Who Cares if You Listen? by Milton Babbit


Milton Babbitt was an American composer, educator, and music theorist who is widely regarded as one of the most influential figures in the development of modern music. Born in 1916 in Philadelphia, Babbitt studied at New York University and Princeton University, where he later taught for many years. He is known for his complex and highly technical compositions, which often utilize avant-garde techniques.

In 1958, Babbitt published an article in the magazine High Fidelity titled "Who Cares if You Listen?" The article responded to the criticism that modern classical music was inaccessible to the general public and was only appreciated by a small, elite group of intellectuals. Babbitt argued that the purpose of music was not to entertain but to explore and experiment with new ideas and techniques. He believed that the audience's lack of understanding was not a failure of the music but rather a failure of education and cultural values. 

The article caused a great deal of controversy and was met with both praise and condemnation. Some saw it as a call to arms for modern composers to continue to push the boundaries of music, while others saw it as elitist and dismissive of the general public. Babbitt himself was often criticized for his perceived arrogance and disregard for traditional musical values.

Note: The article begins on page 38 of the magazine (page 40 using the Internet Archive viewer platform) and continues to page 40 (page 42 on the viewer), then continued on page 126 (128 of the viewer) through page 127 (129 of the viewer)

In an effort to offer some context to the kind of music that Babbit discusses in this influential article, the following are a few of his compositions. 

Reflection Questions

  1. What was Babbitt's argument in his article "Who Cares if You Listen?" and how did it challenge the traditional view of music?
  2. How do you think Babbit's thoughts about musical technique engage with the ideas of talent, skill, and creativity? What happens if your talent and skill have no audience?
  3. What were some of the specific techniques and ideas that Babbitt used in his compositions, and how did they reflect his broader philosophy about music?
  4. In what ways did Babbitt's views on music and the role of the composer reflect his broader beliefs and values about society and culture?

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