WHAT DOES “SERIOUS” MEAN?
During my travels on the World Wide Web, I stumbled upon a post within a certain Facebook group that appeared to accuse a well-known piece within our repertoire of being “pop music” and very not serious. The composer of that piece has provided his own thoughts on the subject, but I would like to delve into my opinions on what musical aspects should be taken into consideration when attempting to discern a piece's value. This is obviously a very loaded subject, and I am allowing my role as both performer and composer to inform my thoughts on this matter. While I believe that labels can be useful for summarizing large amounts of material, they are not law. To attempt to confine music solely within a label (even one as broad as “serious” or “unserious”) is to attempt to quantify humanity's worth: there are some people that are definitely good, and some people that are inarguably awful, but the vast majority of people are a weird blend of the two. As such, this post is not an attempt to assign exact value on any sort of music, but rather an attempt to provide a decent set of standards by which to appraise music (particularly music written solely for percussion.)
To say that music is “serious” or not can be a dangerous statement to make, particularly when discussing the percussion repertoire. Because of the relatively short amount of time that music written solely for percussion instruments has been considered an artistically viable form of communication (many pioneers of the “percussion soloist” career are still among the living, something which cannot be said for the violin,) the role of genre within the percussion community is somewhat vague. It could take a long time to definitely declare what truly makes a percussionist a percussionist, but suffice to say that all of the following people can be considered percussionists: a solo marimbist, a big band drum set player, Chris Fehn of Slipknot, anyone with a riq, whomever performs the offstage snare drum parts in Mahler 3, etc. The aspect of musicianship that each of these performers have in common is that they strike an instrument to create music, and there the similarities basically end. The interesting part of the life of a percussionist is that each of the examples above could also be the same person (except for Fehn, most likely. Unless he is pursuing a solo marimba career which he is keeping secret...)
The point I am making is that as a percussionist, I can wear many hats, or I can wear only one hat. I can perform Carter's March for solo timpani, then go to a nightclub where I play drums for a K-Pop band, wake up the next morning and play congas for church (probably a rainstick too.) At no point am I worried about what genre the music I am performing is, only whether I enjoy performing it or not. So, to put it succinctly genre alone cannot be a determination of musical worth, value, or “seriousness.”
How do we determine a piece of music's worth? Again, this is a touchy subject, and I have no definitive answer. I do, however, have a few ideas of aspects to which we may or may not look for confirmation of a work's value. Let's take a look!
Tl;dr: Percussionists can live in a bunch of different worlds. The genre of a piece of music doesn't really determine it's “serious”-ness.
To equate a work's tonal language with it's artistic weight is, frankly, an antiquated way of thinking. It is not surprising that one might consider these concepts linked, since a large portion of theoretical study is often geared towards tonal (and really, mostly harmonic) function within Western art music (sidebar: this is not a critique of the American theory curriculum, as a solid theoretical foundation provided in early years of study can work wonders down the line, and there is only so much you can do in a class setting over a few years). Really though, after the Second Viennese School came around and dropped the H-bomb on tonality, and especially after serialism popped up, further development of tonality has not been the clear “next step” to take in the overall progression of art music (of course the tonal language of composers, both individually and collectively, has continued to develop, as it always (hopefully) will, but the narrative of the development of Western art music will no longer be linked to harmonic, formal, or tonal expansion.) I have a hunch that in 100 years this period of music will be considered something along the lines of the “Globalist” period, due the interconnectedness of our artistic communities (that is neither here nor there, but you heard it here first!) Just as genre is not an indicator of “serious”-ness, tonality is not either. One has only to look at the music of Erik Satie or Arvo Pärt to see that while the tonality of a piece can be quite reserved or confined, the work can still convey serious artistic intent.
Tl;dr: Tonality is only one aspect of a piece, and a work with thorny tonality is not inherently more “serious” than a work with completely diatonic tonality.
A composer's intent when writing a piece cannot be disregarded, nor should it be taken as dogmatic musical law. It is a tricky task, to compose with intent, for a variety of reasons. It is much easier to deflect criticism when you do not care about the music, when you were only experimenting. But when you try and when you put you into a piece, every note matters. There are works that I have heard which did not resonate with me initially, but upon learning the composer's intentions with the piece, aspects of the music that had previously escaped me were illuminated. Likewise, I have heard music that could not be further (to my ears at least) from what the composer's alleged intentions were with the piece. Intent, then, can be a double-edged sword, but at no point should it be discounted in the appraisal of a piece.
Tl;dr: Not necessary, that was a pretty short paragraph.
FORM AND PHRASE STRUCTURE
Form and phrase structure are two of the most important dividers between pop music and art music. Pop music tends to follow fairly rigid phrase structures: four measure phrases; phrases grouped in fours, maybe with a measure extension every now and then; overall form of (intro) ||:verse/chorus :|| bridge, ||: chorus :|| outro; quite limited harmonic range (I, IV, V, vi, maayyyybe a ii or V7/vi). Art music: anything goes, you will have an A section, probably a B section, and who knows what else? Phrases can be longer or shorter than four measures, they can start/stop abruptly, whatever can happen, will. Melodic material is not necessarily carried by a single instrument for too long. It is in this author's opinion, then, that form and phrase structure are two aspects of music that should be considered first and foremost when determining a piece's classification between pop, jazz, or art music. I would also advise listening for these aspects when hearing a new work, as they can help provide footholds during a first-listen.
Tl;dr: Phrase structure and form are two aspects of music that can help clarify (but not define) whether a piece is more on the “pop” or “art” music side of things.
YOU DIDN'T ANSWER ANYTHING! WHAT DOES “SERIOUS” MEAN?
I cannot give a definitive answer. Each piece is different, and each listener will latch onto different aspects while listening. I can say that tonality does not determine a piece's value. I can also say that the genre of a piece does not indicate it's musical or artistic value. I can also say that a composer's intention to write a piece that is fun does not mean that said piece is irrelevant, or lacking in any merit. Pop music tends to be blockier, while art music tends to be more fluid. Think of pop music as bricks and art music as trees and rivers and space and mountains. A lot of percussion music can live in between these two (or more) worlds, and I think that is okay.
Just as there is a difference between a Mahler symphony and an unaccompanied solo trombone work, there are differences between pieces in our repertoire. To say that the unaccompanied work is less serious is unnecessarily judgmental, but to say that a Mahler symphony is grand, is absolutely welcome. Because we are so connected now, individually we have the ability to collectively raise or lower the spirits of our community. We are not discussing the work of composers long gone, but composers that live among us. That is a very exciting situation in which to be, but it also carries with it a fair amount of responsibility. In any piece, there is something positive that you can say.
Tl;dr: Music is subjective, and it is great to discuss what makes some music work. But we shouldn't be so judgmental; we are all in this together as musicians. Constructive criticism is absolutely welcome and necessary for our art form to grow, but it is good to keep in mind that you are dealing with human beings, not just notes on a page.