Technology, Culture, and Music

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Salsa is now a bigger seller than catsup in the United States.

The imminent passing of the third millennium is seen by many as a symbol of renewal. This idea has special relevance for Western music which, in some very important respects, is experiencing an irreversible crossing over—an event horizon, to borrow a term from cosmologists—to new ways of thinking about, managing, and learning about music.

In what follows I will consider three present trends that will increasingly change the way we think about, create, and teach music. These trends are the transition from acoustic to electronic music technologies, a shift from local and regional music preferences to global influences, and the individualization of music learning. As to the first of these, there is a growing recognition that electronic music technologies are musical instruments which are increasingly favored by professional, avocational, and student musicians. In the second instance, our ready access to music from all corners of the globe increasingly blurs the distinctions which once made the music of different cultures unique. Finally, the decreasing cost and increasing power of desktop computers together with the availability of user-friendly software makes MIDI an evermore effective alternative for individuals interested in learning about music and musical processes.

 

Transition from Acoustic to Electronic Instruments

There's a marvelous story about the world famous violinist Mischa Elman, his equally respected friend and pianist Leopold Godowsky, and the young violin prodigy Jascha Heifetz. With Elman and Godowsky in the audience, then teenaged Heifetz soared through a virtuoso performance of some very difficult repertoire. In the audience, Elman mopped his brow and said, "It's getting hot in here." Replied Godowsky, "Not for pianists." I don't think it's stretching the analogy too far to suggest that musicians whose orientation is limited to acoustic music-making are feeling the heat of diminishing career opportunities, even paid casual music performance opportunities, while a new breed of musician, one unafraid of the application of electronic technologies to music, finds an expanding market for remunerative and intrinsically rewarding musical opportunities.

As recently as the 1960s, electronic music was considered the domain of cognoscenti, the radical-chic, and the avant-garde. More recently, a survey of professional instrumental musicians working in the "music industry" found that only six percent played "horns," i.e., acoustic instruments.1 Amazing as that statistic is, it's even more remarkable when one considers that as recent as 1960, only thirty-five years ago, these numbers were probably reversed, with as many as ninety percent of professional instrumental musicians performing on acoustic instruments (horns) and the remainder on electric guitars, the Fender Rhodes piano, and prototypical synthesizers. If my estimate is even remotely accurate, we have within less than two generations witnessed a reversal of the preferred means by which the largest segment of professional musicians make music. The result is that the vast majority of music heard today by most Americans comes from sounds that are synthesized, sampled, sequenced, and otherwise processed using MIDI technologies.

An even more profound example of MIDI-influenced change is the growing number of students entering college as music majors whose music background is qualitatively different than that of earlier generations of students. For hundreds of years, people, both young and old, learned their musical skills by performing music that was inspired by acoustic instruments and the human voice. But times change. We can no longer assume that students desiring a post-secondary music education will bring with them a background of elementary, junior or senior high school band, orchestra or chorus experiences, and by implication a fluency in such basic music skills as note-reading and traditional performance proficiency. Instead we find an increasing number of students whose musical thinking has been shaped by their preferred instrument, MIDI. They may think less in traditional note values and more in durations derived from sequencing programs: for example, dragging a pitch frequency across a computer screen and showing duration as a function of time—much as piano rolls had longer or shorter perforations to define duration. They are also much less likely to conceive of music as chordal or in terms of harmonic functions that define tonal centers. Instead, they often create musical textures using sequenced layering techniques. Their idea of music notation and organization is shaped by the electronic audio technologies they prefer to use. It's fairly obvious that the connection between their musical process and the norms which inform music textbooks and conventional pedagogy is, to say the least, strained. Granted, not all young musicians are engaged with MIDI—though the numbers of MIDI users grow yearly. But absolute numbers are not what's important here. Instead of numbers we need to look at trends; and it's my belief that the trend is largely in the direction I've described—and that it will accelerate dramatically over the coming years.

There's no question that the primary force behind this trend is the linkage between desk top computers and MIDI. When graduates of the music program at Carnegie Mellon University were surveyed as to what courses they regretted not taking in college, computer studies led all responses.2 While the data did not specify to what extent MIDI played a part in their responses, it's reasonable to believe that MIDI applications were a factor that influenced many of the respondents. At the university where I teach, it wasn't that long ago that all composition and arranging students submitted handwritten scores on manuscript paper. Today the majority of students use computers and MIDI tools both to print their scores (print copy) and to sequence them (audio copy).

By themselves, such empirical reports can easily be construed as a distortion of a larger, more complex picture. But in this case I think they reflect an irreversible trend—a crossing of the musical event horizon. And nowhere is this crossing more evident than among younger musicians who increasingly create, perform, and think about music in ways shaped by electronic music applications. Marilyn Thomas's view that these musicians are discovering the music of their time through evolving technologies is right on the mark.3 The importance of MIDI, CD-ROM and the wide array of emerging technologies, especially their power to influence musical thought, should not be underestimated. It's no exaggeration to equate the importance of standardized MIDI protocols—agreed upon in 1982—with the development of notation early in the second millennium. In my view, each of these developments, one thousand years apart, marks a turning point in how humans create, think about, and give evidence of musical thought.

 

The Devolution of Western Music

It's not music technologies alone that are changing our ways of thinking about music. There's also a profound social restructuring worldwide in scope taking place, which already has left its mark on the music of many cultures. In this regard, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who is currently a member of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, reports some statistics which should be of interest to musicians and music educators. He notes that "In 1965 the BBC estimated there were some 530 million portable radios in the world; by 1990, their number had grown to 2.1 billion. During the same period the total number of TV's had grown from 180 million to over one billion."4 Even more significant is "the fact that whereas in 1965 about 80 percent of [these radios and TV's] were located in North America and Europe, by 1990 that share had declined to only 55 percent of the much larger total."5 In parallel, the "urban population of the less developed countries came to about 285 million [in 1950]; by 1990, that number had exploded to 1,385 million [more than quadrupled]. And by the year 2010, that total is expected to double, to about 2.7 billion"—roughly half the present population of the world!6 Finally, it's only in the last two decades of the twentieth century that a global network of telephone and faxing has appeared, virtually eliminating barriers to audial and visual communications. Clearly, what's emerging is a congested and intimate global community! These large urban centers, with their growing populations and technical means for sound and sight communication, will blur many aspects of what previously were distinct cultural traits: customs, dress, language, food—and music. Two examples make clear that this process is both underway and being resisted. Christopher Waterman, an ethnomusicologist at the University of Washington (Seattle), describes how Yoruba children living in West Africa imitate the music of American and European rock bands.7 These youngsters, unable to afford the paraphernalia of rock bands—assuming it was available—use sticks, tin cans, cardboard cartons, whatever is available to recreate the rhythms and gestures of their favorite rock stars. One can only imagine what goes through the minds of Yoruba adults when they see their progeny headed down a musical path far different from their own traditions.

On the other hand, in an effort to maintain their cultural traditions, some nations are making a concerted effort to exclude outside influences, particularly American films and popular music. The more conservative Islamic nations are a case in point. Resistance can also be found among Western countries. We need only think back to the protection sought by several European nations, particularly the French, from American influences during talks leading to the 1994 GATT agreement.

But it's not only the penetration of American popular music into the traditions of other societies that causes concern. There is also the increasing desire by many cultures, even tribal sectors within a culture, to place their music on the world stage. Frank Zappa's lighthearted (and pointed!) observation that "In every language, the first word after 'Mama!' that every child learns to say is 'Mine!!'" cuts to the heart of the matter.8 The cultural fabric we call America is, in addition to the native born, Asian, Mideastern, Polynesian, Latin, African, and European—a cultural bouillabaisse. Together and singularly, these diverse voices are saying "Mine!!" This is my(!) music, this is what I(!) want to express and how I(!) believe it is best expressed.

To singularly perpetuate a quasi-Eurocentric model in the face of all this is to further isolate music education from everyday life as lived by exactly those individuals music educators are trying so hard to reach. To paraphrase Ishmael Reed, it's an attempt by an educational and cultural Elect to impose a small-screen view of social, political and cultural reality.9 I'm convinced that the efforts of this Elect are well intended. I'm also convinced that their small-screen view is inconsistent with the essentials of a contemporary music education.

Leonard Bernstein wryly observed, ". . . it's Elvis. He introduced the beat to everything . . . . Because of him a man like me barely knows his musical grammar anymore."10 Whether Elvis is truly responsible for the beat in American popular music is open to debate, and we can argue about his ultimate standing among the pantheon of twentieth-century musicians. However, we would be wise to consider carefully the implications of Bernstein's comment about a changing musical grammar. In addition to the grammatical changes that MIDI and other music technologies impose, we now have two "post-Elvis" generations who, voting with their feet and dollars, have opted away from an older European musical grammar. This is not something that just happened last week, last year, or even last decade. Nor can it be attributed to the raucous rebelliousness of youngsters. It's also parents and grandparents who together with their children increasingly tend to see classical Western art music as archival, as a cluster of more or less beautiful and interesting historic artifacts far removed in time and place from present-day realities. In America, the grand tradition of Western music is simultaneously receding into history as it evolves under the pressure of diverse cultural influences, the "Mine!" that Zappa referred to.

Does this mean we give up "historically correct" music, the great classical, popular and folk masterworks which have stood the test of time, to make room for "politically correct" music? Not at all. It means only that we have an obligation to find ways of accommodating our musical pluralism and to find more workable definitions of what constitutes artful music.

A final comment on this subject comes from a magazine editorial in The New Yorker in which Jaron Lanier—who coined the term virtual reality—was quoted as saying:

"One way of looking at our present. . . culture is that everyone receives . . . whole products—whole movies, whole TV shows, and so on. The new culture is going to be an interactive culture, in which everybody creates, in a sense, his or her own products."11

Lanier's vision raises a question which musicians might wish to consider carefully: what will happen to the repertoire, the great classical, popular and folk masterpieces, in an age of individual sound spaces? On the one hand, we can assume that these environments will in some way incorporate the music traditions we've long identified with; on the other hand, many of these traditions will be marginalized by those who seek to create their own musical environments. The tensions between traditional music concepts and individual intuitions not withstanding, one thing is certain: the public will soon have new musical options which allow them not only to control the kinds of music that enter their space, but to control the music itself. Musical sounds, sounds from the environment and sounds generated specifically by technology will be readily available to combine with older music traditions to create new musical grammars.

MIDI, urbanization, global communications, tribal aspirations and virtual realities: these forces—singularly, in combination, or in concert—will, I believe, lead to a reshaping of our music traditions and values in ways we can now only imagine. It's a dangerous misreading to interpret this as an erosion, a vitiation, or diminishing of our culture. The tradition of Western classical music will not quickly disappear from our musical values and preferences; quite the contrary, it will—in some way, shape and fashion—remain a vital part of our life and collective subconscious. At the same time, we will have to contend with the accelerating process of change, a process of simultaneously growing away from and growing into, where new musical ideas inevitably modify older ones.

 

The Individual and Music Learning

Individually and collectively, how we think about and define human ability says a great deal about us. In our culture, it's widely held that musical ability is limited to those having the talent, the aptitude, the gift—metaphorically, those who've been touched by the hand of Mozart. This idea, which continues to be one of our great social myths, exists in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.12 Reacting to this contradiction, Seymour Sarason, in a marvelous book on creativity, asks:

"What is there about our conception of creativity and artistic activity that makes it virtually impossible to observe and consider a young child as an embryonic artist? Is it that our conception of what is art and non-art is so focused on product that we ignore process?"13

Considering everything we know about human potential, it is difficult to reconcile our making educational policy on the assumption that creativity and artistic activity are unique aspects of human ability. I believe Sarason is correct in saying that this thinking reflects a preoccupation with artistic product and an undervaluing of creative process. For understandable reasons, the creative efforts of youngsters and most adults result in works which are less than museum or concert hall quality. But it would be dead wrong to treat the result of their effort casually, and thereby fail to consider seriously the process behind their product. Process, not product, is at the root of creativity: the process of manipulating materials with expressive intent—which, barring some sort of devastating deficit, is something everyone has an innate capacity to do. By experimenting with musical pitches using basic MIDI tools and a desk-top computer, the individual enters into the process of musical decision-making; the process of choosing, weighing, valuing and working out musical alternatives. John Dewey would approve.

"When an activity is continued into the undergoing of its consequences, when the change made by the action is reflected back into a change made in us, the mere flux is loaded with significance. We learn something."14

Show anyone the basics of how the technology works: strike a note on the piano keyboard, listen to the sound it makes and watch a note appear on the screen; strike another note, and another; play the notes back and listen to them; click on any note on the screen and move it to another location. Now listen. Stack the notes; distribute them horizontally. Listen. This is learning by doing, by being involved. Do something and get immediate feedback, visually and audibly. To quote an old Chinese proverb, "Tell me and I will forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I will understand."

This is one of the ideas I had in mind when I first spoke about how music learning will increasingly focus on the individual. Obviously, there comes a point when students benefit from a teacher's input. But a MIDI work station does not require the presence of a teacher to oversee or direct the students' every gesture—unless, of course, the concern is less with process and more with product, with right-wrong, correct-incorrect. Schools may be slow to adopt MIDI/computer applications as primary learning tools, and slower still to redirect some of their energies away from the relentless pursuit of "correct" art products. But the genie is out of the bottle: music learning that emphasizes the free play of intuition and intellect in a MIDI environment is inescapable.

It is in Dewey's "flux," in Saranson's "process" and Lanier's virtual sound space that individuals discover their creativity—in the interaction between doing and considering the result. MIDI/computer tools, with their ease of operation and immediate feedback, are uniquely suited to learning about musical process. Consider also that these technologies are ethnically neutral—they'll work with most people's music; they'll link the user with music from all corners of the world through data banks and libraries of environmental sounds and music repertoires; they make possible the exchange of music files with people around the world (music in cyberspace!); and each new generation of these tools will be easier to operate, cost less, and do more than preceding versions. But all these benefits notwithstanding, it is the immediacy of interactivity, of involvement between the music technology and the individual at a level far greater than any single teacher can provide in a group setting, that makes this resource so compelling.

 

In Conclusion

In presenting these ideas, I've taken into account some policy objectives of the National Association of Schools of Music (NASM) which trouble me. Particularly disturbing is NASM's focus on "an intellectually based arts community" and "the development of a high civilization."15 Though well intended, this small-screen view dismisses the greatest part of our culture as unworthy of serious educational concern—and, I might add, begs a crucial question: whose "high civilization" are we talking about and who will be empowered to define it? This kind of thinking, which has its roots in the idea that "artworks are special kinds of objects found in special kinds of places that are set aside for them,"16 is symptomatic of the enormous gulf that exists between today's young musicians and today's music education establishment. I'm reminded of Sennett's article in which he discusses the tenuous prospering of the contemporary classical music composer with a decreasing audience. "The great error of high modernism [in music], the very indulgence that permitted it to become an art with a siege mentality," he wrote, "was the belief that [it] ultimately would reform taste, would make a new listener."17 Not only did it not lead to new listeners, it created a separate, some would call it elitist, culture that today exists in splendid isolation—usually in a college or university setting—from the consciousness of most of contemporary society.

There is a parallel between Sennett's "high modernism" and NASM's "high civilization." Both flirt with their imminent irrelevance. In the same way that "high modernism" can't be forced down the throat of a disinterested public, so too, foisting a "high civilization" drawn from European traditions is bound to seem irrelevant in an increasingly pluralistic culture that ever more loudly proclaims, "Mine!!" Evidence that this process is underway is seen in the growing number of sessions at professional meetings where the question of "relevance" is a topic of discussion. Whether one characterizes formal music education as besieged, anxious or merely concerned, there exists an undeniable, McLuhanesque heat emanating from young, sophisticated musicians who find their satisfactions in musical applications which are in many ways shaped by the electronic instruments they prefer to play. We can no longer afford a high-culture attitude that marginalizes their music, technique, and vocabulary. Change is essential—and it starts with how we educate music educators.


1Tom Kidd, "Music education," The Music Connection, 18:16 (1994), 31.

2Department of Music Newsletter, "Update on alumni survey," Con Brio, 6, Carnegie Mellon University (Summer 1994), 11.

3Marilyn T. Thomas, "The effects of technology on society and the educational process of tomorrow's musicians," Proceedings: 68th Annual Meeting of NASM, 61, Reston, VA (1992), 29-34.

4Zbigniew Brzezinski, Out of Control (New York: Collier Books, 1993), 49.

5Ibid., p.50.

6Ibid., p.51. (emphasis added)

7Christopher Waterman, "The junior Fuji stars of Agbowo: popular music and Yoruba children," in Music and Child Development, Wilson and Roehmann (Eds.), (St. Louis: MMB Music, 1990), 78-87.

8Frank Zappa, The Real Frank Zappa Book (New York: Poseidon Press, 1989), 330.

9Ishmael Reed, "America: The multinational society," in Multi-cultural Literacy (St. Paul: Greywood Press, 1988), 156-157.

10David Halberstam, The Fifties (New York: Fawcett Columbine Books, 1993), 457. (Emphasis added)

11Talk of the Town. "Jaron Lanier is virtually sure," The New Yorker Magazine (February 3, 1994), 59. (Emphasis added)

12See, for example: John A. Sloboda, The Musical Mind (New York: Oxford University Press 1985); Howard Gardner, Frames of Mind (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1983); Oliver Sacks, Awakenings (New York: E.P.Dutton, Inc., 1983); Jon-Roar Bjorkvold, "Canto ergo sum," in Music and Child Development, Wilson and Roehmann (Eds.), op.cit., pp.117-135.

13Seymour B. Sarason, The Challenge of Art to Psychology (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), 25.

14John Dewey, Democracy in Education (New York: Macmillan Co.,1961), 139.

15Working Group on Arts in Higher Education, Teacher Education in the Arts Disciplines (Reston, Va: NASM, 1987), 2.

16Ralph A. Smith, "Toward culturally literate teachers of art," Bulletin of the Council of Research in Music Education, 117 (1993), 17.

17Richard Sennett, "The twilight of the tenured composer," Harpers Magazine, 269:1615 (1984), 72.

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