Re-examining “High” music

The introduction to Claude Goudimel’s harmonizations of the Psalter makes it clear that the harmonies weren’t meant for church necessarily but for use in the home. Again, another great testament to the level of musical literacy in the post-Reformation world. The interesting thing is how Claude Goudimel ties into the High/Low music debate.

When we say “High music” do we mean it requires great skill? Yes, I think so. But skill in terms of what? There’s no denying that certain music Ken Myers would call “Low” and “pop” takes some serious skillz to perform. He might retort that it doesn’t take as much skill to perform as a Beethoven sonata for a Classical pianist, but I have my doubts.

I think we often miss the point entirely. There are two levels to this: performing and composing. I think we can’t deny Ken Myers’ “pop” music sometimes takes serious skills in performance, but comparing the compositional skill of a Classical composer to the compositional skill of the most creative indy artist reveals the real disparity. There is no competition. And I mean that in its dual meaning: if they were to compete, it wouldn’t be much of a competition, but there is also no need for a competition. The two are just simply for different purposes.

But this reveals two levels to apply the “High” and “Low” labels. I’m certainly not uncomfortable with the non-PC approach of calling something “Low” (although, unlike Myers, I don’t distinguish between folk and pop, unless you just mean that folk is pop music weeded out by time). But I think we need to recognize that certain music is “High” in performance, but perhaps not “High” in composition. This would be Eddie Van Halen or something. But not even Andrew Bird needs to know a ton about music theory in order to compose his stuff. And if that offends you or raises your dander, it needn’t. It’s still really cool music. (Sometimes.) Your kids will probably just think it’s dated and stupid. (If you want to challenge me on this, please do.)

So, if your mind works like mine, you will have noticed that I covered the performance-high/composition-high category with Classical, the performance-high/composition-low and performance-low/composition-low with contemporary pop (and, in my humble opinion, there’s some canonical “Classical” could fit that too). But do you ever have performance-low/composition-high music?

Yes. Try singing a canon. Then try composing one. This is the great strength of the Reformation: it found that people grew the most in composition-high/performance-low style music. That’s Claude Goudimel right there: he’s really got some compositional talent (far more than we think), but yet his music is fantastically easy to learn. In fact, it’s designed for just that purpose. It didn’t require professionalism to perform, but it was still glorying in the complex, beautiful way God created sound. I think it deserves a closer look.

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