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August 08, 2008

What's Wrong with Western Music? Part I. "Brown Eyed Girl"

By: Bernard Chazelle

All musics are wrong. And Western music is the wrongest of them all. Some of it is sublime art, of course, and I rush to add that its intrinsic wrongness in no way makes it inferior to other kinds. Art doesn't work like that.

Western music was codified into a high-art form by an elite that sought to shape it into a medium to reach God and please kings. This took place, after a long period of gestation, over a small area in the 17th century in what are today Italy, France, and Germany. Now, if your goal is to honor God, why in the world would you cheat? I've always been fascinated by this. I suspect it says something deep about human nature in general and Western civilization in particular, though I'm not exactly sure what that is.

The tonal system of Western music is its signature. Many of the greatest Western composers rebelled against it (even as early as the 19th c), and today it is confined mostly to pop/rock. (I leave Jazz aside because its roots are non-Western.) No one listens to modern classical music (Stockhausen anyone?), so for all practical purposes Western music is anything you can buy at your local Barnes & Noble that does not have the label "World music" or "Jazz."

Why is Western music wrong? By way of introduction, an anecdote:

Ravi Shankar, if you remember, is a great fan of Western music -- he often worked with George Harrison and Yehudi Menuhin. And of course he is the proud dad of the one and only Norah Jones. (Just to say what a magnificent fellow he is!) After an All-Mozart concert at Carnegie Hall, Ravi Shankar congratulated his good friend Leonard Bernstein on his brilliant conducting:

"Nice music, Leonard. I really enjoyed it. But, tell me, don't you get tired of playing baby tunes?"

Ouch. What was Shankar trying to say? I'll talk about that in a subsequent post. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, enjoy this ultimate baby tune. It's very catchy because of the way the tune is harmonized in thirds and sixths (which are forward and reverse ways of doing the same thing). To harmonize in 6ths is one of the first thing any rock guitarist learns to do, because it just sounds so cool. But remove the harmonization and the song is just "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" + sex.

PS Cute video by a mother for her kid and husband.

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at August 8, 2008 07:22 PM

I agree. It is a baby tune. I can just imagine my very cute one year old grand niece moving and shaking and clapping with the music!

Posted by: Rupa Shah at August 8, 2008 09:16 PM

Hey...that's one of my favorites!

Posted by: bobbyp at August 8, 2008 11:37 PM

I listen to modern classical music! And I love Van Morrison but despise the hell out of "Brown-Eyed Girl". I have nothing further to say.

Posted by: ethan at August 9, 2008 12:24 AM

I'm eagerly awaiting parts II and beyond. This is intellectual territory that I have never really covered before and I can't wait to see where you go with it. Please, post soon!

Posted by: Bolo at August 9, 2008 01:31 AM

Way to go. You're now the Rex Reed of musical critique.

Posted by: JW at August 9, 2008 02:18 AM

I'm not sure what you're driving at here, but I'll be interested to read more. Meanwhile, I would just make a few observations:

- True that "classical" Western music began as elite music for courts and churches. (Well, mostly. A strain of it is from peasant dances and folk music, too.) Personally, though, I can't imagine my life without it, even if my listening to it, as one of the hoi-polloi, is a perversion of its original meaning. You don't have to be a king or a priest to be ennobled by its beauty.

- On the other hand, it's also true that in our times, "art" music has bifurcated -- it's either mostly obscure postmodern music appreciated by few, or a retreading of the same very slender, mostly 19th century, repertory. "Museum" music. Many contemporary composers, however, do try to fuse World Music with Western idioms.

- It's a bit of an oversimplification to say composers "rebelled" against tonalism. What they have done over time is try to expand the forms of expression available to them.

Posted by: Grimblebee at August 9, 2008 07:58 AM

It'll be interesting to see where you go with this, but it's a bit of an inauspicious start. To make the statement that "(tonality) is mostly confined to pop/rock" and to name Stockhausen as your example of a "modern" composer tells me, at least so far, that your view of current classical music is pretty skewed.

But, flail away! I look forward to your next post.

Posted by: mario at August 9, 2008 08:43 AM

I'm with "ethan", however, I do want to hear what the great and powerful IOZ has to say about this post.
Rock on...

Posted by: uncle buck at August 9, 2008 10:58 AM

>> your view of current classical music is pretty skewed.

Milton Babbitt lives 2 doors down from my house and Paul Lansky is a good friend of mine. Need I say more?

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at August 9, 2008 11:48 AM

Some people tell me they like all music which is fine. Some people tell me they like only a certain type of music. For myself I fall into the category of liking only certain types of music. I don’t attach any particular meaning to this except that perhaps it is what you identify with. I make it a practice never to criticize other people’s taste in music or to criticize any particular music even if it does not appeal to me personally because it serves no purpose other than to assert one’s own superiority in musical taste which is highly subjective. If Bach was paid by the elite to write music then what of it, he had a rather large family to support as I recall (seven offspring). I still love Bach’s music in particular the Brandenburg concertos. By the way Bach was better known for his improvisational skills than his composing during his life time as was the case for many other famous Western composers of that general time.

As far as Mozart being baby music I find that to be a bit of a stretch. And to use a pop tune as an example to prove that all Western music is baby music is even a further stretch. I admit I really don’t understand what you are trying to say here concerning Western music being wrong as your post is quite ambiguous and would like to see you elaborate on that theme. While it is true that most Western music relies on the tyranny of the dominant/tonic cycle in order to create tension and release that is rather like saying a masterpiece painting is merely colors applied to a flat surface. The latter may be a true statement but somehow it does not quite tell the whole story, no?

Posted by: Rob Payne at August 9, 2008 11:49 AM

I tend to agree with Rob Payne. I DO NOT understand the technicality of music making BUT I know what sounds good to my ears and I love all kinds of music, Jazz, Folk, Blues, Gospel, Classical ( including vocal,counter-tenor being my favoiurite). And Beetoven, Bach and Mozart are considered the greatest composers by critics but my favourite is Schubert! And talking about Ravi Shankar, he is GREAT, when he plays PURE Indian classical music, not the fusion with western music, at least to my ears. To go to his concert which has no end i.e. does not end at a specific time like in western countries but goes on depending on the audience feedback, is an experience never to be forgotten.

Posted by: Rupa Shah at August 9, 2008 12:26 PM

Paul Lansky is a good friend of mine.

This was really beautifully expressed by him:

Things we do and experience have resonance. It can die away quickly or last a long time; it can have a clear center frequency or a wide bandwidth; be loud, soft or ambiguous. The present is filled with past experience ringing in various ways and now is colored by this symphony of resonance.

I read that somewhere in an essay about music and architecture. Speaking of which, when I was a teenager, I thought I had invented the joke that -- if architecture is frozen music -- music is melted architecture. I was disappointed to learn more and find out hundreds of people had gotten there before me.

Of course, "disappointed to learn more and find out hundreds of people had gotten there before me" is the essence of the human experience.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at August 9, 2008 12:30 PM

I admit I really don’t understand what you are trying to say here concerning Western music being wrong as your post is quite ambiguous and would like to see you elaborate on that theme.

Well, he's called modern Western art music irrelevant and earlier efforts infantile. It's pretty clear so far.

I think we both know that Chazelle is good enough with language that he can clearly express himself when he sees fit. He could have said that the chordal structure and modulations within, say, bebop are more complicated than those of the late Romantic period, or that Western classical music tends to be based more on the quarter note (as compared to the eighth note in jazz or the sixteenth in funk), but he instead chose to use the words "wrong," "cheat," and "baby."

This usage (in contrast with his earlier writing about the second movement of Beethoven's seventh) is, I suppose supposed to make us think about what he is trying to say, and whet our interest for the second installment. He wants to tell the whole story another time, but in the meanwhile, it will suffice to deliberately offend people who don't see anything wrong with the entire edifice of Western music.

Posted by: Save the Oocytes at August 9, 2008 06:56 PM

Jazz's roots are "non-western." A blinkered view of of jazz. Bernard, you're a smart ass. What do you play and where are you working?

Posted by: Mickey Finn at August 9, 2008 08:04 PM

Be careful with words. Wrong means wrong. It does not mean bad; it does not mean inferior.

Second, why is that offensive? If I say your math is wrong, it's offensive because math is supposed to be right. But who said art was supposed to be right? Rightness is quite irrelevant to art. Unless it's architecture and the "wrongness" makes the building collapse. Great art is what moves people's souls. Period. No notion of right and wrong.

Yes, Western music is wrong. But there's no reason to be offended. It's misplaced pride.

PS I do this in bits and pieces because of time constraints. Unfortunately my time on this blog is very limited.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at August 9, 2008 09:09 PM

0. If there's "No notion of right and wrong," I'm a bit confused as to why you are using the words here. You then seem to be yourself superposing structures of "right" and "wrong" onto music.

1. I don't have to tell you that words have connotations. "Wrong" is rarely a compliment. Ask a crowd of people whether "wrongness" is generally associated with "bad" or "good," and they'll pick the former. "Cheating" is generally frowned upon, recall. And "baby"? Like you said, ouch.

2. "Wrong" may mean "wrong," but you haven't told us what you mean by it here. I suppose I should have withheld judgment until you revealed this peculiar new interpretation.

3. People identify with their interests and tastes, which is why people with different aesthetic tastes will argue even though there is no contradiction in their liking different things. "He has no taste," for example, is usually taken as an insult.

4. If you are perceived as insulting something someone has a deep personal interest in, they may in fact take it personally.

5. I find your statement that no one listens to contemporary Western art music needlessly dismissive.

6. What makes you settle on the 16th century? Why not the Renaissance? What about the Notre Dame school? What about plainchant?

7. I read your post two times, and the second time I failed to reread the first paragraph, so I admit to being unnecessarily exercised. I still find your post galling. I don't see how you can find it surprising that "The music you listen to and compose is baby music; I'll explain why later" offended someone.

Posted by: Save the Oocytes at August 9, 2008 11:58 PM

Let’s try logic. If there is no right and wrong to art and music is art then music can’t be wrong therefore Western music is not wrong.

This is getting silly.

Posted by: Rob Payne at August 10, 2008 12:37 AM

1. I didn't call Mozart baby music. Shankar did. I thought it was both silly and interesting. His quip was misguided but not vacuous.

4. I have deep personal interest in Western music myself. I played classical guitar for decades. While all my friends were discussing the White Album in the 60s I was debating why Jacqueline Dupre's subpar playing in Brahms Cello Sonatas should not be held against her. Why Barenboim's conducting debut was awful. I had passionate arguments why Chaconne sounds better on the guitar than the violin. I collected every version of Beethoven's sonatas I could get my hands on. And, yes, I still think that Yves Nat's was the best.

5. You can't be serious about contemporary classical. No one listens to it. What is your point? Doesn't mean it's bad. Maybe I should be nice to my neighbor and pretend that people care. But no one does. (Though Radiohead did sample from Lansky!) I'm friends with the IRCAM folks in Paris. I even took a class from them. The contemporary music community is about as crowded as the Automorphic Forms Fan Club.

6. Right, I left out plainchant and Church modes. I picked up in the 17th c, when Western music was codified. What I will say does not apply to medieval music.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at August 10, 2008 12:44 AM

I don't understand why everyone is so defensive about Western music, even going to such lengths as denying the non-Western roots of Jazz.

Why is it being silly to call music wrong, even though its greatness may not depend on it? Why do you insist on making a value judgment out of the word wrong?

Couldn't you imagine a great painting by Picasso that would have "2+2=5" painted all over it? It might be a terrific painting. Maybe history's greatest painting. But it would still be based on something wrong.

Then wouldn't it be natural to ask? What did Picasso mean by 2+2=5?

I can understand it if you think it's not interesting. But why is it silly? I don't get that.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at August 10, 2008 01:01 AM

Wow Bernard,

Looks like it's time to join the Witness Protection Program (or at least invest in a flak jacket).

People take music very personally.

How every person feels about music is as individual and unique as fingerprints. No one will ever fully agree on anything.

By the way, 2+2 DOES equal 5 (when using abnormally large amounts of 2).

Posted by: RTT at August 10, 2008 01:34 AM

What is silly is that you refuse to explain what you mean by Western music being wrong so I have no idea what your point is. You say there is no right and wrong in great art and since I consider some Western music (not all) to be great art it cannot be wrong unless you don’t believe Western music is great art which I don’t think is what you believe.

Jazz has both non-Western and Western roots. The rhythms are supposedly African but the harmonic structure is Western even if the melodic construction has been modified from a strictly diatonic form, which in many cases where tones that are not part of the scale that goes with a given chord are being used they are merely passing tones but not always. Many Jazz tunes are based on the chord progressions of standards like How High the Moon, I Got Rhythm, (or I hope I do) etc. and I believe I read somewhere that the 12 bar blues progressions, or some of them, (there are many) are derived from European folk music. The IIminor7/V 7/ Tonic Major Progression makes up the lion’s share of Jazz chord progressions and since the II minor and V7 are completely interchangeable it is basically the Dominant/Tonic cycle. Even tri-tone substitutions are just that, substitutions that still act as Dominant/Tonic progressions. Chord superimpositions where you add a triad on top of a Dominant 7 chord don’t change the function of the Dominant 7, it just adds more tension, it all comes back to Dominant/Tonic which is a Western device. In some cases where you have weak chord progressions as in Chords that move in half or whole steps you get away from the Dominant/Tonic cycle but they are almost always of short duration, usually one or two bars in length (Modal tunes also get away from the Dominant/Tonic). Even when a tune modulates to a Tonic minor you still see II/V/I as in half diminished (minor 7 with a flat 5), V7 with a lowered 9, which can resolve to either a Major or a minor chord, in fact that was a common device in Be-bop. Even with swivel chords, chords that act simultaneously as II minor and Tonic minor are still part of the Dominant/Tonic cycle. So what is so awful that Jazz has both Western and non-Western roots?

Posted by: Rob Payne at August 10, 2008 03:01 AM

0. Rob, you nail this. Thanks.

1. You then offered to explain what Shankar meant. I took this as agreement.

"Wrong" has negative connotations. It is normative and often a value judgment, even among people who are not me. I will accept that it is not under your new, nuanced usage. I'm sorry to have imputed criticism to your usages, in light of your first paragraph, but maybe your word choice wasn't optimal.

4. Your classical bona fides beat mine. You win.

5. I used the word "dismissive" because to me it felt that in saying no one listens to it, you were also implying that it doesn't matter.

More importantly, I listen to it!

Posted by: Save the Oocytes at August 10, 2008 10:23 AM

Rob: these are not the roots you're describing. Jazz fully incorporated Western music structure. Charlie Parker even studied Varese! But its roots are Creole and African.

Listen to West End Blues. It's all in there: it's jazz because it swings and it makes the blue notes not passing notes but the main thing.

These two concepts are the roots of Jazz and they're non-Western. Everything else is, as Rabbi Hillel would say, is commentary.

Western harmonies quickly came in. But listen to old Delta blues and there's not a trace of Western harmony.

Ragtime, on the other hand, is Western, but that's not Jazz.

To "credit" Western music as the root of Jazz is nothing less than a joke - and a strangely chauvinistic one at that.

Next thing we'll hear is that Elvis invented Rock and Roll!

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at August 10, 2008 12:11 PM

Bernard, I am curious as to what you mean by "wrong". Do you mean that Western art music is rooted in the elite patronage system and therefore its origins are morally wrong? Or that there is something nebulously "wrong" about the music itself? I'm interested to see how you continue this, as I always am to see you talk about music.

I still must disagree with the idea that no one listens to modern classical music, because, well, people do. Sure, not many, but then not many people listen to jazz, either, except for the people who love the Ella Fitzgerald compilation they bought at Pottery Barn.

Posted by: ethan at August 10, 2008 12:59 PM

I'm looking forward to the rest of the installments, but I would ask that you try to remember that Sturgeon's Law applies to modern classical as well as all other formats of music.

Every format of music has something to recommend it. Sadly, no musical format is well represented by the pap that passes for music programming on radio and tv.

Posted by: Mark Gisleson at August 10, 2008 01:43 PM

I imagine that what Bernard means by what is wrong with western music is the convention of equal temperament, which arbitrarily parcels up the octave into 12 evenly spaced tones. Here is tolerable description:

And a good, if polemical, book on the subject:

I think it is either banal or asinine to call this convention "wrong." It is banal if he means that just like every other form of music in the world, Western music has arbitrary and cultural conventions that limit which rhythms, melodies, and harmonies are considered to within its tradition (or even plainer, which are music and not noise). Why bother positing a non-existent Platonic Music that somehow conforms itself perfectly to the texture of the world and free of all accidental and provisional features? That's just silly. If something is a feature of all musics, then it is inapt to call it wrong.

It is asinine if he means that the Western tradition of music is somehow more beset by "unnatural" conventions than others. I wouldn't even know how to begin to establish such a point. All talking like this serves to do is reveal your partisan preferences; if you aren't so big on European music, you can decide that all sorts of its features are aesthetically, morally, or materially wrong. But as European parochialism toward other musics has shown, this gets you nowhere. If we call Western music's conventions of melody baby-like, we are equally justified in calling Indian classical music's conventions of harmony baby-like, as well. Doing either of which is just silly.

Posted by: Brian at August 10, 2008 02:07 PM


I did not say that the roots of Jazz were just Western I said they were both non-Western and Western which is a fact, period.


Jazz is an American musical art form which originated around the beginning of the 20th century in African American communities in the Southern United States from a confluence of African and European music traditions. The style's West African pedigree is evident in its use of blue notes, improvisation, polyrhythms, syncopation, and the swung note.[1]

From its early development until the present, jazz has also incorporated music from 19th and 20th century American popular music.[2] The word jazz began as a West Coast slang term of uncertain derivation and was first used to refer to music in Chicago in about 1915; for the origin and history, see Jazz (word).

Jazz has, from its early 20th century inception, spawned a variety of subgenres, from New Orleans Dixieland dating from the early 1910s, big band-style swing from the 1930s and 1940s, bebop from the mid-1940s, a variety of Latin-jazz fusions such as Afro-Cuban and Brazilian jazz from the 1950s and 1960s, jazz-rock fusion from the 1970s and later developments such as acid jazz.

Also I did not say that non-diatonic notes were always passing tones I said that they often were. Typically chromatics in Be-bop are used between the root the nine and the seven as well as between the five and the six. Also the use of the sharp five and flat five is a common practice used on V7 chords by the improviser. Another non-diatonic device is the use of chord substitutes again used on the V7 chord which are triads based on the flat 5, the 7th, and the flat 9. Which on a C7 chord would be F sharp triad, a B flat minor triad, and a D flat triad. These are usually approached by a chord tone one half step away in order to make a smooth transition.

Also I don’t believe I am being Chauvinistic in any way what-so-ever. I never said Jazz was not originated by black Americans. Most of my inspiration to play came from black musicians but I also appreciate non-black Jazz musicians unlike some purists. Lee Konitz developed a very unique style of playing as did Art Pepper and Warren Marsh though firmly rooted in modern Jazz. If I believed that only blacks should play Jazz I would throw my horns in the nearest river and take up golf or bowling.

Posted by: Rob Payne at August 10, 2008 04:08 PM

some of the best memories of my well-spent young adulthood come from whitewater kayaking and swing dancing and cajun dancing and waltzes.

And I remember dancing to Brown Eyed Girl one night at a bar in Toronto..... we had nearly the whole dance floor, which we needed for the dance moves we were doing.... it was a great dance, with a great connection to my dance partner, who .... did not drop me!

One of my best memories.

Jazz is really hard to dance to, in my opinion. So is zydeco, until you master those dance moves, then it is fantastic. Hardest dance I ever learned.

Posted by: Susan at August 11, 2008 03:05 AM

well just what is the alternative to this 'baby music' then?! I'm dying to find out, as are many comment-ers here! I agree that western music is limited and as a guitarist myself I am always looking for another angle from which to approach composition.... I will watch this space!

Posted by: postman pat at August 11, 2008 07:56 AM