How hot is your Bartok?

I’m constantly inspired by WXXI listeners!   Your comments, memories, and observations about music are like signposts, pointing me in new directions.  Your creativity is infectious, and your support kindles the best ideas. 

A few weeks ago, the daily mystery piece (airing at 6:40 a.m.) tested listeners’ understanding of musical styles such as Baroque, Classical, and Romantic.  During so-called “Style Week,” Ted Libbey’s book, The NPR Listener's Encyclopedia of Classical Music, provided basic definitions and musical examples. (It’s a readable, thorough and entertaining resource I’d recommend as a basic guide for deepening your understanding of classical music. Plus there are cartoons.)

After Style Week ended, one Classical 91.5 listener sent the following response, which I thought you’d enjoy reading, too.

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Your week of mystery 'styles' inspired me to think about how music is classified.  When scholars try to set up a nearly rigid structure such as styles (in the context you were using the term), there is automatically a lot of argument generated and many opportunities for publishing scholarly papers.  Why did Prokofiev refer to Symphony no. 1 as “Classical?”  We might say he was thumbing his nose at such classifications.  (No doubt I would get a torrent of condemnation from musicologists for that remark!)

So here comes my classification scheme.  Rigidity is out.  First, by way of setting the scene, I give you my "Hot pepper" scale.  This was nearly the first thing I typed on my first Mac in 1984.  Following is a lightly edited paste job from that MacWrite 1.0 document (via Word 2004).

INTENSITY SCALE for hot peppers, etc.

   1.  How could anybody call this hot?  Or: thanks for telling me it is hot.

   2.  Like pre-ground table pepper to the expert; lowest level of detection of 'hotness'

   3.  Barely acceptable substitute for hot item

   4.  Good, could be much hotter

   5.  Very good, could be a little hotter

   6.  Very good, but a little too hot

   7.  Very uncomfortable.  Pass the bread or potatoes.

   8.  Thanks for the one taste!  Glad I tried it for the experience.  Crawls out over the lips & face.

   9.  Ouch.  Same as 8, but wish I had NOT tried it. Flavor completely obscured by hotness.

  10.  Immediate surgery requested.

Now the beauty of this scheme (compared with the Scovil scale) is that it is individualized -- every person has his own level of hotness.  For example, things that my wife finds to be level 6 are only level 1 or 2 on my scale, and when one of our sons tries something I call 6, for him it is only about a 4.  In my experience the highest I ever "tried" was an 8 or 9, when I accidentally bit into one of those Chinese black peppers that are meant for decoration in a hot salad.  I could not talk for 5 or 10 minutes.

So in exactly the same spirit, two people will have different reactions to music that is new to them.  I have drafted a preliminary set of levels:

Music classification, on hearing a piece or arrangement for the first time:

  10.  The very top.  I want to travel to the next live presentation.

   9.  Superlative.  Let's lobby for a local performance.

   8.  Great. I'll be buying a copy at the first opportunity

   7.  Excellent.  I'll be thinking about it all day.

   6.  Very good.  It should be played fairly frequently.

   5.  Good.  I want to hear it at least one more time.

   4.  Very pleasant, but I'm not writing it down.

   3.  Fair, but I'll bet it is more fun to play/sing than to listen to.

   2.  The composer should probably be using a pen name. Let's see what's on XM radio.

   1.  What did you say it was?  I want to avoid this puppy like the plague.

This scale is more broadly applicable than the hot scale.  Two people can compare their scores for more than one *type* of music. 

 Suggestions for improvement (such as dumping the whole idea) appreciated!