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.


Deskilling and Musical Education – Response to Arnold Whittall’s 80th Birthday Celebrations

The following article was printed in the Society for Music Analysis Newsletter 2015. I reproduce it with just a few small modifications here.


To do justice to Arnold’s enviable legacy, we should reverse the tendency towards the de-skilling of a discipline.

During the contributions to Arnold Whittall’s 80th birthday colloquium at King’s College, London, Jonathan Cross linked two events: Arnold’s appointment as the first Professor of Theory and Analysis in 1982, and later in the decade the purported expansion of musicology to incorporate issues of gender, sexuality and race, methodologies from sociology, anthropology, cultural studies and elsewhere, and greater focus on popular musics and other traditions outside of Western art music. Some of the latter phenomena are associated with the so-called ‘new musicology’ in the US and its slightly milder counterpart ‘critical musicology’ in the UK.

All of these were portrayed by Cross as a general broadening of the discipline, a welcome infusion of increased diversity of subject and methodology, a natural step forward. But an academic field now in large measure antipathetic to claims of musical autonomy seems nonetheless to claim a fair degree of autonomy for its own trajectory, in a way I find implausible and even disingenuous. There may be some common determinants underlying all these apparent broadenings of the field, and both systematic analysis and the new musicology have been opposed by conservatives such as Peter Williams. Nonetheless, the wider ideologies underlying these disparate developments can be quite antagonistic, as was certainly made clear in an important interview between Arnold and Jonathan Dunsby published in Music Analysis (Vol. 14, No. 2/3 (Jul. – Oct., 1995), pp. 131-139) for the former’s 60th birthday.

The ‘new musicology’ is frequently argued to have been inaugurated with the publication of Joseph Kerman’s Contemplating Music (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985) (UK title Musicology). Despite being replete with factual errors, Kerman’s appeal to a musicological inferiority complex, a field presented as trailing far behind other disciplines in terms of adoption of ideas from phenomenology, post-structuralism, feminism and more, not to mention his negative view of both musical modernism and historically-informed performance, as well as residual anti-German prejudice, would prove very influential.

But Kerman was also the author of the polemical ‘How We Got into Analysis, and How to Get out’ (Critical Inquiry, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Winter 1980), pp. 331-331), absolutely at odds with what Arnold was advocating and aiming for at around the same time. The contexts for these two musicologists were very different: Kerman was responding to a particular North American situation (though he was shameless in extrapolating universal pronouncements from a rather provincial perspective), with a much starker distinction between ‘historians’ and ‘theorists’ than in the UK. In the US, a heavily mediated rendition of Schenker’s work had flowered since 1931 through his student Hans Weisse, and in the early post-war era through other students Felix Salzer and Oswald Jonas, whilst other intense analytical approaches had been developed by Rudolph Réti, Milton Babbitt, Allen Forte, George Perle, David Lewin and others. In the UK, on the other hand, as Arnold would note in a 1980 article (‘Musicology in Great Britain since 1945. III. Analysis’, Acta Musicologica, Vol. 52, Fasc. 1 (Jan. – Jun. 1980), pp. 57-62), systematic analysis had made little advance, despite a gauntlet having been set down by Ian Bent’s advocacy at the Congress of the International Musicological Society in 1972. What did exist – through some interest in Réti’s work, the ‘functional analysis’ of Hans Keller, and a smattering of other work from Alan Walker, David Osmond Smith and a few others – was occasional and patchy, and this was undoubtedly a major factor in Arnold’s co- founding, in 1982, the journal Music Analysis together with Jonathan Dunsby, with whom he would author what remains the leading general textbook on analysis in English six years later. The subject has continued to grow and develop, with excellent work from UK academics, such as Matthew Riley’s studies on Haydn and Mozart, Michael Spitzer’s work on the affective function of gesture, Nicholas Cook on analysis and performance, or Allan Moore’s work on rock, but it is difficult in 2015 to see analysis as having attained a central position in musicology as might have seemed possible in 1982. Various musicologists who assumed prominent positions from the 1990s onwards have made no secret of their disdain for this sub-discipline, sometimes inspired by American writings of a similar ideological persuasion.

Assumptions of autonomous development of the discipline in the 1980s and 1990s are belied by issues such as the wider politics of education from the Thatcher years onwards. These entailed cuts in musical provision in schools, the 1992 removal of the formal distinction between universities and polytechnics, and then expansion of student numbers. After a doubling of the number of students (in all subjects) between 1963 and 1970 following the Robbins Report, numbers remained static until the late 1980s, when during a period of around a decade student numbers practically doubled from 17% in 1987 to 33% in 1997, then rose steadily to peak at 49% in 2011. This move from an elite to a mass educational system occurred in parallel with attempts to erase the very real differences in preparedness and background amongst students at different types of institutions, with a net levelling effect upon many.

Much of the new embrace of popular music had less to do with genuine diversification than an enforced denial of very real differences of various forms of musical production’s relationship to the marketplace. One of Thatcher’s neoliberal mantras, ‘There Is No Alternative’ (TINA) was echoed by many a musicologist scornful of any possible value in state-subsidised musical activity thus able to operate with a degree of autonomy from shortterm market utility. As subsidy is rare or minimal in the US, this ideology was convenient for American musicologists eager to claim some radical credentials through valorisation of the commercial whilst still appearing patriotic; it was disappointing to see so much of this ideology imported wholesale in the UK, a country with a modest level of subsidy for music compared to its continental European counterparts.

I had always thought of music, at a tertiary level, as a highly skilled discipline for those who have already developed and refined musicianship prior to entering university. This belief may reflect a background in a specialist music school in which, if nothing else, the teaching of fundamental musical skills was rigorous and thorough. Nonetheless, the importance of not allowing music slip to become a ‘soft’ subject requiring only nominal prior skills (and, as with much work in the realm of cultural studies, not requiring any particular artistic disciplinary expertise or extended knowledge) is to me self-evident. But with declining primary and secondary musical educational provision, frequently the extent of such prior skills amongst students can be quite elementary.

Furthermore, following the trebling of tuition fees in 2012 and other measures removing caps on recruitment, higher education has become a more ruthlessly competitive market with institutions fighting to attract and keep students. These various factors provide the context from which we should view the growth in many departments of types of popular music studies, film music studies, cultural studies, and some varieties of ethnomusicology, in which engagement with sounding music is a secondary or even non-existent concern. Such focus enables the production of modules which can be undertaken by those students with limited prior skills, but militates against musical analysis in particular.

We now have a situation, unthinkable a few decades ago, where some senior academics – even at professorial level – have no ability to read any type of musical notation. These academics (not to mention some of their students who will go onto teach at primary and secondary levels) may only perpetuate and exacerbate this situation for their own students. Similarly, a number of sub-disciplines of academic music can now be undertaken without linguistic skills, or much background in history, literature, the visual arts, philosophy and so on. Students have always had uneven or patchy backgrounds in these respects, but the will to help them improve upon this has also declined in various institutions. Expansion of musical study to encompass wider ranges of music and disciplinary approaches is certainly to be welcomed when this entails the cultivation of equal degrees of expertise and methodological refinement and critical acumen, but not necessarily when these are simply a means for attracting and holding onto less able students.

In short, these developments in musical higher education have seen a well-meaning liberal quest for inclusivity amount in practice to a pseudo-egalitarian de-skilling of a profession. In order to build upon the legacy bequeathed above all by Arnold for the support of specialised and rigorous analytical skills, we cannot ignore this issue any longer.