For the ancients, and even into the medieval period and beyond, one was not considered truly educated without studying music. Even today, accomplished musicians are among the most mentally flexible people. Tragically, in contemporary public schools and universities, music has taken a back seat—actually, a back of the bus or under the bus—position to mandatory high stakes testing, athletics, or diversity mandates. For the continuance of civilization, this is a dramatic, and troubling problem. Jon Henschen, at Intellectual Takeout, explains:
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. Sight reading would quickly reveal how fine-tuned playing ‘chops’ really were. 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.)
I initially learned music by ear. From as long as I can remember, I could hear a piece of music once, and pick out the melody and chord structure on the piano, and eventually, on the guitar. I felt music and could play it well, but until I too took music theory in college on the way to an English/music degree, I didn’t understand music. In theory classes, I finally understood why everything I had always intuited and done made sense. “Oh, that’s why that’s a G7 chord!” “Oh, that’s what a suspension is!” That knowledge made me a far more complete and competent musician, and opened the door to composition and arranging.
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. Jazz masters like John Coltrane would practice six to nine hours a day, often cutting his practice only because his inner lower lip would be bleeding from the friction caused by his mouthpiece against his gums and teeth. His ability to compose and create new styles and directions for jazz was legendary. With few exceptions such as Wes Montgomery or Chet Baker, if you couldn’t read music, you couldn’t play jazz. In the case of classical music, if you can’t read music you can’t play in an orchestra or symphonic band. Over the last 20 years, musical foundations like reading and composing music are disappearing with the percentage of people that can read music notation proficiently down to 11 percent, according to some surveys.
It’s an old misconception that jazz musicians can’t read music. This is true for some, but most, and surely the most accomplished, are also accomplished musicians, not merely players.
Two primary sources for learning to read music are school programs and at home piano lessons. Public school music programs have been in decline since the 1980’s, often with school administrations blaming budget cuts or needing to spend money on competing extracurricular programs. Prior to the 1980’s, it was common for homes to have a piano with children taking piano lessons. Even home architecture incorporated what was referred to as a ‘piano window’ in the living room which was positioned above an upright piano to help illuminate the music. 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.
Some might suggest the guitar has taken the place of the piano, but it is, in a significant way, a poor substitute. The guitar is one of the easiest instruments to learn to play—I taught myself—but one of the most difficult to truly master. As a result, most people who play the guitar are guitar players, not musicians whose primary instrument is the guitar. In other words, they can’t read or write music. They play only by ear. This does not make them bad or deficient people—not everyone makes the same educational choices–but it does limit them.
Henschen goes on to cite credible research indicating that over the last several decades, music has become much less complex and interesting. In effect, all popular music sounds alike because it has little dynamic, chordal, or melodic variety, and what harmony exists is formulaic. Anyone regularly listening to popular music knows this.
In an interview, Billy Joel was asked what has made him a standout. He responded his ability to read and compose music made him unique in the music industry, which as he explained, was troubling for the industry when being musically literate makes you stand out. 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:
Katy Perry, Britney Spears, Kelly Clarkson, Taylor Swift, Jessie J., KE$HA, Miley Cyrus, Avril Lavigne, Maroon 5, Taio Cruz, Ellie Goulding, NSYNC, Backstreet Boys, Ariana Grande, Justin Timberlake, Nick Minaj, Celine Dion, Bon Jovi, Usher, Adam Lambert, Justin Bieber, Domino, Pink, Pitbull, One Direction, Flo Rida, Paris Hilton, The Veronicas, R. Kelly, Zebrahead
With only two people writing much of what we hear, is it any wonder music sounds the same, using the same hooks, riffs and electric drum effects?
Joel is quite correct. Most musicians making bundles of cash in pop music are musically illiterate. If you handed them a piece of music they took to number one, without lyrics or a title, they wouldn’t recognize it as their hit. They might “write” a song, but what happens is they have a melody, or lyrics, in their head, and sit down with an actual musician who transcribes it into music. Henschen also notes that lyrics have become far more simplistic and repetitive. One might cite Rap as an example, but it is best categorized as accompanied poetry. It has some of the elements of music, but far from all, and those it has tend to rudimentary and repetitive.
It is too much to suggest that music hold a place in the curriculum of every truly educated person it once did, but it is not too much for parents to demand at the very least a solid music appreciation elective in their schools. The music of western civilization is not only a reflection of the brilliance that has elevated us to our current state, but our common cultural heritage.
This is one of the reasons I do “name that tune” every Friday. I always include some of the most common “classical” works, such at Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (the most recognizable four notes in music), Bach’s Tocatta and Fugue in Dm, The Hornpipe from Handel’s Water Music, Selection from Messiah, even Souza’s The Stars And Stripes Forever, and many more. It gives the kids an opportunity for extra credit, helps pep them up at the end of a week, and makes them more a part of our cultural heritage.
But music is so much more. It builds brains—neural connections—in ways that the study of no other discipline can. It absolutely requires concentration and focus, skills that are essential to success, not only in other academic pursuits, but in life. It enhances hand/eye coordination, and mental flexibility. It helps us see the joy in the small things of life, which is exceedingly important, because life is made of the small things, yet they provide our greatest pleasures and insights.
For children, participating in making music also provides a sense of belonging, of accomplishment, of being a part of a tradition millennia old, of a kinship they can pass to their children and onward for as long as man shall live. There is nothing quite like performance, and even if one does not continue the study or performance of music after high school, they will be better, more complete and capable people for having had the experience.
Athletics, while important, generally focus not on lifetime sports, but on football and basketball. True, one can play these as adults, but they are not the same as pursuits one can do alone and for a lifetime. In school, such sports involved only a tiny portion of a student body, but with music, participation, even in non-school activities, is practically unlimited.
We listen to and appreciate music because it is a part of us. It stimulates our brains—our brains need it–inspires us, even guides us. It affects our moods, and hath charms to sooth the savage beast. Dr. Oliver Sachs in his book Musicophilia, writes:
But for virtually all of us, music has great power, whether we seek it out or think of ourselves as particularly ‘musical.’ This propensity to music shows itself in infancy, is manifest and central in every culture, and probably goes back to the very beginnings of our species.
If you don’t know Sachs’ work, I recommend this as an introduction to a remarkable man, and as among the most profound and literate works on music and its effects on the human brain. Sadly, he died of cancer in 2015, but his work lives on. May I also recommend the movie “Awakenings,” based on his book of the same name. It’s extraordinary—both are–and the protagonist, based on Sachs, is also a musician.
We need music, gentle readers, far, far more than we need mandatory, high stakes tests. Long after they have gone the way of the Dodo, music will inform, please, and elevate us, showing us the heights to which humanity can reach. And as we reach the stars, we will carry it with us, for we will never reach them without it.