Oops, I did it again!

In this post I would like to discuss a very important but often overlooked component of music programming. This is a concept that must be taken into consideration by all musicians when selecting repertoire for any type of performance. It will make a huge difference in the impact that your music has on your audience: whether they like it, whether they understand it, or whether or not they can even appreciate it. All music serves a purpose. We can classify these assorted purposes into three main categories. Music can be for entertainment, for artistic expression, or it can be functional.


The first type of music (for entertainment) is probably the most common. We hear it all the time. We turn on the radio and hear it, we hear it on television, and we all know the names of our favorite entertainers. Entertainment Music spans a wide variety of musical genres from Rock and Roll, Pop, Country and Western, Jazz, Ragtime, and Classical. It can be as simple as the popular song that repeats the same phrase over and over with relatively few chords and as complex as a virtuoso number by Liszt where fingers flying across a piano keyboard thrill even the most humbug music critic. It’s really quite simple. If you listen to the music for enjoyment it is entertainment. Few composers or songwriters write music without at least some hope that people will be entertained by their music.


The second type of music is Art Music. An ocean of ink has been spilled discussing this concept so there is no way that I can, in this space, do it justice. Suffice it to say that Art Music is the attempt by a composer to express deep meaning (possibly emotion) through his configuration of sounds. Generally it takes an educated musician to properly write music for this purpose (or at least to do it justice) and an equally educated listener to hear all the subtle nuances contained within the composition and to fully appreciate it. This music does not have to “sound good,” although many pieces do. This category also transcends genre but is most commonly heard in classical composition. Examples are major classical works (including but not limited to symphonies by Beethoven et al. and modern composition that utilizes irregular sounds to invoke various human reactions) and meaningful popular music like serious Jazz (as opposed to songs that involve superficial subjects and simple repetitive melodies and harmonies). It is really impossible to go into more detail in this space.


The third type of music is Functional Music. This music is generally written to fulfill a specific purpose other than mere listening. Good examples would be militaristic music such as the bugle call in a cavalry, military marching music, or patriotic music. An even better example would be the use of Gregorian Chant in the Extraordinary Form Catholic Mass (Tridentine Mass) where the liturgical form is inextricably tied to the music and the music exists for no other purpose than for use in the liturgy.


Now, you’ve probably noticed by reading this that a great deal of music fits more than one of these categories. This is true. Beethoven’s symphonies can be just as entertaining (to the right listener) as they are artistic. This overlap varies from piece to piece (and possibly from person to person). Let us assess a few examples. Hymns are functional music to accompany a worship service, however many people love listening to their favorite hymns, so they are also entertainment. Some hymn writers attempt to express meaning in their music through text painting and other musical techniques, therefore there are elements of art music contained within. Another example: techno music in its proper application is used to accompany nightclub dance, therefore it clearly has a function (i.e. to accompany dance). Many people also enjoy the sound of this music therefore it is entertainment. Because of its overtly repetitive character and its single-minded purpose however it would be a stretch to call this art music. Consider now the example of John Cage’s 4’33. This is a piece that involves the performer sitting on the stage in silence for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. The random sounds that occur in the concert hall during the performance are the “music”. (Cage had weird theories!) This is definitely in the realm of Art Music. It is thought provoking and conceptual. It has no discernable function and can definitely not be categorized as entertainment music either (outside of entertainment for the intellect, but that isn’t really what we’re talking about). So clearly there is a lot of overlap in these categories. We could come up with dozens more examples of overlap.


When programming music on a recital or selecting the season’s repertoire it is important to not get these categories confused. It seems obvious of course that it would be inappropriate to play out of the hymnal for a classical violin concert. Also, a concert dedicated entirely to art music that has little to no entertainment value should not be aimed at the general public, but rather to a more discerning audience like that of a music school or university. Notice that groups like Dream Theater who specialize in a type of Art Music using rock band instruments have an equally specialized audience. Be forewarned, a high school band director who chooses to program one military march after another will eventually start to receive complaints from his students’ parents. This is because he/she is programming functional music when people have come to a concert to be entertained. Each type of music has its role and the success a performer can expect of the reception of his/her music is in direct proportion to the consideration that this topic is given.


Case in point, a few years ago I was the organizer of a local music association event. A teacher signs their piano student up for the event and the students show up and play whatever piece they’ve prepared on the day of the recital. There were no official rules about what type of music the students were supposed to play, but the nature of the event suggested classical art music. This was fairly obvious to the participants because most students played something like a Mozart Sonatina or a Brahms Intermezzo. All except one student. A twelve year old boy played “Oops, I did it again” by Britney Spears. It was quite embarrassing for him. By this time he realized that he was the odd man out. I’m actually surprised he didn’t make a run for it before it was his turn to play.



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