Having recently had the opportunity to sit, to listen, to read and to think about things, I find it unbearable that music and music education is facing a time of change. On the face of it, this could appear to be just another comment relating to cultural diversity or the distance between young and old, but I feel that now, more than ever, it is time to stop and to take stock of society and the direction in which it is travelling.
Music is known to have so many benefits to the young or old, is reported to make you smarter and can have the power to influence and change the thinking of an entire generation. I will not dispute or refute these claims and there has been enough scientific thinking around this with numerous studies and research.
Music has been marginalised in the educational curriculum and this appears to be evident in primary, secondary and in some higher educational establishments. But to be honest, wasn’t this the case in education in the 1950s/60s when much learning was undertaken by rote? From what I understand, music was something that you learned about through study of the history of composers and listening.
Please do not think that this is a method of teaching that I believe is the way forward for our current educational model and the students in classrooms today. However, there does seem to be something in that way of working and the methodology, but above all the breadth and quality of listening experiences.
With more technology than ever and the greatest access to recordings from a vast variety of styles, genres and performances, it appears somewhat alarming that as a society people tend to understand less, and know far less, about important historical musical events and the great music of a variety of composers.
How can the UK have such a diverse cultural and historical background in which its people have no connection, awareness, understanding or worse still; why don’t people care?
Why is it now culturally acceptable for people to denounce all classical music as though it is something that is boring or not worth the effort of trying to understand? Have we grown to develop a natural aversion in our younger generations towards music that can challenge and develop thinking? Why is it that with the widest possible range of popular cultural styles do people often say that they have only one inclination or interest in a singular facet of musical development and actively treat all other musical styles and genres with disgust and contempt?
This is really an age-old question that arose with the advent of jazz for example, or existed with the introduction of the Rite of Spring in the early 1900s or even within pockets of society throughout the ages. I guess the question is; does it really matter? Well, probably not.
But what does matter is that the quality of listening, attention to detail and the understanding of what is heard has plummeted. Generally speaking music now exists as a periphery to other activities. For example, background music has a place and an important function. It is alarming that much of what was foreground music is treated now as something that should remain, as something that is a soundtrack to life or that exists in conjunction with other things. Film music is so cleverly written and integrated into exciting and effect filled sequences and is often required to act as something that enhances a visual spectacle, mood, emotion or situation. But do you remember any of the music from the last film you went to see? Most probably not. This could be due to the fact that it was extremely cleverly written and has done its job well, but more worryingly it is most likely to be because music (of some description) appears to be everywhere and we are conditioned into simply hearing and not listening.
An example of this could be the way that music is pumped into public buildings such as large shopping centres, shops, lifts or even toilets. Whereever it is, it is very likely that someone will have put a great deal of effort, education, care and thought either into writing, developing, recording and producing this.
I remember a story from Paul Denegri about this subject. He said he was performing at the Royal Albert Hall, and during the interval he went to the toilet and was really alarmed at the fact that through the speakers he heard a recording of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony. Why is it acceptable for any music to be played simply as background ‘noise’ for someone to take a leak to? I remember the dismay in his voice when he said that he has played the work so many times and has worked hard on developing his technique, musicianship and understanding simply to get into the orchestra to play the piece. Now here he was having a wee listening (or maybe just hearing?) to that very piece – someones hard work, persistence and determination instantly degraded to music to urinate to.
Why is it that within the most diverse educational culture with the greatest variety of opportunities available do we have dwindling numbers of instrumentalists in our schools? Is it simply that society has engulfed the mind into accepting that an unobtainable amount of information is ever present and that real listening to anything is unnecessary as it could simply just be Googled? I am beginning to feel that life never stops, and often doesn’t even slow down enough for the younger generations to allow them to simply catch their breath let alone actually consider the things in their lives.
So where does the real value of music lie in terms of the progression and development of society? Through its most basic and enduring qualities music can allow an individual to understand repetition, structure, melody and harmony but moreover to develop a true understanding of a culture or time and explore a different culture. I feel that this understanding and this ability to listen and take on board new thoughts through intellectual reasoning is something that the World now needs more than ever. I feel that changing education is really not enough to cut it and that maybe a focus on society should be a way forward for the government of today.
Have we put our society in a position where just hearing is the art, with listening and understanding being something that we consign to the annals of historical educational philosophy?