The Problem with Art Academia, or Why I Dropped Out

“I can’t possibly think that people should pay for my art even if they don’t want it. And it turns out that there is a specific kind of person who does think that, and they become university professors.”

Disclaimer: I need to get this off my chest. I promise my next posts won’t be as rambley or as personal.

Music is what I do. It’s what I do best. I have an immense interest in music, which makes me motivated enough to study it, which creates a feedback loop of enjoyment and skill. Maybe that’s what is meant by “natural talent”.

And thus, when I finished my CÉGEP in music (which is something like an under-undergrad, a post-secondary education to prepare for an undergraduate degree), there was no doubt in my mind. I was going to study music, specifically in a program where I would be doing both instrumental and digital composition.

This seemed ideal to my needs. I would be able to nurture my composing skills while still being able to do a bunch of stuff: programming, writing, meeting people, some acoustic science, etc. I was planning to get a music Ph. D. and do music cognition research. The life of a professor seemed idyllic: you were around other passionate people, you taught aspiring composers, and you had the time and funding to compose weird but objectively valuable stuff.

But then, over the summer, I came across  the whole rationality movement, and I started asking myself some dangerous questions.

Why was I doing this?

By saying that going into composition would be a nice way to study a bunch of unrelated things, I effectively went into my degree not because I wanted to actually study composition, but to satisfy hobbies. I had it all backwards.

I want to make interesting, pretty sounds, and, along the way, make enough money to survive (and sign up for cryonics, heheheheh). But I also wanted to do research! What better way is there than by having a graduate degree?

Oh boy. Let me tell you about contemporary music theory.

You know, in science, when you have a theory, you have to test it against the world to see if it works. A good theory of the world must be able to make predictions. There are many things that feel like they explain things, but they really just exploit your reward system. Your brain isn’t naturally calibrated to enjoy real things, and often, reality seems bleak. Mere reality. How boring. So, you need empirical evidence.

What kind of empirical evidence could music theory have? What kind of predictions can it make? Does it explain what people like? Surely we can’t base our theories on the average Joe’s music tastes! (beacuse then, how do you explain twelve-tone serialism?) The only way music theory can do anything is by trying to analyse the great composers’ style so much that you can emulate them. And that’s awesome!… except, who are the recent great composers? Schoenberg, Varèse, Boulez, Xenakis… all widely unpopular with the public, all requiring much exposure and repeted listens in order to be appreciated. But repeated exposure will make us like anything.

Elizabeth Margulis, music cognition researcher, puts it like this:

In a recent study at the Music Cognition lab, we played people samples of this sort of music, written by such renowned 20th-century composers as Luciano Berio and Elliott Carter. Unbeknownst to the participants, some of these samples had been digitally altered. Segments of these excerpts, chosen only for convenience and not for aesthetic effect, had been extracted and reinserted. These altered excerpts differed from the original excerpts only in that they featured repetition.

The altered excerpts should have been fairly cringeworthy; after all, the originals were written by some of the most celebrated composers of recent times, and the altered versions were spliced together without regard to aesthetic effect. But listeners in the study consistently rated the altered excerpts as more enjoyable, more interesting, and – most tellingly – more likely to have been composed by a human artist rather than randomly generated by a computer. The listeners in the study were college undergraduates with no special training or experience in contemporary art music.


And so, the only way to have a reliable aesthetic theory of music is by examining popular music, and academics won’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. It’s all about status, man.

Besides, in order to do research on music cognition, you don’t necessarily need compositional skills. You also don’t need to know much about counterpoint, or modern classical music, or modern music theory, because these things have strayed far from the search for what humans like into how to perpetuate specific styles. You need to know about neurology, cognitive science, and acoustics. And maybe computer science and machine learning if you want to actually make automated compositions and models of the human brain.

What is the value of music? or of art in general?

Now this is the real kicker. Suggesting that I live off government funding for my compositional adventures means that believe there is an objective value to the music I might make, since having need of funding means that there isn’t enough economic demand for it.

But then, what is value? What is it, if not what people want? And if people don’t want my music, how can I say it has value? Clearly, there is no such thing as objective value. And, really, since people pay for what they want, and the price of something is literally the value of something, economic viability is a good indicator of something having value. It isn’t a perfect indicator, since there could be things the poor want a lot that they can’t buy, or that the rich want a bit that they can very easily buy, but it’s good enough, considering the majority of people are middle-class.

Milton Babbitt, a modernist composer, said in 1958: “Why should the layman be other than bored and puzzled by what he is unable to understand, music or anything else?” Indeed, people are baffled by experts in mathematics, in economics, and in any kind of science, really. Modern composition would be the product of specialists’ work. For a while, that argument had stuck with me, and it provided me some relief.

But it doesn’t work. The product of scientific specialists is a better comprehension of the world, for everyone. You can argue that knowledge has an intrinsic value, since there is and objective world which “continues to exist whether or not you believe in it”, but one could also argue that would only mean it has value to you (and most likely to a good proportion of people). People still want theoretical scientific research, even if they can’t understand it. And besides, a better understanding of the world improves technology, which can improve our lives in concrete ways, which ultimately satisfies people’s values, and as such people would be justified in supporting theoretical scientific research even if it is beyond their comprehension. The thing people are not comprehending are not ultimately what they should value. It trickles down.

If we make the comparison with modern artists being specialists, we immediately see the problem: the very thing that people do not understand is what the artists are offering them. Is there any trickling down?   The problem is that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and so beauty directly depends on the understanding of your beholder — er, your audience. Therefore, if people do not understand modern music, that means this kind of music has less value. I don’t think anything can have some sort of intrinsic value that people don’t know about.

Nevertheless, I can’t possibly think that people should pay for my art even if they don’t want it. And it turns out that there is a specific kind of person who does think that, and they become university professors.

What should I be doing?

Now then, perhaps an undergraduate degree can be useful economically. But in the artistic industries, degrees don’t have the signaling value they have in other milieus. It’s what you make that matters. It’s your portfolio. Therefore, if you get your music degree for the paper at the end, you’re going to have a bad time.

And… I did. Having no social support from lack of friends in the program, no intrinsic motivation, no respect for the teachers, how can you expect someone like me to be motivated enough to even go to class?

Could I self-teach everything?

I’ve been composing for about 7 years, now. They say mastery of a skill requires 10 years. Looking back, I can definitely see a gradual amelioration of my writing, and this was all without being in college or having specific classes on compositional aspects. I did have a composition class in my under-undergrad program, but there was no specific exercises given and was pretty much only a motivator for projects (needless to say, I loved it).

Meaning that I only need motivation, whether social or intrinsic (or just to have fun), to make things and therefore get better at making things.

Besides, if I were going to college for money, I would study computer science.

Maybe I should.


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