Accidental Music

[Vol. I, pp. 1- 50]

The fact that eighth-century Roman liturgical song – cantus in Latin, from which we get the word “chant” – was singled out for preservation in written form had nothing to do with musical primacy, or even with musical quality. The privilege came about, as already implied, for reasons having nothing to do with music at all. (I, 2)

This passage made me smile. It’s only natural to conclude that the most enduring music out there, the stuff that enriches our lives and breathes energy into our spirits, is also the best. For instance, take three bodies of essential music at random: say Bach, Miles Davis, and The Beatles. Their body of work, virtually uncontested in its brilliance, still works magic on people – and presumably will continue to do so – because of its sheer quality. All three acts, processed through the canonizing influence of “Big Men” historiography, reveal themselves to be game-changing, iconoclastic, and touched with a Romantic notion of Genius. We listen to Bach, therefore, because Bach is good. Or is it really that simple?

I’m not insane enough to impugn the quality of this music. But there’s something more at work in why these three bodies of music are recorded, remembered, and cherished today. Let’s take  a closer look. Bach was a  humble church composer and organist who toiled hard making beautiful music. Unlike, say, the Mozartian concept of inspiration being handed down from on high, Bach believed that creating music was more the result of hard work, solid craftsmanship, and perseverance. He certainly wasn’t positioning his own work to be worshipped as Genius for hundreds of years after his death in 1750, and indeed Bach’s name was largely forgotten for decades afterward. It wasn’t until Felix Mendelssohn came along in the late 1820s, rearranged St. Matthew’s Passion, and championed his cause that a revival of interest in Bach occurred. Looking in retrospect, Romantic composers embraced the industrious contrapuntalist from Leipzig as their forefather. But without Mendelssohn, where would Bach be today? It’s a metaphysically impossible question, but it makes you wonder.

Same with Miles Davis and The Beatles. Davis was pulled into the mainstream of the NY jazz scene by powerful friends like Charlie Parker. Had he not moved from East St. Louis, where he grew up, to the bustling, brand new bebop scene in NY in the late 1940s, his destiny as one of The Greats becomes murky. The Beatles were given not one but two unfathomably good breaks at the beginning of their career. The first was an opportunity to play, virtually without limits, in Hamburg. This opportunity allowed the young men to craft an incredibly tight product. The next big break came after their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, a storied event that catapulted the Fab Four into the American market. No Hamburg residency, no Ed Sullivan – no Beatles.

Bach, Miles Davis, and The Beatles all produced some amazing music. But they also got by with a little help from their friends. This notion that circumstance, sheer luck, politics, and random factors influence success and failure perhaps more than anything else is the subject of Malcolm Gladwell’s most recent book, Outliers. It’s a fascinating premise and one that historians should keep in mind as they proceed down the narrow path of any “Master Narrative” of history.

But back to the earliest written music. Chant was not selected to be preserved because it was better than the other music of the day; it was not notated (or, rather, notation was not invented for it) because it was just that good. No, musical notation came about when Charlemagne consolidated power under the aegis of the Holy Roman Empire and all of a sudden a vast, linguistically divided land all came under the same political stewardship. Charlemagne, seeking unification of this diverse empire, initiated a standardization of the liturgical cycle of chant. The earliest form of notation was invented so that far-flung regions with their own, heterodox liturgical traditions could learn the Roman way of singing. The invention of written notation, therefore, was a political act.


  1. marksamples says:

    I’m glad you brought up Outliers. Gladwell’s work has many applications to music, and especially music history.

  2. Nathan Baker says:

    I’ve always greatly enjoyed Gladwell–entertaining writing and very thought-provoking ideas. “Late Bloomers” ( is another Gladwell essay that pertains nicely to some of the myths we construct in music history–true geniuses aren’t natural child prodigies, but the result of years of training, practice, and effort.

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