Bruce Baugh, “Prolegomena to Any Aesthetics of Rock Music”


1.      OVERVIEW

2.      Note: Many of Baugh’s claims are stated in absolute terms but he really thinks differences are often only a matter of degree

3.      Rock music has its own aesthetic standards that either uniquely apply to it or do so in a specially appropriate way

         a.      It has different concerns and aims than classical music

4.      Classical formalist aesthetics don’t apply to rock

         a.      Using aesthetic standards of traditional (classical) music, i.e., “formalist aesthetics” to evaluate/understand rock is a misunderstanding

5.      Basic difference classical and rock: Focus on form versus focus on matter

         a.      Classical: Concerned with form and composition

                   i.       Form = arrangement of parts

         b.      Rock: Concerned with matter

                   i.       Way music feels to the listener, way it affects her body

6.      Matter in rock involves three (bodily) elements

         a.      One: Expressivity of notes themselves (“materiality of tone”)

                   i.       Sound quality of a musical note as vehicle of expression

                   ii.      Making a particular tone sound a certain way (via voice or guitar)

                   iii.     How the tones are played--not the tones themselves (or how they are arranged-which is form)--is what makes the music successful

                            (1)    Guitarist Eric Clapton: “My ideal is to play a single note with such feeling and intensity that it would cause listeners to weep”

                            (2)    Expressivity--not composition–is what makes rock song good: Fats Domino versus Pat Boone cover

         b.      Two: Rhythm

                   i.       “The placement of the sounds in time is the rhythm of a piece of music”

         c.      Three: Loudness

                   i.       Loudness often held against rock but loudness of good rock is a vehicle of expression

         d.      All three more properly felt by the body, then judged by the mind

7.      Rock’s three material, bodily elements constitute rock’s essence and basis for a genuine aesthetic of rock



9.      Rock aimed at arousing and expressing feelings

         a.      Prejudiced critics think this is cheap and unworthy

10.    Judged by feelings the music produces in listener’s body

         a.      Visceral properties registered in gut, muscles and sinews of arms and legs rather than any intellectual judgment



12.    Rock is a performance oriented tradition

13.    Performance is main aesthetic object for rock, not songs themselves

         a.      What a knowledgeable listener finds important in rock music is almost always performance rather than composition (the music/song itself)

14.    Explains why the singer, not song, is so important

         a.      Scruton criticizes rock for this, but Baugh would say this is due to application of the wrong aes standards and ignoring Rock’s distinctive aes

         b.      Explains the importance of the music video

                   i.       Listening to a pop song is not enough–for the music/song is not the main attraction

                   ii.      One should at least look at the music video (or better go to a performance)

15.    Rock has performance based standards of evaluation, not compositional or formal ones

         a.      Good rhythm can’t be achieved by formula

         b.      Bad rock band’s beat IS not quite right, even though correct time signature and tempo being observed

         c.      Less matter of tempo than timing and knowing whether to play on beat or slightly ahead of it or behind it

16.    Explains why when non-rock musicians play rock it often sounds flat/dead

         a.      Not playing wrong tempo or notes, but no standard score captures subtleties a good rock musician can feel

         b.      Good classical musicians cannot usually transfer their skills to the successful performance of rock music



18.    Classical aesthetics excludes from musical beauty what is central to rock

         a.      It excludes (or downplays?):

                   i.       How music feels and sounds (!)

                   ii.      Emotional reaction music provokes

19.    Compositional form is crucial

         a.      Beauty is in form, that is, in tonal relationships

                   i.       Not in any feelings aroused or emotions expressed

20.    Matter and performance are secondary and subservient to composition

21.    Matter does count in classical music (it’s not exclusively formal)

         a.      Timbre of voice or instrument is important

                   i.       Timbre: Tone quality of musical note played by sax vs trumpet

         b.      But matter is in the service of form: It is judged in relation to form and formal considerations predominate

22.    Performance also important in classical music aesthetics

         a.      But typically it is judged in terms of adequacy to the composer’s intention or to the composition, rather than creative independence from it (which is what is valued in rock performances)



         a.      Mistake to judge rock by standards of classical music aesthetics (e.g., form)

24.    Rock (is mistakenly) dismissed as insignificant because of simplicity of its forms

         a.      This simplicity of form is real in rock (not a misperception)

25.    Condescending to suppose rock music has value only when approximates compositional forms of baroque/romantic music

         a.      Don’t judge rock music by standards appropriate to the music of Handel!

26.    Some rock musicians made this same mistake and tried to produce “art rock” or the “rock opera” which turned out silly

         a.      E.g., adding strings when did not fit

                   i.       E.g., Buckingham’s “Susan”

         b.      E.g., incorporating classical music



28.    Rock music is for dancing

         a.      Good rhythm is key

         b.      Bad rock song is one that fails to inspire the body to dance

         c.      But Baugh also says: “Significant body of highly regarded rock music not meant to dance to”

29.    Rhythm, beat, and timing and dance also important in traditional aesthetics, so not distinctive of rock

         a.      Some classical music written for dance, e.g., ballet or waltz

30.    When classical music meant to be danced to (e.g., waltz/ballet), the music regulates the dancers

         a.      Dancing to classical music involves form: Precision, intricacy of movement, ordered pattern

         b.      Somatic or visceral aspects not key as with rock, but body subject to form and intellect

         c.      Music and performance regulated by formal structures to which musicians and dancers must accommodate their motions

31.    With rock, the music is regulated by dancers (instead of other way around as with dancing to classical music)

         a.      Musicians will vary beat, rhythm and tempo until feels good to dance to

         b.      Rock has no correct tempo, independent of effects on body of listener or dancer

                   i.       So correct tempo would be different depending on whether the dancers are in good shape or overweight/out of shape, young and vigorous or elderly and feeble?



33.    With rock, faithfulness to the music rarely an issue

         a.      Rather quality depends on if the performance/interpretation is convincing

         b.      E.g., No one too upset when Joe Cocker performed the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends” in way not at all suggested by original recording

         c.      With classical music, some deviation from original score allowed but within limits established by score itself, rather than effectiveness of performance

34.    Unimportance of virtuosity (outstanding skill/technique) in rock

         a.      Performance standards of rock have little to do with virtuosity of musician, with ability to hit the note indicated at time indicated

         b.      Some of best rock vocalists –Muddy Waters, Elvis, Lennon, Joplin–are technically quite bad singers

         c.      Rock’s standards have to do with amount and nuances of feeling conveyed

                   i.       Virtuosity of a sort: connects directly with the body

         d.      An opera singer’s response to Joplin:

                            i.            If I listen to Janis Joplin’s Summertime with my opera ears I am scandalized and my stomach hurts because of what she has done to her voice. But I don't listen to this kind of music with those ears anymore. I listen with my jazz ears and am flabbergasted by what she is able to do with her beat-up voice. Her improvisation is good, her intonation seems alright, but I have heard more beautiful versions of Summertime from jazz singers just the same. What astounds me is the key she sings it in. Almost in a soprano key that means in an amazingly high key for a rock singer. Her voice is clouded over and hoarse sounding, but I guess that was her trade mark.

35.    Wrong notes are okay

         a.      Take chances and make mistakes

         b.      Unpredictable and exciting in way flawless musicians are not

         c.      Even when hit wrong notes do so in interesting and exciting ways that can add to musical expression

         d.      Even when hit right notes great guitarists (Hendrix and Clapton) are great not because notes are right but way notes sound and timing of notes

Study questions on Baugh, “Prolegomena to Any Aesthetics of Rock Music” and

Davies, “Rock vs. Classical

1.         Explain Baugh’s ideas about the differences between how one should evaluate and appreciate rock music versus classical music. How does Davies respond to each of these suggestions? Do you think his responses are successful? Do you side more with Davies or Baugh in this debate, if either. Explain your reasoning.

2.         Contrast Baugh and Davies on whether or not rock music has different aesthetic standards than what govern classical music. Do you agree with one more than the other? Why or why not? Does Davies think useful generalizations can be made between these two types of music? Why or why not?

3.         Describe what Baugh means by “classical formalist aesthetics.” What is involved in appreciating and evaluating music with these standards?

4.         Explain Baugh’s distinction between the form and matter of music. What are the three elements of matter that Baugh thinks are central to rock music? (For example, what is “expressivity of tone?”)

5.         Explain Davies response to the Baugh’s form/matter distinction and to Baugh’s use of it.

6.         According to Baugh, what sort of intellectual skills, if any, are involved in paying attention to rock music. What role, if any, does the body play in appreciating rock?

7.         Where do Davies and Baugh stand on the claim that rock is a performance oriented tradition, while classical is focused on the music as specifically notated? Does either think that the primary art work in rock (or classical) is the recording? What considerations are brought to bear on this issue?

8.         Baugh argues that matter and performance do count in classical, but in a derivative sort of way. Explain how.

9.         What would Baugh’s response be to the claim that rock music is for the most part formally simple and thus musically insignificant?

10.       Explain the difference Baugh claims exists in classical versus rock concerning how dance is related to music. What does Davies think about this claim?

11.       What is Baugh’s view of the importance of faithfulness to the music/score in rock music and the importance of avoiding missing the notes the score dictates? What is Davies response to the position Baugh takes on this issue.

12.       Explain what Baugh might mean when he claims some rock singers are technically not very good, but nonetheless great singers. How is this possible? Give an example.

13.       Does Davies think that perceptions of musical expressiveness are non-intellectual? Why or why not? Does convention and socialization play a large role in hearing the expressiveness of music or are emotional responses to music built-in to human nature? What does Davies think about this? What do you think? Use examples.

14.       What do you think of Davies claim that Baugh’s view is that the person who appreciates rock music does not listen to it but rather has a physiological reaction to the noise it makes? Explain the difference between listening to music and responding with emotion on the one hand and having a physiological reaction to the music on the other.

15.       Explain Davies distinction between music that is either thick or thin with constitutive properties and give examples. Is a recording of music thick or thin? Is Jazz thick or thin? Why?

16.       What are some reasons Davies considers for why some might have doubts about the quality of the musicianship in rock music? Are these doubts legitimate in your mind?



17.    Discussion of relativity/objectivity

18.    Evaluating music by way it affects your body (as is appropriate for Rock) leads to aesthetic value relativity/subjectivity

         a.      (to some extent) Beauty in rock a subjective and personal matter

         b.      If judge it on basis of the way it happens to affect you, can’t demand others who are affected differently agree with your assessment

         c.      But this ignores that way music effects a listener has objective components

                   i.       Person who laughs a funeral music is making some type of mistake

                   ii.      Misunderstands the music or has psychological problems

         d.      Does not mean rock standards are purely individual taste

         e.      Certain properties rock must have to be good

         f.       Material and performance based criteria of evaluation not compositional/formal


19.    Form predominates in music criticism generally (journalism to academia)


So she has harmed her voice. Like getting lot of rust inside a trumpet?

You're Jazz/opera ears distinction is helpful but seems to exclusive. Aren't there other types of music that one needs even "different ears" for? That is different standards of appreciation and evaluation?

By her improvisation, you mean, her doing different and original and creative stuff with the original score of the song?

What do you mean by "intonation?"

Does she miss notes?

Are you saying that a hoarse and clouded over voice can be a beautiful voice? Kind of like a muted trumpet?



Thanks for Khan recommendation. I enjoyed it.

Tell me what you thing about her voice. Technically good?

Can there be a technically good, but ugly voice?

Can there be a technically bad, but beautiful voice, and I don't just mean expressive voice like Joplin's. Is Joplin's voice beautiful?

Contrast with instruments. Can one hit the wrong notes in piano/trumpet (bad technically?) and yet it still be great music, as we are assuming with voice?

I suppose there could be an instrument whose sound is not pleasing, but it could hit all the correct notes. So technically well played instrument (voice), but aesthetically unappealing.....



-----Original Message-----

From: Karen Hettinger []

Sent: Sunday, October 11, 2009 2:25 PM

To: Hettinger, Edwin C

Subject: Re: what do you think of this voice and performance?

Ned, try Chaka Khan's version of "Summertime"


         a.      How does one tell the difference between technically bad and ugly (unappealing) voices?

                   i.       Greg Brown is a great singer, but not a pretty voice