I have a strongly held belief about musical talent: there is no such thing. Every neurotypical human is born with the ability to learn music, the same way the vast majority of us are born with the ability to learn to walk and talk. We still have to do the learning, though; otherwise the capacity doesn’t develop itself. When we talk about “musical talent,” we’re really talking about the means, motive and opportunity to activate innate musicality. When we talk about “non-musicians,” we’re rarely talking about the Oliver Sacks cases with congenital amusia; usually we mean people who for whatever reason never had the chance to develop musically.
So what if almost everyone is a potential musician? Why should you care? Because participation in music, particularly in groups, is an essential emotional vitamin. We here in America are sorely deficient in this vitamin, and it shows in our stunted emotional growth. Steve Dillon calls music a “powerful weapon against depression.” We need to be nurturing musicality wherever it occurs as a matter of public health.
We have our work cut out for us. While working on my thesis, I read a paper by Geoffrey Lowe, Lessons for teachers: What lower secondary school students tell us about learning a musical instrument. It contains a horrifying statistic: among American high school kids who have access to elective music classes, only five percent choose to take them. In the United Kingdom, the equivalent statistic is closer to two percent. And those are the kids fortunate enough to have music classes available to them in the first place, a pool that is steadily shrinking. Why do kids abandon school music in such numbers, and what can be done about it? Should we blame the kids for voting with their feet? If the music classes available to them don’t offer what they want and need from music, aren’t they right to stay away?
A few days ago I had an experience that gave me hope. My friend Mara teaches music at Williamsburg Charter School, and they recently got a grant to build a sweet digital recording studio based around Logic Pro. She had asked me to come teach a guest class and help her get the gear set up. When the day came, there was a bad snowstorm, and I was afraid no one was going to show up. Mayor de Blasio declined to close the public schools, but 55% of the students stayed home anyway. In Mara’s class, however, every seat was full. I get the sense that when she starts offering more sections, those will be packed as well.
Why is Mara succeeding at attracting high school kids to music when so many other schools are systematically turning them away? Some of it is is the fancy new studio, sure, but most of it is the content. You can compose or record just about any kind of music using Logic, but it naturally lends itself to the kind you can dance to. Mara is style-agnostic; she mostly wants to teach the kids about recording, MIDI, audio editing and the like. The stylistic choices will mostly come from the student musicians themselves.
I’m part of the majority of people who abandoned formal music. And like most non-classical musicians, I found my way back in through informal avenues. By the time I went to grad school for music, I was already thirty-six and had a fully formed musical sensibility. Rather than letting the drudgery of western theory classes get me down, I was able to grit my teeth and ace them. But most music students aren’t adults with many years of real-world musical experience. It’s all too easy for kids to be scared away from participation in music by their well-meaning music teachers.
The music academy has awkwardly welcomed jazz, but for the most part, if you’re studying music in a school, you’re studying theory and repertoire that would have been familiar to Mozart. The academy knows perfectly well that kids find eighteenth century European music to be boring. Nevertheless, the feeling is that the kids must learn the classical canon because we live in a coarse and vulgar age, and we need to carefully preserve and transmit the higher thinking of more enlightened times. This Quora question is an archetypal classical partisan’s lament: Do you think classical music will ever be as appreciated as it was when Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart were around?
Do we really live in a musical dark age? If we do, it’s not actually due to a lack of appreciation for Mozart, as Jaap Weel explains in his answer to the question above.
I think classical music is in some ways actually more appreciated today than it ever was before… A lot of the best classical music we have now was originally heard by very limited audiences. A lot of the older stuff predates not only recording technology, but also the mass production of sheet music. The occasional superstar, like Mozart, would travel around Europe performing music, but even then the audience was largely constrained to the very thin upper crust of a continent that until the industrial revolution was still stuck deep inside the Malthusian trap. The common music of the 18th century was folk ballads accompanied by such charming instruments as the hurdy-gurdy and the crumhorn.
The fraction of the population that appreciates classical music may not be large now, but it’s not clear to me that it was really all that much larger in Mozart’s day.
How do we broker a truce between the classical preservationists and poptimists like me? Dr. Robert H. Woody describes the difference between what traditionally-minded music educators think “real music” is and what kids think it is.
[M]any in the world of formal music education consider classical music (or maybe jazz) to be the most meaningful, exemplary, and real music there is. This perspective, however, is not shared by the vast majority of people in Western society… Research suggests that many adolescents see music classes (like those in other subjects) as undertakings done to satisfy teachers and parents. School music is linked to the performance of non-preferred styles, using an analytical approach, and difficult or boring class sessions… In contrast, real music is associated with popular and familiar styles, using a subjective and emotional approach, and often a relaxed and fun setting with others. This conception of real music is much closer to that held by most people around the world. They turn to music for the emotional rewards it provides, and it is very often a part of deeply meaningful social interactions among people.
Pop, rock, hip-hop, country, rap, and others make up the native music of the students we serve. This is not a reason to ignore these styles—we require native English speaking students to take English classes throughout their schooling—but a reason to respect them. It’s also important to acknowledge people’s natural orientation to music, that is, the appeal it has through personal relevance, emotional investment, and social interaction… Especially important for children are collaborative experiences with other kids and adults. This is because human beings instinctively observe what others do and attempt to reproduce it themselves. Young people desire opportunities to experiment with music (including freely making mistakes), to be creative and expressive with it, and to find personal meaning in it. When these characteristics are present in school music activities, those learning opportunities are more likely to be viewed as “real music” experiences by students of all ages.
This last paragraph gets to the heart of why Mara’s music class is so fervently attended, while so many others are not. Mara herself is a skilled jazz trumpet player, and I’m sure she’d be delighted if her kids found their way to that music. But she’s wise to meet the kids where they live. Dr. Woody again:
I don’t believe that the long-term success of classical music depends on convincing enough of the general public that popular music is comparatively inferior. Similarly, attendance at jazz concerts will not likely grow through its supporters taking to Facebook to mock the musicianship of performers like Justin Bieber and Nicki Minaj. And toward the other side of the aisle, I’d say that no one is in a position to dismiss classical music and jazz as boring or weird before making an effort to understand the cultures, values, and purposes of these styles.
The thing is that according to the prevailing musical culture, classical music and jazz are weird. They’re written in foreign languages, so to speak, or archaic versions of English. But we expect kids to just “get it,” and call them dumb or lazy when they don’t. We wouldn’t expect high school kids to be able to get through through Shakespeare without extensive extratextual support. (I was a straight-A English student, and I could only make sense out of those plays after seeing the movie versions.) Kids need a lot of musical grounding before they’re ready for the “foreign” music of the past. They can get that grounding most effectively from music they know and like, and that they feel ownership over.
The goal of general music classes should be to get you to the point where you can make sounds that are pleasing to yourself and others. A creative teacher should be able to get any moderately serious student to this point. In the western world, we’ve developed this notion that music is best left to hyperskilled specialists. Not everyone is going to have the patience or the drive to play like Glenn Gould or Herbie Hancock, but if that fact scares away a majority of would-be recreational pianists, then we as music teachers have failed. I don’t know a small child that doesn’t like music and doesn’t take joy in banging on anything that makes an interesting sound. Somehow, we’ve devised a music culture that systematically grinds that joy out of most kids (or really all of them — I’ve never met a happy classical virtuoso, have you?) We can do better.
Not everyone needs to be able to play or appreciate classical music. Maybe people just need to be able to sequence basslines for their hip-hop tracks, or play three-chord rock, or understand a little music theory, or play rumbly ambient one-chord drones. The kids who want to dive deeper and move on to more challenging material can still do so. If everyone else is engaged actively with music, the pros will find they’ll have a much bigger and more enthusiastic audience. And maybe America will be a little less emotionally barren.
An earlier version of this post provoked some interesting responses from a music teacher named Victoria Williams. She maintains that you need the common practice theory training to make sense of any other kind of music. My experience makes me disagree; my earliest formal music theory training was in the jazz context when I was 20, and I didn’t formally learn common-practice classical theory until grad school when I was 36. I spent a lot of years in between as a working musician, getting paid to compose, arrange, teach and lead bands. I’m living proof that learning the eighteenth century rules is no prerequisite for making contemporary music.
Not every kid needs to come out of school a virtuoso or a pro. But everyone should come out feeling like they can participate meaningfully in music in one way or another. Our system is pretty good at identifying the future professionals and getting them on their way, but it fails everyone else. Starting kids with common practice theory is like starting them in English class on the grammar and style used by Benjamin Franklin. But that’s not what we do. Kids learn to read the language that’s common and functional now; only when they’re more advanced functional readers do we challenge them with more archaic language. So it should be with music.
Victoria also worries that giving the kids what they want will “dumb down” the curriculum. In the particular instance of music education, however, giving the kids what they want and what they need happens to be the same thing. I like common-practice classical music fine, I have Bach and Chopin in heavy rotation at home right now, and am glad that other people have the chance to discover them. However, it does not follow that classical music is the “best” music, and that it’s “better” than what the kids want to learn about. Western common-practice music is wonderful for melody and harmony, but it’s severely impoverished rhythmically. There’s more rhythmic interest in Enter The Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers than in the complete works of Mozart. Take a look at Charlie Hely’s hip-hop transcriptions for examples.
Furthermore, western classical is missing improvisation, which is just about the most fundamental skill we should expect from a musician, at any level. In fact, it’s weird to me how much classical pedagogy has abandoned improvisation, given that Bach and Mozart were famous in their lifetimes as improvisers. The thinking seems to be, if it can’t be written down, it’s not worth studying. But in the age of recording, improvised music is as accessible to rigorous study as notated music, if not more so. Finally, classical music is limited in its expressiveness in the areas of timbre and space. Electronic music and most of the pop on the radio put most of their expressive content there.
Victoria argues against pop in the classroom because “with technology these days [kids] can find out anything about whatever they want to know.” That may well be, but there’s no substitute for face to face teaching. I did okay giving myself an ad hoc music education, but it would have gone a lot faster and smoother if I had found the right teachers. I devoted a lot of my graduate studies to creating the kinds of educational experiences I wish I had had as a kid.
Sure, common practice period music is an integral part of Western culture, but so are jazz, blues, country, hip-hop, reggae, generative ambient, salsa and merengue and a million other things. It’s a cultural choice to privilege western European musical tradition over all of the other rivers flowing into our culture. There’s a toxic Eurocentrism at work in traditional music pedagogy, the idea that the dead white guys are the ones who Really Matter, that their music is the Ground Truth From Which All Music Springs. My classical music theory textbook in grad school uses the terms “music” and “common-practice western European classical music” interchangeably. That’s bad scholarship and bad politics, and again, kids are correct to be repulsed by it. It’s too bad, too, because the music itself is so beautiful, and really deserves better presentation.
If we want music not to be “dumbed down” we need to be honest about where sophistication lies. If you want to learn about functional tonal harmony, by all means go to the classics. If you want to learn about rhythm, go to Africa, the Caribbean, India, Indonesia and American dance music. If you want to learn about timbre and space, go to electronica and hip-hop. Pretending that all the answers lie in scores written by men in powdered wigs is the real dumbing down of the music curriculum.