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Drum Kit and sheet music, by Andrew Chudley

Photo: Andrew Chudley

Can the Polaris Music Prize really judge musical merit when comparing different genres?

People tried to do this task in the 1750s opera scene, and failed

July 18, 2014 — 

The Polaris Music Prize is awarded annually by a not-for-profit organization, and what makes the award different is that it is given to a Canadian musical artist “without regard to musical genre, professional affiliation, or sales history, as judged by a panel of selected music critics,” the award’s website reads.

On July 15 the committee announced its shortlist (alumnus Greg MacPherson [BA/96] made the long list).

But what UM Today wanted to know was how it’s possible to judge the merit of musical artists when comparing him or her or them to different genres. To learn more we asked Kurt Markstrom, an associate professor in music history and musicology in the Desaultels Faculty of Music, to share his thoughts on the matter. Here is what he said:


When “comparing songs and artists from different genres” there is little common ground for comparison, and so the judgements tend to be based on personal taste which, in turn will be biased by genre preferences.  One of the early aesthetic controversies in the history of music, the “Querelle des Bouffons” from the 1750s, pitted the supporters of traditional French serious opera against the supporters of the new Italian comic opera, the lack of common ground providing for much outlandish criticism.  It is for this reason that these types of awards tend to be sub-divided into categories according to genre or style (i.e. rock, metal, rap, soul, pop).  These genre or stylistic categories, provide some common ground or set of criteria for making more objective comparisons.

Although even with this common ground or set of criteria in place, personal taste is still a driving force but it is tempered by considerations such as how a given song/album or artist measures up to the traditions of the genre and style and how do they innovate within those traditions.  Within a specific genre or style, it is easier to make judgements about the technical merits of an artist or song: the craft behind a song/album and the technical ability of an artist.   There is also a prophetic element, making judgements or speculations about how a given song/album or artist will be regarded within the history of a genre or style (i.e. the possibility/probability that this could be landmark song/album or artist that will change the history of the genre or style).


What’s your take on the this issue? Share your thoughts in our comments section.



Research at the University of Manitoba is partially supported by funding from the Government of Canada Research Support Fund.

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