Music on Hold

A childhood “wannabee” of mine was that of being a composer. Life took me elsewhere however, but a strong interest in music made me a musician and kept me abreast of the progress of musical composition.

During the middle of the 20th century, I eagerly watched for what would follow the groundbreaking music of late neo-classic composers like Anton Webern, followed by music made electronically, at first with audio generators, later with synthesizers. The ferment of change excited me to the core.

I wondered, would the music emerging from new technologies of sound formation be the next great step forward in the evolution of music? Or would new music sink into that trap of nihilism that marred the fine arts in the Dada movement, early in the century? Would music continue as music or would it decompose in a swamp of irrelevance? A sign of that possibility reared its head when decomposers like John Cage argued, with virtuoso rhetoric, that music can be any sound in any context – translation: the product of whim. The claim would include silence, as when a soloist sat still at a piano and did nothing.

The 1950s were an exciting time to be young and musical, and I looked to the cutting edge of music for signs of its next major incarnation. My probing of the work of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Herbert Eimert, and others in this period of compositional ferment hinted of possibilities unimaginable a decade earlier.

But what happened to music after mid-century? Did we get a path to a new music worthy of its wonderful track through the centuries?

No. Instead of significant progress toward musical innovation, we got music that stopped in its track of evolution − the dead end of composition that fails to treat music as a serious art. It became clear to me from the evidence that the promising trend toward serious new music stalled after mid-century, just as it was about to enter a new phase of development.

I wondered if the general dumbing down that began a generation earlier and a growing assault on Western culture were affecting newer music? Though we may never have a clear answer to this question, anyone with more than a passing interest in music should have an inkling of the state of the art in its latest “classic” form.

Composition in its most advanced state, using traditional musical notation, acoustic instruments, and the human voice reached a peak of development in the late music of Anton Webern (1883-1945). Though “extreme” in every musical dimension, Webern’s music continued to do what serious music always does: engage ear and mind in a tonal journey that has a start, a period of development, and a conclusion – the basic “plot” of time-oriented art. Think of the unfolding plot of a story, for instance. A tonal sequence that implies movement from genesis, through growth, to fulfillment imitates in its way the adventure of life itself, a likely reason for its appeal.

Music of the first half of the 20th century retained a path through tonal changes that trace this “story-telling” aspect of a piece. In previous composition, this defining line in music was typically assigned to a melody or voice, alone or combined with other melodies or voices, in patterns of varying complexity. Without such a propelling component, music stops being a time-oriented art and becomes simply a source of tonal sound, however useful or pleasant. This continues to be the case with much new music, either of the “serious” or “pop” variety.

Sadly the cutting-edge of music in post-modern times has grown so dull as to be unable to cut through to anything new. After mid-century, the animating line of musical composition got lost in a shuffle of ideas that harped back to the form-busting nihilism of the early 20th century. Whether or not this decomposition trend was a symptom of the political unrest erupting in the Sixties, it became the “new normal” for music at just the time when music was about to advance to something genuinely new.

The progress of classical music since Barber, Hindemith, Stravinsky, Webern, and the many others who have significantly advanced the art of music has been on hold for about six decades. This fermata applies to popular music as well.

The “neo-music” (for lack of a better term) of post-modern America suits a mainstream that has lost the ability to see the connection between quality in the arts and the cultural health of a society. Continual lack of signals from the esthetic aspect of creativity weakens the capacity of a people to develop a sustaining natural intelligence regarding the world and their relation to it. Ignoring the work of the past, “cancelling” its insights via the arts, is a self-inflicted cultural wound that harms not only the art of music but the quality of life.

If I dwelled on the musical line of music in this brief overview it is because without a discernible  movement of tones forming the contour of a tonal message, there is no significance or meaning to the product. Since music is an art that unfolds in time, as with literature and cinema, its sequence of tones becomes its “narrative.” Drop it and get an assemblage of tones devoid of unity and lacking in sustainable interest.

This is the kind of music that has permeated much of what we hear in stores, waiting rooms, TV commercials, and wherever music is used to counteract silence or adorn text. In most cases, silence would be an improvement.


Anthony J. DeBlasi has studied with professional musicians, played string bass in orchestras, and been piano and organ accompanist for solo and group performers.

Images credit: Anthony J. DeBlasi

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