Sunday, August 19, 2018

Today's Music is Crap, Reports Old White Guy

Jon Henschen has just published the article "The Tragic Decline of Music Literacy (and Quality)", an atrocious compendium of well-intentioned ignorance. You can read it here.

This article is full of errors and misconceptions, designed to promote a conservative musical agenda. The author associates the ability to read the Western European stave as indicative of quality music. This instantly ignores traditions from the rest of the world that generate music of extraordinary sophistication. (Coincidentally, the Irish gamelan orchestra is currently performing in Java. I wonder if Henschen is even aware of this music?)

Ignoring the cultural bias, Henschen is entirely genre-bound in his likes and dislikes. He exemplifies jazz musicians (Coltrane, Baker, Montgomery) before silently switching the topic to popular music, something he obviously feels at home denigrating. But if he was interested in pop and rock, he'd know that Hendrix, The Beatles, Townshend, Dylan, Marley, Clapton, Presley, Jackson, etc. etc. couldn't read music. I can only conclude that he considers all of their output as somehow unworthy.

If so, perhaps he would have a go at explaining Irving Berlin, who couldn't read or write music, tracing out melodies only in the key of F#. Or Miles Davis, who dropped out of Juilliard because school was limiting his music.

Henschen also doesn't mention jazz notation or tablature. Many musicians have used those systems while remaining unable to read the classical stave. Does this make them better? Worse? Or what about those improvising musicians who don't produce fixed works of music at all. All worthless?

Here's something Henschen might want to understand: Music is not notes on paper. Music is sounds in the air, organised (more or less) into patterns for enjoyment. Notation is only a limited means of capturing and reproducing music, basically invented by the church for easy replication of the same tunes over and over.

But back to the article, though it is painful to continue.

Henschen uses a single study of musical analysis as evidence of decreasing musical variety. He reiterates the tired complaint about dynamic range compression in recordings. Naturally this says nothing about musical composition. It's only indicative of how music is presented, which is a different topic entirely.

Next, the fact that two people have written a lot of pop songs in the recent charts is considered to be a problem. Well, Vivaldi wrote 500 concertos, all more or less the same. Telemann, Saint Saens, and other composers must really have sucked, given their enormous output... if you follow Henschen's logic.

I need hardly consider his rants against autotune, digital delays, and other electronics, which do nothing but demonstrate complete ignorance of how these technologies are used creatively. Auto-tune graduated from being a rather poor effect to being a musical signifier, in and of itself. Not that Henschen would understand signification as a genre-binding process! Why doesn't he complain about the microphone, a totally artificial means of amplifying the singing voice, which resulted in an entirely new style of crooning (Sinatra)?

The author is blissfully unaware that the piano, clarinet, etc. are also technologies, mechanical tools constructed within particular economic and political contexts. Each restrict what is possible musically, while opening up potential avenues for creativity. None are value-neutral. None permit the variety in pitch, timbre, and loudness (to use his indicators) that Pierre Schaeffer discovered in musique concrète, or Stockhausen in sound synthesis.

Henschen should hear how technology is used by Aphex Twin, Bjork, and Ikeda. Or how Luc Ferrari, Pauline Oliveros, and Xenakis produce timbral variety. Or how Scott Walker, Cindytalk, and Diamanda Galas test the limits of their tools. These artists have done stuff with sound his poor ears can't imagine.

But back to pop music. In the last two days I have heard nine young acts in concert, no two of which sounded the same. Likely none of them could read scores (I didn't ask), yet all produced music worth listening to. Next Friday I am presenting a day of music in all its forms. No, I didn't ask any of the participants to bring sheet music.

I agree with Henschen that music should be taught and encouraged. But there is no need to use the arcane, broken, stave system. And absolutely no reason to denigrate those who won't conform to its limits. In the real world, music is not constrained to the blinkered views of Jon Henschen, registered financial advisor.



Bob said...

I find other large issues with Henschen's article. He makes a claim that music literacy had decreased, but provides no evidence to support that claim. He also claims that schools are cutting music education programs, but provides no evidence for this claim either. I can find no statistics on the internet regarding how the number of children in the USA receiving various types of music education has (or has not) changed over time.

Whether his claims are true or not, there is evidence that children (in the US) today are performing music at a higher level than ever before. It is not uncommon for high school violinists to learn works by Paganini; thirty years ago that was a rare level of achievement. You can see youtube videos of any number of children playing things that were considered very advanced not long ago.

The underlying research for the diminishing quality claim rests on a study of one million pop songs selected somewhat at random. That's about 16,000 songs per year for the time period. I can't help but think that many of these songs are rather obscure. I wish the authors of the study had chosen the top 100 songs of each year to study instead.

Anyway, the study shows that the harmonic content of pop songs has simplified, that the timbres have become more uniform, and that while loudness has increased, dynamic variability has remained about the same. That last bit is actually contrary to the "loudness wars" narrative.

I think one can explain most of these changes by observing first the popularity of hair-metal bands in the 80s, and then of hip hop since then. The study doesn't allow us to make any generalizations about music except for pop music.

The way the Henschen article is written, the author seems to want to make the case that these two issues are related. No evidence is provided to that effect.

But I find your description of the stave system as "arcane" and "broken" curious. To my mind it works quite well for it's intended purpose: to provide a skeleton of melodic and harmonic content. You seem to be validating Henschen's claim that being able to read music is rare.

I play Great Highland Bagpipe and my wife plays in an orchestra. Neither of us could do either of those things without sheet music. But it's not appropriate for everything. I've seen videos of modular synthesizer performances that probably can't be notated with staff notation. But then again, those are probably about as far from "popular" as one can get ;-)

robin said...

Thanks for your considered comment, which adds a lot to the dialogue.

My aside about the arcane staff system requires elaboration. We represent a chromatic scale of thirteen notes, A A# B B# C C# D D# E F F# G G#, on a staff of five lines and four spaces. This mapping has a host of problems and no advantages, since the staff does not correpond plainly to any instrument, whether a piano keyboard (with its tetrachord foundation) or a string instrument (with tunings in fourths or fifths).

Here are some of the issues. A similar scale cannot be represented by a similar visual pattern of notes. There is not space enough for the chromatic scale, so accidentals are required, arbitrarily emphasising some notes over others (A# is not less important than A). The player must keep track of fifteen different key signatures, each of which changes the subsequent notes to be played. Furthermore, the clef also changes the notes. Whole and half step intervals look identical, even though they are not. Octaves are not recognisable as a clear pattern.

This user interface design is a clear failure. It may have been OK for pentatonic music, but that's about it.

Besides this, music theory is littered with confusing terms for intervals, chords, modes, etc. which obscure simple underlying principles. This cognitive overhead reduces access to music and helps create a musical "elite". And none of it is necessary.

Many alternatives have been devised. Check out:

Bob said...

I wonder if there is actually any long term advantage to any of those systems. That is, it takes thousands of hours of practice to become proficient with any musical instrument, and ultimately, no matter what the notation system, the musician must necessarily memorize it and learn to associate the notes with the sounds and the fingers. I wonder if beginning musicians would actually make faster progress with a system where every note had its own place on the staff. It seems like it would be harder to teach in the beginning, because in the beginning most teachers teach a diatonic scale and each note the students are learning has its own place on the staff. Additional keys are learned as the student makes progress with their technical skills.

I can tell though, that the people who put together that website must be keyboard and/or guitar players. It is only on tempered instruments that there are only 12 tones. On a violin G# is not the same pitch as Ab, for instance, so setting aside double sharps and double flats, there are 17 pitches in an octave. (And then to notate double sharps and double flats, the violinist needs 27 tones per octave.) The difference in pitch between Ab and G# is not trivial. Most of their proposed systems could not be used to notate violin scores without resorting to the sorts of things they are trying to avoid because they don’t provide a way to distinguish an Ab from a G#. The “Chromatic Twinline” could with the addition of a third note head shape, but I think in practice it would fail horribly in manuscript, as would any other system that allows more than one pitch per space based on note head placement. The current system, for all its quirks, is easy to write by hand. Having graded middle school note writing worksheets, I can assure you this is not a trivial concern ;-)

robin said...

Practice with an instrument is of course a very real necessity, but surely this is totally separate from any concerns with the notations system. I see no reason the system has to be arbitrarily difficult, as it is now. This is simply a barrier to learning that serves no useful function.

Matters of tuning systems are not notated. You can't tell from a stave if you are using equal temperament or just intonation. Any system has to "bend" to accommodate the wide variety of tuning systems, but this is again outside the scope of critiquing the current stave for the most standard tunings.

The difference between A# and Gb could be accomplished with an additional notation that could be a lot more precise than simply sharp or flat, half-sharp or half-flat. I don't think anyone is proposing removing all additional notations, of which there are hundreds for tempo, articulation, etc.

robin said...

That should of course been Ab and G#. No way to edit. :-)

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