Monday Musing: Art, Folk, Pop And The Taxonomy Of Musical Culture

Posted on July 18, 2011


The critic is happy.

There’s a broad classification of musical types that has some common currency, in artistic, marketing and academic circles. I want to briefly consider what it is, where it draws the lines between musics, whether it holds water, and what use it might be to those of us that think about music for whatever reason.

There’s two additional widespread categories I could add to art, folk and popular music: jazz and world music. When I was training to teach music, my knowledge of music was assessed through a questionnaire which classified music on this basis, although ‘world’ and ‘folk’ were grouped together. Anyone who has any need to distinguish musical types can probably see a few issues with this.

For one thing, the grouping of ‘world’ music (music that doesn’t come from Europe or America) with ‘folk’ music (traditional music) suggests that there is some similarity in kind between, for example, Peruvian death metal and Northumbrian rant. For another, the status of jazz is by no means clear: ‘art’ music, in this Eurocentric scheme, refers to a tradition that clearly doesn’t include jazz, yet few would argue that jazz is anything other than an art music. Which raises the question, what other art musics are there? Indian classical music, for one, but that’s world music. It’s also highly traditional, so isn’t it folk? And isn’t jazz, in fact, a strand of popular music?

Each of these categories, particularly the three I refer to in the title, refers to both a particular set of cultural practices, and a set of styles that are articulated under those practices, and consequently come to define them in turn (as rock, say, or funk are axiomatically ‘popular music’ styles). So lets have a look at how the territory of music is carved up by these ideas as classifications of practice.

An art music is one in which practitioners are professionalised creators, and works are autonomous objects of aesthetic contemplation; it is self-aware, and able to theorise its own practice; it is literate, not necessarily by means of detailed notation, but the site of its meanings is not exclusively the time and place of performance; its skills and techniques are transmitted by formal training processes; to appreciate it, its listeners require some specific knowledge themselves, beyond a bare familiarity with its sounds; and its practitioners are a minority of technical specialists.

A folk music is one the practice of which may be open to the entire community, may be restricted on social grounds (e.g. men only), or may, as with art music, be the province of a specialised (sometimes hereditary)minority; its practitioners are unlikely to theorise their praxis in depth, beyond an analysis of their physical technique, for example; it is not a notated music; it has existence exclusively in the moment of performance; techniques and repertoires are orally transmitted, with each generation passing on the baton they were handed by their predecessors; and all members of the community within which it exists will have the understanding necessary to appreciate it, and judge the relative quality of different performances.

A popular music is rendered possible by the development of some means of mass musical production, of sheet music in the first instance, then later on, piano rolls, and eventually audio recordings; its practitioners are trained professionals, but admittance to that group may be less stringently restricted than with art music; it is a self-aware music, although its theorisations will be on more prosaic grounds than those of art music; notation or recordings are central to its transmission; pretty much everyone can understand and evaluate it; its skills are learnt through a combination of formal training and on-the-job apprenticeship; and crucially, it is a commercial practice, where production is primarily directed at generating profit.

I’ve left a lot out there: I am neither attempting to classify music by these categories, nor to furnish them with watertight definitions. I’m simply trying to sketch out the territory. It strikes me that this may be quite a useful way of thinking about music: an identification of a musical utterance with one of these centres of praxis may help us to determine the appropriate grounds for its analysis or evaluation. However, it’s when we try to nail something down as one thing or the other that problems start to arise: it’s not just that it can be hard to tell which category a given piece should fall into (though it can be), but that it may fall into more than one, or even all three.

The water is considerably muddied by the fact that, in common use, these terms aren’t used as set out above, but as commonsense stylistic catch-alls. Everyone knows that orchestral music goes in the box marked ‘art music’: it’s pointless to argue that a particular piece has been written to a commercial imperative, or otherwise transgresses the boundaries described above. Likewise, a piece of electronica will never be classified as folk, or as art music, irrespective of whether it falls outside the category of popular music on all or most of the grounds given above.

Generally, as a shorthand, art music is serious, high culture, made by artists and heard by aesthetes; folk music is rural communal recreation, made together by people without televisions; and popular music is inconsequential fun, made by industrial processes for interchangeable consumers. Art is for the upper and middle classes; folk is for the rural poor; and pop is for the urban masses. Art is boring; folk is obsolete; pop is fun. Art is worthwhile; folk is worthy; pop is worthless.

These categories are often ordered: there’s a spurious historicism that says the story went folk > art > pop. There’s also a common perspective (among the elite arbiters of cultural value) that there is an order of merit that runs art > folk > pop. It’s when looking at the hierarchies and narratives that are articulated around the ideas that it becomes clear why they exist: they represent a theoretical justification for structures that place value in the hands of the powerful. The historical narrative shows art building folk practice into something worthwhile, and popular music diluting and debasing that value. In other words, the artistic practices of the ruling classes are of more merit than those of the governed, and given that the ideological structures that propagate this view extend into the realm of education, it is a paradigmatic, commonsense perspective.

I’m sure it’s obvious I don’t buy into this taxonomy; the reviews I publish on this site are continually valorizing music from ‘popular’ and ‘folk’ styles as art music. While there is some merit in this system, its biggest problem is that it only works in laboratory conditions. All music is made in a way that crosses these boundaries: there is oral transmission everywhere; folk musicians train in conservatories; Romantic symphonies are distributed on CD by the million; experimental rock music is presented as an autonomous aesthetic object. And however much you might want to use these terms according to clear definitions, it’s impossible. When the Michael McGoldrick Trio performs a combination of original and traditional Irish tunes, to the accompaniment of a bodhran and an acoustic guitar, they are playing folk music: words are for communicating ideas, and in a non specialist context it would be daft to refer to it as anything else. Nobody would know what you were talking about, although in many ways it’s art music, and in other ways it’s popular music.

But I do use these terms: if you read my reviews religiously (yeah, right) you’ll know I use the term ‘art music’ to label my perception of creative integrity. The threefold division of musical practice into the artistic, the traditional and the commercial provides some useful tools for thinking about how certain sounds come about, or why certain sounds have certain associations. The ideologies of musical production are described by, but also articulated in, this scheme of the musical universe. The mechanisms of popular music production, in particular, have produced a good deal of essentially disposable music, although session musicians have sometimes amused themselves by injecting a great deal of creative effort into their commercial work (as The Funk Brothers did in the Motown studio). But the styles that have arisen from the history of these musics do not impose those production methods on their adherents, and the vast amount of independently produced music, in styles of rock, electronica, hip-hop and whatever the hell else is not predominantly commercial, mass-produced, widely distributed, or motivated by any urge other than creative self-expression.

Within the communities that make and hear them, many of these popular music styles function as the traditional, orally transmitted practices by which individuals delineate their identities, and there’s an argument for calling them the folk musics of the internet age; but no music is made in quite the same conditions of cultural singularity as the traditional musics of the past, and in their efforts to forge an aesthetic statement from the stuff of their experience, their practitioners are making art.

It has happened throughout the history of popular music that serious endeavour has been applied to the making of art from some of its materials. The first time it happened, it happened in such spectacular style that it was impossible for the cultural elite to ignore its new status; it could not be included in an existing category without calling into question the very basis of cultural hierarchy (which is also an economic hierarchy, and so worth defending); so it was given its own category, given the name that had applied to it as a style, but reified into a set of practices, considered to be sufficiently distinct from popular music or art music, and of sufficient merit, to stand somewhere between them in the grand classification of musical types. The awful truth, that most music transgresses these conceptual boundaries, was kept under wraps, and the distribution industry got a new niche market. That music was called jazz.