Musical Illiteracy Revisited

Here are a few paragraphs from an article by Quentin Faulkner in the Summer 2008 issue of Sacred Music:

….Since the advent of the mass media and of amplified and recorded music (in the 1920s and 30s), there have been several generations in the developed world who have been subjected to the entertainment paradigm: a soloist or a small group of singers (the few) who perform for an audience (the many). The vast majority of people in the modern world now assume without question that “music” is the few (with musical talent and ability) performing for the many (without it).

Furthermore, the ubiquitous availability of recorded music has obviated the necessity for people to sing. Singing lullabies to infants and children, once an almost instinctive parental urge, has yielded to playing recorded music to pacify children. Singing in the family, once a primary way both of entertainment and of community-building, has practically vanished. Most children, as a result, grow up with no model for family or group singing, and with the assumption that one need not sing, need only listen. If we grant that music is in many ways similar to language, then we might ask ourselves the question, “If a child only hears spoken language through the medium of a recording, will that child be inclined to develop skill in speaking?”

I don’t know the answer to that question, because (I hope!) no one has ever conducted that experiment. But it’s reasonable to suspect that, since young children aren’t sung to and aren’t expected to sing, many of them will not grow up with any ability to sing, and many others will grow up with their ability to sing impaired. It’s a matter of connecting (or not connecting) ears with throats. Whatever school music curriculum these children are exposed to is unlikely to address their disability; school music curricula these days are often modeled on the entertainment paradigm. These children’s attempts to sing are likely to be met with ridicule, and to cause them intense embarrassment. The result is adults who cannot sing, or sing badly, and who avoid singing like the plague. Such people, in my mind, are to be pitied, not censured.

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