Judith Weir CBE, Master of the King's Music
David Matthews

A Matter of Taste…?

For several years now I have been re-evaluating types of music that I rejected when younger, but now take a keen interest in.

Why is this?  I think that when I was a composition student at the old Guildhall School of Music & Drama, back in the 1960s, I was indoctrinated by my tutors to believe that the only worthwhile music was classical and contemporary “serious” music, and that all other types were, if not actually bad (whatever that may mean), at the best not long-lasting or inventive enough to warrant more than brief scrutiny.

Now (at 76) I find it difficult to make value-judgments, and believe that my former dismissive attitude to jazz, popular, folk etc., was partly because of the indoctrination outlined above and partly cultural snobbery in that I associated certain kinds of music with certain social groups. Another influence is my long-term preoccupation with the ideas of John Cage and especially his aim (in which he was not always successful) of abolishing what he called “personal preferences” and becoming open to diverse music-s and indeed to all sounds both organised and random.

I have in addition grown increasingly impatient with the apparent elitism of the arbiters of contemporary musical style (that style termed avant-garde still around today but in decline since c.1980) who have so often ignored the fact that audiences never have and, I believe, never will be very enthusiastic about that type of contemporary music that deliberately aims to mystify and alienate them.

The adult population can be divided into three groups where music is concerned. The smallest group is that of the professional musicians. Then we have a probably larger group of amateur musicians and music-lovers. The third and most certainly largest group is that of the non-musicians – the musical illiterates as it were, whose only contact with music is via the latest popular dance-craze or “hit” number and to whom even being able to read and perform from a lead-sheet would likely be regarded as something special and as demanding the kind of expert knowledge that they do not possess.

Of course, the contemporary serious music afficionado will tell you that the simple, commonplace harmonies and rhythms of popular music and jazz are somehow “out of date” and that only constant and rapidly changing dissonance and almost impossible-to-perform rhythms are now worthy of respect. And despite a more consonant style emerging over the past 20 or so years, this attitude is still with us.  But why should this be?  And is this all connected with that other problem of originality?

In contemporary serious music personal originality is highly valued.   The idioms of popular music and jazz are styles that by their natures do not allow for very much personal originality and are, therefore, often downgraded by both the classical musician and the contemporary composer.

But there is no logic that says you must be original. There is always the freedom to work in a pre-existing idiom, as all non-serious composers do, but serious-music composers are wary of, except when writing obvious pastiche for e.g., film or television.

Just a personal preference (at the moment) but I find that, to mention one example out of many, the single chord (variations of C7) in Herbie Mann’s Memphis Underground is much more satisfying (to me)  than the almost painful sounds of some recent works (no names) heard at a rehearsal of pieces by young and unestablished composers who were, it seemed,  trying to outdo each other in producing the most dissonant harmonies they could devise – and all in the name of “originality”!

The contemporary serious music afficionado will add another hard-to-demolish view which is that works of art have to be created by long and hard work. I think that this widely held assumption began with the 19th century Romantics. Masterpieces can only be born through slow, painful labour by God-inspired geniuses of the Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler variety. But what about earlier epochs?  One thinks of a composer such as Telemann who is reputed to have written over 1000 pieces, many of them, if not out and out masterpieces, at least very enjoyable works that are still played 300 years later. He simply could not have produced so much if every piece was the result of long and arduous work.

To return to the title of this meditation, “taste” leads us on to the subject of aesthetics, defined as 

“That branch of philosophy that is concerned with the nature of beauty.”


Now, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so we all have our own views on it. The aesthetic pleasure that we each can derive from art and music therefore is peculiar to ourselves and cannot be measured objectively. It cannot be said for example that one man’s enjoyment of say “Yesterday” is less or more than that of another man’s enjoyment of a Beethoven symphony. Surely, where there is enjoyment, there is a measure of aesthetic beauty.

In conclusion, I restate my position that I cannot now evaluate in terms of “better” or “worse”.  Although I might not always like what I hear, I am open to every type of music, classical, jazz, contemporary and popular, and music of non-European origin. 

And it is my belief that if contemporary music is to continue to have any communication with and relevance to others outside of just composers and their very limited groups of followers, it must, in the words of sculptor and artist Sir Antony Gormley

 “…speak to the whole world” 

Gormley does this by use of an archetype- the human body- that all of us can identify with. In music such universally recognisable archetypes are not so easily found, but I would start with the major and minor triads and stepwise melodies, employed in ways not in accordance with tradition, but with whatever degree of freshness the composer can bring to them.

MJR 10/22 

 In conversation with Ernst Gombrich in Antony Gormley  Phaidon Press 1995