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#1570710 - 12/05/10 02:28 PM What is serious' music?
turandot Offline
7000 Post Club Member

Registered: 01/27/07
Posts: 7439
Loc: torrance, CA
A while back Rich Galassini posted a link to a speech from the head honcho of a fairly well-known music conservatory welcoming an incoming freshman class. The thrust of his message was that the students would be leaving behind casual study and entering the world of serious music. At the time I wondered what he meant exactly. It's come back to mind on and off reading posts on this forum.

Recently a member offered on another thread the thought that while Beethoven, Chopin, or Debussy might require a certain level of instrument, for Art Tatum;s music a noisy brassy upright would suffice. My thoughts once again returned to the notion of "serious" music and the possible connection to 'serious' instruments.

I wonder what "serious" music means to each of you here.

Is it totally subjective. rendering it meaningless?

Is serious music defined by genre and limited to certain genres?

Is it a black/white distinction between serious/non-serious or is it shades of grey?

Is there a single defining characteristic of serious music or maybe a checklist of requirements to be validated?

Is there an endurance (test of time) requirement?

Does it need to be composed by someone commonly acknowledged as a 'serious' composer?

If so, is there an umbrella effect which covers all of that composer's lit?

Does it need to be written out in full traditional notation?

Can it be written only with a melody line and chord symbols?

Can it be improvisational?

Does it need to have a dense structure of notes?

If it makes you whistle, hum, smile or even laugh, can it still be serious music?

Must it respect at least partially the structural parameters of what has come before it?

If it follows those parameters so closely as to be derivative, can it still be serious?

If its charm is immediately accessible, can it be serious?

If it takes repeated listenings to understand what's going on, is it more serious?

If it imparts a serious message which becomes permanently imprinted on the fabric of its simple melody (Lennon's Imagine), is it serious?

If it's ponderous (Mahler's Das Klagende Lied), is it more serious than Mahler's playing around with Frère Jacques in his first symphony?

Does the use of a minor key make it more serious?

If it incorporates dissonance, less familiar scales, and less familiar harmonic progressions, all of which surprise expectations, is it more serious?

If it is only pop msuic but genre-altering (Beach Boys/Pet Sounds, Beatles/Sergeant Pepper) can it be serious?

If it challenges concert-goers rather than satisfying their love of the familiar, does it get bonus points for seriousness?

If it contains earthy ribald humor (some Mozart operas) does it lose points for seriousness?

If it moves you even while played only in unisons on a solo instrument or sung a cappella, does it get bonus seriousness points?

If it places substantial technical demands on the voice or instrument of the performer (IOW a bitch to master), does it get bonus points for seriousness?

If it is relatively undemanding technically and can be performed competently by many levels of vocalists or players, does it lose points?

Does serious music (whatever it is to you) require the employment of a highly-trained voice or an upper-end musical instrument to do it justice?

Gosh, this could go on and on, and some of you have probably dozed off already. Anyway, you get the idea.

I know what I like, so I'll stay out of the way (scout's honor). I'm not expecting a consensus. That would actually be disappointing. On the contrary, if y'all want to fight with one another, no problem.. I'd just like to see what makes others tick.

Will Johnny Come Marching Home?
The fate of the modern wartime soldier

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#1570725 - 12/05/10 02:48 PM Re: What is serious' music? [Re: turandot]
AJB Offline
3000 Post Club Member

Registered: 10/01/05
Posts: 3678
Loc: London, England
That is a long question William!

I like many kinds of music. From hard rock to "serious" classical.

What I have learnt, over the years, is that "quality" distinctions are meaningless. The simplest song can move me. So can technically very demanding pieces. It does not mean that one is better than the other.

People who try to postulate that there is a difference may have lost the plot. Music is about enjoyment. Giving pleasure. Moving the soul. Transporting you. And various things along these lines.

Any music - whatever it is - that achieves that for the individual, has reached its objective. Nothing more is needed.

I expect you have a learned counter argument though!

Kind regards


#1570736 - 12/05/10 03:05 PM Re: What is serious' music? [Re: turandot]
david_a Offline
2000 Post Club Member

Registered: 11/11/09
Posts: 2913
It's possible to claim that the division between categories of music simply doesn't exist. I'm not sure if anybody really wants to claim that, but the possibility is there.

I think we haven't found the right word yet - I don't think "serious" is the word, and I don't think "classical" or "art" are the right words either.

If you want to take the word "serious" just as its dictionary meaning, rather than as a clumsily-chosen alternative name for "classical music", then the question becomes much easier - but I don't think that kind of question would even be worth discussing.

Pop music writers respect their parameters VERY scrupulously, so I think that distinction is out.

I think "music that can't be written without significant formal music education" is probably part of the picture at least. Anybody can learn in twenty minutes how to write pop songs. (JUST "how to do it", NOT "how to do it well".)
(I'm a piano teacher.)

#1570767 - 12/05/10 03:52 PM Re: What is serious' music? [Re: turandot]
BDB Online   content
Yikes! 10000 Post Club Member

Registered: 06/07/03
Posts: 24457
Loc: Oakland
Serious music is music I like. Frivolous music is music you like.
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#1570768 - 12/05/10 03:54 PM Re: What is serious' music? [Re: turandot]
AJB Offline
3000 Post Club Member

Registered: 10/01/05
Posts: 3678
Loc: London, England
Oooh David! I have been wishing I could write a really great pop song for 30 years. If only I had known that it only takes 20 minutes. Shucks.

I do agree with your broad sentiment though. People can get a bit snobbish about reading music. There is a great skill to playing by ear. Improvisation, especially in a live environment requires considerable expertise too.

Great musicians are hard to pigeonhole in the way that Turandot's professorial example does.

Take Nigel Kennedy. Violin virtuoso - possibly the greatest recording of Vivaldi's Four Seasons - raised the bar for everyone. I have seen him live tackling rock, with Eric Clapton. Playing technically demanding Jazz. Hendrix. Folk songs. And sublime, lyrical Bach. OK, he's not my fave violinist but he is very versatile. Some of his skills are far removed from "serious" music. But does that diminish them.

Is Lang Lang better than Fats Domino? How can we compare? Was Arthur Rubenstein better than Liberace? (OK, the answer's obviously yes, I'll give you that one.)

After a break from playing of several years, 2017 brings with it a new Steingraeber Phoenix 7ft. WNG action and CF soundboard.

#1570769 - 12/05/10 03:56 PM Re: What is serious' music? [Re: turandot]
Silverwood Pianos Offline
4000 Post Club Member

Registered: 03/10/08
Posts: 4263
Loc: Vancouver B. C. Canada

Liberace was the better dresser.....
Dan Silverwood
"If you think it's expensive to hire a professional to do the job, wait until you hire an amateur."

#1570780 - 12/05/10 04:25 PM Re: What is serious' music? [Re: turandot]
Uncle George Offline
Full Member

Registered: 01/08/10
Posts: 101
Loc: FL, USA
<<<< and some of you have probably dozed off already >>>>

No I haven't. You have put me to think more than I presently like to....

For me, serious music must satisfy me emotionally, intellectually and and awaken my curiosity, regardles of the label attached to it. It is given that emotion, intellect and curiosity are continua that goes from almost nothing to almost infinity and that they do not have to be present at equal intensity.

Turandot's "Will Johnny Come Marching Home" could be an exemple. I find it very satisfying and I find myself listening to it with some regularity. I find a pathos in the rendition the attracts me.

I hope that in a very general manner I have addressed your ..... long.... long list of questions.

Uncle George

#1570796 - 12/05/10 04:49 PM Re: What is serious' music? [Re: AJB]
david_a Offline
2000 Post Club Member

Registered: 11/11/09
Posts: 2913
Originally Posted By: AJB
Oooh David! I have been wishing I could write a really great pop song for 30 years. If only I had known that it only takes 20 minutes. Shucks.
Please read what I wrote and not what you wished I had said.
(I'm a piano teacher.)

#1570812 - 12/05/10 05:18 PM Re: What is serious' music? [Re: turandot]
eweiss Offline
2000 Post Club Member

Registered: 02/28/09
Posts: 2393
Loc: Beautiful San Diego, CA
What is 'serious' music? What people usually talk about on this forum. And with just as much seriousness.
Play New Age Piano

#1570825 - 12/05/10 05:45 PM Re: What is serious' music? [Re: BDB]
Roy123 Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 09/20/04
Posts: 1778
Loc: Massachusetts
Originally Posted By: BDB
Serious music is music I like. Frivolous music is music you like.

That's about it. Very good!

#1570866 - 12/05/10 07:06 PM Re: What is serious' music? [Re: turandot]
Steve Chandler Offline
3000 Post Club Member

Registered: 02/18/05
Posts: 3170
Loc: Urbandale, Iowa
Serious music is music where laughter is frowned upon.

#1570996 - 12/05/10 11:58 PM Re: What is serious' music? [Re: turandot]
SoundThumb Offline
Full Member

Registered: 03/28/10
Posts: 433
Loc: San Diego, CA
Serious music is like Shrek, it has layers.

#1571005 - 12/06/10 12:21 AM Re: What is serious' music? [Re: turandot]
RealPlayer Offline
2000 Post Club Member

Registered: 05/02/03
Posts: 2498
Loc: NYC
It has to keep me interested through the course of the piece.

But I've heard a lot, and I'm a tough customer.


#1571026 - 12/06/10 01:44 AM Re: What is serious' music? [Re: turandot]
Pianolance Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 07/28/09
Posts: 1215
Loc: Nashville, TN
We used to classify musicians as to whether they were "legit" or not. But any player that plays on a professional level is legit, whether they are reading music or not, whether they are a country, rock, jazz, modern, classical or whatever. Style isn't as important as skill.
Knabe 5'2" Louis XV Walnut circa 1927
Very part time piano broker.

#1571035 - 12/06/10 02:06 AM Re: What is serious' music? [Re: turandot]
david_a Offline
2000 Post Club Member

Registered: 11/11/09
Posts: 2913
I particularly noticed two pop songs tonight. One was Bob Dylan's "It's Alright Ma", the other was something by Joy Division. The difference in musical sophistication was staggering. (with Dylan's song having the harmonic & melodic complexity of the more boring parts of Gregorian chant)
(I'm a piano teacher.)

#1571085 - 12/06/10 05:57 AM Re: What is serious' music? [Re: turandot]
BoseEric Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 03/08/06
Posts: 733
Loc: Fairfield County, CT
That's a big question, W, but I don't doubt the sincerity of your interest so I'll put in a thought that will probably stoke the flames.

The term "serious" music came about because of the double entendre of the word "classical". Obviously classical music includes more than the Classical period so something was needed to include, I'm betting, contemporary music.

That being said, serious music to me must be written down in detail. My feeling is that to fall into the realm of being serious, there has to be a structure that can't really be developed on the fly. I'm not talking about a jazz player modulating around a couple of keys, I'm talking about structure in terms of themes, developments, and most importantly a concept of length of sections as well as the length of the whole. As an important teacher of mine said, Beethoven didn't simply write the final double bar when he ran out of ideas!

The other reason that, in my opinion, it must be written down, is to allow performances by others and the resulting opportunity of interpretation by others. A lead sheet is not enough, even though that kind of interpretation is wonderful but can more easily fall into the category of Jazz or Pop or Show Tunes (thank you Stephen Sondheim).

I'm not dissing other music, for god's sake. And the opposite of "serious" is certainly not "silly". It's Jazz, or Rock, or some style that can exist on it's own.

There are artists who blur the line. I remember seeing Frank Zappa in concert and his whole band (12 people) used long, extensively notated sheet music through the whole performance, and I don't think it was because they all simply couldn't remember the chord progressions! While just writing it down doesn't make it serious, my belief is that Zappas music included a structure that allowed it to be included, in my shallow and simplistic mind, in the category of serious.
RPT. In the business: Feurich pianos, Neupert harpsichords, Hidrau benches, piano technician

#1571090 - 12/06/10 06:10 AM Re: What is serious' music? [Re: turandot]
Tr@iL of TEARS Offline
Full Member

Registered: 11/08/10
Posts: 58

Forget about serious music, is it fun and does it have emotional content.

A player piano (or human) could play the "perfect" Fur Elise, but if it's lacking a personal touch and soul then I don't care how technically brilliant it was.

Most musicians make the mistake of settling for impressing people when they shouldn’t settle for less than affecting people.

#1571172 - 12/06/10 09:46 AM Re: What is serious' music? [Re: BoseEric]
turandot Offline
7000 Post Club Member

Registered: 01/27/07
Posts: 7439
Loc: torrance, CA
Originally Posted By: BoseEric
That's a big question, W, but I don't doubt the sincerity of your interest so I'll put in a thought that will probably stoke the flames.


I promised to stay out of the way and I will, but I want to assure you and everyone who takes the time to respond that my interest is 100% sincere. This has been kicking around in my head since I read the speech that Rich linked to many months ago.

As I wrote at the outset, I know what I like. We all do. I just don't know why. Often enough, I can't reconcile what I really like with what I consider to be serious. A lot of what I see as serious (yes, it helps if there is complete notation) is quite ambitious, quite intricate, but I don't really want to listen to it beyond the first hearing. I enjoy seeing it, analyzing it, examining it, maybe even stealing from it, but I don't really want to hear it again unless it's for more analysis. What does that say about me? What does that say about it? I'm not at all sure.

There is no common ground that I can find for much of what I like. Maybe that's not a big deal, but to me it is. I only put the long list of questions to provide a sprk, not to be answered one by one like a quiz. They are my own questions. I have no answers. I have many other little questions, but I thought the list was getting out of hand.

So while my interest is selfish, to maybe clarify my own muddle a bit, you are correct that my question is sincere.

I appreciate each person's input. That's the truth.

Will Johnny Come Marching Home?
The fate of the modern wartime soldier

#1571224 - 12/06/10 11:18 AM Re: What is serious' music? [Re: turandot]
Norbert Offline
Yikes! 10000 Post Club Member

Registered: 07/03/01
Posts: 15167
Loc: Surrey, B.C.
To me 'serious music' is music played *from the heart*.
As opposed to the typewriter crowd, some of whom a incredible technical players.

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#1571230 - 12/06/10 11:39 AM Re: What is serious' music? [Re: turandot]
rocket88 Offline
3000 Post Club Member

Registered: 09/04/06
Posts: 3716
I think the question is almost, if not completely, impossible to answer, just as the question "What is serious food" is impossible to answer.

To a starving person, just about anything is serious food. To a gourmet person, only the finest qualifies.
Piano teacher and Blues and Boogie-Woogie pianist.

A Blues tune with my trio: https://www.box.com/s/43da5e4ca6432d021eb8

#1571325 - 12/06/10 02:06 PM Re: What is serious' music? [Re: turandot]
SCCDoug Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 11/04/05
Posts: 663
Loc: Canada
Serious music in any genre has similar characteristics:
- The full experience requires the listener and/or performer to develop a technical proficiency in the language of the music through a combination of experience and education
- The music is sufficiently nuanced or complex so as to require concentration to fully appreciate
- There are commonly understood standards of excellence that the music must measure up to

Thus by my definition, serious music is is simply that which requires a more refined intellectual effort than lighter fare. It takes more work - but the effort is worth it.

Which is not to say that lighter music is not fun or enjoyable - it's just not 'serious'.

Just my thoughts . . .

"Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind." - Dr. Seuss

#1571693 - 12/07/10 12:39 AM Re: What is serious' music? [Re: turandot]
Jethro Offline
Full Member

Registered: 10/07/07
Posts: 236
In terms of classical music I think of Bach. Considering that both Mozart and Beethoven worshipped this man's music, I'd say his music had some serious meaning behind it.
Kawai RX-2

#1571776 - 12/07/10 06:11 AM Re: What is serious' music? [Re: turandot]
bennevis Offline
8000 Post Club Member

Registered: 10/14/10
Posts: 8607
Serious music is any music that its composer(s) deem to be serious. Mozart's Divertimenti were obviously not designed to be serious music, nor probably even his Die Zauberflöte, despite its moments of profundity (he is Wolfgang Amadeus after all). On the other hand, his K550 is very serious.

In our own time, composers like Pierre Boulez never composed anything other than DEADLY SERIOUS music....
"I don't play accurately - anyone can play accurately - but I play with wonderful expression. As far as the piano is concerned, sentiment is my forte. I keep science for Life."

#1571787 - 12/07/10 06:58 AM Re: What is serious' music? [Re: turandot]
sandalholme Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 12/31/09
Posts: 826
Loc: Dorset, UK
Just to pick up on the point about serious music needing to be written down. Bach improvised as a church organist. If it had been possible to record those improvisations, my guess is that they would be classed as serious music. (Oh for all those hours of extra music by Bach!)
There is also a difference between serious and solemn. There is much humour - often needing a little digging out - in Beethoven's piano sonatas as well as the rest of his work, but I don't think anyone would class his sonatas as anything less than serious.
It has already been said, but for me, "serious" music follows a composer's successful attempt (consciously or unconsciously) to touch the core of the listener, whether with solemn music, savage music, humorous music or simply music of great beauty. (Definition of beauty is another issue!) Wasn't it Beethoven who wrote "from the heart to the heart" about the Missa Solemnis? A work, alas, that passes me by, but that's my deficiency, not Beethoven's.
If it takes me out of myself, transcends my everyday thoughts, anxieties etc, it's serious music and it can come any genre.

#1572069 - 12/07/10 02:25 PM Re: What is serious' music? [Re: turandot]
Plowboy Offline

2000 Post Club Member

Registered: 06/26/08
Posts: 2816
Loc: SoCal
From Listen to This by Alex Ross:

I hate "classical" music: not the thing but the name. It traps a tenaciously living art in a theme park of the past...

For at least a century, the music has been captive to a cult of mediocre elitism that tries to manufacture self-esteem by clutching at empty formulas of intellectual superiority. Consider other names in circulation: "art" music, "serious" music, "good" music. Yes the music can be great and serious, but greatness and seriousness are not its defining characteristics. It can also be stupid, vulgar and insane. Composers are artists, not etiquette columnists... They have been betrayed by well-meaning acolytes that believe that music should be marketed as a luxury good, one that replaces an inferior popular product... they have forgotten to define the music as something worth loving.
Essex EUP-111 at the mountains
W. Hoffmann T-122 at the beach

#1572075 - 12/07/10 02:40 PM Re: What is serious' music? [Re: turandot]
ROMagister Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 04/26/08
Posts: 518
Loc: Bucuresti, Romania
Is Ligeti's "Volumina" that is played literally with the elbows on a pipe organ and sounds almost randomly, more "serious" than, say, a symphonic-structured "pop" album like several of Jean-Michel Jarre or Mike Oldfield ?

I think the main distinction is whether one has (now) academia on one's side and whether the intention to sell the performance is important or not.

But who knows, maybe in a century conservatories will dissect ABBA's wall-of-sound arrangements or Benny Andersson's choral counterpoint like in "A Sunday in Battery Park" from "Kristina fran Duvemala"...

Although Haendel's, Mozart's, Bach's etc. music was entertaining AND 'political' enough (specifically pleasing the higher-ups) for its time.


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