Who Needs Classical Music?: Cultural Choice and Musical Value / Edition 1

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During the last few decades, most cultural critics have come to agree that the division between "high" and "low" art is an artificial one, that Beethoven's Ninth and "Blue Suede Shoes" are equally valuable as cultural texts. In Who Needs Classical Music?, Julian Johnson challenges these assumptions about the relativism of cultural judgments. The author maintains that music is more than just "a matter of taste": while some music provides entertainment, or serves as background noise, other music claims to function as art. This book considers the value of classical music in contemporary society, arguing that it remains distinctive because it works in quite different ways from most of the other music that surrounds us. This intellectually sophisticated yet accessible book offers a new and balanced defense of the specific values of classical music in contemporary culture. Who Needs Classical Music? will stimulate readers to reflect on their own investment (or lack of it) in music and art of all kinds.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"You will often cheer out loud! I did...more profound than can be communicated in a book review. I read this twice. Like all my favorite books, I will read it again and again. Nothing is more relevant to classical music devotees."—American Record Guide

"[A] heartfelt and finely reasoned appeal....wise, perceptive and inspiring book."—The Economist

"[A] soberly argued defense of classical tradition as uniquely valuable in its own right, and hence worth sustaining as a cultural option open to all. Who Needs Classical Music? is neither a last-ditch lament nor an aggressive counter-attack....Every page -at times, every sentence-is loaded with implications for further thought deserves the widest attention." —BBC online

"[A] sophisticated yet accessible defense of classical music's value."—Choice

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195146813
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 3/28/2002
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 152
  • Lexile: 1330L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 9.30 (w) x 6.30 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Julian Johnson is Professor of Music at Royal Holloway, University of London. He was awarded the Dent Medal of the Royal Musical Association for "outstanding contributions to musicology."

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Table of Contents

Introduction 3
Ch. 1 Musical Values 10
Ch. 2 Uses and Abuses 33
Ch. 3 Music as Art 51
Ch. 4 Understanding Music 72
Ch. 5 The Old, the New, and the Contemporary 91
Ch. 6 Cultural Choices 111
Bibliography 131
Index 133
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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 7, 2003

    Thought-provoking and well-written

    This is a courageous book to write in the world's present anti-intellectual climate. I know that statement sounds like hyperbole, but it's true. Because Julian Johnson flies in the face of the prevailing winds, not just in popular culture, but in much academia today as well. What Dr. Johnson says, essentially, is that the trend of seeing so-called 'high culture' and particularly classical music, as elitist, as exclusionist, is itself actually elitist. He reasons that people or organizations who set themselves up as today's cultural arbitors are in fact exclusionary, because they are determining what is right for the public, what they desire. It's far more than just a clever contrarian argument. Johnson gets to the core of classical music, its essence, what makes it different from any other music in history, by discussing how it is put together, how it develops, how it works through time, and then shows how these techniques are not present in today's popular muisc, which rely instead on simple, short repetitions to create and reinforce a mood, a moment, a feeling. Thus, he argues, pop music is more about feeling, about gratification of the senses, about 'taste' and subjective preference, while classical music, from a musicological point of view, has traditionally measured greatness by how the individual work exceeds the expectations and limitations of the form in which it is set. Classical music's tension is (generally) in this structural conflict between the formal and the individual, whereas pop music's (generally) is from the personal reaction the listener has to the textures, sounds, and lyrical message, conveyed through repetition, circular (non-developing) structures, and novelty of sound coveyed through electronics more often than not. And there is a difference, as he points out, between novelty and originality. What all this means is that classical music has a unique value as a cultural artifact that today's musics, no matter how different they try to be on the surface (with new synthesized sounds, new volume levels, new extraneous gimmicks such as costumes and props), cannot convey. He insightfully points out that often the most advanced technology is used (under the banner of progress) to create the most rudimentary of song forms and structures, and that people are responding to the surface 'lust,' the sheen of the soundworld, rather than intellectually to the construction, the stretching and reevaluating of boundaries. We come to the ironic realization that technologically-crude music made hundreds of years ago is actually more 'cutting edge' than the most advanced pop manufactured on synthesizers and computers, because (although he does not quite say this) technology does not replace the human intellect, but it *can* allow it to hide behind a curtain, much like the old man at the end of The Wizard of Oz. The book has some serious shortcomings. Johnson keeps trying to tie classical music's value to some sort of humanitarianism (both unnecessary and naive, in my opinion). On p. 8 he makes one of the book's oddest statements: 'Those who devalue art today point out that only in the last few hundred years has our society privileged certain works and activities as art and promoted them to an almost sacred status. But it is no coincidence that this has taken place at the very time that the rationalization of human life--both private and public--has severely threatened the idea of individuals' value by making them dispensible units in a quantitative system.' Despite the admitted evils of modern mechanization (see my review of 'Koyaanisqatsi' for more on that), I've never read anything in history to indicate that we valued life more in the medieval past than we do now. And I feel the author gets carried away in the 'commoditization' of classical music, making the silly statement that packaging has made all music 'the same size and shape,' i.e., a CD jewel box. How is this different than 60 years ago, when Glenn Miller

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 30, 2002

    Tragically, J.J. Might Have Hidden His Heart Behind His Head

    In brief, Johnson's noble defense of the Western classical or art music tradition, which I very much share with him,is, unfortunately,written in a slow,heavy, over-intellectualized style which masks any semblance of soul, spirit, passion, or gusto, thereby defeating its very worthwhile purpose -- the rallying of the faithful,the persuading of the doubtful, the un-masking of the hostile. Tragic, this -- and frustrating!

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