[This article was originally published in the November 15, 2013 edition of the Collegian — The Grove City College Student Newspaper — edited by Kyle Burko]
The invention, and subsequent rise, of radio resulted in the decline of folk and classical music and the relatively recent creation of modern, popular music. In light of this dramatic shift in musical paradigm there is one critical question that has not been given due consideration. What is the primary purpose or function of the vast majority of popular music?
Modern, popular music is ordinarily evocative and vague; it relies on the production of sensation. Moreover, there is a troubling paucity of discourse and conversation in modern, popular music. All too often, people simply end up talking past each other. Commonly, the modern, popular artist will construct a sensually pleasurable blank canvas upon which the audience will project their own personal thoughts and feelings.
Dr. Joshua Drake – professor, musicologist, and hymnist – at Grove City College, compares the manner in which most people listen to music today to the manner in which he might listen to a waterfall or to birds chirping. He argues that modern, popular music does not necessitate active listening, nor does it require any sort of intellectual rigor, on the part of its audience. On the other hand, Dr. Drake says, “listening to classical music requires you to attend to events that occur, remember them, and compare them to other events.”
The radio dramatically impacted music as we know it. The invention, and widespread use, of radio played a critical role in the rise of modern, popular music, and in the fall of folk and classical music. Once music became readily available for entertainment purposes, most people lost the incentive to creatively entertain themselves by singing and playing instruments. After all, who wants to listen to little Timmy’s feeble harmonic efforts when one can simply turn a dial and listen to a world-class musician?
General Dwight D. Eisenhower recognized the influence of this shifting musical paradigm on the American Army between the World Wars. Eisenhower realized that the American soldiers had somehow lost something significant between the Wars, and that that “something” was their singing. You see, in World War I, the American Army was a singing army. However, in World War II, it was not.1
As folk and classical music were given up in favor of modern, popular music the vast majority of people began to fail to recognize their potential for musical imagination, as well as their ability to create meaningful music. Unfortunately, this also led to a decline in their listening ability, which is tragic because listening ability is particularly important. According to Dr. Drake, “your taste for music will develop around your ability to listen.”
The importance of folk music really cannot be overstated. Folk music is the soil out of which high, classical music arises. If you don’t have that soil, then you don’t have high music. Furthermore, musical imagination, roughly defined as creative capacity in regards to all things musical, is fomented in folk music.
So, what exactly is folk music, and how does it relate to higher, classical music? Folk music is made for others, typically by amateurs, with the primary purpose of communication. Folk music is a creative, grammatical discourse on meaning, and it affords everyone an opportunity to express the inexpressible. Victor Hugo, possibly the greatest French writer of all time, said: “Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent.”
Furthermore, folk music is crucial for aspiring musical masters. In the past, folk music permeated life, constantly encouraging people, both amateur and professional, to create novel, meaningful music. It also frequently led to the cultivation of a keen listening ability. Ultimately, this allowed more people to deeply appreciate and think about music, from Beethoven’s masterful symphonies to their grandmother’s casual singing.
At the end of the day, one of the most effective ways to cultivate musical imagination, and listening ability, is to make music. All of us have this facility, “God gives us this really handy instrument, it’s right there, it’s your voice,” says Dr. Drake. Likewise, playing the piano, picking up a guitar, or even a concertina would be a good place to start. Grove City College offers a wide variety of introductory music courses wherein a student might learn to play anything from the saxophone to the harp, and everything in between.
In conclusion, we would all do well to take our music seriously or at least to seriously enjoy it, because there will come a day when we will feel not unlike Friedrich Nietzsche, who perhaps put it best: “Without music, life would be a mistake.”
This is not the end…
“They say it’s the last song. They don’t know us, you see. It’s only the last song if we let it be.” – Dancer in the Dark (2000)