Music and the Mass Media—An Informal Report from the Twelfth Congress of the IMS

October 1, 1978

For the first time in sixteen years, the United States played host to a Congress of the International Musicological Society attended by scholars, performers, and professors from thirty-three different nations many of which had not existed in 1961, the date of the last American meeting. The Congress theme, "Interdisciplinary Horizons in the Study of Musical Traditions, East and West," reflected the Society's current efforts to bridge the gap between musicology and other disciplines and to emphasize peripheral areas of research, among them ethnic, comparative, sociological and iconographical aspects of the field. A brief glance at some of the subjects under discussion quickly reveals the unusual nature of this meeting. For example, among the first day's scheduled Round Tables, we find "African Roots of Music in the Americas," "Eastern European Folk and Art Music," "Music of Oceania," "Concepts of Music History in East and West," as well as several other topics. (Unfortunately, as usually happens, several met simultaneously, making it difficult for those with multiple interests.) Later sessions were concerned with "Music in Urban Centers East and West," "The Ethnography of Musical Performance," "Cultural and Historical Aspects of Musical Terminology," and "Nineteenth-Century Staging and Romantic Visual Symbolism," the latter one of the most exciting presentations.

With several diverse approaches to the topic of "Music and the Mass Media," six speakers of various persuasions delivered papers at one of the Round Table sessions last August in Berkeley, California. In its division along international lines, our panel was no exception. Roy Prendergast (Greensboro, North Carolina), Michael Steinberg (Boston Symphony Orchestra) and Elaine Brody (New York University) represented the United States. Sylvia Moore, a British subject, lecturer with the Netherlands World Service and the Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam, Kurt Blaukopf, Director of the Institut für Musiksoziologie of the Hochschule für Musik in Vienna, and Ivo Supicic, editor of The International Review of Music Aesthetics and Sociology and professor at the Institute of Musicology in Zagreb, comprised the remaining members of the panel.

Chairman Irmgaard Bontinck, also of the Vienna Hochschule, had clearly done her homework, and this session proceeded without a hitch. In advance of the meeting, Dr. Bontinck had requested a paper of approximately 3000 words from each panelist. By January, these papers had arrived in Vienna, whence they were circulated to all participants for their comments. These notes and comments were then returned to Dr. Bontinck in Vienna, where she summarized the basic points in all of papers and wrote to each individual asking that we confine our public discussion to her seven-point summary.

The large audience and the physical situation—participants on stage facing the public seated in an amphitheater—mitigated against the modus operandi of the Round Table. Despite the announcement in the Congress Bulletin that there would be no "free" papers, each scholar at each session arose, stood before the podium, and read his piece. Confronted by this array of prepared papers, at the last moment, one hour before the scheduled session, all shifted gears and determined to follow suit, allowing time for discussion at the conclusion of the papers and in the afternoon study session, when the cassettes and films would be shown.

The morning meeting succeeded beyond all expectations, offering ample proof of the new interest in and awareness of "Music and the Mass Media" as a justifiable topic for musicological research. Unfortunately, in the afternoon, the audience diminished, and the study session therefore seemed to lack the sparkle that comes from a rapid exchange of ideas, a dialogue with a larger public.

Roy Prendergast, whose book A Neglected Art: A Critical Study of Music in Films, was recently published by New York University Press, described the apathy and ignorance of most musical scholars with regard to film music. Prendergast presented a brief history of music in films and then proceeded to describe the ways in which composers of film music execute their scores. In the afternoon, his projections of a scene from an old John Garfield movie—first without the background music and immediately afterwards with it—proved beyond the shadow of a doubt how music enhanced the scenes. His lucid explanations of the fusion of film and music helped us to understand the complexities involved. No historical archive of film music exists, and Prendergast would like to see one established.

Another kindred area that lacks support is the function of music in the commercial arena. A young French scholar, Jean-Rémy Julien, here in the States for two months during the summer, interviewed numbers of persons in the research division of large advertising companies to determine whether or not they had charted audience response to music in television and radio commercials. Most of those interviewed agreed that he had a splendid idea, "very interesting," they said, but that their work was bought or sold as a package and that music was but one part of the whole which could not be isolated from the total. At the conclusion of our meeting, Julien came to the front to announce that the French government was underwriting his investigation of this phenomenon and that he would be happy to invite Americans to join in his research.

Sylvia Moore spoke about the use of films to capture the evolving hybridization of African music with the popular music of the West. She, too, argued for the preservation of this material in all its various stages in order to view the process of acculturation as it occurs, before the disappearance of the original. In the afternoon, she offered a fascinating film with demonstrations of this music performed by West African and West Indian emigrants to Amsterdam. As the camera focused on one of the performers after another, each replied to questions posed by an interviewer.

Elaine Brody described the preparations and hazards of teaching music history on television. With the experience of forty-five telecasts on New York University's Sunrise Semester behind her, she revealed the challenge in this kind of work: the behind-the-scenes preparation, the on-the-spot tensions, and the difficulties attendant on a telecast that allows no retakes and no editing. Her principal difficulties had to do with the inadequate knowledge of the Columbia Broadcasting System's technical crew who worked behind the scenes and the lack of any kind of assistance or liaison between the technical staff and the professor responsible for the content of the show. With the afternoon's video cassette, she proved her point.

Dr. Brody had elected to teach "Music in the Romantic Era" instead of a one-semester survey course. Highlighting the interrelationship of creative persons in this epoch of cultural history, she was able to introduce slides and other documents relating to fine arts and literature as well. Unfortunately, the director, convinced that most professors do enough talking without assistance from him, determined to let nature take its course; the series proceeded without a single directive from him. The path to self-improvement forced Dr. Brody to watch the show regularly in order to improve her technique and polish her performance, with some evidence of success. She reportedly received hundreds of letters weekly, gifts, and even a proposal of marriage. In conclusion, Dr. Brody stated that despite her wide exposure—thirty-five universities gave the course under their own auspices and 120 affiliates of CBS showed it to more than 2½ million viewers daily—television could never replace the actual classroom encounter, the viable relationship between student and teacher.

Professor Kurt Blaukopf reported on the appalling lack of attention paid to the influence of records. He indicated the staggering number of records (over 180 million in 1975) sold and distributed in all fields of music, popular and classical, over the past twenty-five years. He mentioned that while UNESCO had allotted funds for research in radio and television, only at his urging have they finally consented to do the same for records. In the discussion period, Professor Supicic cited the impact of records on current performance practice, a phase of music and the mass media not treated by any of our participants.

Michael Steinberg had been for many years the critic for the Boston Globe. He is now in charge of publications of the Boston Symphony Orchestra as well as author of their program notes. Calling himself a "musical coroner," Mr. Steinberg related the multifarious obligations of the music critic who must evaluate performances after the fact (his role as a coroner) and inform his public about works and creators of contemporary music ahead of time, before the performance takes place. He related how, when he was a newspaper critic, he incurred the displeasure of his editor who resented having to read twice in one week (on the Sunday before the concert and again in a review) a discussion of Beethoven's infrequently performed Diabelli Variations which, as Steinberg surmised, needed a public relations specialist to sell them to an uninformed public. Mr. Steinberg stated that any critic who wished to maintain his integrity must insist on his right to determine the balance of information and criticism to be contained in his review.

With considerable dexterity, Professor Supicic summarized the various approaches to the topic of Music and the Mass Media. He sought to show that the problems raised by the mass media and its relationship to music are not merely technical, but also sociological, cultural, psychological and spiritual in nature. Music transmitted by the media affects the sensibilities of man, his morality, his physical and intellectual progress. As Supicic sees it, only recently has there been an awareness of the sociology of music and the role of the media in shaping these forces. He differentiates the passive and active experience of music, the hearing and listening as it were, and he argues that we must put more emphasis on selective listening, and on the proper type of programming. He also cautioned against allowing "canned" music to represent the ultimate achievement or the highest level of performance, thus inhibiting further recreations of music.

A lively discussion ensued as questions were directed to the panelists by persons in the audience. Before adjourning the session, Dr. Bontinck read once again the seven points that she hoped would become the basis for the afternoon study session. Because these points might easily provide a basis for future research, we conclude this report by reprinting them here.

1. Ought musicology only to be concerned with music itself, regarding the mass media as a mere vehicle, or ought music in the mass media to be regarded as a subject for musicological research?

2. Assuming that transmitted or recorded music is an element of musical life, is it the task of musicology to deal with the technical and sociological implications (records, TV)?

3. Is mass media orientation towards low standard music an accepted fact? If so, how can we explain the growing need for autonomous music making in all genres?

4. Can a closer acquaintance with music be promoted by the purposeful use and employment of the mass media? What is the role to be played by the gatekeepers (editors, radio and TV programmers)?

5. In what way can the mass media contribute to the preservation of traditional music cultures?

6. In what way can the mass media contribute to a deplacement or hybridization of traditional music cultures?

7. Which areas can you suggest for future research and coordination?

13678 Last modified on November 9, 2018