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Australian musician/composer/teacher,
Greg Foster
answers the following question...

Greg Foster

April 2012

The Question:
Is a Beethoven symphony better music than a three-chord folk song?

by Greg Foster share this - email, favourites, social bookmarks and more

Is a baked dinner better than a sandwich? Is a three piece suit better than a tee-shirt and jeans? Is a Beethoven symphony better music than a three-chord folk song?

Is it valid to make a value judgment about such things?

A three-chord folk song may be a bad choice as part of a Classical orchestral concert program (but then again maybe not!). A Beethoven Symphony may be a bad choice at a folk festival, a country dance or a camp-fire sing-along. But how could you legitimately say that one is better music than another?

Some symphonies may be considered masterpieces but there are a few which, in the opinion of some presumably musically intelligent individuals, are badly written or just plain dull. So to avoid the possible bias caused by the inclusion of a specific composer, namely Beethoven, let’s drop him out of the equation to make the question more general…

Is a symphony better music than a folk song?

The obvious basic difference between a symphony and a folk song is that a symphony is a relatively intricate form of primarily instrumental music written on music manuscript for a specific arrangement of instruments to be played by trained musicians, whereas many well known folk songs (often simple in form) were passed down through established cultural aural traditions,
mostly sung by ordinary untrained folk and the original composers are usually not known.

Some of the most loved, best known and universally time-tested musical pieces are simple ditties like Pop Goes the Weasel, Three Blind Mice, Little Brown Jug, La Cucaracha. and perhaps one of the best known melodies in the Western world, Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Then there are folk songs popular to millions that are not even known to Western ears. Does the fact that folk songs are more accessible to more people than symphonies, and are probably therefore more popular per capita, mean that folk songs are better than symphonies?

Because folk songs are simple, is their musical status inferior? I don’t think so. Many famous symphonic composers didn’t think so either. Some such as Haydn, Dvorak and Tchaikovsky even incorporated folk songs into their symphonies.

Is it reasonable for someone to say
“Classical music is boring” or “I hate Country and Western music”? Sure it is. These are subjective, personal opinions. There is an intrinsic difference between someone giving an individual judgment about how one form of music affects him personally and someone saying that one genre of music is better than another.

So, in general terms, a person may express his/her like or dislike of a particular type of music; a specific piece of music may be judged good or bad in different contexts by different people whether it be a folk song, a jazz instrumental, a pop ballad, a string quartet, an opera, a symphony or whatever, but can you legitimately compare the value of one type of music against another?

Is Gouda cheese better than Cheddar? Is a sunny day better than a rainy day? Is a Ferrari better than a Volvo? Is Expressionist art better than Pointillism? Is a symphony better than a folk song?
There is no universal definitive answer. The relative value of each is influenced by personal or cultural preference, the prevailing circumstances and context.

If compelled to answer I'd probably say, in the absence of specific context and ignoring personal likes and dislikes, -

"No, they are of equal value".

(I could have just made this statement from the word go and avoided writing all of the above... but then it wouldn't be an article would it?)


© 2012 Greg Foster

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