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An old perspective on music appreciation

Weekly Columnist

Published: Friday, December 7, 2012

Updated: Friday, August 23, 2013 17:08

Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag, released in 1899, was one of the first breakthrough successes of the burgeoning commercial music industry – it is sufficient to say that it was the “Gangnam Style” of America. But the ragtime classic was, of course, not sold to the masses on wax cylinders or gramphone discs due to the limits of those technologies at the time. Instead, in the first six months of sales, 75,000 copies of the sheet music to Maple Leaf Rag were purchased and laid out on pianos in parlor rooms and salons across the country, and then performed to far larger audiences than those sales numbers indicated.

But only a decade later, technological improvements had reached a point at which a commercial music recording industry – rather than a music publishing industry – was possible and profitable. Suddenly music could be made more widely available and at greater convenience to American consumers. But it also sounded the death knell for the currency and popularity of parlor music and the colorful touring ensembles so characteristic of those years. It was no longer remarkable to see a band perform live in one’s town or to hear an impromptu concert from a friend or relative live in one’s home. Vitality was thus sacrificed to variety as records and radios and tapes and CDs became ubiquitous and the parlor piano gathered dust.

At the forefront of criticism of these changes in the nature of interaction with music was the composer and bandleader John Philip Sousa, who refused to conduct his ensemble when the microphones were on. Railing against the ascendance of what he termed “canned music”, Sousa delivered these words in testimony to Congress in 1906:
“These talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country. When I was a boy in front of every house in the summer evenings, you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or old songs. Today you hear these infernal machines going night and day. The vocal cord will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tail of man when he came from the ape.”

Sousa’s jeremiad has proven itself disturbingly perceptive, but not because musical artistry has suffered in this past century. In fact, music is everywhere, spanning all styles and genres from Rachmaninoff to Rihanna, imbuing our lives with an intensifying progression of beats and rhythms and harmonies. But so much of it is dated and prepackaged that we largely experience music in the present day without any reminder that it is produced by musicians. When millions of musical works are available to us at the click of a mouse, there is comparatively little incentive to pay high prices for concert tickets or spend years mastering an instrument. We suffer as a society, then, from an overabundance of music.

Although Sousa may have exaggerated in warning of an imminent crisis of “the artistic development of music”, it has certainly been the case that that development has been carried out by fewer and fewer people. Most American students receive a rudimentary musical education in grade school and learn a few simple melodies on the recorder, but by high school, the vocational and intellectual pursuits of many students make a daily devotion to musical mastery difficult or impossible. After all, we have free and instantaneous access to an almost boundless variety of music accessible at the computer’s keyboard, not just at the piano’s.

Something substantial and vital has been torn out of our ability to appreciate and enjoy music in the process because we think of it as static and experience it passively. Music becomes more rich and more varied as more contribute in a personal way to its development, and as more can turn to their instruments or their voices as outlets for artistic expression – this was Sousa’s point.

In the 19th and 20th century writing of Austen, Eliot and Joyce, to name a mere handful, countless characters entertain themselves and others at the piano, practice the harp or sing to rekindle a sense of intimacy for various reasons, with one another. But in the 21st century, for the most part, those amateur musicians, those gatherings around the piano and those impromptu concerts are gone. This concern may, after all, amount to little more than nostalgia for an idealized bourgeois past. Time and money are as scarce as they have ever been to us in modern times. Not all of us can live the idle lives of Elizabeth Bennet and the Regency elite, nor should we. But we should recognize at once that a certain richness has been lost from our lives and that it can be regained. 

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