Classical Music Complexity

An article in The Guardian today discusses music and complexity. In
Don’t apologise for classical music’s complexity – that’s its strength‘, Alan Davey writes that “the inherent beauty, complexity and mystery of classical music will see it endure”. He’s arguing against those who doubt that “as a genre it would survive the shortened attention spans of the Twitter generation”.

A problem with this argument is the assumption that classical music is uniquely complex. A genre label as broad as ‘classical’ includes music of a very wide range of complexity, and it would be as easy to find examples of simplicity in classical music as counter-examples of complexity in another genre. As such, complexity cannot be “its” strength. Davey’s argument is that classical music’s complexity can be appreciated with time and effort; you get out of it what you put in. But that could be said of almost anything. The belief that ‘only classical music is complex’ comes from putting too little time and effort into other kinds of music.

Although it is no more or less complex, classical music does tend to be longer. Having a greater duration means you can fit more in, so it can allow for greater complexity but that doesn’t mean it necessarily is more complex. In other words, duration is a significant factor but it is a poor measure of complexity. The tests I’ve done using audio compression algorithms to measure the complexity of different kinds of music support this.

Currently I’m working on a research project for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport to investigate the barriers that prevent people from studying classical music and performing arts at university. The problem is that these courses tend to be filled with young people from wealthy White families, who are more likely to make it into a career, and that there are pay gaps due to gender, social class and ethnicity that only increase throughout professional life. The evidence I’ve seen so far suggests that if there is a threat to the survival of classical music, then it is connected with the socio-cultural and economic factors that have made it exclusive and elitist.

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