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What Is Art Music?

By Jennifer Voight
Updated May 23, 2024
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Art music is a term that describes any type of music that has a more complex structure than popular music and requires the listener to pay attention. In general, popular music is catchy and doesn’t require anything from the listener. Art music typically is an acquired taste where the listener must either study before valuing it or must listen attentively to appreciate it.

As the definition of popular music changes over time as public tastes change, defining art music may be difficult. Many musical traditions that are considered art music today were popular music styles of the past. The same may be said of current popular music around the world. In centuries to come, some types of popular music may fall out of favor and become classified as art music.

Around the world, music traditions have used elements that are not readily apparent to most listeners unfamiliar with the tradition. Many music lovers dislike entire genres of music simply because they have never learned what makes the music different from their favorite genres of music. Popular and folk music is popular because it frequently has a strong, predictable beat, a catchy melody, or both. Frequently, listeners enjoy a piece of popular music because of its predictability. Even when having never heard the song before, after several verses often a listener can complete a portion of the melody and frequently sing the words because it shares the same musical language with other music in the genre.

Many cultures around the world have musical traditions that fall under the category of art music, although it typically excludes most popular and traditional, tribal, or folk music. In the Western world, it includes what is known as classical music and some types of jazz or blues. In the Eastern world, it includes many cultural music genres, including, but certainly not limited to, Indian Hindustani classical music, Indonesian gamelan music, and European medieval chants.

Appreciating art music requires the listener to either study the music on her own or to be introduced by someone who can appreciate the layers of meaning and explain them to her. In the case of a Western ear listening to an Eastern style of art music, like Hindustani music of northern India, this music sounds exotic because it does not follow the Western style of music organization. As an example, Hindustani music does not use the Western major/minor tonal scale system that is arranged around the same 12 notes.

Whereas Western music is arranged around specific major or minor keys that use specific notes contained in that scale, Hindustani music is arranged around the Indian equivalent of a Western major or minor key, with some differences. Hindustani music does not begin on a fixed pitch as in Western styles of art music, but rather can begin on any key. Indian classical music does not organize around harmony, but melody and the relative relationship of each note to the others.

This may also explain why some early 20th-century art music does not immediately appeal to the popular Western ear. Many of the composers of this period avoided traditional Western harmonic organization and embraced a modal style that avoids the predictability of major and minor scales. As this music does not follow the typical rules of Western musical styles and requires effort on the part of the listener, it can be difficult for the general public to appreciate.

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Discussion Comments

By lluviaporos — On Feb 04, 2015

@KoiwiGal - I actually think that's why art music is so important. If we just left it to the masses and the companies that cater to them, there would never be any innovation in music. They are very good at getting it down to a specific formula, with certain beats and speed and so forth. They spend more time on the image of the singer than on developing the sound.

Art music is all about experimentation and innovation. I think of it as kind of like the equivalent of the catwalk in fashion. You don't expect the average person to wear what you see up there, but they will eventually be wearing toned down variations of it.

By KoiwiGal — On Feb 03, 2015

@Ana1234 - I believe they studied the human brain when listening to music and found that it tends to prefer music where the next note or notes are predictable. Not that the entire song itself is predictable, but just that it follows recognizable patterns to some extent.

So art music and any other kind of experimental music has an extra difficulty to overcome in that it's actually purposefully going outside the norms and what people expect and prefer.

With that said, there must be something more to it, because of course music tastes have changed dramatically over time and will probably continue to change. So there must be something in people that also likes to be exposed to surprise as well as the familiar.

By Ana1234 — On Feb 02, 2015

I heard someone talking recently about how they were developing a kind of music on their computer which would be basically eternal. It would consist of some random elements so that it could produce a tune and could just keep going without repeating forever.

I'm not sure that I would actually like to listen to something like that, but if it was done well, I guess it could be interesting. It definitely seems to be closer to the definition of art than music in my opinion anyway.

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