Friday, October 15, 2010


“Everyone loves classical music…. they just don’t know it.”

-Ben Zander-

One of the questions raised by Adrienne on Friday really intrigued me. Is classical music cultureless? To answer what is not, we need to answer what is, first. The word culture comes from the Latin colere, meaning “to cultivate”. Webster further defines it as:

2. The act of developing the intellectual and moral faculties especially by education.

5. The integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations.

It is important to note that the meaning of culture has evolved, and should not be confused with the definition of high and low culture that emerged during the 19th century. Matthew Arnold in Culture and Anarchy (1869) saw culture as “[…] being a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world […]” I believe these two ideals, perfection and the best of, have deeply influenced our thinking, creating a divide in our social construct. The problem that I have with "ideal" when applied to music is how do we then decide what is the best of the best, or when a performance was perfect? Who are we to judge that the gamelan is less perfect (or more) than a symphony orchestra?

The other definition of culture provides a broader context by including knowledge, belief, and behavior. Through the process of socialization, culture takes shape first through the family and eventually through the community. It is in the family/community environment that music culture is communicated and becomes part of an individual. This process of communicating culture is very flexible and organic. Any type of interaction we have as humans involves communicating (from the Latin to make common; to participate, join, unite, impart, and to share), thus music is a form of communication. In order to make it successful communication, it has to be meaningful and engaging. I have vivid recollections of my mother's standing ovations after a performance, which would make me incredibly embarrassed as a teenager. In my standards I had not performed perfectly, but now I understand that my performance was meaningful to her and her standing was just her way of communicating and reciprocating feelings. Music cannot be cultureless, but culture-full, because it lives in, through, and beyond us. This is why it is so powerful and universal.


  1. Andrea, I have a book suggestion for you--I think you will find it very interesting (if you can find any time to read it!) It's called Highbrow/Lowbrow: the emergence of cultural hierarchy in America by Lawrence Levine

  2. another one that is pretty academic but also good is Cultures and Societies in a Changing World by Wendy Griswold

  3. Hey guys,
    thanks, I will def. check the books out!