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


1.       OVERVIEW

2.       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

3.       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

4.       Focus on form versus focus on matter is a basic difference between classical and rock

          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

5.       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–form), is what makes the music successful

          b.       Two: Rhythm

          c.       Three: Loudness

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

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



8.       Rock aimed at arousing and expressing feelings

          a.       Prejudiced critics think this is cheap and unworthy

9.       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



11.     Rock is a performance oriented tradition

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

13.     What a knowledgeable listener finds important in rock music is almost always performance rather than composition

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

          a.       Scruton uses this as a criticism!

15.     This also suggests that listening to a pop song is not enough, but that one should at least look at the music video (or better go to a performance)



17.     Classical aesthetics excludes from musical beauty what is central to rock; it excludes

          a.       How music feels and sounds (!)

          b.       Emotional reaction music provokes

18.     Compositional form is crucial

          a.       Beauty is in form, that is tonal relationships

                    i.        Not in any feelings aroused or emotions expressed

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

          a.       Timbre (tone quality of musical note–e.g., sax vs trumpet) of voice or instrument is important

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

20.     Performance also matters in classical music aesthetics

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



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

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

24.     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

          b.       E.g., incorporating classical music

          c.       E.g., Buckingham’s “Susan



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.       Connection between music and the body of the listener is immediate, felt and enacted rather than thought

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


29.     When classical music meant to be danced to, the music regulates the dancers rather than the dancers regulate the music (as in rock)

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

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

          c.       But dancing to classical music involves form: Precision, intricacy of movement, ordered pattern

          d.       Somatic or visceral aspects not key, but body subject to form and intellect

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

30.     With rock, the music is regulated by dancers (instead of other way around)

          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?

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

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

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



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

          a.       Good rhythm can’t be achieved by formula

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

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

34.     With rock, faithfulness to the music rarely arises

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

          b.       E.g., no one too upset when Joe Cocker performed 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

35.     Unimportance of virtuosity (outstanding skill/technique)

          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 (Joplin's Summertime)

          c.       An opera singer’s response to Joplin: 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.

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

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

36.     Wrong notes are okay

          a.       Take chances and make mistakes

          b.       So 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?