Friday, April 24, 2009

The Death of Music... And the Life.

Classical Music is not dying. It is dead. This is pretty widely acknowledged. There are books written on the subject. What killed it?

There are pretty much three schools of thought:

1) People got stupider about music
2) Classical Music got too complex
3) Classical Music became obsolete

Believe it or not, I think all three are correct. And none of them is the root reason, in my opinion.

Let me start with the second point - Classical Music got too complex. This is undoubtedly true. In fact, in college I observed that every period of music started out as a return to simplicity, before growing ever more complex. When complexity reached a certain point, only musicians remained interested, and then a new style would be born as a return to simplicity. Baroque to Classical, Classical to Romantic, Romantic to Impressionist, Impressionist to Jazz (I choose to ignore "Modern" Classical such as Schoenberg and Hindemith - their output was never important to anyone outside of academia).

Still, what did that return to simplicity consist of? Why was it necessary? Yes, it got complex, but why is that always fatal to a musical style?

How about the first point, that people got stupider about music? Well, for one thing, it used to be standard that everybody played at least one instrument. There were no mp3 players - if you wanted music, you made it. Buying music didn't involve downloading, it involved buying the sheet music so you could play it.

Also, I'm kinda of the opinion that people have gotten a lot dumber in general. But actually, I consider that irrelevant to the discussion of the death of classical music.

The third point is obvious - classical music IS obsolete. But is that what killed it? I think not.

You see, my six years as a dueling pianist led me to a revelation recently - music should make you want to sing along, dance or both!

Let me say that again, because it is the root of all music, and what brings it to life: Music should make you want to sing along, dance, or both. This is what music has done since the dawn of time. It has served these functions. And that is almost entirely the only functions it has ever served.

Are there pieces you can't sing along with? Of course. But they are of little interest to most of those outside of players of the instrument in question. Flute pieces with a million notes a second are not well known to non-flautists.

Musicians spend their lives thinking about "catchy" tunes, and "catchy" beats. Basically, these are tunes that you want to sing along with, or dance to.

Okay, if you're not in complete agreement, think back to every piece of music you like. Does it not fall into one of these categories? And if you are an instrumentalist, discard any music written for your instrument - you may have bias towards tones, effects, and techniques simply for their own sake.

If you can't sing a melodic line, you will forget it. And if it does not make you WANT to sing along, you will forget it. The same with rhythms - if they do not make you want to dance, they will be forgotten.

So what killed classical music? Well, yes, it became obsolete due to technology. Yes, it got too complex, becoming written more for the sheer sake of technical challenge than anything else. Yes, people became a lot less educated about it.

But Classical Music died when people no longer danced to it, and no longer sang its melodies.

To any musicians out there, especially academics - this seems overly simplistic. But if you take this lesson to heart, it will change everything you play, everything you write, and everything you hear.


  1. I got to say, I think people ran out of true styles. I think it was because everything people would write, other people would come out and say things like; "that sound like Mozart, or like Beethoven, or like List." And so on. If you don't have anything left to sound like you end up sounding weird. example: modern classical, Swedish Death Metal, or that weird Jazz stuff that is, you know, like way out there. Or you end up sounding completely different from the original sound. example: todays country, hip hop, or that weird Jazz stuff that is, you know, like way out there. Of course that's just what I think.

  2. I'm going to partly agree with you; I think that trying to sound completely different leaves you sounding like... Well, funky, fresh, original shit.

    As far as true styles, though - I'm not sure there is much validity to that paradigm (even though I used it for most of my life). I'll express more on that in my next post. I addressed it a little bit in my new post, in the form of what music is meant for.

    This is why I've never written on music before - it's very, very hard to be brief, as each statement needs clarification, and leads to greater questions!