The Tragic Decline of Music Literacy (and Quality) | Intellectual Takeout

Family singing at the piano

Over the last 20 years, fewer people are learning how to read and compose music. What impact has that had on the music we listen to?

Source: The Tragic Decline of Music Literacy (and Quality) | Intellectual Takeout

“Oh yes, we need a little Christmas, right this very minute:
Candles in the window, carols at the spinet!”

These famous lines, from the still-popular secular Christmas song “We Need a Little Christmas” (1966) are not just me longing for Christmas, in this steamy central Maryland August (although neither would I deny it), but an illustration of the linked essay‘s point: that although most people listening to it today probably gloss right over the line without a clue as to what is meant, the song would have been unlikely to contain those lyrics, if “carols at the spinet” (a once-popular type of small, drop-action piano) had not been an easily-recognizable feature of Christmas cheer at the time it was written.

It’s certainly recognizable to me! Born in 1965, the third and much the youngest of three brothers, I grew up with a “spinet” (actually a furniture console piano) in our home: one which my father had purchased for my mother years before – at a time when they were still struggling financially – because he knew how much music meant to her. It was a family tradition: my grandmother’s house in South Jersey actually had a baby grand piano in the “front room,” although I have no memory of her (or anyone) actually playing it.

Ma did play hers, though, both often and well. Music meant a lot to both of my parents: Pa was an accomplished musician himself, playing both trumpet and piano, and doing so well enough to play in his Regimental Band during the Occupation of Germany, following World War Two (in which he served with distinction, being both wounded in action and decorated for valor). He also later served as choir director in the family church, although again before I was born (I was a bit of a late-comer). By the time I was born, he rarely played; but he could still “tickle the ivories” on the rare occasions when he did!

Kimball Console Piano
This Kimball Console Piano is very similar (except for the design of the music rack and the cushion on the bench) to the one in my house, from well before my birth in 1965 until our last family home was sold, in 2007.

Ma, the daughter of a Methodist minister, had learned to play the piano early, played in church often, and had a lifelong love for it. And until the arthritis started affecting her hands, she was very good. I do not know, but I rather suspect, that it was a disappointment to her that none of her three sons took up the art. But she continued to play as long as she was physically able to do so, both at home and, when needed, at church.

And yes, “carols at the spinet” (console!) were a regular feature of our Christmas celebrations, during my growing-up days. And not only Christmas carols, but Christian hymns from the Methodist hymnal, and patriotic songs. I learned to appreciate music the same way I learned to appreciate the Christian faith: literally at my mother’s knee.

It was only with great reluctance that I was convinced to part with Ma’s piano, following her passing: whether I could play it or no, I had hoped to eventually have a child who might. Even more sadly, my music-reading ability is elementary at best. At least I can read it a little bit; I played trumpet in later elementary and middle school, though sadly I did not continue it into high school, and I sang in both the children’s and junior (high school-age) choirs, at church. But as the author of this piece, Jon Henschen, points out,

“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.”

That is truly sad. It was not always thus!

“Prior to the 1980’s, it was common for homes to have a piano with children taking piano lessons… [However, nowadays] 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.”

Just to put those numbers in perspective: 464,500 pianos were sold in the U.S. when the population of the country was at 90,490,000 (just under 90.5 million). Now, when the population is at something like 327 million, only 30-40,000 are sold annually. Granted, pianos are durable goods, not expendables: you don’t have to buy a new one every year, or decade, or even (with good care) century; a good few of those pianos from earlier ages may still be around, reducing the demand for new ones. But even so…!

But it doesn’t stop there: “Besides the decline of music literacy and participation, there has also been a decline in the quality of music”: not just a subjective judgement, but an objective fact which, the linked essay notes, “has been proven scientifically by Joan Serra, a postdoctoral scholar at the Artificial Intelligence Research Institute of the Spanish National Research Council in Barcelona.”

Her research has found that timbral quality (a measure of sound color, texture and tone quality), pitch (harmonic content of the piece, including its chords, melody, and tonal arrangements), and pitch content (the number of chords and different melodies) have all declined since the 1960s, while loudness has (surprise, surprise!) increased. Lyric intelligence, which reflects how difficult a piece of text is to understand and the quality of the writing, has dropped by a full grade in just the last ten years. Again, no surprise there!

So, why does this matter? Leaving aside aesthetics, and the joy to be found in both listening to and playing truly high-quality music, musical literacy and the ability to play a musical instrument “has been proven to help in brain synapse connections, learning discipline, work ethic, and working within a team.” The article goes on to reiterate: “while contact sports like football are proven brain damagers, music participation is a brain enhancer.”

Small wonder that music was one of the seven original and Classical liberal arts (the trivium, consisting of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, and the quadrivium, which consisted of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy). This, in a culture which by no means devalued physical education; in fact demanding as its ideal Mens sana in corpore sano: a sound mind in a sound body.

And that’s not to even consider the myriad aesthetic and psychological benefits of music literacy, appreciation, and active participation. I thoroughly agree with Jon Henschen’s prescription for our present musical malady: “First, musical literacy should be taught in our nation’s school systems. In addition, parents should encourage their children to play an instrument.” Amen, and amen!


Author: The Anglophilic Anglican

I am an ordained Anglican clergyman, published writer, former op-ed columnist, and experienced outdoor and informal educator. I am also a traditionalist: religiously, philosophically, politically, and socially. I seek to do my bit to promote and restore the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, in a world which has too-often lost touch with all three, and to help re-weave the connections between God, Nature, and humankind which our techno-industrial civilization has strained and broken.

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