The Importance of the Art of Music at the Start of the Third Millennium,
and Marietta College's Decision to Discontinue its Major in Music
by Jody Nagel
The rise of western art music over the past thousand years occurred because of the rule of monarchy and ecclesiastical authority, because of the command of kings and bishops. Sacred music, such as "Gregorian Chants," and the masses by Ockeghem, Palestrina, Bach, and even Beethoven, represented extraordinary accomplishment, and these manifestations of high skill were viewed as a way of honoring God. Secular music, such as Bach's keyboard music, Mozart's piano concertos, Haydn's quartets, and Beethoven's symphonies, was created with approval of the local nobility, and it, too, signified unusually high achievement on the parts of the composer, the performers, and even the audience listeners. The social climate was steeped in the notion of authority versus subservience, and composers were, indeed, viewed as a type of servant (often to the irritation of the composer!) Yet within this type of atmosphere, fantastically great achievements took place, and the financial support given by the crown or the church to music, and the other arts, was an expression of its WEALTH. The king's ability to have a large court orchestra, or a cathedral's ability to amass a fine choir or a huge pipe organ, was a display of wealth, of the riches and the richness of the culture.
Sonic discoveries took place, then, in the West during the last thousand years that were at least as great as other scientific discoveries. In the ninth century, or so, people in France began experimenting (heaven forbid!) with singing more than one pitch at the same time, and, over the following millennium, counterpoint and harmony eventually became the distinctive hallmark of western music. These musical parameters are without a doubt the most difficult musical parameters to master, the most abstract, and demanding the most discipline, ingenuity, creativity and skill on the part of composers, performers, and listeners. Yet they also create the most profound of musical affects and the greatest sense of fulfillment. Some philosophers consider the effects produced by poetry and music, to be the highest expression of thought humans can experience. The technical subjects of "counterpoint" and "harmony" have inspired many composers to produce both subtle and lovely nuances, lofty sentiments, and dramatic and weighty statements. However, of equal concern, is the incredible ability that harmonic-types have to influence feelings, manipulate thoughts and attitudes, and be suggestive of anything: from the moods of a love song to the attempted manipulations of commercial advertisements. (In this latter category, it is the listener's subconsciously effected moods, produced by an audio track, not the consciously effected thoughts, produced by a video track, that are of the most concern to the field of advertising. Thus, it is the music that is the true "force" behind an advertisement's effectiveness.)
In the twentieth century, music has taken a different turn. Why? From the time of the French revolution until World War II, western societies metamorphosed one by one from church-dominated monarchies to ever-increasing capitalistic democracies. During this transition to a market culture, music achieved unheard of heights in the symphonies of Schumann, Brahms, Berlioz, Dvorák, Bruckner and Mahler, the tone-poems of Liszt, the song-cycles of Schubert, the piano preludes and nocturnes of Chopin, the operas of Wagner and Verdi, and the ballets of Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky. Some would consider the greatest music EVER written to have been created during the nineteenth century and, perhaps, in the first decade or so of the twentieth century. But starting by the period of World War I, music began to change. Sonic discovery, experimentation, and "progress" continued in the works of Debussy, Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, Boulez and Stockhousen, but few cared.
When monarchy finally gave way to democracy, no force was left to command greatness in music. Nineteenth-century music may have continued on a trajectory of increased "greatness" that it inherited from earlier times, and on which it may have continued, for a time, mostly due to the inertia of habit. Individuals attempted great things. Most composers and musicians, of course, did not succeed at being great, but the overall society did produce numerous occurrences of outstanding musical achievement. By the twentieth century, the forces of commerce had virtually taken over all aspects of life. Now, most everything we own is done so because we bought it with money. (Money-obtained objects constituted a substantially lower percentage of owned possessions in earlier times, and "homemade" objects and resources from unowned land were more commonly used.) With this new mindset, music-making began to be viewed differently. In particular, rather than being viewed as a sign of wealth on the part of rich patrons, music and art were required "to earn their own way" in life. Thus, the true beginning point of the differences of intention, and in quality, between "art" and "entertainment" took place when music and art ceased being "paid for," and began to "pay." Modern commercialism has no aesthetic barometer for evaluating "greatness" other than one: how many concert tickets and how many recordings were SOLD. It took almost a century for marketing techniques to brainwash society into believing that low quality "entertainment" should be viewed as high quality "art," and that what had formerly been known as "art" should now be considered "elitist," (as if that intrinsically makes high-quality art and music "bad," and settles the whole issue.)
The greatness in the masterpieces of music from the past millennium is characterized by some type of complexity (including that mysterious complexity known as "simplicity"), some type of transcendence from the particular time in which it was made and from the technological capabilities then available, some reliance on hierarchical, multidimensional structures that can be heard with increasing pleasure upon repeated hearings, that appeal to the mind as much as to the feelings, and that, first and foremost, were not easily duplicated by any other composer. The great artistic and musical masterpieces of the past, IN SPITE OF the authoritarianism of church and state, were always the creations of INDIVIDUAL artists and composers. How ironic that, in our era of supposed "freedom," commercial "pop" song writers all adopt the same small subset of harmonic and formal musical parameters. They have traded political authoritarianism for aesthetic authoritarianism, since this is the road to "make money."
In the past, music and art were often used by their creators as an expression of their independence of mind and, not infrequently, as attacks upon the power structure of their time. Mozart's opera The Magic Flute is full of symbolic political criticisms. Now, music (especially) is used by commercial forces in a way that is itself what an intelligent person would wish to be free from. If a person intellectually understood the "cool" response elicited by having a distorted electric guitar play a minor-third pitch interval, then perhaps he or she would not so easily fall prey to "feeling uncool" if he or she happened not to buy the clothes or car or food-item that was being advertised using that musical device. Music Theory is one way to learn about music and, if nothing else, it contributes along with all knowledge toward a person's being free. I certainly would prefer to buy something because I freely decided that I wanted or needed the thing, not because someone else successfully subconsciously manipulated me (through music) to believe that I wanted or needed the thing.
At least since the time of the ancient Greeks, music was studied along with mathematics, war skills, geometry and astronomy, and oration. Music and mathematics are both nothing if not the comprehension of relationships, both perceived and conceptual. Focusing on music exercises and sharpens the hearing sense and, if nothing else, possibly prepares a man to be sonically alert when his enemy is sneaking up behind him. Now, music is just sonic wallpaper. It dampens rather than informs our awareness. Without the conscious study of music (i.e., music theory), we are now just about completely at the mercy of those who would manipulate us through music. Corporate America does not care if people sing in choirs, or play instruments in bands. We are free to become technicians on as many instruments as we wish. But whatever you do, don't suggest that all of society should have basic music theory learned. It is OK to require young children to know their colors, red, blue, yellow, green, etc., but forget about making them aware of half-steps and whole-steps, perfect fifths and tritones. The latter are "technical terms" because they are (a) not learned at a young age (as are colors) and (b) because society's current economic system would be disempowered if all people learned how music works. The ear is as extraordinary a sense organ as the eye. It is no less capable of being trained. The difference between modern people's "seeing" and "hearing" capacity is primarily one of the cultural value assigned to those skills. And it seems as if our culture actively wants music theory NOT to be studied by all people, lest too many people "see through," or "hear through," the advertising game.
Music Theory was the subject for musical studies by Greek philosophers, by the educated monks in the early cathedrals, at the large universities that flourished in the Renaissance and afterward. It is a subject that, along with many other subjects, contributes towards personal FREEDOM. It is very interesting to note that small colleges in America, such as Marietta College in Marietta, Ohio, are considering abandoning their music major, and therefore their "need to teach music theory." Sure, let the choir and band flourish, but remove the study that, in reality, most deeply threatens our economic system. Let music theory continue to be viewed by "modern" people as an "uncool" subject (a victory for the current commercial power structure), and let even music majors holler that they dislike the course. When enrollment plunges and stays low, rather than require more students to take the class, let the class be canceled altogether. Afterall, "consumer students" should not, says the commercially-interested university or college, be held accountable to standards of "expertise," but to standards of "marketing forces," namely, that is, to their own uninformed choices. The cancellation of a music major (and, therefore, the teaching of music theory) at a place like Marietta College represents the ultimate victory of the commercial system. We not only no longer have to teach expensive courses to too few students; we (as a society) can collectively worry less and less that our music-fueled commercial economy might be in danger of ceasing to work. The perfectly closed circle. Commercialism reigns supreme.
Musically illiterate young people create and perform low-quality "band" music, and it is marketed to listening audiences as "good." The audience has lost sensitivity towards music not just because of highly amplified playback (which flattens the ears' cilia and lowers high frequency sensitivity, and which increases a tendency to develop tinnitus), but because of the unusually small amount of change that the various musical parameters undergo within each song, or between songs. The small range of allowable total duration, the few types of formal structures, scales, chords, tempos and meters, the lack of counterpoint and chromaticism, all contribute to a kind of "tunnel vision" of the sense-of-hearing through constant exposure. For this music, then, to sell, former artistically-required sensibilities must be discontinued. If a person constantly stares at the sun and loses his or her optical sensitivity to light to the point of near blindness, it would be very difficult, then, to develop an appreciation for the artistic masterpieces of Rembrandt.
People that listen to commercial music are more manipulatable by the commercial economy. Discontinuing the teaching of art-music studies (e.g., music theory) serves many purposes. It removes yet another source of individuality for those people discontent with the current economic reality. It negates the need to teach a course to too few students; making it required to more students undermines the desire to keep consumers music-theoretically illiterate. It allows the illiterate, "intuitive" (supposedly) commercial music scene to reign supreme.
The Art of Music is no longer an expression of WEALTH. It is an expression of an impoverished culture that requires its art (if it is even willing to make the distinction) to pay for itself, just as does entertainment. For much of the twentieth century, the creative art of music was preserved in institutions of higher learning. There are still individuals with great musical minds but they have little audience and, therefore, few checks and balances are brought into play between a composer's desire to experiment further and an audience's conservative desire to keep musical evolution slow. Something snaps, and composers begin to write "weird avant garde" music and then have even less of an audience, and the whole process spirals out of control. Actually, there are possible signs that the commercial stranglehold on music is weakening: Serious composers are finally learning how to employ similar marketing techniques as used by their "pop" counterparts, and, ironically, internet technology, allowing for the facile exchange of digital audio files, may finally remove the "profit-motive" from would-be garage bands thereby eventually lowering their overall number. If "entertainment music" becomes unprofitable, music just may be restored to it former status as "art" and again be engaged in as an expression of wealth rather than as a search for wealth. It's just possible that the serious study of music might increase again, and it seems particularly short-sighted for a college or university to consider canceling a music major at this particular moment in time.
Art music no longer has monarchy. The Church mostly abandoned great music in favor of commercial music-forms. The Market has found it much easier to profit from low-quality entertainment, and then has arrogantly usurped the word "art" for itself, in addition. Even the "Classical Music" institutions, such as symphony orchestras, found that they had to cater to rich patrons that really didn't care that much about the music, but wanted to carry on the grand tradition of "being seen" by the "right" people at the "right" places. Only academia provided a safe haven for actual musical understanding. Places of Learning, since Pythagoras, have always been the true sanctuary of musical comprehension. But now, for the last half century or so, academia itself has mostly metamorphosed from "institutions of higher learning" to "institutions for job training." Under these conditions, academia itself has also lost interest in contributing towards individual freedom (from commercial manipulation) by increasingly discontinuing the study of music theory. Marietta College, my alma mater from which I was proud to have graduated, is now a source of profound sorrow to me. By discontinuing their music major - my major - they are admitting that they have lost their richness and their wealth of spirit. They have become impoverished at heart. They no longer wish to lead their culture, but merely wish to reflect their culture. They will, for each forfeited music student, contribute further to the demise of personal freedom in our tyrannical democracy. They will job-train, but not educate, their students. They will prepare them for their enslaved role within society. For those few students that are not already a slave to American society and its "culture," I suggest that you study music theory and other personally-liberating subjects at some other school that currently still offers such courses. If earlier trends do continue, I wonder how long it will take for all American schools to drop their music theory courses. (Perhaps not all; at least some people have to be trained in the knowledge of how to manipulate people through music, or the system might topple from lack of skill!) But for now, Marietta College champions the commercial status quo, defends the power-structure of the modern economic reality fueled by mass musical ignorance, and no longer champions a freeing education of the individual.
Dr. Jody Nagel
October 21, 2000
Ball State University, Professor of Music Theory and Composition
D.M.A., The University of Texas at Austin, 1992.
M.A., The University of Pittsburgh, 1985.
B.A., Marietta College, 1982.