Should Music be Beautiful?

Philip Glass and purveyors of modern, minimalist music say No.

The most important thing to understand for a listener new to “modern” art music . . . is the need to shift their paradigm of judgment from beautiful/ugly to interesting/boring. To approach much of art music after, say, WWI with beauty as one’s primary criteria for liking something is to misunderstand the motivations of many of the most prominent composers working over the past century. For many 20th– and 21st-century composers, the working out of compositional processes . . . is an end in itself, and composition is a quest for ingenuity and freshness of construction, rather than attractiveness to the ear.


Glass points to one key reason when he describes his early music as “addictive and attractive.” Bluntly, “You could get high from it, and people did.” It is no coincidence that he formulated his musical concepts in the ’60s, at a time when they were both postmodern and countercultural. The incantatory, repetitive style of his electronically amplified music was not dissimilar in effect to that of the rock-and-roll with which his baby-boom fans were closely familiar—and to which many of them liked to listen while under the influence of mind-altering drugs. In addition, it was harmonically simple enough to be intelligible to listeners suckled on three-chord pop songs who were unfamiliar with the greater complexities of classical music.

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