Vox Pop Music

What is it that makes “pop” music popular? Why does the vox populi “man on the street” find Classical music “boring”? How is it that the popular music of one century could become the “impenetrably stuffy” music of the next?

Pretend music is books. There are a lot of different types of books for all ages and reading levels. On one end of the spectrum are books for children. Think of the Dick and Jane readers with writing like this:

Come, Dick.
Come and see.
Come, come.
Come and see.
Come and see Spot.

What may be taxing for a child just learning to read can be simplistic and unsatisfying for the typical adult. Of course, adults tend to read much more complex literature altogether. But here, there is also a range. Think of sentences such as the following from Henry James’ The Golden Bowl:

The spectator of whom they would thus well have been worthy might have read meanings of his own into the intensity of their communion—or indeed, even without meanings, have found his account, aesthetically, in some gratified play of our modern sense of type, so scantly to be distinguished from our modern sense of beauty.

That’s probably a bit beyond what is easily understood by most of us on a first read (or perhaps even a second or third!). You can imagine how it might be tiresome and exhausting to read through all 789 pages. Would it be a stretch to say that even the most simple Haydn sonata is like this for the typical American today?

Could it be that popular music trends correlate with the musical literacy of a people group, i.e., not significantly more simple or complex than can be understood by the group in question? As music classes are taken out of public schools in America, would it be any surprise that its popular music might at times be reduced down to few chords, static “melodies”, and one (loud) dynamic, etc.?

This is one of the reasons I teach music. I want my students to be able to understand the depths and riches of a range of music that includes complex music. I want them to understand themselves, society and life better through music. It’s no harder than learning to read and the rewards are just as good. What’s stopping you from learning to appreciate music more?

1 Reader Comment

  1. Jeanne Plate

    Being an adult myself with an appreciation of a wide range of music styles, I’ll answer with what helped me – exposure to music outside of the “pop” range. The pianist who played classical music tirelessly during my childhood ballet classes, the brave man in our school district who pulled the best band and orchestra newbies from the 6th graders in 12 elementary schools and made an “orchestra” out of us. The choral director in high school who had us tackle tough madrigals, Gilbert and Sullivan, and yes, PDQ Bach. The high school band director who hated marching band and what it did to musicians, and concentrated on creating a superb concert band, playing everything from the dramatic “Civil War Suite” to excepts from Bernstein’s “West Side Story”.

    What’s stopping today’s young people? I think that limited exposure to different genres is key. School music classes are mere tokens, the music tackled generally geared toward “keeping up their interest”. More and more of the local schools are supportive of “Glee” type music, and dropping the training in the more serious and complex.

    Certainly, parents can take a part in picking up the slack. We played all types of music at home during our children’s early years. Their dad often sat and helped them to listen and hear themes and rhythms, sometimes breaking out his percussion stuff so they could play rhythms on sticks and claves. We sat and listened to portions of Handel’s “Messiah”, score in hand.

    Consequently, the music they choose to listen to is eclectic, with a fair amount of complex orchestral music (usually associated with films – the score to “How to Train Your Dragon” is impressive).

    So yes, it all comes down to teaching – mere exposure is useful, but having the tools to appreciate and comprehend the music is vital.

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