The Tragic Decline of Music Literacy (and Quality)

In my grade school in the 1960's we had musicians come in and play. I remember one classical violinist, marvelous. Everyone learned piano in the 3rd grade and there was at least one field trip to hear the Seattle Symphony Orchestra at the Opera House. By the time we graduated high school everyone had at least some exposure to classical music and learning an instrument, and probably at least a third had been in band, orchestra, or choir. By the time I graduated I could play French Horn, trumpet, piano, and harmonica pretty good, and could of course read music. That wasn't exceptional, a good share of my friends were the same only with different instruments. Then of course in learning the instruments you just naturally learned the music, which was selected at least partly to encourage musical development. So you just naturally were exposed to what I guess you could call music theory, although it was more by example than academic lectures.

Look back in history, even any period piece movie is going to show the young people learning piano, harpsichord, singing.

Yeah, it is a tragic decline for sure. 
I'm going to play the contrarian here, though I'm from the generation born in the mid-'50s, so had the exposure to the local symphony (Steinberg in Pittsburgh), the music lessons, theory, etc. 
A lot of pop music from the era- I suspect any era since the emergence of recorded sound (and perhaps before) -- was pretty banal- fluff, either following a trend or little better than Muzak.  A lot of my peers when I was growing up had little interest in music other than the usual party music or the same/same stuff that everyone was listening to at the time- hard rock, whatever was on the radio at the time. 
We are a niche- people who are more interested, involved, take time, care passionately about sound and I think are unusual compared to the majority of people. 
I meet a lot of young people who have musical training, though very few make a living doing so. Some are classically trained, or went through jazz programs at the university level. I think new music is out there, you may have to wade through a lot of crap, but wasn't it always so?
Interesting article, thanks.  As for the quality of music that he wrote about...I remember realizing that intuitively at the age of 14 when I started hearing that abomination called "new wave", some of the coldest, most artificial music ever recorded.  When I turned 18 I couldn't even walk into bar full of attractive young ladies if that music was playing, so disturbing was my visceral reaction.  My threshold for today's popular music is about 10 seconds.  
I’m paraphrasing here, but Russ Kunkel, one of the best drummers of our time (James Taylor, Stevie Nicks and a million other hit records) was asked if he could read music and his answer was "Not well enough to hurt my playing." An interesting answer, but I think many trained musicians will understand what this means. The position that music is in decline has been around forever and I won’t be drawn into that argument. What I do think is that listening to music as a solo activity, the way audiophiles do and the way many more used to do it, is on the decline. Now, people are listening to music constantly on their headphones, but mostly as a backdrop to other activities or to occupy their brains while on the subway or whatever. Personally, I do think musical literacy has declined, but I’m old so nobody is marketing music to me. I’m ok with that. Time marches on. Live life the way you want and don't expect others to conform to your views.  

. In the Western world music music was on the up for centuries . 
  ALL aspects of society are in decline , History is the most important element in a liberal education and in the US  95% of the population
is totally ignorant of it . Not entirely their fault , in all high schools
and most colleges every word they tell you is a complete lie .

Music has been in decline forever, or at least since about 1800. There is always great music being created by artists who do it for the love of music, but pop music is where the decline really shows.

It’s hard to see Elvis or Chuck Berry as anything but a big musical step down from Duke Ellington or Glenn Miller.

What’s happening now in pop music is computers. They analyze hit songs and come up with a formula for making more hit songs. You don’t need a great artist to make songs following the formula, being good looking and a decent dancer helps though. Actually, great artists are a pain in the rear for record companies. Ask anyone who has dealt with Van Morrison.

So we have computers making ever more formulaic pablum for people who aren’t really interested in music. I have hope that there will be another musical revolution one day though.

wharf- Bingo! We have a winner!

Its always been crap, crap, and more crap. Best we can do is hold our noses as we wade up to our necks scanning around searching in vain for the rare find floating in the bilge.
Miller- look for a band called Sammy Miller and the Congregation- record is forthcoming, but they are usually touring. Young, top tier players, big band with a sense of stage business and humor. 
I also got turned onto Snarky Puppy recently- they are no secret, I just wasn't clued in-- sort of a large collaboration of jazz, fusion and jam. 

The real advantage is that a young person's mind develops further with music instruction and education. Music benefits all other subjects studied as well. It should be as essential and as required as math, language arts, reading, writing and history/social studies.
Whatever the hell the kids are listening to these days surely must be better than being cooped up in the house 24/7 posting on forums about whatever the hell the kids are listening to these days.
You’re right, chrshanl37, why are you doing that very thing?  Two more points.  Most of us don't do it 24/7 and we can listen to music while we check in on Audiogon.

schubert, except for Franz Schubert, of course.
@whart   Thanks for the Snarky Puppy mention.  Listening right now on have I not heard of them?  Fantastic.....  Sammy Miller next....
@schubert, wasn't this always the way? 
Everything is of its time, no escaping that but civilisation goes up and down.
Between the end of the great Greek golden age and the beginnings of the Renaissance very little progress seemed to happen. Then it took off.

With music, its always about expression first. Different decades had different feelings to express. Wasn't the youthful frustration behind much Rock and Roll in the 50's mirrored by a similar frustration behind Punk/New Wave/Metal/Rap in the 70s/80s and beyond? 

I'm not sure what the kids of today are trying to say but it'll never stray too far from frustration, dating, lack of money etc.

Strangely enough politics seems to be totally unfashionable nowadays whereas they were at the forefront during Punk, (and Folk decades earlier). 

I'm not worried, I've got my archives!

I appreciate folks writing articles and making comments but I have so many people turning me on to great music and something new every day I can't help but say "some aren't looking very hard and have limited system adjustability" to be able to make judgement calls.

I don't see a problem in recording nearly as much as I do with HEA playback.


In the last decade I had one former student graduate from San Francisco Conservatory with a degree in guitar performance (he's now working on a doctorate in composition at UT-Austin) and presently two more are doing wonderful things studying at Berklee School of Music.  People like this (who are extremely literate) are out there, but they are not the ones you see front-and-center at the Grammy's.  They are the ones in the pit or dimly lit in the background--the ones who make it possible for the stars to shine (for however long they get to shine).


I don't see a problem in recording nearly as much as I do with HEA playback.

>>>>Bingo! It has always been so.

schubert4,716 posts02-03-2019 12:17pmMost things are of their time, somethings are immortal !

>>>>Oh, you mean like Zeppelin? Elvis? 🕺🏻
Post removed 
Wow. Cultural gatekeepers shaking their fists at the societal deterioration playing on their lawns and airwaves. 

Im not suggesting that formulaic commercial enterprises like Maroon 5, or sounds du-jour like trap or 21 Savage are indicative of any depth, but much of the music of any decade or century is bubble-gum. It loses its flavor after a while and society moves on. 

in the past year I've discovered several new, younger artists who are now part of my listening catalog. They're not legends; they're not trying to be. But they are talented, engaging acts who keep the musical flame burning. 
Auto-Tune is, to date, the biggest single symptom of the decline of Western civilization.

Millercarbon, every thing in the USA is in decline since 1960: I visited Detroit in 1965, and it was the most elegant city I have ever been to; it seems everyone drove a new car, and dressed in the latest quality fashions.

The first time I experienced "valet parking" was when we went to a nightclub to see Aretha Franklin; they also had hat check girls (just like in the movies), all new to me. I was taken around to visit some of the friends of my host, who lived in swell homes with "rathskellers", that was the term used for playrooms with bars.

Since I listen to what I consider the highest quality music available any time I'm woke, I consider this conversation quite valid in regard to the music; however, just citing the music would make one guilty of tunnel vision.

Fortunately I live near the College Conservatory of Music which offers opportunities I never would have experienced otherwise. Especially the new composers series that took place for three weeks during several summers. I met Steve Reich, Moritz Eggert and Kaija Saariaho as well as other contemporary composers and performers. And the school has had legendary professors such as Henry Meyer and Karin Dayas.
The Cincinnati College of Music and the Conservatory of Music merged in 1955, given that it’s faculty members taught at both schools. My grandparents graduated from the College of Music in the 1920’s, my grandmother a soprano and my grandfather a cellist. They played professionally i.e. my grandmother a soloist with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.
We also have a good orchestra in Cincinnati and a beautiful Music Hall which was just renovated not to long ago. However given all of this, it still fails to compete with European cities. I’ve lived in Paris and Cologne and can say that there isn’t a city in the US who can compare to the cultural advantages of either of these cities. Especially Germany and the reason comes down to money. Germany spends more money on financially supporting orchestras and other musical organizations more than anywhere else in the world. Musicians who play for the Berlin are better off than anyone else anywhere else. This being the reason for the New York Philharmonic losing its first chair cellist to the Berlin.
Additionally, most European children receive musical preparation on the piano and it is not uncommon for people to have a piano in their homes. I am probably a minority for having a console piano in my house.
Part of the information was also used to fuel the Thoughty2 youtube video posted elsewhere here. Also, the first part gives no reference to what survey it is referring to and the chart is quite amateurish with a low sample rate and from where?

The AI from Spain (same as video mentioned.)
"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.."etc

I think people need to be aware of sites that just aggregate data and redress it for some relabeling. It is also "written" by a guy that provides financial services? Weird.

I agree completely with you!
I played guitar many years ago. But it was by ear only. 
I never could go far.
So, I decided to stop.

I agree completely with you!
I played guitar many years ago. But it was by ear only. 
I never could go far.
So, I decided to stop.
My best guitarist is Baden Powell. Genius.
By the way, most conservatories have prep programs offered to kids and adults. As for typical college departments, it could vary.
Because the jazz world today is packed with astonishing musicians making great recordings.
wolf-garcia, I wouldn't disagree with that but I'd say that about all serious contemporary music. I suppose it's inherently confusing since the thread is partially about music education and partly about music appreciation.
I think the premise of this thread is flawed and a victim of the blinders of relative cultural and age perspective. I mean, by the OP premise, music has been in decline since Bach stopped writing music. 

Idk. Saying contemporary pop is in serious decline...based on what? Musical structure superficiality? Compression? Whatever. People were saying the same schitt in the 80's and just about every decade. 

We we grow older. Music changes and doesn't fit into our established impression of what defines good music, and thus we dismiss it or grudgingly accept it if it's close enough to some schema we recognize. 
Wolf_garcia is right: there're so many contemporary jazz, folk, rap, and rock artists out there beneath the mass produced glaze of compressed and hook-obsessed club hits. You just have to shift your vision. 
I think some are from U. of North Texas (my alma mahler) and some are east coast.  Guitarist Chris McQueen is originally from Westlake High, near you.
Contemporary composers, typically defy repeated harmonic patterns with exception to John Williams (minor 3rd's) and the Minimalists. Even listening to three hours of Stockhausen would, I'd think, be better than making a diet of listening to the popular trends. But to say that music has been in a decline since J.S.Bach, dismisses hundreds of years of great music. Composers today receive little attention for a multitude of reasons but it's rarely because their writing is lacking in substance.
Snarky Puppy - "Lingus" on youtube
Cool groove and pocket movement with a keyboard solo up there with Chick Corea.

Dynamo is another good group in the same genre.
From a standpoint of young people and the decline in musical literacy I would disagree that there is a problem....based on my own personal experience. From where I sit it is thriving. I have a niece (9th grade) who plays viola, one niece (11th grade) who plays guitar and clarinet, 3 nieces who sing and whose mother is a trained classical singer. I have a cousin who is an accomplished tenor and pianist, I have another cousin who is an accomplished pianist and singer (musicals) and whose son is studying jazz guitar at UVA. My wife plays the flute. My own kids can both play piano a little but are otherwise musically illiterate.There is no common thread or even location among these people other than some loose family connections. The first niece I mentioned plays in a public school based symphony, the second plays in a private school based symphony.

All of this in the "backward" southern US.

Our community (small southern city) just recently established an excellent symphony orchestra. When forming there were no try outs because there was a list of superb regional musicians ready to step in. This essentially meant a hand picked symphony by request only.

We have neighbors who are in local bands.

From where I'm sitting things are booming.
You can drive the interstate in the "rust belt" from Syracuse to Chicago
and go through a dozen smaller city's that have lost their Symphony because of where they sit  .
@schubert  Certainly economics play a role. Where there is no money and in regions where the mobile population is leaving it is going to be hard to fund or even maintain interest in the arts.

Where I live, which is still considered by much of the nation as the illiterate and backwards south, growth has been exponential over the last 20 years and especially the last 5-10. Lots of people coming in. Lots of money coming in. Lots of talent coming in. This increases the tax base which give schools more to work with and local cities and towns with money for arts etc. It also increases the number of people with an appetite and desire for the arts. 

I saw a special on Detroit about funk music in the early 70's and how that was a direct product of black families with high blue collar incomes from the auto industry allowing their kids to buy instruments and play in basement bands.

Money talks. And sings.
Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’
How about we don’t spend another $1000 on a very marginal sound quality gain, and sponsor our local school band/orchestra with it instead? If we all bought a kid an instrument instead of buying the next bit of kit to install in our pampered, anti-social, private man-cave listening rooms we would be making things better, instead of complaining about the decline we have caused.
(Because we were there, right? It was us that did it...)
For the last three years my wife and I have sponsored our new local symphony at the second highest sponsorship level. Not bragging, she has been active in the organization and its what we wanted to do. And it has been a pleasure to be able to do so.

But that would have indeed paid for some nice audio equipment.

Sadly, the response to COVID may have killed our new three year old symphony. No performances in a year. No ticket money coming in. Sponsorships understandably drying up. I don't know how those musicians are staying afloat. Currently no performances planned and we live in a state that has not had mandatory shut downs since the spring.

Music venues in the region have been shuttered for about a year as well.

No matter where you fall on the politics and/or science of COVID, it is decimating the working musician and venue owners.
n80 - thank you from us all. And yes, what a blow Covid is.
Our local youth orchestra gave my daughter one of her passions (sax) and her friend her career (she went on to the Royal Academy to study flute) and another her entry into the armed forces as a musician. I hope so much it reopens after all this.
Sejodiren. I sure tried. I “attempted” to play the trombone in the 5th grade. My band instructor pulled me aside and said a musical instrument may not be for everyone. I’m scarred to this day.
Great ‘

  I remember listening to a lot of rock, 60’s - 80’s.

 Singers sang had harmony, people played instruments,
 now, it’s all computer tripe, auto tune, singers do not sing anymore.

  Dio, Delp, Marriott, and tons of others.

 I miss actual music bands, not these lip syncing, cd play music, for the fans. Cant stand it
Culture is driven toward the top or toward the bottom....If money drive culture guess where it will go?

An example: how for a century Hollywood was never able to tell a story about the most extraordinary visual show there is on par with Chinese emperors history, and an essential piece to understand occidental history, the one thousand years story of the Byzantine empire? No Ben-Hur is NOT about Byzantium and dont count at all....Nor crusades film which are mostly about Europeans going against Islam...It is very instructive that crusaders films never speak of the remnants of Byzantium either... They go acting like Byzantium empire never exist at all... 😁 Hollywood was and is propaganda masquarading in art....Chomsky wrote about that...Where is Chomsky in american TV?  the most influential linguist is unknown in america and he is also one of the most interesting historian of the American empire...Nowhere to be seen.... 

Not a single movie about Byzantium  i can remind of.... is it not extraordinary? An ignorance so deep?

The first comic book i read young at 6 years old was a comic book about Trebizonde and Byzantium but it was written in french.... It alert me immediately....Ay 6 years old.... I take greek course and latin for years that was helping for sure...I only learn to read but that serve me for life and it was later my job main point....It is another story. 😊

How can you distinguish head and tail in your life in north-america with a so abyssal ignorance?

How can a democracy can ever exist? For sure appearance of democracy is important but it is not a really working democracy...Anyway no empire can be a democracy sorry....

History is the only tool box of critical thinking , there is NO other...

Then so go with music what has begins long ago with the forgotting of history....Music is sounds selling industry....I am almost unable to listen to 95 % of what is made commercially or popular in the last 30 years...Classic, jazz, Indian and Persian music and a bit from others cultures made my night and day...

«Music is the only way to touch the soul with your hand....»-Anonymus Smith

«Music is history whistling in the ears or only ears buzzing»-Anonymus Smith