At some point in the last few weeks, I ran across this article about the 'tragic decline of music literacy (and quality)'. I had it open in the tabs of my smart-phone's browser, one of 80 some parges or articles that I think "I should read this sometime", then forget about. I was trying to clear some of these out and finally read it, and I'm frustrated. Obviously, I think musical literacy and musical education is important. My wife is an elementary music teacher, I spend most of my working hours every week teaching. I hope to spread musical appreciation in all the performing that I do.
But I really hate the way this author made the argument. He takes cliches, unecessary generalizations, to denegrate swaths of music that is very meaningful to many people. While I do believe that classical music, and modern art music, is the ultimate aim and highest form of all music, I would not for a second look down upon someone who loves pop music, or folk music. If a deeper appreciation of this is as far as a person needs to be musically content, then their lives are better for it. That doesn't mean there isn't anything to teach these people, or that there is no way or no need to teach the appreciation of pop music.
Below i've gone through this article and left some of my commentary, Maybe sometimes I'm being picky over definitions, but I think it's important to deconstruct this elitist argument.
Throughout grade school and high school, I was fortunate to participate in quality music programs. Our high school had a top Illinois state jazz band; I also participated in symphonic band, which gave me a greater appreciation for classical music. It wasn’t enough to just read music. You would need to sight read, meaning you are given a difficult composition to play cold, without any prior practice.
Being a good sight reader, doesn't necessitate reading music that is significantly difficult. Only the prior practice part is true.
Sight reading would quickly reveal how fine-tuned playing “chops” really were.
There is no innate correlation between good sight-reading and good chops. Some excellent performers do not sightread well, but you cannot intuit that from their excellent performing abilities.
In college I continued in a jazz band and also took a music theory class. The experience gave me the ability to visualize music (If you play by ear only, you will never have that same depth of understanding music construct.)
Playing by ear in no ways assumes inability to read music. It simply refers to one's primary means of preparing the basic notes one is performing. But ignore that and take the second part. Take any blind musician, like Stevie Wonder or Nobuyuski Tsujii, and try to tell me that they do not have a depth of understanding music.
Both jazz and classical art forms require not only music literacy, but for the musician to be at the top of their game in technical proficiency, tonal quality and creativity in the case of the jazz idiom.
I don't understand how creativity cannot play a part in the performance of classical music
Two primary sources for learning to read music are school programs and at home piano lessons.
I'm a piano teacher, but I am under no illusion that the best way to gain musical literacy and understanding is by taking piano lessons. What part of the percentage decrease in piano lessons is due to students taking lessons on other musical instruments?
Stores dedicated to selling pianos are dwindling across the country as fewer people take up the instrument. In 1909, piano sales were at their peak when more than 364,500 were sold, but sales have plunged to between 30,000 and 40,000 annually in the US. Demand for youth sports competes with music studies, but also, fewer parents are requiring youngsters to take lessons as part of their upbringing.
The decrease in piano sales does not itself prove any decline in musical education. Again, more students might be taking lessons on other instruments. Moreover, pianos are not something you need to replace even every 10 or 20 years. At some point, even as the population grows, pianos can be passed down or sold privately between individuals, and these instruments can serve just as good a role in a young person's musical education as a brand new instrument. I myself practice primarily on a piano handed down from my wife's grandparents.
The results of the study (of pop songs across the 20th century) revealed that timbral variety went down over time, meaning songs are becoming more homogeneous. Translation: most pop music now sounds the same. Timbral quality peaked in the 60's and has since dropped steadily with less diversity of instruments and recording techniques. Today’s pop music is largely the same with a combination of keyboard, drum machine and computer software greatly diminishing the creativity and originality.
Seeing trends in these areas is noteworthy, but doesn't prove that understanding of music is likewise declining. Take the entire orchestral works of Mozart. They have almost entirely the same timbre, but you're not going to use that against the value of Mozart.
Pitch has also decreased, with the number of chords and different melodies declining. Pitch content has also decreased, with the number of chords and different melodies declining as musicians today are less adventurous in moving from one chord or note to another, opting for well-trod paths by their predecessors.
Again, you could make the argument that for hundreds of years, classical composers used the same chords. Sure, they used more chords pop musicians mnight today, but classical composers were not innately brilliant just for their chordal progressions. There are many other factors at play.
Loudness was found to have increased by about one decibel every eight years. Music loudness has been manipulated by the use of compression. Compression boosts the volume of the quietest parts of the song so they match the loudest parts, reducing dynamic range. With everything now loud, it gives music a muddled sound, as everything has less punch and vibrancy due to compression.
The problem of compression isn't untrue. But it is partly a matter of efficiency so that music can be shared more easily, I would think.
An astonishing amount of today’s popular music is written by two people: Lukasz Gottwald of the United States and Max Martin from Sweden, who are both responsible for dozens of songs in the top 100 charts. You can credit Max and Dr. Luke for most the hits of these stars:
Someone with better understanding of pop music can see if it's true that "You can credit Max and Dr. Luke for most (of) the hits of" those stars. It seems like quite a statement to make. But, my understanding that in pop music, the lyrics and chords and melodic flow are set by the songwriter. Arrangements, including most of the "hooks, riffs, and electric drum effects" are a result of the producer, of which there are many more than 2.
Furthermore, a very limited number of composers wrote the music that we hear in classical concert halls and opera houses. Does that mean the quality of this music is lessened?
When artists like Taylor Swift claim they write their own music, it is partially true, insofar as she writes her own lyrics about her latest boyfriend breakup, but she cannot read music and lacks the ability to compose what she plays.
But the melody, chords and rhythm of pop songs is rarely notated! It can be passed down aurally. I'm a well trained musician, and an excellent sight reader, but when playing worship songs in my church, I don't follow notated music just like anyone playing in the band who may not read a note of music.
Music electronics are another aspect of musical decline as the many untalented people we hear on the radio can’t live without autotune. Autotune artificially stretches or slurs sounds in order to get it closer to center pitch. Many of today’s pop musicians and rappers could not survive without autotune, which has become a sort of musical training wheels. But unlike a five-year-old riding a bike, they never take the training wheels off to mature into a better musician. Dare I even bring up the subject of U2s guitarist “The Edge” who has popularized rhythmic digital delays synchronized to the tempo of the music? You could easily argue he’s more an accomplished sound engineer than a talented guitarist.
I won't argue about autotune. But to be upset about the use of electronics in music generally is laughable. There are highly refined musicians doing incredible things with electronics. And so what if "The Edge" is more a sound engineer than guitarist. That's simply an ad hominem attack that says nothing about the success of the music at hand.
The worst part is knowing that cancellation (of school music programs) is almost always based on two deliberate falsehoods peddled by school administrators: 1) Cancellation is a funding issue (the big lie); 2) music and the arts are too expensive (the little lie).
Yes, standardized tests have done much to ruin education. But that still doesn't mean that it isn't expensive to run music programs!
While contact sports like football are proven brain damagers, music participation is a brain enhancer.
People have gotten life-altering physical injuries from music too. People's brains can also be enhanced incredibly, in the same way as with music, by sports, without the risk of brain injuries. This is a ridiculous correlation without causation argument.
I want to be an advocate of music education. But we can't make stupid, illogical arguments to make the case. Musical merits make the argument quite well. We are not in a society where there is widespread appreciation of those merits, but moving the goalposts or denigrating "lesser" forms of music appreciation cheapens our arguments.
"Modern performers seem to regard their performances as texts rather than acts, and to prepare for them with the same goal as present-day textual editors: to clear away accretions. Not that this is not a laudable and necessary step; but what is an ultimate step for an editor should be only a first step for a performer, as the very temporal relationship between the functions of editing and performing already suggests." -Richard Taruskin, Text and Act