Our Rebirth: Reshaping the Music Discipline after the Covid-19 Pandemic

May 1, 2020

Every cloud has a silver lining, and when the dust settles and we emerge from this Covid-19 pandemic, there will no doubt be a renewed sense of humanity, and with it, an opportunity to take back music, to lead rather than follow, to establish a fresh perspective of our art and reconnect with the greater world into the 21st century.

In the short period since the global virus became a reality, we have seen some positive practices. Firstly, music faculty, many of whom spent years avoiding a greater interaction with technology, are now forced to engage with it. Professors and instructors are learning and becoming more comfortable with online methodologies, platforms, and applications, at least to offer their courses “virtually” as we practice social distancing. And secondly, among the general population, there is a renewed burst of creative energy, a desire to connect with humankind. Music is being increasingly experienced on an intimate, personal level, performed in homes, with a sole purpose of expressing feelings, lifting spirits, or challenging one’s intellect and ability. These performances are usually stripped down with reduced production and feature voices and/or acoustic instruments. Professionals too, like members of the National Orchestra of France, have been recording themselves while in isolation, and through video synchronization, independent parts are assembled so viewers can experience the full ensemble (France Musique 2020). And early on, commercial pop artists have shared performances. In Fox’s online streaming The iHeart Living Room Concert for America, stars from Billie Eilish to Mariah Carey performed in intimate settings in order to raise charity funds (Blakemore 2020).

The goal of most of these performances, which are shared on social media or YouTube, is not to make money but simply to express creativity, provide connection, solace, or levity. Technology (i.e., video streaming) is important as a means of communication. But artificial, formerly pervasive music production has been set aside for the most part. The human element is the focus rather than the electronic one. No need to embrace audio processors (Auto-Tune) or engineering and mixing. No need to constantly think about creating a sound that will be competitive in the industry. Because of the virus-caused isolation, there is a respite from the market’s digital formula, and thus, there is a tiny bit of breathing space for the organic musician. Music in higher education should take advantage of this opportunity and elbow in on the reset of the greater social design.

Following this current pandemic, the world will certainly encounter systematic change and new technologies--what the political economist Joseph Schumpeter might have described as “creative destruction,” when new innovation disturbs the economic system and elicits deep-rooted industrial mutations. But rather than associate coming innovation with a negative association (like downsizing), this change can result in positive outcomes and usher in a fresh era where old ideas and institutions are supplanted by better ones (Thornhill 2020). Such a disruption can revolutionize the way music is created, marketed, distributed, consumed, and can provide opportunities for academe and discipline-related employment (Vazquez 2017). If approached with a focused strategy, there can be an improvement not just in process, but also in the quality of content, of the music itself.

There has been no time quite like this in history, but somewhat comparable is the situation confronted by the music discipline a hundred years ago, during a boom of extraordinary audio innovation with the invention of the phonograph, radio, microphone, and amplification. At that time, those from the academic music world did not astutely assess the situation or assert a vision. Consequently, the powerful “music industry” emerged, and year by year the gap widened between academe and business, so that eventually the industry usurped all others and began to independently steer the sounds of societies. We can learn from past mistakes.

The audio technology of the early 1900s altered the face of music the likes of which the world had never seen. Citizens went from being active performers to passive receivers of sound. Before the tech, if one wanted to listen to music, they either had to play/sing it themselves or attend a live performance. Afterwards, audio was readily accessible via recordings or airwaves. And even when live performances were offered, with the use of microphones and amplification, the character of singing and performance styles changed, as did the necessity for having resonant concert halls. Innovation created a massive shift in audience expectations and tastes.

Some musicians and educators were rightfully concerned. John Philip Sousa, the great military march composer, lamented in 1906 that this technology would seep deeply into culture, that the impact would not just be on professionals but also on the extraordinary number of amateurs in the USA who were engaged in music making.

…America has advanced art to such a degree that to-day she is the Mecca toward which journey the artists of all nations….There are more pianos, violins, guitars, mandolins, and banjos among the working classes of America than in all the rest of the world.

[But with the phonograph] it will be simply a question of time when the amateur disappears entirely, and with him a host of vocal and instrumental teachers, who will be without field or calling….When a mother can turn on a phonograph with the same ease that she applies to the electric light, will she croon her baby to slumber with sweet lullabies, or will the infant be put to sleep by machinery (Sousa 1906). 

But most academics did not consider the ramifications, and regarded sound innovations without too much concern, adopting technology as an educator’s tool: for instance, students could now become more inspired as they could hear worthy compositions “that were beyond them technically and by which they had no other means of acquaintance” (Cooke,1916). And recorded music spurred on the movement for music appreciation courses, since students could now listen to a variety of genres and masterworks while seated in a classroom (Apel 1969). So the academy received technology with “strategies of assimilation,” where technology is perceived as simply a device to extend the status quo (Hayles 2012; Ruthman 2017). This is a similar approach as seen more recently, where musicians use their digital tablet/iPad as merely a display screen for 300-year-old sheet music. As useful as the interaction may be, the approach ignores larger societal and economic context of technology.

Indeed, with these bursts of technology and innovation, regardless of when they happened, there has been no mass academic music movement addressing, or more importantly, leading the discussion in regard to cultural, social, and employment implications that were sure to arise. We too often forget that academic music is part of a complex network, that changes in life systems as we are seeing in 2020 and will continue to see, call for changes in curricula, artistic expression, and career paths. As Tobias warns, “The failure to apply critical frameworks can lead to technicist approaches to doing music without addressing the types of inquiry that arts and humanities offer… [we] focus on how to use technology as tools and techniques without addressing musical, social, or historical contexts, let alone critical theories and frameworks” (Tobias 2017). Because musical academe did not respond more strategically to the new technologies of the 1900s, today into the 21st century we are enveloped by a calculated music system that does not lend itself well to creativity and experimentation.

The success of the commercial music market is tied to the fact that listeners are attracted to familiarity (Pereira et al. 2011). We encode the sounds around us, regardless of what we think of them (Ilari and Polka 2006). Throughout our lives we are exposed to industry music in grocery stores, in the mall, in movies, TV shows, commercials, when the car next to us has the windows down and the stereo is blaring. We can close our eyes, but we cannot close our ears, so all of these rhythms and timbres and styles are being processed internally and stored in our brains long before we can walk.1“The region of the brain where memories of our past are supported and retrieved also serves as a hub that links familiar music, memories and emotion” (Greensfelder, 2009).

We must remember that the pervasive music of our communities, that which becomes rooted in our subconscious, is not really chosen by audiences themselves. Nor is it chosen by talented artists (Seabrook 2016), or educated professional musicians, or folk performers, or passionate aficionados, or objective scholars, or the academy, but rather, the sounds on our airwaves are determined by a profit-driven industry with specific mercenary motives. The problem is, in order to make the music memorable, to sell more “hits,” the industry has increasingly limited any outside creative voices and kept the sounds simple and formulaic: human expression, nuance, and artistry are not at the forefront. Indeed, for about the past 20 years the creative process for commercial songs has become largely industrialized through a factory-style production coined “track-and-hook.” Under the guidance of the track maker/producer, teams build digital “grooves” (with rhythms, chord progressions, instrumentations), and batches of these sound files are sent to several hook (melody) writers, and the producer decides upon the best melody from the submissions (Seabrook, 2016).  The musical material from which creators can choose (aside from timbre) is very limited by this commodity system—this is why contemporary music producers do not require the comprehensive type of education packed into a traditional four-year music degree program. And since most sounds are digitized, there is no longer much use for live performers either. As Seabrook explains:

[More importantly is,] who isn’t in the room when track-and-hook songs are made…session musicians are nowhere to be seen. Where are they? The two or three at the very top of their game might be working somewhere, but most of them are unemployed, trying to make ends meet by giving guitar lessons. They have been superannuated by the song machines that do their work more cheaply and efficiently than they can...(Seabrook 2016).

This “track-and-hook process does not lend itself very well to art,” Seabrook concurs (Thompson et al. 2018).  Yet, it is this formulaic product, dominated by a western, English-language system, that has been shaping the musical tastes of world-wide citizens for decades, and consequently, making it more difficult for musicians who are engaged in originality, artistry, technical skillfulness, regional or heritage traditions, to gain a professional foothold.2There is also strong movement for artificial intelligence to replace the composer (Dredge 2019).

Now, we are approaching a crossroads, and perhaps soon the powerful profit-driven music system may find itself, at least briefly, on shaky ground. This time, unlike the early 1900s, academe should not fail to seize the opportunities. To some extent, we know what is coming, but we cannot wait for business to invite higher education to the table, as business has largely disregarded academic music for decades. Business has been turning to business or industry for ideas and solutions, and consequently providing music-related jobs to each other, bypassing music graduates or trained “creatives” [“creative” now being a noun]. Consultant agencies, who traditionally cut their teeth in the economic world rather than the performing arts, have been called upon all too frequently to guide significant music-related projects, from recruiting music faculty and arts administrators (and basically replacing the professorial search committee), to advising on performance venues, or music-grant funding, or a myriad of other important facets that impact the lives of musicians and academe. Tales regarding agency “specialists” with no music qualifications or experience abound. In one account, the principal consultant was a fresh graduate who had been given the assignment because he had more musical experience than anyone else in his office--he had no degrees or professional music training, but had been awarded 2nd place for singing in his college talent show. The resulting service was subpar to say the least.  Efficiency and value of music/business/academic projects would be greatly improved if music graduates held many of these positions.

We also see a need for educated involvement on a macro scale. For instance, UNESCO3UNESCO acronym for United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization tells us that by 2050, almost 70% of the world will live in cities, and importantly, most may be “Creative Cities” (UN.org 2018). What will these urban dwellings of the future look like? What will their sounds, their music, their infrastructures be like? This is being discussed and determined right now…but not by academically trained music professors and musicians. The only music-affiliated entity to bother to sign up with the United Nations “Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Media Compact” (in 2018) is a newly-formed private consulting company with an industry bent (Shapiro 2019). Granted, the United Nations announced it was looking for partners to “inspire media and entertainment companies”—which suggests the UN is perceiving creative cities in terms of industry rather than art (SDG 2015). In any event, via this relationship with UNESCO, this young agency has been hosting worldwide “Music City Conventions,” and although music education plays an important role in their proposed music ecosystem (Figure 1), almost no music educators or faculty take part in these large brainstorming discussions.4Sound Diplomacy plans to launch an SDG “Music Compact” in 2020 and set a road map for music in cities of the future, the ramifications of which are unknown (Shapiro 2019). Would it not be of greater public and music-discipline benefit if a university or music research center, or cultural non-profit, or musician/music researcher-run consultant agency led the planning of the music of our cities? Would it not be more favorable to communities if meaningful music education and local music training, as well as the nurturing of creativity and art, be kept in the forefront alongside discussions of business? It is true that some academic institutions have recognized the significance of preparing for future cities. For instance, Stanford University has been engaged for several years in their Arts Institute that houses an important Creative Cities program. Still, the Stanford 2019-20 Working Group includes no music faculty (Stanford Arts).

Sound Diplomacy Music Ecosystem

Figure 1: Creative Cities, Music Ecosystem
(Sound Diplomacy 2019)

Opportunities for the musically qualified will likely arise in many areas of life. Malls of the future will not be about retail, but instead serve as “dining, leisure and entertainment centers” (Bird 2018). If we act, we could go beyond “entertainment” and add “musical arts” or “public music training” to that definition. What if one could have dinner at the mall, and then with friends, step across the court to the “music center,” grab instruments and play, as all are guided by professionals--thus enjoying a modern-day soirée. What if we revived the working-class musical citizens who flourished in John Philip Sousa’s America, where instruments were found in countless homes (instead of video games which displaced many of the instruments of the past)? The public needs options, they need to be guided by responsible, altruistic hands, and as we have seen, it may not be best to leave music strategy solely to the current industry whose mindset does not always align with public quality of life.

In order for students to be successful into the 21st century, in higher academe it is important that we begin to think holistically and break free from our legacy systems. For instance, if more music scholars, musicologists and ethnomusicologists, focused their research on music and media or industry, arguably the scope of these studies would be elevated, students would be more exposed to latest trends, and research and planning paths forward would be enhanced. And the boundaries especially in the United States between ethnomusicology and historical musicology, western and non-western music, should finally be dissolved. Non-western music should not immediately be relegated to social theory, nor western music primarily approached via document study. All musics of the world should be performed, analyzed, composed, evaluated historically, anthropologically, in any manner. Students need to expand their musical experiences on all global fronts, in all ways.  Moreover, Media, Communication, Music Industry, and Entrepreneurship studies should go hand-in-hand with, if not rest under, Music Departments or other Music Units. Our performing arts colleagues in theatre have already made the shift, as Theatre and Media or Theatre and Communications Departments have been around for some time. We need to forge bonds so that graduates in music-affiliated careers have a comprehensive education and will be prepared for the jobs of the future. Otherwise the consequences can be grievous.

So right now, as we proceed through this grim time of pandemic, the good news is that we see the average citizen turning toward creativity, performance, more organic music making. Non-music-major students are emailing and calling me for advice as they dust off old guitars, family members are learning to play the keyboard on their iPads, amateur friends are struggling with the tuning of violins, and it seems like all of a sudden, during non-music-related Zoom meetings, I see instruments in the background on everyone’s screen. There is a new awakening. A period of disruption will come at some point, impacting the music industry, and the resulting instability will provide openings for academe and passionate artists to “take back” music, to lead rather than trail behind. And if institutions are too bogged down by legacy practices and bureaucracy to make important modifications, then there is nothing stopping individuals from moving more quickly, becoming entrepreneurs, creating companies, sharing new sounds and ideas, devising useful platforms, elbowing into the room. Extraordinary opportunities lie before us.


1. “The region of the brain where memories of our past are supported and retrieved also serves as a hub that links familiar music, memories and emotion” (Greensfelder, 2009).

2. There is also strong movement for artificial intelligence to replace the composer (Dredge 2019).

3. UNESCO acronym for United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization

4. Sound Diplomacy plans to launch an SDG “Music Compact” in 2020 and set a road map for music in cities of the future, the ramifications of which are unknown (Shapiro 2019).


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