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Rock music is a legitimate art form

Professor John Harbison failed to make a few distinctions in his column ["Can We, too, Be the World?" Oct. 22]. When he wrote about rock music, he fell prey to popular stereotypes of the art form, emphasizing only its commercial aspects. Rock music has many more facets: it is a legitimate form of music.

Harbison chose only to think of rock musicians as swaggering, flaunting, drug and sex pushing puppets of the mass media. He said concert music, on the other hand, "seeks transcendence, the awareness of death [and] the control of time ..."

He implied that Madonna and similar performers can't give the moving effects that concert music can give and that they aren't really, as his otherwise well-cultured friend said, the "Mozarts and Beethovens of today." Actually, Harbison is not far off the mark.

There is, however, a difference between pop and rock music. Pop music is to a large extent intricately woven with high visibility personalities who are often not musical virtuosos. That's why we can have a certain TV comedian put together a cute but musically bereft song and have it playing on radio stations across the nation at the flick of a switch. This is how the pop music industry works.

Pop music has existed in one form or another since music itself was invented. The point is that a pop song is not intended to have a lot of musical merit, although it certainly could. Success on the pop charts is not closely tied with musical quality.

Then what is rock music? Rock music is a legitimate form of music, as Harbison stated. As there were and are talented composers of classical music, so there are masters of rock music. We never hear about many of them, for the great mass-media machine can only promote a relatively small number at a time. I would like the professor to realize that rock musicians come from varied backgrounds and have varied intents.

Some groups, like Frankie Goes to Hollywood, are "made for MTV" and are heavily promoted to make a lot of money in a short time. This is the essence of pop music, and no one has to like the way it works. But one does have to be aware that the institution of pop music has had a lot of support from listeners and will continue to exist, purely musical considerations aside.

There are rock (and other) musicians who actually shun the promises of stardom and a quick fortune and play music solely for artistic reasons. Perhaps their records are on the same rack with Madonna's. But should they be judged the same as others?

Classical music is indeed great because it can express such a wide range of emotions. It is also great because its composers intended it to have great musical qualities. Such is the case with many rock composers. I wonder if Harbison has ever heard, for example, the guitar playing of Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, Edward Van Halen, or Rik Emmett.

These individuals are among many who have written compositions that capture human emotion just as well as any piece Beethoven or Mozart ever wrote. Even vocal-oriented songs such as Suite Madame Blue, by Styx, New Year's Day, by U2, or Mistral Wind, by Heart can affect people, making them aware of the fragility of human existence, hopeful for the future, or doubtful of their purpose in life.

In short, rock (and other forms of music) can have the same emotional power that concert music often has. No drugs are required for the listener to hear this power. A lot of rock songs are, in a word, powerful -- but only to those who appreciate and understand the rock format. As the saying goes, each to his or her own.

I certainly don't mean to belittle Harbison's musical tastes. In fact, I agree with a lot of what he said in his article and wish him success with his group. However, there are many other music groups with a wide range of styles, including rock, that are also waiting to get out of the proverbial "alley of a side-street" and be appreciated.