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The Tragic Decline of Music Literacy (and Quality)

The Tragic Decline of Music Literacy (and Quality)

Throughout grade school and high school, I was fortunate to participate in quality music programs. Our high school had a top Illinois state jazz band; I also participated in symphonic band, which gave me a greater appreciation for classical music. It wasn’t enough to just read music. You would need to sight read, meaning you are given a difficult composition to play cold, without any prior practice. Sight reading would quickly reveal how fine-tuned playing “chops” really were. In college I continued in a jazz band and also took a music theory class. The experience gave me the ability to visualize music (If you play by ear only, you will never have that same depth of understanding music construct.)

Both jazz and classical art forms require not only music literacy, but for the musician to be at the top of their game in technical proficiency, tonal quality and creativity in the case of the jazz idiom. Jazz masters like John Coltrane would practice six to nine hours a day, often cutting his practice only because his inner lower lip would be bleeding from the friction caused by his mouth piece against his gums and teeth. His ability to compose and create new styles and directions for jazz was legendary. With few exceptions such as Wes Montgomery or Chet Baker, if you couldn’t read music, you couldn’t play jazz. In the case of classical music, if you can’t read music you can’t play in an orchestra or symphonic band. Over the last 20 years, musical foundations like reading and composing music are disappearing with the percentage of people that can read music notation proficiently down to 11 percent, according to some surveys.

Two primary sources for learning to read music are school programs and at home piano lessons. Public school music programs have been in decline since the 1980’s, often with school administrations blaming budget cuts or needing to spend money on competing extracurricular programs. Prior to the 1980’s, it was common for homes to have a piano with children taking piano lessons. Even home architecture incorporated what was referred to as a “piano window” in the living room which was positioned above an upright piano to help illuminate the music. Stores dedicated to selling pianos are dwindling across the country as fewer people take up the instrument. In 1909, piano sales were at their peak when more than 364,500 were sold, but sales have plunged to between 30,000 and 40,000 annually in the US. Demand for youth sports competes with music studies, but also, fewer parents are requiring youngsters to take lessons as part of their upbringing.

Besides the decline of music literacy and participation, there has also been a decline in the quality of music which has been proven scientifically by Joan Serra, a postdoctoral scholar at the Artificial Intelligence Research Institute of the Spanish National Research Council in Barcelona. Joan and his colleagues looked at 500,000 pieces of music between 1955-2010, running songs through a complex set of algorithms examining three aspects of those songs:

1. Timbre- sound color, texture and tone quality

2. Pitch- harmonic content of the piece, including its chords, melody, and tonal arrangements

3. Loudness- volume variance adding richness and depth

The results of the study revealed that timbral variety went down over time, meaning songs are becoming more homogeneous. Translation: most pop music now sounds the same. Timbral quality peaked in the 60’s and has since dropped steadily with less diversity of instruments and recording techniques. Today’s pop music is largely the same with a combination of keyboard, drum machine and computer software greatly diminishing the creativity and originality. Pitch has also decreased, with the number of chords and different melodies declining. Pitch content has also decreased, with the number of chords and different melodies declining as musicians today are less adventurous in moving from one chord or note to another, opting for well-trod paths by their predecessors. Loudness was found to have increased by about one decibel every eight years. Music loudness has been manipulated by the use of compression. Compression boosts the volume of the quietest parts of the song so they match the loudest parts, reducing dynamic range. With everything now loud, it gives music a muddled sound, as everything has less punch and vibrancy due to compression.

In an interview, Billy Joel was asked what has made him a standout. He responded his ability to read and compose music made him unique in the music industry, which as he explained, was troubling for the industry when being musically literate makes you stand out. An astonishing amount of today’s popular music is written by two people: Lukasz Gottwald of the United States and Max Martin from Sweden, who are both responsible for dozens of songs in the top 100 charts. You can credit Max and Dr. Luke for most the hits of these stars:

Katy Perry, Britney Spears, Kelly Clarkson, Taylor Swift, Jessie J., KE$HA, Miley Cyrus, Avril Lavigne, Maroon 5, Taio Cruz, Ellie Goulding, NSYNC, Backstreet Boys, Ariana Grande, Justin Timberlake, Nick Minaj, Celine Dion, Bon Jovi, Usher, Adam Lambert, Justin Bieber, Domino, Pink, Pitbull, One Direction, Flo Rida, Paris Hilton, The Veronicas, R. Kelly, Zebrahead

With only two people writing much of what we hear, is it any wonder music sounds the same, using the same hooks, riffs and electric drum effects?

Lyric Intelligence was also studied by Joan Serra over the last 10 years using several metrics such as “Flesch Kincaid Readability Index,” which reflects how difficult a piece of text is to understand and the quality of the writing. Results showed lyric intelligence has dropped by a full grade with lyrics getting shorter, tending to repeat the same words more often. Artists that write the entirety of their own songs are very rare today. When artists like Taylor Swift claim they write their own music, it is partially true, insofar as she writes her own lyrics about her latest boyfriend breakup, but she cannot read music and lacks the ability to compose what she plays. (Don’t attack me Tay-Tay Fans!)

Music electronics are another aspect of musical decline as the many untalented people we hear on the radio can’t live without autotune. Autotune artificially stretches or slurs sounds in order to get it closer to center pitch. Many of today’s pop musicians and rappers could not survive without autotune, which has become a sort of musical training wheels. But unlike a five-year-old riding a bike, they never take the training wheels off to mature into a better musician. Dare I even bring up the subject of U2s guitarist “The Edge” who has popularized rhythmic digital delays synchronized to the tempo of the music? You could easily argue he’s more an accomplished sound engineer than a talented guitarist.

Today’s music is designed to sell, not inspire. Today’s artist is often more concerned with producing something familiar to mass audience, increasing the likelihood of commercial success (this is encouraged by music industry execs, who are notoriously risk-averse).

In the mid-1970’s, most American high schools had a choir, orchestra, symphonic band, jazz band, and music appreciation classes. Many of today’s schools limit you to a music appreciation class because it is the cheapest option. D.A. Russell wrote in the Huffington Post in an article titled, “Cancelling High School Elective, Arts and Music—So Many Reasons—So Many Lies” that music, arts and electives teachers have to face the constant threat of eliminating their courses entirely. The worst part is knowing that cancellation is almost always based on two deliberate falsehoods peddled by school administrators: 1) Cancellation is a funding issue (the big lie); 2) music and the arts are too expensive (the little lie).

The truth: Elective class periods have been usurped by standardized test prep. Administrators focus primarily on protecting their positions and the school’s status by concentrating curricula on passing the tests, rather than by helping teachers be freed up from micromanaging mandates so those same teachers can teach again in their classrooms, making test prep classes unnecessary.

What can be done? First, musical literacy should be taught in our nation’s school systems. In addition, parents should encourage their children to play an instrument because it has been proven to help in brain synapse connections, learning discipline, work ethic, and working within a team. While contact sports like football are proven brain damagers, music participation is a brain enhancer.

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Image Credit:
Flickr/Eva Rinaldi |  CC0 by 2.0


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  • Avatar
    A.L. Hern
    August 22, 2022, 11:24 am

    Re “ Joan and his colleagues looked at 500,000 pieces of music between 1955-2010, running songs through a complex set of algorithms examining three aspects of those songs…”

    Is the author talking about music or songs? The two terms are not interchangeable: the latter is merely a subset of the former, and songs, by definition, MUST have LYRICS (admittedly, an instrumental cover of a song is still a song).

    The inability of most in the general public to make the distinction and classify all music as “songs” may, in fact, be the most fundamental musical illiteracy of all, which I’d hardly expect someone writing an article about the problem to share.

    • Avatar
      Chris@A.L. Hern
      September 9, 2022, 1:00 am

      I attended a well-ranked public school district in Western New York State, straight through, K-12. High school, for me, was September 1977 through June 1981.

      We had music classes all through school, starting with piano-accompanied instruction of our whole class in early elementary school, soon followed by the introduction of individual — though not mandatory — instrumental instruction. I don’t recall my parents necessarily encouraging, let alone forcing, my decision, but I chose to learn the trumpet (mainly because, when asked what instrument I wanted, I guessed correctly that "trumpet" was the name of the cool-looking brass thing with the valves).

      The actual experience was much less exciting than the original idea. My parents, never ones to drop big money (which perhaps they didn’t have) on high-quality products for mere children, bought-or-borrowed a friend’s child’s no-longer-used instrument. I could never get a decent sound out of it, probably — but not provably; no, never provably! — because of a serious "crimp" in part of the instrument’s tubing. Had I been able to produce a decent trumpety sound, I might have been more excited about the thing; as it was, I found practice a chore, the results discouraging, and found every opportunity to "forget" to practice!

      Another part of the problem turned out to be that I couldn’t produce with my lips a tight enough "embrassure" to reach high notes, which is where one might suggest the trumpet truly excels. In the fifth grade, my music teacher therefore suggested I switch to the Baritone Horn, which was more forgiving in that area and otherwise identical in operation to the trumpet. That helped — I played in the school band and got into the County Music Festival — but still, when push came to shove, I couldn’t reach those high notes. (To this very day, if you have a turntable or would like me to digitize the record for you, I can be heard muffing a particular note in part of the New World Symphony on the recording from the aforementioned County Music Festival.)

      The baritone horn was also my jam when weather and calendar dictated it was time for the Concert Band (in middle school) or Wind Ensemble (in high school) to morph into the Marching Band, for Town parades (Memorial Day) and school football games. Unfortunately, I was never able to MEMORIZE my music, and so was the only kid trying to coordinate not just playing and marching-in-formation like all the other kids, but also shuffling sheet music, all while also not dropping his parents’ $400+ investment onto the turf or pavement.

      Coming to the baritone horn "by way of the trumpet" had one OTHER big disadvantage: I played Treble Clef and could ONLY play Treble Clef, whereas virtually every other Baritone Horn player in the known universe played, plays still, Bass Clef. All my sheet music had to be either special ordered or transcribed (by hand, in those days, by someone who knew how; none of this fancy computer music software, in those days!). So it was tedious to even "gear up" for a new piece, and I couldn’t borrow sheet music from, or lend it to, any of the OTHER baritone horn players (of whom I met two in my school career).

      All in all, I hated the entire experience, up, down, left, right, front, back — you name it. But my parents wouldn’t let me QUIT the damn thing until the instrument, foreign-language classes, a weekend job, the Boy Scouts, a class schedule with no free periods EVER, and the general stressors of adolescence, finally merited the intervention of the school psychologist in the tenth grade. Then they let me quit the thing.

      I kept the horn, though, because while I hated the actual practice and performance, I liked music and the ABILITY to perform "if I felt like it." By then I could at least pick out a melody, on darn near any instrument I touched; if I’d pushed just a little harder, had just a little more interest, in retrospect that would have been a great time to switch to the piano/keyboard, which today I still regret NOT knowing how to play properly.

      But I digress. Three years after the vast relief of quitting instrumental music in high school, when it came time for me to go to college, Dad saved money and "got something back for forty years of paying taxes" by forcing me to accept an Air Force ROTC scholarship. The damned horn therefore went with me so as to qualify me for the relatively cushy "Band Flight" rather than something more militarily demanding. I thought I would hate the haircut but marching in the band wouldn’t be so bad — but it turned out to be exactly the other way around. Guess what — playing that damned horn was just as much a pain-in-the-ass in college as it had been since the fifth grade. After two years I dropped out of that college, though, and that phase also was over with, thank God.

      I still didn’t get rid of the horn right away. It followed me from home to home, through two other stints at college, the start of my professional career, an entire marriage-and-divorce, and the start of another marriage. At one point I actually started feeling a little wistful, dragged the horn out of storage, and attempted to participate in a local Fire Department’s band — but I lasted exactly two practice sessions (during one of which I discovered that there was yet a THIRD mode of Baritone Horn sheet music — "looks like Treble Clef, but is written in a DIFFERENT KEY!"

      Now, if I’d been a super-technically-skilled professional musician, that wouldn’t have been a problem — NONE of this clef and key stuff would’ve been — I could simply have sight-read it and transposed it in my head, on the fly. I’ve even turned out, later in life, to have a little natural aptitude for that sort of thing, under just the right circumstances. I’ve read up on Music Theory and tinkered around with a lot of different ways to make music, either by hand or by computer. I’ve worked in the studio with friends who were accomplished composers by their late teens — though I was usually more of a sound engineer than a collaborator on the music per se. I LOVE entering sheet music into software that brings it to life, but I’ve discovered that some of the software knows so much more than I do about musical notation that I can’t even make proper, full, use of it.

      I make do therefore on a strong INTEREST in music and the making thereof; the pearls from among the mud of those early school days; computer software; and such natural musical talent as runs in my family (I have a first cousin who is a world-famous jazz keyboardist, who shall remain nameless here). But in many ways I ‘ve never really gotten too far beyond that unwilling fifth-grade kid struggling for the high notes and unable to memorize marching tunes.

      I find it interesting, too, that my famous cousin’s sheet music consists of scribbled notation saying, basically, "fourteen bars of noodling around in the key of A," followed by more of the same in another key, etc. etc. for however long that song is supposed to last. I have a "tin ear" when it comes to appreciating my cousin’s style of modern jazz — I’m lucky if I can find and identify the signature melody line of even the adaptations of popular tunes, and can’t find anything listenable in the original compositions at all.

      • Avatar
        September 9, 2022, 1:04 am

        Oh, I meant to point out that even my relatively highly-rated school district never had any courses in "music appreciation," as far as I ever knew, even in the mid-to-late 1970s timeframe. Is the author of this article perhaps OVERSTATING THE CASE just slightly when it comes to what was "standard" or "typical"?

        (The high school across town, our main competitor, long ago did away with any form of music OTHER THAN their Marching Band, once it started winning national and international acclaim. I didn’t know this, though, until I married my second wife, acquired a school-age stepchild, and ONLY THEN discovered that that school district "doesn’t have an orchestra or any kind of string program, because we prefer to concentrate on the Marching Band." That’s a direct quote from a school official when I called to inquire. That would’ve been around 1996 or 97…)

  • Avatar
    Coffee Man
    August 22, 2022, 11:48 am

    I have to disagree with a comment made… most (for a lack of a better term) “jazz” musicians could NOT read music. Chet Baker is an example. The early “jazz” musician until the 60’s did not read music. A lot did read but most did not bother too learn. Their memory of the majority of standards was impecable. Today’s “jazz” musician does read music. It is required to read music. It is required to learn theory. When it comes to pop music, that genre is controlled by the industry. But who are the ones behind the board, recording these artists? Most likely “jazz” or “classical” musicians.

    • Avatar
      gmoke@Coffee Man
      August 26, 2022, 6:35 pm

      Famously, Erroll Garner did NOT read music and was granted special dispensation in order to get into the Pittsburgh musicians’ union which requited their members to read music. Reading music has little to do with musical ability either to play or compose. None of the Beatles could read music either.

      Although, the ability to read music is a very good skill to have. Being able to read what you play puts you in a most intimate conversation with the composer. Unlike reading a book, being able to read what you play is a whole body experience.

    • Avatar
      Chris@Coffee Man
      September 9, 2022, 1:06 am

      My cousin the international jazz superstar, despite writing sheet music that consists mostly of "noodle around in the key of A for fourteen bars, then noodle around in the key of …" etc., was fully formally educated at the Boston Conservatory of Music, and has composed with, and for, and performed with, and for, many of the other leading lights of the contemporary jazz scene. So, what you might see on a glimpsed sheet, and what’s actually in the artist’s mind, are clearly two completely different things. It’s mostly that my cousin DOESN’T HAVE TO write much of it down, it’s all just THERE, INSIDE, on tap when-and-as needed.

  • Avatar
    August 22, 2022, 11:56 pm

    Definitely true in many respects – autotune, the dumbing down of lyrics, shallow form, lack of dynamics and declining quality are all a part of it, resulting in what Mr. Henschen rightly calls the homogeneous nature of much popular music these days. The decline of music education is also really unfortunate – and should be reversed. Like Beethoven said, "music is a higher revelation than any wisdom or philosophy." Sadly, the decline of music literacy and quality seems to fit right in with the dumbing down of many aspects of modern life. However, while I agree with his overall premise, I’m afraid Mr. Henschen lost much credibility when he went on to some of his examples.

    First of all, while it is surprising that Lukasz Gottwald and Max Martin have penned so many hits, songwriters like that date back generations, and the artists he credits is hardly a who’s who list of popular music. He seems to ignore the whole genre of indie music, for example (none of those artists are indie, on his list of examples which includes Maroon 5, Bon Jovi, Celine Dion, etc.), and I know that within the broad genre of indie, you can find more interesting music, better lyrics, more timbre variety, etc.

    Bon Jovi and others on this list mostly wrote their own songs; just because you buy a song or two off another writer does not mean you can’t write your own songs. Similarly, just because you can’t read or write music doesn’t mean you can’t write your own songs either. Remember that Phillip Glass cannot read music as I was shocked to learn when I met him, and many electronic musicians take liberties with conventional theory and form. Taylor Swift, similarly, has written most of her own music – I double-checked the list of songs she wrote, and I think all the ones I like are on there – so she’s a good writer in my book even if she can’t read music or has hired other writers.

    Where Mr. Henschen really went off the rails though was when he extended his diatribe to include U2’s the Edge. The Edge was a groundbreaking guitarist, and just because he uses digital delay as an important part of his sonic canvas does not in any way diminish his artistry or musicianship. Mr. Henschen (the author) does not mention The Edge’s ability as a superb backing vocalist, or as a songwriter who has touched millions of lives and collaborated in an award-winning, iconic rock band.

    While I think the general premise is correct and he has some great points, Mr. Henschen is largely clueless about the world of rock and roll and cannot tell an artist from a poser, thereby making him the latter in my book.

    • Avatar
      Charles Gaskell@Eric
      August 23, 2022, 10:25 pm

      Eric wrote "Remember that Phillip Glass cannot read music"… Really??!

      This from Wikipedia:
      ‘Glass studied at the Juilliard School of Music where the keyboard was his main instrument. His composition teachers included Vincent Persichetti and William Bergsma. Fellow students included Steve Reich and Peter Schickele. In 1959, he was a winner in the BMI Foundation’s BMI Student Composer Awards, an international prize for young composers. In the summer of 1960, he studied with Darius Milhaud at the summer school of the Aspen Music Festival and composed a violin concerto for a fellow student, Dorothy Pixley-Rothschild. After leaving Juilliard in 1962, Glass moved to Pittsburgh and worked as a school-based composer-in-residence in the public school system, composing various choral, chamber and orchestral music.’

      If it were really the case that he couldn’t read music, then the rot must have set in before the 1960’s…

  • Avatar
    Michael Schulze
    August 25, 2022, 8:12 pm

    I could not disagree more. The author looks squarely through a western/European lens at a small slice of the popular music currently available in America. There are a multitude of derisive generalizations and untrue statements (compression always makes music muddy?). The article looks only at the Pop slice of popular music. Has the author ever experienced the extreme timbral variety and rhythmic complexity of Aphex Twin? The poetic lyrical depth of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly? The jazz elements on that album? The gorgeous musical complexity and Grammy winning engineering of Imogen Heap’s Ellipse and Sparks? There are many more examples that are even closer to the mainstream than these. The author seems unaware that reading music for performance is not required in Indian classical music, African music, highly virtuosic bluegrass, etc. This article, for me, is a great example of how classical music and sometimes jazz become their own worst enemies, by insisting that all music be evaluated through their own rubric, and by frequently displaying a striking ignorance of the vast and beautiful musical world outside these 2 genres. If the author is correctly describing those academic studies he quotes then those studies display a quite problematic colonial perspective. I come from the exact same musical background as the author, and make a significant portion of my income as a classical music producer (UK Billboard top 10). I also compose electronic music for ballet, incorporating influences of EDM and classical music. I perform experimental EDM on modular synthesizers. I don’t play jazz any more for various reasons, none of which involve any dissatisfaction with the genre or those who do it. I sympathize with the sense that the general public has moved on, and school programs have dwindled. But I recommend the author open his heart and mind and try to appreciate a different kind of beauty from different musical genres, instead of demonizing it all by cherry picking some of the easiest to find examples if excess in only the most commercially motivated music he is aware of. Oh yeah and maybe loosen up and try to have some fun?

    • Avatar
      Chris@Michael Schulze
      September 9, 2022, 1:10 am

      This. Exactly this. Such a thin slice through such a vast multimensional universe cannot be said to express Universal Truth.

      At best, it might express a partial Universal Truth about THAT ONE SLICE. I agree that what passes for "pop" music, in America, has gone greatly downhill over the last forty years — but despite finding that I loved almost every song that came onto the AM Top 40 radio in 1973, 74, and 75, I can still nonetheless find a song or two to like even on the charts of 2022…

  • Avatar
    Florian Mrugalla
    August 28, 2022, 9:23 pm

    How is this even remotely "intellectual"? The article is talking about the decline of musical literacy and repeating this dogma over and over against hoping for it to make sense, but if the author actually was literate in music they’d see (or hear) that music can be more than his perception of jazz. the author makes a lot of assumptions about the quality of music that are not backed by science and are also not smart in general. like all that talk about loudness, as if using a compressor to reduce dynamics was generally a bad thing. whenever i listen to classical music i keep having one hand on my mouse so i can adjust the volume if needed, because it is way too dynamic for a small room listening environment. the music was not made for this listening environment. it is in some way bad for it. dense, loud and squashed music is better suited there. so in this context i could just take the same categories to measure the quality of music but come to opposite conclusions. like seriously who curated this article and thought to themselves "yeah, this is something that belongs on a webpage with intellectual stuff"? this could have easily been a great intro to a longer article that actually shows how different perceptions about sound can make different qualities qualify for a measurement of tastefulness, but the author made it a superficial thing about how non-jazz music is bad because it’s not jazz. casually making fun of women singing about breakup stories like that was superficial but without seeing the irony of this article in total

    • Avatar
      Michael Glenn Williams@Florian Mrugalla
      August 29, 2022, 7:30 am

      I read that big tech will not allow you to run ads. Could you say more about that? This website seems like a place where advertisers would find meaningful views and clicks.

      • Avatar
        Steve Zenz@Michael Glenn Williams
        September 7, 2022, 9:32 pm

        I’ve been a professional commercial musician my entire life. Some of these musical geniuses have no idea what they’re talking about. Granted, I have a Undergraduate and Masters degree in education and jazz studies and have played with dozens of well known musicians representing every style of music. Frankly, I’m tired of people encapsulating music as "songs" when there are so many styles and forms of music going back centuries. Most of these musical morons don’t know what they’re talking about. Generally, pop music is stupid as it has no depth. I really don’t care what the uninformed have to say. I’m tired of their arrogant stupidity.


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