Art Music

Although known almost exclusively as the birthplace of the tango, Argentina is home to a diverse array of music and dance styles from its various geographic regions. Largely a mixture of European and indigenous influences (referred to as mestizo), many of Argentina’s musical genres can be divided into two primary categories: folklore and popular music. In addition, the European influences are not limited to Spanish origin, as Argentina became a melting pot of numerous European migrants, including settlers from Poland, Austria and Germany. While African influences are not as extensive in this part of South America, Argentina’s borders with Uruguay and Brazil are notably rich in Creole traditions where African-derived drumming and dance forms abound.

Art music (or serious music or erudite music) is an umbrella term used to refer to musical traditions implying advanced structural and theoretical considerations and a written musical tradition.  The notion of art music is a frequent musicological distinction, referred to by musicologist Philip Tagg as an “axiomatic triangle consisting of ‘folk’, ‘art’ and ‘popular’ musics.” He explains that each of these three is distinguishable from the others according to certain criteria.  In this regard, it is frequently used as a contrasting term to popular music and traditional or folk music.

The term is mostly used to refer to music descending from classical tradition. This is the common definition of musicologists and scholars.  However, some other authors interested in music theory may define it differently. Musician Catherine Schmidt-Jones for example defines art music as “a music which requires significantly more work by the listener to fully appreciate than is typical of popular music.” In her view, “this can include the more challenging types of jazz and rock music, as well as Classical.”


While often used to refer primarily to Western historical classical music, the term may refer to:

  • The classical music of several different cultures around the world;
  • Modern and contemporary art music, including electronic art music, experimental (art) music and minimalist music, as well as other forms;
  • Some forms of jazz, excluding most forms generally considered to be popular music. Jazz is generally considered as popular music. (Adorno for example refers to jazz as some kind of popular music.) But some more technical forms of jazz have blurred borders between art music and popular music.

The notion of art music has often been misinterpreted as being elitist, most particularly by fans of popular music as technicity and complexity considerations are often mistaken as indicators of superiority. But the notion of art music, despite its name, does not necessarily imply any kind of artistic superiority over popular music or traditional music. While earlier musicological approaches tended to consider art music in an elitist way (for example Adorno), many modern musicologists (most particularly ethnomusicologists) dispute the notion of superiority. In a recent international musicology colloquium dedicated to music and globalization, some ethnomusicologists such as Jean During insisted that no matter the technicity and difficulty of music, every musical tradition has the same dignity and no one can claim any superiority over another.

Moreover, in some cases the distinction between popular and art music has been blurred, particularly in the late 20th century. For example, minimalist music and postmodern music in particular got closer to popular music and rejected older cleavages. Conversely, some popular experimental musicians developed a special interest in the minimalist and postmodern approach, thereby incorporating certain aspects of art music into popular music. Therefore, some may consider certain forms of popular-based music such as art rock art music. However, in the strict, original sense these forms of music cannot really be regarded as pure erudite music because they do not match most of the criteria. Besides, many fans of experimental popular music (such as art rock and avant-garde metal) tend to mistake the sense of the term art music. In their conception, “art music” is used to refer to authentic and creative music as opposed to commercial music. Hence, use of the term “art music” sometimes leads to misunderstandings.


The term primarily refers to classical traditions (including contemporary as well as historical classical music forms) which focus on formal styles, invite technical and detailed deconstruction and criticism, and demand focused attention from the listener. In strict western practice, art music is considered primarily a written musical tradition, preserved in some form of music notation, as opposed to being transmitted orally, by rote, or in recordings (like popular and traditional music). Historically, most western art music has been written down using the standard forms of music notation that evolved in Europe beginning prior to the Renaissance period and reaching its maturity in the Romantic period. The identity of a “work” or “piece” of art music is usually defined by the notated version, rather than a particular performance of it (as for example with classical music).

In some western modern or experimental forms, the written notation of art music may depart from standard musical notation and use a variety of new types of notation to facilitate the exploratory nature of these new forms of music. The inclusion of the new forms within the definition of “art music” is based upon the intention of the composer for the experience created by the music and upon the method of the composer in communicating the substance of the music to the performer. In other words, while the notation may not be formal or traditional, there remains an element of formality or intellectual discipline to the construction and communication of the content of the work.


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