“Who Cares if You Listen?” I Do.


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Hicham Chami BabbitDear editors of High Fidelity Magazine,

This contribution is written in response to Professor Babbitt’s article “Who cares if you listen?” published by your magazine back in 1958. The essay, written in a serpentine, yet precise style, makes the argument that composers of “serious”, “advanced” music should withdraw into the carefully-barricaded and isolated walls of academia. Only there, among peers and colleagues in field of studies such as mathematics, physics, and philosophy, would they be able to focus on their creative art, which very few outside academia would ever be able to decipher, understand, and appreciate.

I beg to differ!!

While I find that the argument being made is questionable for numerous reasons, I also find the logic behind it dead wrong:

1- The analogy to Sciences, is–at best–a gross, inaccurate approximation;
2- The collaborative dimension of the creative process is bafflingly ignored; and
3- The rationale that analytical aspects in music surpass the emotional responses is so inadmissible that I am certain it was made in a moment of mental aberration and “intellectual stupor”.

Scientific isolationism.

Babbitt writes

“The time has passed when the normally well-educated man without special preparation could understand the most advanced work in, for example, mathematics, philosophy, and physics. Advanced music, to the extent that it reflects the knowledge and originality of the informed composer, scarcely can be expected to appear more intelligible than these arts and sciences to the person whose musical education usually has been even less extensive than his background in other fields. But to this, a double standard is invoked, with the words music is music.”

First of all, contrary to Babbitt’s assertions, applied science does–even in a remote manner–have solid and tangible connections to actual everyday applications. The application of science principles and scientific knowledge to practical problems is the ultimate goal of scientific studies. Artificial intelligence, engineering physics, environmental technology, optical engineering, nanotechnology, quantum computing are all disciplines thriving to transfer scientific theoretical approaches to physical environments.

The argument that certain branches of sciences (commonly referred to as fundamental science, a distinction Babbitt fails to make) are only concerned with the study of basic objects and forces, with less regard to practicality, is not pertinent here because of the very nature of the subject matter being studied. Unlike science, where objects and events being studied are NOT created by the scientist, music is indeed created by the composer, whether directly or not.  Therefore, the scientific establishment can, as Thomas Kuhn indicates, cloister itself “from the demands of the laity and of everyday life.”1  That option is not available for a composer.

Furthermore, as Leo Treitlet points out:

“ …music has always been, in some measure, a mode of discourse among specialists… If this seems to be more the case today, when composers discuss one another’s music without having heard it, the change is only one of degree.”2

Composers and audiences have gone different directions not because contemporary composers are pioneering and innovative, but because of the experimental dimension of their creations (let’s face it, which would you rather listen to after a hard day at work: Schoenberg and Cage; or Mozart and Verdi?). If any analogy is to be made in between Music and Science, I would invite Professor Babbitt to consider the following: the history of Science indicates that, with most experiments, when it has been shown beyond doubt that the experimentation had not succeeded, it is to be abandoned and dropped.

May I remind Professor Babbitt that it was a scientist, lead engineer at Lockheed Skunk Works, and Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society who originated the expression “Keep it simple stupid”3 (not to be confused with “Keep it simple, stupid”, with a comma).4 It was also a scientist–but also an artist/musician, Leonardo da Vinci–who uttered the words “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

Rather than admitting the failure of their experimentations, modern composers opted instead to blame the audience and its lack of appreciating the self-professed significance and artistry of the work. Dear Professor Babbitt, persisting in claiming that right is wrong and wrong is right, demonstrates a sanity issue, not one of innovation.

Music, a collaborative art

Music as a form of art is a fundamentally a collaborative enterprise. The composer’s contingency on the performer, not as a mere interpreter, but as a co-creator, cannot be ignored. That is the primary reason that no two performances are similar. Music, defined as “an artistic form of auditory communication,”5 doesn’t exist per se until it is played. One might even “play the devil’s advocate” by adding that music is only music when music is being played and performed. It is not before, and it is not after. Musical notes jotted down on paper do not constitute Music; and while a trained musician could still read them and imagine what they would sound like, it would remain an internal process, individually and uniquely experienced.

With the performer being the medium, I am tempted to push the reflection even further by asserting that the listener is also a component of the creative process–which is precisely what makes for the unicity of each performance…even though the pieces to be performed and the performers might be the same. Who can forget the 1989 performance of Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony” in Berlin conducted by Leonard Bernstein, in which the word freude (“joy”) was replaced by freiheit (“freedom”)…a consummate exaltation of liberation.

Music, a medium for human expression

In considering that Music is a conduit form for human expression, one must contemplate the truth that modern composers have been unsuccessful in communicating on a deep-rooted emotional level. End of discussion.

By relying quasi-exclusively on mathematical algorithms and relationships to originate quintessential elements of his art, Babbitt de facto hands over sovereignty over his music. By trusting his time-point system to determine fundamentals such as pitch, rhythms, intervals, and dynamics, he foregoes any possible human interference down the road.  If he were to listen to the piece after it is thoroughly composed and his instinct or taste dictates that such or such change is to be made, the option, out of intellectual integrity, is NOT available to him unless he changes his algorithms, or abandons his formulas.

Is Music to be felt, or to be analyzed?

At the risk of infuriating composers, scholars and musicologists, I would venture the premise that analyzing music is a process of gross simplification. Just like spoken language, music analysis carries within itself the idea of thought simplification. Let’s consider the following: the notion of “putting ideas into words” really means nothing more than simplifying thoughts to the point where they can be understood. Very similarly, while dissecting a composition into its core elements might shed a light into some intellectual aspects of the piece, it would, by the same token, keep us in the dark as far as other non-necessarily tangible elements. I am not discounting the importance of analyzing a piece per se, and I willingly admit that at times, information on the overall structure of a piece would certainly allow for a more informed “appreciation”, but even the best of analysis won’t be able to explain that emotional connection one might have with a piece. Music is just a little more complex, intricate, and more multi-leveled than analysis could possibly ever explain. When listening to an intricate passage of counterpoint in one of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, is it not acceptable to simply be absorbed or “swept away” by the music?

The insidious proposition that understanding music is a matter of discovering the rules governing its composition is ludicrous. One doesn’t need to know when a mode mixture is taking place to be moved by the sound of music. One does not need to be aware of the composer’s departure from a typical harmonic progression to be affected by it. One doesn’t need to know that a motet is isorhythmic to truly enjoy it. The effect is the same with or without the prerequisite knowledge.
Bombay Jayashri Ramnath, a Carnatic musician based in Chennai, sums up this point of view beautifully in an article written for The Folio:

“The lay listener may not be able to hear which instruments are playing, or which pitches are used. Yet, he or she may have no problem appreciating the music as a whole. An experienced listener, on the other hand, may be able to transcribe every note, but might still be at a loss to understand why the music is so pleasing to listen to even for the time!”6

The power of music to change lives transcends mere analysis, as demonstrated in the case of well-known author William Styron, who suffered from clinical depression. On the night he intended to take his life, he happened to watch a videotape of a play that was set in a music conservatory. As he recounts in his book “Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness”, a “sudden soaring passage” from the Brahms Alto Rhapsody “pierced [his] heart like a dagger” and instantly rekindled his joy in life. We will presume that the transformative and healing aspect of the Brahms trumped the compositional techniques “behind the scenes”–even though they indeed contributed to the overall effect of the work.

I commend and credit Professor Babbitt for his courage in stating his convictions, but I respectfully disagree with his logic and fear that his argument is a result of bitterness and frustration. The current state of disconnection in between composers and audiences is not to blame the audience’s inability to comprehend the music it is being served, but rather the composers’ impotence in creating serious classical music that can sustain the test of critics while still retaining a tasty artistic value. They have simply failed in delivering genuine material capable of causing emotions to well up within their audiences. They fell short in creating from the heart and delivering to the heart. They flunked the test of deriving intense pleasures from their listeners. (Here, let me disavow any accusations of anti-modernism; I applaud many 20th-century compositions, notably Stravinsky’s exquisite, complex, and emotionally-satisfying “Symphony of Psalms”).

Leonard B. Meyer, a University of Chicago composer and philosopher, with major contributions in the fields of aesthetic theory in music, and compositional analysis, says it best:

“Indeed, the composer’s ingenuity and skill are challenged not by the secret art or unheard patterning per se–it is not difficult to devise ciphers–but in creating an audibly significant composition in which the hidden “meanings” were embedded.”7

Atonalists, Serialists, Twelve-tonalists, and other xyz-ists of the 20th century keep claiming that  the music they compose is worthy. The sad truth is that it is not. It is–at best–mediocre, and audiences instinctively know what it is mediocre, and what is not.

Hicham Chami
Gainesville, FL


1 Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996. 163.

2 Treitler, Leo. “Musical Syntax in the Middle Ages: Background to an Aesthetic Problem.” Perspectives of New Music 4, no. 1 (Autumn 1965): 76. Accessed December 6, 2010. http://www.jstor.org/stable/832528.

3 Johnson, Clarence L., and Maggie Smith. Kelly – More than My Share of It All. Washington D.C. [u.a.: Smithsonian Inst. Pr., 1989.

4 The two expressions are not to be confused. According to Johnson, there is no insinuation that the engineer was stupid. As he (Johnson, the lead engineer) was handing out several design tasks to his crew, their challenge was that the aircraft they were working on must be repairable by an average mechanic in the field under enemy fire. ‘Stupid’ therefore refers to the relationship between the reasons machinery might malfunction, and the savoir-faire at hand to fix it.

5 Webster, Noah. “Music.” In An American Dictionary of the English Language…Thoroughly Revised, and Greatley Enlarged and Improved, by Chauncey, A. Goodrich and Noah Porten. Springfield, MA: G. and C. Merriam, 1872.

6 Ramnath, Bombay. “Folio: Music: December 03, 2000.” The Hindu : Front Page News : Monday, December 06, 2010. December 3, 2000. Accessed December 6, 2010. http://www.hinduonnet.com/folio/fo0012/fo001200.htm.

7 Meyer, Leonard B. “The Perception and Cognition of Complex Music.” In Music, the Arts and Ideas: Patterns and Predictions in Twentieth-century Culture, 281. Chicago, Ill. [u.a.: Univ. of Chicago Pr, 1970.