The Great Music Debate: Classical or Contemporary?


In the course of a rather intense Facebook conversation, Music Editor Grace Duffy and otwo supremo Colin Sweetman battle their differences…

GD: My proposition is to show you that the modern collusion of contemporary and classical is nothing to be sneered at. In fact, where done correctly, it can be magical. Ergo, I should warn you that while my dear superior has decided to refer to my examples under the blanket term of heavy metal, if I even refer to one so-called heavy metal band I’ll be doing well. This shall be a discussion of the much-maligned symphonic metal – which does not include Evanescence, dear.

While I acknowledge that some may find the union of searing guitars, an amp, and an orchestra (digital or otherwise) unusual, bizarre, or downright ridiculous, it’s an absurdly underrated genre. What you’re talking about people, essentially, is the combination of film music – beautiful, soaring, orchestral extravaganzas – with the passion and conviction of guitars. It’s awesome. I just don’t see what the problem is.

Now this debate is labouring under a fundamental flaw – that is, the disdain my superior harbours for symphonic metal is not matched by a disdain for classical music. By definition, I love classical music. It laid the foundations for everything that has come since and remains unmatched in scope, idealism, or innovation. I’m extremely partial to a bit of the old Ludwig van, Mozart, and especially Wagner (oh I do love Wagner)… but I also like my classical music embellished.

CS: Bar the fact that I heavily edited the above soliloquy (I do outrank Grace), I have kept to her main points. Firstly, let it be known that the collusion of heavy metal to its musical artistic counterpart is an agreement brought forward only by the former.

Had Beethoven, Mozart, Liszt, Vivaldi, Verdi, Bach and others been alive to witness the atrocity that is befouling their music, I think they would have self-consciously written terribly so such an amalgamation of “music” could never have been borne. Upon hearing Evanescence (not before mistaking it for a screaming whale), I scramble to turn or hit whatever bastard has scuffled to offend my ears.

Heavy Metal and all its counterparts are largely based on repetition of every known quantity. I know this because I used to be fan and a player, until I said in bold lettering: “To hell with this shit”, and turned instead to a more appropriate, refined type of music that has at least a pinch of thought placed into it.

Guitars strum the same power chords with the ambition of creating distortion (in other words, not music). Same goes for the drums and singing. To make music, one needs the ability to put math and sound together. To make metal, all you need is a wanker’s wrist and some noisy equipment.

GD: I scorn the notion that a wanker’s wrist is sufficient to create symphonic metal. Shows how little you get up to with your hands.

CS: I was making the point that skill level in heavy metal is based on how fast you can stroke a guitar or how fast you can repetitively strike some drums.

GD: This reminds me of the whole maths bias in school – where you’re simply not a genius until you’re good at maths, no matter how good you are at everything else. So you’re evidently not a good musician unless you can make sweet love to a piano.

CS: What does that even mean? I’m applying stylistic elements of composition to music and you’re comparing geeks in math class. Stay on topic!

GD: Get down off your classical-ist pedestal. A lot of heavy music still involves, as you term it, ‘stylistic’ elements of composition. You can’t write a ten-minute metal song accompanied by a full orchestral suite without having some degree of expertise on the classics.

CS: And I’m sure that these heavy metal bands compose it themselves? As if! They probably hire some goof like me to do it. That or they just compose the most harmonically simple tunes known to man.

GD: Clearly you have never familiarised yourself with Nightwish. Or Epica. Epica are a better example, actually. If someone is ghost-writing their orchestral parts they’re certainly not being credited. I suppose that is the advantage of having a classically trained pianist as part of the band. It is possible to write both!

CS: Ah! You’ve named two bands who have actively stolen off classical composers. They’re not credited because the statute of limitations has run out on them, so technically they are in the public domain. Plus, they’re shite.

GD: Define ‘stolen’. And if you’re going to bring legalese into this, then use better arguments than that ‘they’re shite’.

CS: Most would agree I think. And that’s that, argument won.

GD: Majority rules eh? Then actual musical sales will hold that Jedward owns both of us.

CS: While I agree with that statement, think about this: no one will know who Jedward are in twenty years, whereas Bach and Vivaldi are still actively spoken of. Their music will be played many more times than those two.

GD: Hmm… technically you can’t use age as a justifying argument when our two genres are separated by about two hundred years. That’s giving you a ludicrous advantage.

CS: Well I should just stop arguing then, I think!

GD: Haha. You lose.