What Is Your Musical Background?

There’s an interesting discussion going on in a place I can’t link to, spinning off a comment to the NEA post from the other day:

The point is that the amount of people who see value in or are trained to appreciate more esoteric, more difficult, less accessible music **may** have dropped.

The basic idea is that the decline in the audience for “high art” forms of music may be attributed to cutbacks in musical education in schools. People just aren’t educated enough to know that they ought to like classical music, or some such.

This led to a discussion of people’s experience with music education in school, which has produced plural anecdotes over there. I thought it would be interesting to repeat the experiment here, so there’s a quick poll behind the cut:



(It’s inelegant, but with all the recent server issues, I don’t want to rely on people being able to leave comments.)

My own musical education was not much more than the standard for my school in the 80′s: we had music class something like three days a week up through seventh or eight grade, which mostly consisted of singing songs, learning the basics of reading music, and occasionally playing simple instruments. The junior-high level class included a bit of music history– we did units on a couple of classical composers, and three pop-music units, one on the Beatles, one on Billy Joel, and one about Rush (go figure). I remember writing a term paper about Tchiakovsky, though all I really remember of it is some of the lurid details (he had a giant crush on his nephew, which led to all sorts of problems).

I’m pretty sure we talked about the different eras of classical music, but I don’t remember them. I’m terrible with era names that way– we spent a good deal of time on English history in high school, but I have only a hazy idea of the War of the Roses, the English Civil War, the Glorious Revolution, and the relationship between them. I could probably put them in order, but I wouldn’t want to stake anything important on it.

I was also in the band from about fifth grade all the way through high school (I played trumpet), which means I know how to read music, and have a vague idea about keys and the like, but that’s about it. I never took music theory (though it was offered), so I don’t know the formal difference between major and minor chords, or any of that.

I’m highly skeptical of the notion that lack of formal education is the reason for the decline in the audience for classical music. Instead, I think it’s related to the fact that music of that style hasn’t really been popular in thirty to forty years. Even movie soundtracks these days are less about orchestral arrangements (the occasional John Williams score or The Lord of the Rings aside), and more about selections of vaguely relevant pop songs. It’s a niche musical form these days, and we’re a whole generation away from the time when knowledge of classical music mattered.

Comments

  1. #1 Matt Platte
    June 19, 2009

    whole generation away from the time when knowledge of classical music mattered.

    And a whole generation removed from self-appointed “highbrows” who were pretty much the entire media. If you’re too young or have forgotten, this is a pretty good send-up of those times:

    Propellerheads & Shirley Bassey – History Repeating

  2. #2 Rev Matt
    June 19, 2009

    The problem with this poll is it is too individualistic. I took no music classes in school, but they were offered (band, jazz choir, etc, no history or theory classes though). The item I selected, “We sang some songs in music class in elementary school, I think.” would lead one to think that classes weren’t available at all.

    I figure I’m an atypical case anyway as both my parents were semi-pro classical musicians (played in local symphonies/quartets/etc for cash in addition to their regular jobs) so my exposure to ‘high culture’ music was greater than most people who took no music classes.

  3. #3 Brian
    June 19, 2009

    I disagree, to an extent. Education is clearly important to understanding any form of art, especially one as ingrown and self-referential as classical music. I you don’t understand the forms, and the techniques, then eh, it’s just nice sounds.

    It’s like trying to understand Ulysses without having read the Odessy, or really any modern western Literature without knowing a good bit of the canon.

    Also, modern classical has taken that to an extreme. If you don’t understand the issues/assumptions that it’s dealing with, then you won’t appreciate it(and even then you may not). So, most of the approachable classical is old. In today’s culture where anything older than 3 years is pattently un-interesting, that’s a big problem.

  4. #4 Wilson
    June 19, 2009

    From Brian:

    It’s like trying to understand Ulysses without having read the Odessy, or really any modern western Literature without knowing a good bit of the canon.

    Or at the very least, the Bible. (As a literary reference, I mean, not as Truth.)

    In today’s culture where anything older than 3 years is patently uninteresting

    3 years? That seems optimistic. 3 minutes, maybe.

    However, I totally agree with your main point. In fact, it applies to more than a superficial appreciation of any art. I heard a radio item a few weeks ago about the artistic and cultural underpinnings of rap music and it gave me a better appreciation of the artistic impulses behind it. That doesn’t mean that I like it any better, but I have a better framework for ‘getting’ it, at least.

  5. #5 Tim Eisele
    June 19, 2009

    I had no particular musical education aside from “singing songs in elementary school”, and a highly forgettable junior-high music class that I think was mainly just a way for the band director to recruit people for band, and for the rest of us to kill an hour.

    I am very fond of (pre-1920s) classical music, and am at best indifferent to (and often, actively loathe) most pop, rock, jazz, country, or whatever the current musical fads are. I don’t think my “education” in music had squat-all to do with the musical tastes I developed.

    As for the music currently being written as “classical music”, I think one of my old housemates aptly described it as “atonal symphonies”. I can see where appreciation of it would take a lot of education on the fine nuances of the forms and techniques, kind of like appreciating “fine wines” takes a lot of training in the rituals, history, and precise description of the odors and flavors. For what it’s worth, I don’t like wine, either.

  6. #6 Eric Lund
    June 19, 2009

    I’m highly skeptical of the notion that lack of formal education is the reason for the decline in the audience for classical music. Instead, I think it’s related to the fact that music of that style hasn’t really been popular in thirty to forty years.

    There is a chicken-and-egg problem with this argument. As Brian said, having an education in classical music helps significantly in appreciation of classical music. So you have a vicious cycle: because classical music is less popular people think education in classical music is less important, and because people are less educated in classical music people are less likely to attend concerts in classical music.

    Also, education in music isn’t just formal; it pervades other aspects of culture, too. Think of the cartoons and movies you grew up with: Bugs Bunny doing opera (Ring des Nibelungen and The Barber of Seville), background music in 2001: A Space Odyssey (Also sprach Zarathustra and the “Blue Danube” waltz), the Lone Ranger riding in to the tune of the William Tell Overture, and undoubtedly several others. Paul McCartney got the idea of putting a piccolo trumpet in “Penny Lane” from listening to Handel’s music; he had no formal training at the time. Compare with the movies of the last 25 years, where as you point out, John Williams-style symphonic scores are being displaced by collections of popular music. Some musicians who were popular in the 1970s and early 1980s (McCartney, Billy Joel, and Sting, to name three) have dabbled in classical music, but these are exceptions, and I doubt the popular musicians of the 1990s and 2000s will have the chops to try.

  7. #7 Chris Evo
    June 19, 2009

    I took band in school, and I don’t even recall if there was a dedicated music theory class, so the second option is the closest to the truth for me. Fortunately, I was also in the jazz program at my school, where we were expected to improvise solos in front of an audience, and we got sprinklings of jazz history, so my public school education includes learning the difference between a minor, minor fifth, and pentatonic scale, and how to move between them quickly.

    When you say a whole generation removed, I think you’re a little bit off. Classical music hasn’t been the dominant form since ragtime took the crown. Ever since the rise of jazz, it’s been big band, blues, rock n roll, soft rock, hard rock, rock. Few people are directly exposed to a lot of classical music outside of the occasional soundtrack, so it’s hard to get them to appreciate it.

    I recently saw a Technology Entertainment Design talk about classical music that you all might find interesting:
    http://www.ted.com/talks/benjamin_zander_on_music_and_passion.html

  8. #8 Clark
    June 19, 2009

    The poll should allow you to check multiple boxes. I took some choir classes in 7th and 8th grade and that was about the extent of my music education from public school. The 8 years of piano lessons were a far larger contributor to my music knowledge. (I’m also self taught on the organ, guitar and ukulele, with all my music theory knowledge coming from “The Complete Idiots Guide to Music Theory”)

  9. #9 Scott Spiegelberg
    June 19, 2009

    There are current popular musicians who dabble in classical music, like Brian Eno, David Byrne, Thom Yorke, Elvis Costello, etc. And I disagree about film music. Most modern films have a majority of their music in the classical style, with a few popular songs as hooks, and sometimes heavy metal guitar licks for chase scenes. Really pay attention to the music in the next film you watch, and you will see that it riffs off of Stravinsky, Debussy, Shostakovich, Mahler, Holst, and Brahms, with electric guitar added. I still think genre is the wrong way to think about the problem. Music education should address similarities and differences between genres to help people understand and appreciate them more deeply, but overall the issue is whether music is an art form with layers to be peeled back with repeated hearings and in-depth study, or if it is sonic wallpaper, the “soundtrack of our lives”. More and more people are regarding it as the latter, and therefore don’t go to any live performances (classic, rock, jazz, whatever). I would be very interested in seeing the stats for attendance at rock and pop concerts. From when I taught my History of Rock class, my experience is that the most active venues are the small clubs with alt and indy rock styles, just as the most active venues for classical music right now are the smaller groups that program edgy “alt-classical” which is usually labeled “new music”. Groups like eighth blackbird, Bang on a Can, ETHEL, So Percussion, Alarm Will Sound, ICE, and the like. Read up on the recent Bang on the Can Marathon, such as here.

  10. #10 Chris Evo
    June 19, 2009

    I took band in school, and I don’t even recall if there was a dedicated music theory class, so the second option is the closest to the truth for me. Fortunately, I was also in the jazz program at my school, where we were expected to improvise solos in front of an audience, and we got sprinklings of jazz history, so my public school education includes learning the difference between a minor, minor fifth, and pentatonic scale, and how to move between them quickly.

    When you say a whole generation removed, I think you’re a little bit off. Classical music hasn’t been the dominant form since ragtime took the crown. Ever since the rise of jazz, it’s been big band, blues, rock n roll, soft rock, hard rock, rock. Few people are directly exposed to a lot of classical music outside of the occasional soundtrack, so it’s hard to get them to appreciate it.

    I recently saw a Technology Entertainment Design talk about classical music that you all might find interesting:
    http://www.ted.com/talks/benjamin_zander_on_music_and_passion.html

  11. #11 cicely
    June 19, 2009

    Music history (in college, augemented by independent study, thanks to the SCA) and performance, but no music theory.

  12. #12 Matt Leifer
    June 19, 2009

    Well, I was educated in the UK so I am not sure how relevant my experience is to your poll, but I’ll comment anyway.

    In primary school we had the occasional singsong accompanied by percussion instruments. We also had optional after-school recorder lessons, which I did until I got too bored with it to bother practicing. I was in the choir for a while, but that is not as impressive as it sounds because I don’t think we performed more than a couple of times. We were also subjected to the same three classical music records before assembly three times a week for about seven years. Needless to say, this is not a very good way of engendering a love of classical music.

    In secondary school we had a performing arts department in which it was compulsory to have a one hour lesson a week for the first three years. Lessons were divided between drama and music and nominally we were supposed to spend half of each year doing music and half a year doing drama. In practice, because the way that drama was taught in my school cost essentially nothing, and because the school didn’t really have the resources for music, I only remember doing about two terms of music in my whole secondary career. The music department consisted of three rooms: a classroom full of the cheapest and cheesiest Casio keyboards that money could buy, a classroom with about four or five Atari ST computers, and a band practice room that was never used for lessons. In my few music lessons I recall being asked to compose a melody on the Casio to a predetermined chord sequence, without being told anything to do with music theory that might have helped me in this task. A couple of years later, I was asked to compose something based on drum sequences on the Atari, which again cleverly avoided having to know anything to do with music theory.

    Were it not for my adolescent desire to become Kurt Cobain, I don’t think I would have ever bothered to pick up a musical instrument again.

    I think that lack of resources is the real problem in music education, since music is one of the first subjects to get cut back when finances are tight. To be honest, I don’t think that having a “decent” music education would have affected my musical taste much, for the same reason as Chad has given.

  13. #13 6EQUJ5
    June 19, 2009

    We had a chorus class in ninth grade. In a cinder-block-wall with linoleum-tiled floor, thirty-odd kids all sang together while the teacher played a poorly-tuned piano. There was zero theory, zero history.

  14. #14 Interrobang
    June 19, 2009

    I had a great, rigourous musical education through high school. Our elementary school music teacher was really into teaching music theory as well as performance, and I went to the music-oriented “magnet school” in my area (it isn’t a performing-arts high school, just the school you go to if you want to do serious music) and took music for all then-five years of high school, which means I have something like Grade VIII Conservatory theory, composition, and performance.

    And yeah, I like classical music. Not as much as I like almost anything with a good beat that you can dance to, but I do like it. I mostly like it for the “I see what you do there!” moments, which is something a less musically-educated person wouldn’t have. I can also spot a classically-trained popular musician a mile away, and I do think the classical training makes a significant difference.

  15. #15 Uncle Al
    June 19, 2009

    Society is defined by its shared mythos. If you want a Snoop Dogg society, fine. It might contain wall sockets but, though they may be empowered they won’t be powered. Quality cannot be created by defect exclusion at the terminus of a production line (QC). Quality must exist from the very beginning, in all its inputs, processes, tools, and oversights (QA).

    OTOH, if you run a military environment you get streaming perfect failures. Gear trains need slack and society will always have underclasses. The gear train requires investment, the slack does not. Eample: Susan Boyle was a disaster, for all she had was overarching ability. Put her behind a microphone not in front of a camera.

  16. #16 OmegaMom
    June 19, 2009

    Then there are the folks who were raised by musicians. My dad played piano beautifully; at one point in his life, I am told he was practicing five to six hours daily. He also played the guitar and banjo. We had classical, folk, and rock music playing on the radio all the time. My formal training as a youngster was nil, though–singing in the yearly pageants was about the limit. However, my upbringing at home made me quite familiar with various styles of classical music and the similarities between it and various folk and rock styles.

    Then, at age 27, I began playing piano myself at a local community college that had an *awesome* music department. I took music appreciation, music history, and music theory (the hardest class I have ever taken). It makes quite a difference. I also sang in a community chorus for three years.

    Anyway, the end result is that I appreciate almost any type of music, because I can hear the subtleties behind it and the in-group references to previous musical greats. In my dream world, every child is forced to take an hour of music every day in school, led by a good or great music teacher. Sigh. In reality, my daughter gets an hour of music every three days at school, and her totally amazing elementary music teacher has left for another school; I am left worrying about what the music program will be like this coming year…

  17. #17 Markk
    June 19, 2009

    Classical Music has declined because rich people are different. That is the main reason. Now they are more likely to try to imitate country singers and be looked at as good old boys, or be power traders. Being “High Society” is a negative in the super rich now. Thus not as much money or prestige is going into supporting orchestras. They aren’t hiring string quartets for events. “Classical” was always the domain of the rich and depended on the rich except for maybe 50 years after radio came in.

  18. #18 David Owen-Cruise
    June 19, 2009

    In primary school we got music in much the same way we got art. It was taught badly enough to make it boring, frequently enough to make it tedious, but not so regularly we would improve through practice.

    My Junior High and High School had competent marching band instruction and a symphony that never managed to get itself playing in the same key or tempo.

    On the other hand, both my parents listen to a variety of music, including classical. My mother sings in two choirs. I took piano lessons for seven years, and I have dabbled with the mountain dulcimer, penny whistle, and harmonica. I’ve picked up a little music theory on the street corner and I have a spotty sense of music history acquired from said piano lessons and reading liner notes.

  19. #19 Austin
    June 19, 2009

    I had some training in music in high school. Beyond that, a very close friend of mine (who I spend most Saturday evenings with) is a trained concert pianist, orchestrator, and conductor (though he doesn’t do either professionally) – I can honestly say I’ve listened to many pieces and had days’ worth of discussions on theory, style, history, etc.

    I like *some* “classical” music – mostly from the romatic period. My tastes in general, though, tend towards what I’d call “good” techno (which actually has a high amount of intricacy and composition). I have songs I like in almost any genre, though, which is probably more about exposure than anything else.

    “Classical”-style music is less popular nowadays for a lot of reasons, but one of them is the sheer lack of new pieces. In all seriousness, the most popular form of modern “classical” music is in video games – and for those whose initial reaction was to skoff, check out any performance of “Video Games Live” or listen to some of the music for the newer Final Fantasy titles. That’s not to say it’s all fantastic, but neither was all “classical” music – especially not when it was being written popularly.

  20. #20 Lord
    June 19, 2009

    I like classical, but they aren’t making it anymore. There are only so many times I want to listen to the same thing. Modern classical doesn’t really count.

  21. #21 MattXIV
    June 19, 2009

    I just participated band – I played the clarinet from 5th to 9th grade and hated it. Most of the schools I was in the band at had very well regarded music programs, in one case generally recognized as the best public school program in the state, but I learned next to nothing and was completely non-motivated – the program was all about the mechanical performance of whatever piece of music the instructor selected. The whole experience turned me off of playing music until late in college, when I started becoming interested in electronic music. These days, I have a firm but not expert grasp on music theory; play bass, guitar, and violin on a regular basis and still pull out the old clarinet on occasion; and am in a community string ensemble and a punk band. I can firmly say that I do these things in spite of the school music program and if I hadn’t developed the impression that playing music was a horribly tedious and unrewarding experience from it I may have began studying it own my own earlier.

  22. #22 Onkel Bob
    June 19, 2009

    I attended the finest music appreciation and history courses ever presented: I followed the Grateful Dead up and down the west coast :^)

    I go to a few shows now and then. I like the SF Symphony. I think MTT’s interpretation of Mahler and Sibelius are unparalleled in the modern orchestra. When I visit NYC, I attend the NY Philharmonic and performances in Carnegie Hall.

    As for that other “art,” I went to City Opera a couple times, the last time to see Pirates of Penzance. It should be noted,I did not go willingly and prayed fervently (despite agnostic belief) for death or at least deafness throughout the entire performance. One good thing came out of it, I no longer am expected to attend opera.

    As for your opening comments on accessibility, the same is often said of Classic (as in Roman and Greek) Renaissance, “Modern” and contemporary art. Few miss the intention or fail to appreciate of Venus di Milo. Most do not truly understand Renaissance art, (the religious tradition is lost on us) but mostly everyone likes it. When you get to the Impressionists and early Modern period you start losing people, Cubism and Fauvism were terms of derision. By the time you get to contemporary art, half the people hate it, and I mean dislike to the point that they say a particular piece should be destroyed. The reason for the dislike is supposedly the amount of work the viewer must put into understanding the piece.

    I say it’s because the overwhelming majority of contemporary art is crap, produced by undereducated Dunning-Kruger prototypical “artists.”

  23. #23 Toaster
    June 19, 2009

    Well, with classical music the piece itself matters quite a bit. The Mendelssohn quintet is going to be much more accessible to far more people because it doesn’t have the brooding atonality of a Gorecki symphony or the spastic chromatic of Zorn.

    My experience with music has been primarily informal, as I have taught myself every instrument I play. I played double bass in jazz band in high school, and “Fly Me to the Moon” turned me off from any jazz whatsoever for a very long time afterwards because it was just so boring and slow to play (now I like what Method of Defiance is doing with smashing drum n’ bass electronica into jazz). I played cello in chamber ensembles in college, and the heady rush of falling down a rapid-fire string of bass notes in a Bach piece really got me interested in classical stuff. I’ve gone to see concerts of classical music, but to be honest I’m not going to pay $80 for a ticket to see The Nutcracker Suite or Handel’s Messiah played live.

  24. #24 Emily
    June 19, 2009

    Your poll also doesn’t seem to include things like “I learned music from friends who also taught themselves”. I participated in some musical theater and other artsy extra-curricular activities, had private lessons as a child, and was in a band in junior high but I feel the majority of my music “education” that taught me to really appreciate other musicians was from friends teaching me how to play guitar and find songs online, and from teaching myself by mimicking bands and artists I enjoyed.

    I don’t know how this plays into the initial question that declining formal school music education is to blame. I think it’s more likely that it’s a broader cultural value shift and declining support for formal music education AND the decline in individual students’ personal drive to teach themselves are signs of a bigger cultural trend.

  25. #25 sbh
    June 19, 2009

    Okay, since I picked the “some other option” choice, here I am, explaining in a comment.

    I had “Music” in seventh grade, which was mainly music history, though we did learn the meaning of such terms as harmony and polyphony, and how string instruments differed from wind instruments, so I guess you could say we had some theory in there. I also had private music lessons for some time. For the most part I was self-taught, however; I picked stuff up by listening to records, sometimes playing along with them, studying scores on occasion, and recording what I did sometimes using a primitive sound-on-sound set-up. (I played along with a previously recorded track while recording on a second tape machine.)

    I’ve always liked classical music. I also like jazz, rock, and other relatively modern forms. Not all of it, but I like variety in my music.

    The decline in interest in classical music seems to me to have been ongoing since at least the fifties; I pick on that decade only because that’s as far back as my memory reaches. When I was growing up it seemed to me that a lot of adults took the attitude that a little Bach or Beethoven was good for you somehow. Some grocery stores had this special where you could bring home a different record every week at two bucks a disk; collect the whole series and you had all the classical music you ever needed. Personally, as a kid I just liked the stuff; it spoke to me in a way the pop music of the time didn’t. But my impression was that many people felt that knowledge of classical music was essential to a good education, and I think that that attitude has decayed considerably in the decades since then.

    I agree in being “skeptical of the notion that lack of formal education is the reason for the decline in the audience for classical music.” I personally feel that in a large part the decline in the audience may be related to the amazing increase in the listening options available. There are now innumerable sub-genres of pop (many of which IMO involve a considerable education to appreciate), non-Western traditional forms including the high art of other cultures, and a variety of kinds of modern serious music outside the more traditional forms. But I’m just guessing.

  26. #26 CCPhysicist
    June 20, 2009

    Interesting reading.

    I checked “sing songs in elementary school” because I never took a formal course involving music. I can only ‘read’ music (scare quotes for real) from ‘singing’ from a hymnal in church – as in, that note is higher than that one. Oh, yeah, my dad or my grandmother tried to teach me the piano. Some day I hope to find a decent way to learn music theory without learning music, preferably aurally. And we did have regular orchestral concerts in HS and middle school, but not much music history outside of what you get in any humanities course.

    But, that said, it was my 5th grade teacher who taught us to listen for individual instruments in some orchestral recordings, and explained the sonata form. When I realized a year or so later that jazz and pop improvisation followed that form, I became an experimental listener. Cheap tickets in college let me hear everything from Yehudi Menuhin to Chick Corea for about $3 each. That was an invaluable education outside the classroom.

    It always strikes me as odd that it is “classical” if someone scores music for hitting something with a hammer, but it isn’t if Coltrane bites down on his reed or if you mix in odd new instruments like in that lovely piece @1. That is the arbitrary aspect of the original study. Yet it is also true that both Stravinsky and Miles Davis take somewhat more knowledge and listening experience to appreciate than, say, the early Beach Boys and Beatles (but not necessarily the later “Pet Sounds” or “Sgt Pepper”).

    What strikes me as even more interesting is that the fairly sophisticated audience at our local symphony concerts has a distinct preference for getting the roof blown off the building. Not so refined when you get right down to it. What finally matters is that the music moves you.

  27. #27 eugene_X
    June 20, 2009

    Education is key to any real comprehension of any art form– the audience for classical music is smaller today, in part, because there is a real dearth of serious education for or about it.

    But lack of education only explains part of the phenomenon. A bigger part of it is the changing social expectations we have of musicians. These days people have come to expect that musical artists present music that is new and original. We are also highly invested in the individual, or the self-directed small group, who forge their own path, create their own voice. It’s part and parcel of our societal values. We place a high price on originality in our culture. We as a society have less interest and respect for the interpreters of a centuries-old art form than we do for the next innovative sound, or the solo artist with an unusual story to tell or a unique artistic vision to give to the world.

    And yes, there are classical composers presenting work that is unique and original, but much of it in recent decades has been really esoteric, and more pleasant to read about than listen to (I am thinking of Cage, Stockhausen, Partch, Glass, etc).

    And admittedly classical musicians can and do possess unique artistic visions, but it’s much more subtle and would require an in-depth knowledge of the source material to recognize the unique artistic vision embodied in, for example, yet another rendition of Chopin. When on the other hand, you could pop in a new album by Siggur Ros or M.I.A. and, even without much musical background, easily be able to say “well, that’s new and unique…”

    So I think it’s less a difference in the music than in what we expect, in social terms, our musicians to be.

  28. #28 Harman
    June 20, 2009

    I haven’t received any kind of education to understand classical music, and I absolutely love classical music. It could be that if I did receive such education, I would have gone into the world of classical music much sooner. It was my own curiousity and complete dissatisfaction with shallow, repetitive music such as pop and rock music that led me to listen to classical music.

    The easiest way to figure out why classical hasn’t been popular the last few decades and why it has been popular for many centuries is to just compare to times with each other and see differences that might explain why it isn’t popular in our time. I have speculated that one of the reasons might be that a lot of classical is just really lengthy. I love Beethoven’s symphonies, but sometimes a movement of 18 minutes is just a little too long and I don’t have the time for that. Also, in our noisy world, classical isn’t easily listenable. I demand a completely silent environment when I listen to classical.

    It’s also possible that classical is dead because The Beatles killed it. Rock music is extremely popular, so maybe classical is just not popular because there just isn’t enough room? Anywho I don’t think that lack of education is what caused classical music to die, although if people are educated it will no doubt mean that more people listen to classical, but how much more? I doubt that much more. You don’t really need any kind of education to get into it. You do need to know that classical can be extremely satisfying and often demands your complete attention, unlike the music you hear on the radio. As was the case with me, many people think that music that is not popular, is not good music.

    I still love rock music, by the way, even pop music (60s, 70s).

  29. #29 Robotczar
    June 20, 2009

    The lack of popularity of classical music (or jazz for that matter) has more to do with a general low appreciation of “high brow” culture among Americans. The antiintellectualism in American culture leads young people away from genres that are associated with intellectual activities. (Americans also shy away from math and science.) Unfortunately, young people today seem unaware that popular music has become awful because it is controlled and processed by a handful of corporations. Perhaps their taste is degraded.

    In no way can the educational system be blamed for this situation (it isn’t a trend, American youth has never been much into classical music). The educational system never causes these cultural problems–it is the result of them.

  30. #30 yogi-one
    June 20, 2009

    Wow – you really unleashed a fantastic sharing by everybody about their musical experience and related opinions. At first, I was going to complain about the post and the poll both being too vague and not in-depth, but then as i read the comments, I realized it was precisely the fact that so much room was left for people that they all jumped in.

    Of course, it’s irresistible for me as well. I am semi-pro musician hoping to go pro soon, whose parents did not play music. They did however, respect music and musicians, and particularly loved big band jazz (they were WWII generation). My dad also loved some small group jazz, especially Les Paul and Mary Ford. My dad also kept grandma’s piano in the house, which I grew up playing.

    My key was private lessons. My mom got lessons for my older brother, and he soon stopped going to them, but I bit into them like a pit-bull and hung on for dear life. I am not sure why – my parents or environment did not especially steer me to music, but somehow it lit a fire in me.

    But classical was never my passion. I respect it and learned a few of the Bach inventions, a couple of Mozart piano Sonatas and a few other short things like a couple of Chopin etudes. I was from the psychedelic generation and my dad had given me some jazz roots as well. So today I compose jazz fusion style stuff.

    Schools? – it depends on the school. My elementary school exposure was pretty bland – music classes designed not to teach much beyond introductory level. I didn’t do band because I played piano and the band didn’t need pianists.

    I started playing rock and roll as a pre-teen and teenager, so all my music at that point was outside of school. Older rock musicians were my mentors, as my private teachers had been earlier in my life.. When I wanted to pursue jazz, I had to go outside my high school and state universities, which at that time did not have jazz curricula (although the same schools do nowadays).

    So I learned jazz and rock by gigging, band rehearsals, and hanging out with my mentors. All this actually separated me from a lot of my schoolmates. I had very few schoolmate buddies in either high school or college, because I was always off chasing the gigs and stuff.

    I didn’t do the poll because there were no options that described my experience.

    I think the reason for the decline in classical (also jazz appreciation as well) has to do with our society’s values: namely we value commercial success as the standard by which to evaluate music. We think something is good if it is slickly marketed and produces good sales. I see this in the world of gigs too: people think a gig is good if there are a lot of people at the gig. At gigs such as restaurants, the gig is good if a lot of drinks or dinners are sold. All these measures of success are not related to actually knowing anything about music.

    So society is basically in the loser zone with music. You are reduced to only an intuitive response, which in many cases means people are just responding physically to a repetitive pounding beat.

    In fact, I played a gig where the singer started asking the audience after some of the songs “what was the message of the song – what was I saying?” – Nobody could answer – they were just dancing to the beat, that’s it. The meanings of the songs just blew over their heads.

    As for music theory, I am quite astounded that scientists who have years of study of advanced mathematics think music theory is hard. Puh-lease! Sure, it takes some focus to learn the principles of it, but nothing like college level physics or chemistry – not even close. “Wow” is all I have to say about that.

    Any, that’s my mini-book to add to all the others here – which I am still fascinated by and haven’t finished reading yet, because, like others, I had opinions I had to get out there.

    Maybe you should study why this post engendered such a big discussion?

  31. #31 kevin R
    June 20, 2009

    While there is a lot to be said for classical music, it is far from the only musical form that requires virtuoso playing and compositional skills. Orchestral and Operatic music were at their peak in the days before audio amplification. Playing for an audience of more than a few people requires a “large sound” and the development of orchestras and operatic singing techniques meant you could fill a concert hall with sound. In its day that was an important development.

    The advent of audio recording and broadcasting meant you didn’t have to go to a concert hall to hear good music. The advent of microphones and amplifiers meant that developing vocal technique didn’t have to focus on projection. The softest of voices could easily be heard in the largest of venues. There is a lot of great music being written and performed. The difference between now and the classical period is that music is no longer constrained by the need for an orchestra in order to be heard or publicly performed.

  32. #32 Michael Norrish
    June 21, 2009

    I really recommend Greg Sandow’s blog for discussion about the current state of classical music. My feeling is that a lot of the problem comes from the failure of a number of early 20th century composers to connect with audiences, entrenching a canon approach to classical music that has been extremely unhealthy. The way classical music is presented, as a semi-religious experience, in special temples built specially for the occasion, with all sorts of completely unnecessary rituals around the process, is also unnecessarily off-putting.

    Classical music does not engage with the modern world. Sandow has lots of evidence to suggest that it used to (average age at concerts used to be a lot lower; it was not particularly upper class), so somehow it’s gone wrong in the last century.

  33. #33 JM
    June 21, 2009

    This “you gotta take theory to appreciate classical” idea is hugely misconceived.

    Pick up a copy of “Keyboard”, “Modern Drummer”, “Guitar”, “Guitar Techniques” or any other popular mag for musicians.

    They are absolutely riddled with theory. The level of theoretical knowledge amongst run-of-the-mill musicians these days is absolutely astonishing. Go down to your local dive bar and talk to the grunge guys and you’ll find them quite willing to talk about Mixolidian modes and all the rest.

    Just because they don’t play Mozart doesn’t mean they don’t understand it.

  34. #34 Forrest
    June 21, 2009

    I imagine modern society to be so different, even from my grandparent’s times, that it is no wonder tastes in music, including “serious” music, have changed dramatically in the past 60 or so years.

    When in late high school, college, and early work years, I listed to a lot of classical music. I started to get a vague incomplete and unsatisfactory feeling about it. Yet, pop and country were candy in comparison, not what I was looking for in large doses. By a combination of searching and serendipity, I became attracted to jazz, but not the Dixieland or Big Band varieties (or “light” (or “fusion”)). Most of the ECM label…most “straight-ahead…that stuff. My visceral gut reaction was (and still is) that these jazz varieties “speak”, in some natural way that I confess to not fully understanding, to our more modern age, emotions, and experiences more aptly. True for me, anyway.

    I love the title of one of the early McCoy Tyner pieces (from 1964) called “Contemporary Focus”. It still sounds contemporary to me, 45 years after its recording.

    I still listen to classical, but less than jazz.

  35. #35 Patience
    June 22, 2009

    I’m a classically trained singer, so I’m not sure my answer counts.

    I sang in community choirs from the age of 7 and school choirs from 11 (the first year they were available). Some history and theory were taught each year, though not a dedicated class on either. I was given specific music theory lessons by my choral teacher in middle school to prep for my all-state choral auditions, I remember quite specifically.

    I heavily favour artists who are classically trained–I can hear it in their performances–and my favourite is the lovely Kate Miller-Heidke, an Australian opera singer turned folk-pop-awesomeness. I do quite like classical music, especially modern classical.

  36. #36 web tasarım
    June 22, 2009

    Music history (in college, augemented by independent study, thanks to the SCA) and performance, but no music theory.

  37. #37 web tasarım
    June 22, 2009

    Music history (in college, augemented by independent study, thanks to the SCA) and performance, but no music theory.

  38. #38 web tasarım
    June 22, 2009

    Music history (in college, augemented by independent study, thanks to the SCA) and performance, but no music theory.

  39. #39 Stefan Berteau
    June 22, 2009

    If you drill down into the raw data of the NEA survey, they asked people about their music education. It would be fairly trivial to check for a statistically significant correlation between the amount (and type) of music education received and the number of live performances attended (or others, they also have questions on performances watched on DVD, over the internet, etc).

    I’ve grabbed the raw data on art participation/preferences (which covers a great many types of art, including popular music genres, film and video, etc), and art education. It’s labeled as being 18444 entries, each with 121 variables, but I think I can cut it down and get a pretty good series of correlation tests, and hopefully a PCA or factor analysis out of it. I’ll post results here when they’re done.

  40. #40 Rob Jase
    June 22, 2009

    Although I checked the first box in the poll (I’m old, they taught lots of stuff back then that isn’t taught anymore) I’m largely tone deaf so most music is background noise to me.

    However, as a fan & collector of old radio shows & fims I have to point out that much of their use of classical music (like the Lone Ranger & the William Tell Overture, etc) was because it was cheaper than hiring a composer to write new music.

    Another huge reason for the use of classical music on radio in the early ’40′s was due to contract disputes between ASCAP & the networks which prevented the networks from using virtually all contemporary music.

    And who hums the polyphonic motets of Lassus anymore anyways?

  41. #41 greenblue
    June 25, 2009

    Six years of junior high and high school band, 3 years of college band, 3 years of city-wide youth orchestra, several summers of band camp, 9 years of private lessons, and 1 college-level semester of music theory. Plus, I grew up in a family where both parents were opera lovers. I’m convinced that the major reason young people think that what they hear on the radio today is good music sung by good singers is because of the declining attention to music education in our schools.

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