“Music is an innocent luxury,” Charles Burney

I love reading the writings about music from different eras.  They are full of ideas that challenge as well as remind me of circumstances of today.

Below is a quote by Dr. Charles Burney (1726-1814).  Burney, an Englishman, was a music historian and critic, who travelled to France, Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands to hear the latest compositions – instrumental and vocal. From his book, A General History of Music, Burney provides us his view of music:

      Music is an innocent luxury, unnecessary, indeed, to our existence, but a great improvement and gratification of the sense of hearing. 

      With respect to excellence of Style and Composition, it may perhaps be said that to practised ears the most pleasing Music is such as has he merit of novelty, added to refinement, and ingenious contrivance; and to the ignorant, such as is most familiar and common. 

     As Music may be defined as the art of pleasing by the succession and combination of agreeable sounds, every hearer has a right to give way to his feelings, and be pleased or dissatisfied without knowledge, experience. or the fiat of critics; but then he has certainly no right to insist on others being pleased or dissatisfied in the same degree. I can very readily forgive the man who admires a different Music from that which pleased me, provided he does not extend his hatred or contempt of my favourite Music to myself, and imagine that on the exclusive admiration of any one style of Music, and a close adherence to it, all wisdom, taste, and virtue depend.

I think that I would have enjoyed a discussion with Burney about music.

  1. How do you understand his use of the work “innocent?”
  2. How do “practised ears” versus the “ignorant” of Burney’s age compare to today?
  3. How do you think Burney would view the state of “classical” and “popular” music today?

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20 Responses to “Music is an innocent luxury,” Charles Burney

  1. Kyle McInnis says:

    The use of “innocent” could be that music has no direct tie or responsible for being called a luxury. It’s unnecessary to existence like food, water or sex is. I think the idea of “practiced ears” still has the same intent as he stated it then. There are a lot of people that are not better listeners but more practiced. Therefore what they like in music is new and surprising elements rather than the same “pop” interests of the “ignorant.” I wouldn’t use the term ignorant myself, maybe unpracticed since that’s all it is. I don’t know how he would view pop today. He might say its music of the “ignorant” or untrained but I don’t know if thats what people thought then of classical.

  2. Brad Zellman says:

    I think that Burney’s sentiments of music may be a little out dated, at least from the popular music point of view. It seems that Top 40 tracks all have the same elements, some kind of hip-hop sound, a mix of house music and strong vocals. The recent Dub-Step craze is of course the exception which has been molded into a safe (and rather safe) version of its roots as underground club music for popular consumption. I do agree that we have different tastes, and whether we are all educated in music or not are entitled to our opinion. In fact, its interesting that I find that its more common for people who are musically educated to get into heated debates over style and form than the music layman (no offense). Indeed those with a background in music have more ammo of which to attack a style or genre but those who have been educated should be more open to being further educated (although entitled to their opinion).

  3. kvalentine says:

    I understand the usage of the word “innocent” to mean that the feelings it ignites whether it be pleasurable (in this case since it is seen as a luxury) or not pleasurable cannot be traced back to the music in itself. Kyle mentioned this above but simply to expound on what he said, it cannot be held responsible. Because it is unnecessary to our being, we then have the ability to control how much effect it has on our lives and our interaction with other and with nature. It cannot be held responsible for bad or good feelings. It is a luxury but innocent of any effects to follow.

  4. Marlon Munoz says:

    “Innocent” can have a different meaning in the world of music. For some tastes, or many different tastes of music around the world, people have different views about what they hear. But, a critic should not be some sort of reinforcement to make another listener like what we hearing. People are many times offended by the lyrics but, those same lyrics can be reinterpreted in a positive way by another listener. So, there is “no practiced ears” versus “ignorant”. Critics assumed they know everything but do not respect about other people taste. I’m inclined into Hip-Hop/ Rap genre. It does not mean I am against other genres. In fact, it is very ignorant to say that we dislike a musical genre without giving the change or opportunity to experience it. Moreover, “classical” and “popular” falls under the taste category. For instance there could be a mix of both, a classic that become so popular. But for critics, they say you need to have knowledge about music to state such opinion. Music is an innocent luxury and very necessary for the soul.

  5. Anne says:

    I would say that the use of the word “innocent” with luxury mean it does not hurt anyone or anything if it is something you enjoy. We often know people or come across people who act as if they have a superior idea or knowledge of what good music is or should sound like. Some think in order to know good music you have to have a practiced ear. I truly believe Burney said some words of wisdom because music can be very personal to some people, and I have songs that someone else may not appreciate but put me in a particular point in my life where something meaningful happened. Music says things that can’t be spoken at times and can uplift the world when it gets tough, so although I think we could still go to school and do homework and go to work, I don’t think life would be nearly as intriguing, inspired, or sane!

  6. The word “innocent” in this case means that music, as a luxury, “…unnecessary, indeed, to our existence,” does not corrupt the human soul or take away energy/resources required for human “progress,” both morally and physically. To make this point a bit more “tangible,” one can think of alcohol as “non-innocent” luxury, “…unnecessary, indeed, to our existence,” but excess of which can degrade a human being.
    With regard to “practiced” ears versus “ignorant,” when comparing Burney’s age to ours, I don’t believe much has changed. And the question brought forth by Burney, here, does not necessarily lie in the subjectivity of musical tastes between the two, but rather within the ethical approach of people with such tastes. There is no “bad” or “good” when it comes to the enjoyment of listening to music, whether using “practiced” or “ignorant” ears, and yet, today, as well as were hundreds of years ago, there are many who will argue that a particular style of music is better than another, based on their personal taste.
    Had Burney been frozen around 1800 and awoken today by some miracle, he would certainly be mesmerized by many of the mainstream sounds. However, if he had stayed alive to witness the evolution throughout all these years, I’m certain he would have been somewhat disappointed with popular music of today.

  7. As the word “innocent” is used with luxury, I would say that it means unnecessary. It is good that we have music. However, if we did not have this “innocent luxury” it would not be the end of the world, because it has no direct relationship with our existence. At the same time, music makes our lives more pleasant and, as Anne pointed out, does not hurt anyone.
    I think nothing really changed with regard to “practiced ears” versus the “ignorant.” Actually, it seems like it is never going to change. This“labeling” is seen in every area of our lives in every century. Some people, whether they have “practiced ears” or not, assume that they know better than others do. I am sure it is not always the case, even if a person has a background in music. There is no universal rule that can tell us what “good” or “bad” music is. No one should express “his hatred of your favorite Music.” Our tastes are very different and subjective.
    “If only Pop music was made like this instead of the garbage that is being created nowadays.” I just saw this comment on YouTube for Ace of Base’s “The Sign” (The music of my childhood that I came across today.) People like to blame today’s music and adore what was created in the past. I think Charles Burney would have reacted the same way, despite the fact that we are talking about the centuries, not decades.

  8. That he lived to be 88 years old, at a time when disease and pestilence ravaged European cities and octogenarians were definitely not yet in vogue, perhaps best summarizes the effect music must have had on the English music historian and critic Charles Burney. He loved it, and it loved him back, rewarding him with a gracious way to grow in years.
    Burney is quoted as having said, “Music is an innocent luxury.” Luxury because exposure to music and music appreciation, like the arts in general, were not meant for the masses but for the elite and the merchant (read “moneyed”) class… But why does he call this luxury “innocent?” I think that’s because Burney regarded music as totally lacking in prejudice. It was “a succession and combination of agreeable sounds” that was meant by the composer and its performers to simply please one’s ears. Unlike literature or stage plays which can give lectures and moral lessons, music, especially instrumental music just entertains the listener. That’s all.
    “Practiced ears” would mean people who knew classical music (for that was the music of Burney’s era); “ignorant” would refer to people who did not know better. Today, the comparison would be between lovers of classical music and those who prefer to listen – and dance – to popular music.
    It would be difficult to find an Adele or Bruno Mars fan going gaga over the New York Philharmonic’s performance of a Beethoven symphony, or vice versa… unless you had the trained, practiced ears of Charles Burney.
    I bet you Burney would be the first to acknowledge that Lady Gaga and other top practitioners of popular music, like U2, Sting, Queen, and even the late Whitney Houston, are the true heirs of Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart and the English Handel.

  9. Burney seems like a learned and open-minded man. I believe he is right in calling Music an “innocent” luxury. To call something innocent means that it is pure and harmless. Music isn’t intended to cause pain or harm to an individual, rather, it is composed to appeal to our emotions and to please (but, sometimes upset) the auditory system. Burney’s comparison of “practiced ears” versus the “ignorant” is still very relative to the Music of today. In my humble opinion, the pop music of our era is made for and marketed to the “ignorant.” Comprised of simple beats and senseless lyrics, today’s Music can be listened to mindlessly and doesn’t require a conscious ear. This does not, however, mean that Music for the “practiced ear” doesn’t still exist. There are plenty of places to find Music with deeply complex instrumental composition and witty, intelligible, poetic lyrics. Burney seems to understand that both forms of Music are allowed to exist in their own right and that each person is entitled to his own opinion of which he better prefers, so long as he doesn’t speak badly about that of which he does not prefer. Although the gap between Classical Music and Pop Music is ever expanding, I don’t think Burney would see a problem with it. I would argue that he would stand firm in believing that different Music appeals to different people and that everyone is free to choose their own “innocent” luxury.

  10. jaehee.hong says:

    The word “innocent” is used here as in purity of music in my opinion. I think we’ve all heard of music that we really don’t like and don’t care for, as well as music that we like so much that we can listen to it everyday. We also all know that that is just our preference and we have no right to say what’s “good” or “bad,” or “right” or “wrong.” Furthermore, music, unlike paintings and theater, stimulates our sense of hearing which enables us to use our imagination to interpret it. In that way, music might be the most pure form of art. I think Burney was thinking similarly.
    There are a lot of good artists out there, but once in a while, a great artist comes along. Burney is referring “practised ears” to the great artists. A great artist brings something new to the art while still keeping the originality. Something that no one has done before and he changes the whole perspective of music. In contrast, the “ignorant” are attracted to what is the most common or perhaps “most popular.” If you were to compare “ignorant” to today’s term, it would be someone who only listen to what comes on the radio.
    I think the basic definition of “practised ears” and “ignorant” are still the same, although I believe that the modern day artists are lazier than that of classic periods. It’s a sad truth, but money has decreased the value of “novelty.” It is no surprise that Burney would shake his head if he were to listen to today’s radio.

  11. fdelarosa says:

    I could not agree more with Burney…

    I feel like I have said the same thing so many times when the conversation of music comes up. The way that I interpret Burney’s usage of the word “innocent” is that the actual music has the ability to be unbiased and pure. It is all about how we interpret the sounds that we hear. As soon as we put in our interpretation of the music and spread our ideas to others, the music becomes subjective; However, I do not feel that this is not always a negative. When people speak on the concept of “practised ears” vs “ignorant ears,” I feel that it creates unnecessary segregation. After all, who is who to say that a listener is not “trained enough” to listen to a musical piece correctly? I believe this is still relevant to this day. One negative aspect of “practised ears” vs “ignorant ears” is that it may discourage people that would like to listen to that kind of music but feel like they are not “trained” enough to really appreciate it thus, pushing away potential listeners. If Burney is truly a great music critic then he would be able to appreciate both classical and popular music and not try to compare one another. However, if Burney were to still be alive I believe that the only problem he would have with music today is the fact that the pursuit of becoming rich from music has seemed to supersede making music from the true love and admiration of it.

  12. andrea.doman says:

    Having just commented on the blog post about Rap and Opera and thus having just read the passionate, shall we say, responses on the topic, I’m sure Burney would be a tad bit disturbed with some of these modern-day views considering his words in the third paragraph.

    “I can very readily forgive the man who admires a different Music from that which pleased me, provided he does not extend his hatred or contempt of my favourite Music to myself”

    So much for that…I understand Burney’s use of “innocent” in a do-good, unaware-of-its-impact kind of way. I’m finding another connection to the Rap vs. Opera post – in terms of the “practised” and “ignorant” ear. I feel uncomfortable agreeing with Burney (and the other comments above) that say the “ignorant” ear is one that only listens to what is familiar. But I also can’t disagree. Considering the concrete definition of ignorant, I can see why Burney and the others think this, but taken with a grain of salt, which I believe they are doing, ignorance in this respect means a person who listens to what is familiar because that is all they know. I think someone can still have “practised” ears even if they don’t listen to several genres on a regular basis because they simply prefer one or a few.

    I hope that Burney would be intrigued by the state of “classical” and “pop” music today. As a frequent blog-viewer, I see patterns of sounds growing prevalent on blogs and the transformations they make when they appear in different forms on the charts. And as we’ve seen from our in-class guests, innovative choices are also being made in the classical world.

  13. The term “innocent” luxury, I think he is referring to having the choice to listen to music. It’s something that we can decide for our self and use music for whatever we desire to do with it. Music is not a necessarily to survive, like food and shelter. For me, at least when it comes to music, I enjoy a wide range of music and whether having “practiced ears” or “ignorant” doesn’t matter so much anymore.
    I think Burney would be fairly intrigued how much of a variety of music we have now and how popular music has come along way since his time and how much technology played a role in it.

  14. mnawrocka says:

    His use of the word “innocent” seems to be very open to interpretation. The first thing that came into my mind is that he might have felt that one should be able to enjoy music as a “small” luxury and not feel bad about it, in comparison to if someone might have an expensive and luxurious item and might feel guilty about having it. Music should be accessible to enjoy by all, and not hard to attain like some luxuries may be.

    It seems that Burney meant that practiced ears are able to enjoy new and skillful music, while the “ignorant” ears would enjoy familiar music the most. In a way, it seems like it may still be like that today; new and complicated music might likely be received by practiced ears in a different way than by someone who is not a musician, perhaps. To that person, complicated might sound annoying; however, to the musician, it might sound intriguing, because maybe this person knows about the techniques used in that piece and/or would like to find out more about it. However, it does not mean that all “ignorant” ears wouldn’t be able to enjoy new music, but it seems that a practiced ear would more easily receive, perceive, and/or understand complicated music. In addition, familiar and common music could be easier to listen to, and could be enjoyed by everyone, no matter if the ear is trained or not.

    Burnley’s view of classical and popular music today may be related to the above analysis; he might have viewed classical music as complicated and for practiced ears, while popular music may have been for “ignorant” ears. I have a feeling Burnley would view it that way, since classical music is often complicated and not easy to play, while popular music can generally be more easily played by more people. There are of course also complicated popular pieces, but it seems that more often than not, classical music would be considered more complicated and for the practiced ears. Perhaps he would also see classical music as a bigger luxury than popular music.

  15. I think innocent luxury means that it is not a personal need but rather something that adds to life without being a a luxury in the sense that it is a burden to support to continue to listen to it. Like Burney said it is not needed, but it can improve one’s life. A person can also live without ever having to listen too music which makes it a luxury. I think the untrained ear is subjective. Someone can be trained in popular music or classical and be an expertise in both. It’s all about one’s perception. Burney is right that it is alright for someone to like a type of music that you do not like as long as they do not express their contempt about the music that you like. I think that is what Burney would feel about popular music that music is all about the listener’s choice.

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