best a reactive protest against the status quo – in which case if it becomes part of the status quo it has no function – and at its worst it has considerably less content than most nursery rhymes, no harmonic grammar, no sense of shape, form and no skill. That it can be better than that is undoubtedly true, and I have a deep affection for certain pieces of pop music from across the years of my life, but to suggest that it equates to the best classical music is ridiculous, pretentious, and to my mind makes a mockery of popular culture, and its position in society.


The following is part of my response:

The arguments above about popular music being commercialised (with which I agree) would certainly make a significant body of musicologists unhappy, and they try to deny, that there is any real alternative. For example:

‘Although we live in a commercially dominated culture, the music industry, despite its many faults, more closely approaches a meritocracy and offers opportunities to a wider spectrum of artists than any other form of support – certainly more than the patronage systems of old. Music by women can continue to flourish in the public sphere, but only so long as it manages to sell tickets and recordings: the unexpected success of the Lilth Fair concerts, featuring exclusively female artists, confirmed not only the artistry of the participating musicians but also the willingness of a mass audience to support their efforts.’

Susan McClary, ‘Women and Music on the Verge of the New Millenium’, Signs, vol. 25, no. 4 (Summer 2000), pp. 1285-6.


‘…the condemnation of fusion for its commercial success drastically underestimates the vitality, subtlety, and expressiveness of the pop traditions that influenced David. It is nothing more than an antipopulist chauvinism that turns from the unacceptable view that “what sells is good” to the opposite and likewise unacceptable view that “what sells must be bad.”

And finally the contrast of commercial fusion with noncommercial earlier jazz amounts to elitism pure and simple, to a snobbish distortion of history by jazz purists attempting to insulate their cherished classics from the messy marketplace in which culture has always been negotiated. Those who advocate such a view should reread Ralph Ellison’s review of Blues People, where he reminded Baraka that even Bird and the other early boppers, the ne plus ultra for many critics of esoteric jazz intellectualism, “were seeking . . . a fresh form of entertainment which would allow them their fair share of the entertainment market” (1978:59). Or, in a different connection, they should read recent nonhagiographical music histories that have Beethoven hawking the same opus to three different publishers, or Mozart conniving, with a sad lack of savvy, at one music-business killing or another. Music created with an eye to eternal genius and blind to the marketplace is a myth of European Romanticism sustained by its chief offspring, modernism.’

Gary Tomlinson, ‘Cultural Dialogics and Jazz: A White Historian signifies’, in Katherine Bergeron and Philip V. Bohlman (eds.), Disciplining Music: Musicology and its Canons (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992), pp. 82-3.

‘I’ve noticed that, when I go to conferences or similar events in continental Europe, people make the assumption that, because I’m interested in music, I must have an interest in and commitment to new music; that’s not an expectation about me in particular, but a taken-for-granted assumption about what it means to be seriously engaged in music. (In the UK or the USA, people make no such assumption.) [….] In my book, I referred briefly to critical theory in general and Adorno in particular, as a way of introducing one of the main intellectual strands of the ‘New’ musicology of the 1990s, but I made no direct link between Adorno’s critique and new music. In her commentary, Anne Boissière (2001, p. 32) picked this up, asking why I didn’t discuss ‘the problem of contemporary music which resists consumption’: instead, she complained, I made music sound as if it was just another commodity, and in this way passed up the opportunity to offer ‘a critical analysis of consumer society’. In which case, she asked, ‘what point is there in making reference to Adorno?’: if one’s critique isn’t motivated by moral or political commitment, as Adorno’s was, then what is there to it but nihilism?

Actually, the argument Boissière is putting forward here, and which other contributors also reflected, has a long and rather peculiar history. It originates in the conservative critique of the modern world—the attack on capitalism and consumerism that developed throughout the German-speaking countries in the 19th century (where it was associated with the nostalgic values of an idealised rural past), and fed ultimately into the Nazi creed of ‘blood and soil’; Adorno’s critical theory might accordingly be seen as appropriating a conservative tradition in order to attack the right-wing ideology of his own day.’

Nicholas Cook, ‘Writing on Music or Axes to Grind: road rage and musical community’, Music Education Research, vol. 5, no. 3 (November 2003), p. 257.

‘My contention is that petty capitalism – a term I take to encompass myriad small-scale form of entrepreneurial, commercial activity in culture – has been one of the key means by which progressive leftist, anti-racist, and resistant forms of culture, music, and art have been made possible: have been produced, circulated, and lived. It’s a despised category of economic activity and analysis, generally seen as collusive with capital, as politically irredeemable, an insignificant and ineffective in any meta-historical analysis. But with regard specifically to cultural activity it sits somewhere crucial between full-blown corporate capitalism and the quite different but just as marked forms of cultural, ideological, and aesthetic closure and policing that tend to characterize statist and other kinds of subsidized cultural institutions, whether in music, broadcasting or academia. I’ve researched statist cultural institutions rather deeply, as those who know my writings on IRCAM and the BBC will be aware. So my argument today is that while there is no necessary connection between progressive or politicized culture and these small-scale, entrepreneurial petty capitalist interventions – and in that sense there is no deterministic relation – there are, nonetheless, opportunities; they might be conceived as affordances or, better, in William Connolly’s fruitful phrase, indebted to complexity theory as pluri-potentialities. In terms of the possibility of new experimental, and alternative forms of production and circulation, informed by a politic of cultural production, we should be more aware of this category of activity and what it can achieve.’

Georgina Born, ‘On Music and Politics: Henry Cow, Avant-Gardism and its Discontents’, in Robert Adlington (ed.), Red Strains: Music and Communism Outside the Communist Bloc (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 64.


6 Comments on “Some thoughts on classical vs. popular music from pianist Peter Donohoe”

  1. Tim says:

    Hello Ian

    I can see that there is a problem within academic musicology where the study of popular music is taking up more of the attention and resources previously allocated to classical music. Perhaps, as defenders of classical music, we need to be clearer about its outstanding qualities. These qualitities are essentially aesthetic, that is, concerned with sustained temporal forms that propose certain kinds of experience that we can call aesthetic. It’s not a matter of measuring complexity or virtuosity so much as looking at how these factors are used in an aesthetic context. Like popular musics, from which it has stolen ruthlessly for centuries, most classical music – even after the emergence of thematic development – can easily be dismantled into riffs, tunes, and chord sequences: classical prefers to decorate with arpeggios and scales, where popular music uses an improvised break or a studio effect. So the essential difference lies behind this surface and concerns the aesthetic intentionality unfolded in sustained forms. Music education should, from the start, be angled to intimate this aesthetic intentionality: all children should be taught to read notated music and have the opportunity of playing an acoustic instrument.

    Having said that, popular musics have spoken to music in general in a number of ways: first, the engagement with technology, the use of the recording studio, and the attitude to sound: second, the emphasis on sustained collective work, though I imagine this has faded a lot since the ubiquity of laptops: third, the physicality of performance. So I would also be in favour of less formal collective and experimental projects in schools, possibly oriented around music for theatre performances or other kinds of narrative.

    I write as an ex-member of the group Henry Cow, a band that made music merging popular and high-brow elements within a Marxist framework. All best, Tim Hodgkinson

  2. anonymous says:

    Ian, all the quotations you posted (McClary, Tomlinson, Cook, Born) were awful, but Born’s was hands-down the most ridiculous. The quotation demonstrates that she’s incapable of thinking coherently about “capital” and “capitalism.” It counts for nothing that the music she has in mind already plays within the boundaries of what capital will tolerate. Again and again, we’ve seen how easy it is to commodify so many of the artifacts associated with rebellion. In the 1990s, for example, goth provided a market-sanctioned way for discontented adolescents to rebel against the market-sanctioned preferences of their parents.

    Also, Cook is dead wrong about German anti-capitalism in the nineteenth century. Nineteenth-century German liberal anti-capitalists were concerned with the ways that capitalism operated as a system of social communication. A central problem–and it’s this line of thinking, I believe, into which Adorno and, later, Habermas fall–is that the anonymous transactions of the market were incapable of fostering notions of either personal or corporate humanity.

    What all four of the scholars you cite seem to miss is the tension between works that are at once dependent on the market–which may be unavoidable–and the ways in which they resist commodification and resist the demand for profit. Yet what can be more rebellious than music that offends the very norms of communication upon which the market relies? And, by the same token, is there really any substantive difference between the demands on listeners made by much commercially successful music and the propaganda one might hear from, say, Donald Trump and his acolytes?

  3. For any musical tradition in which there is not a monopoly (cf. the monopoly on composing opera in Paris for much of the eighteenth century) or similar constraint on activity, the majority of its output is mediocre. With sufficient cumulative time and skill among a tradition’s practitioners, a corpus of good or even great music arises eventually, although the longevity of individual works within such a corpus cannot be guaranteed, given the intangibility and ephmerality of music as a medium.

    Western classical music, by virtue of its notational practices, has enabled the longevity of individual works to an extent unparalleled by other traditions. Thus, when it comes to measuring traditions on the basis of a small canon of seminal works, it is unsurprising that western classical music should emerge as pre-eminent. Moreover, although it is a very diverse tradition, it has some relatively stable and unbroken theoretical foundations stretching back for many centuries (a balance between stability and innovation also explains why some aural traditions have managed to produce great music). In that context, it is, as Donohoe observes, ludicrous to plead the cause of a pop tradition by trying to claim that one of its seminal works were of a standard commensurate with a seminal work by a seminal composer in the western classical tradition.

    If we look to yardsticks other than notation and canons, however, western classical music does not always emerge so favourably, whether in comparison to other traditions or even to its own heritage. Despite a distinguished history of great improvisers (including many of the great composers) prior to the age of recorded sound, improvisation seems, alas, to have faded from mainstream classical-music performance (with some honorable exceptions), even in genres where it was once considered an essential skill for any self-respecting professional (e.g.: cadenzas for pre-/early- Beethoven concerti; figured bass).

    Finally, it is worth remembering that the delineation of genres and traditions is contestable and mutable. Some composers, genres, and styles which were once considered “populist” have since been recognised as belonging to the western classical tradition. By that means, the western classical tradition has evolved in part by absorbing the best ideas from other traditions (many artistic traditions are ultimately a /potpourri/ of appropriation, and long may that — subject to copyright, of course — continue).

  4. […] but one which can equally act as a democratic check on the power of capital and big business. In this post, I have collated some examples of musicologists who are more explicit in appealing to c… as a supposedly emancipatory alternative to other means of cultural production, or sometimes […]

  5. […] Some thoughts on classical vs. popular music from pianist Peter Donohoe (11/1/19) […]

  6. […] Some of the responses to the Twitter post above were encouraging (I won’t link to all the tweets, but one can go and view the thread oneself): some suggested that one should avoid making partisan statements in class, avoid making one’s own political opinion clear (I do not necessarily agree with this, but certainly think it needs to be tempered – see below), or interestingly suggested the teacher can present themselves as the advocate for an argument in a paper, perhaps thus inviting the students to find holes in it. But others epitomised what the post was trying to address – one said that conservative students are ‘threatened by rational thought, scientific evidence, and collective determination of invariant truth’ (which I argued is equally true of many on the left), branded anyone right-of-centre as ‘racist or intolerant’. One suggested that one should become friendly with conservative colleagues, with which I wholeheartedly agree. Others reasonably asked whether this was not equally an issue for conservative academics teaching left-of-centre students, and this certainly needs to be considered too; I would say (including in my own field) there are more than a few who present themselves as politically ‘progressive’, and assume themselves to be left-of-centre, but their neglect of the economic lead them to become quite aggressive advocates of market forces and consumer culture (see my earlier post here and the end of the post here). […]

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