Received this email from reader Don Siegel:
Greetings. Vis a vis how music is getting worse—I’m a prof at Syr. Univ (Earth Sciences) but also lately, a solo jazz guitarist who plays chord-melody style out of the American Songbook at coffee houses. I find the response of young people (I’m 68) to my music interesting. Many think I composed classic pieces by Gershwin and Porter, since they never heard them (Even “Summertime”). Were it so true, but to be honest, I never heard much of my father’s music until getting to know the Songbook either.
Most kids, however, seem to enjoy melody, although they can’t quite understand it. Many tell me it calms them. I played Berlin’s “What’ll I Do” at the library at an event and saw tears in the eyes of several coeds–and I don’t sing. The melody did it.
But to your points, a friend who teaches music theory tell me many kids can’t even compose a melodic line because they have never sufficiently heard it before, which makes me think that understanding melody may be a learned response, much like language?
Language is a learned response in the sense that the language you learn must be learned. But that you learn a language isn’t itself taught or a learned response. Language ability is innate. Even the least intelligent men can speak. What they speak is learned, and what they don’t speak isn’t learned.
Music is also human, but is it like language? Is the ability innate? I’d guess it was, only because music is ubiquitous—Peter Kreeft is fond of reminding us that Tolkien’s angels/elves sung the universe into existence—but I’m not intelligent enough on the subject to say, so let’s open it up to readers.
Polyphonic music, with its intricate melodies, is a recent creation (and a triumph of the West). Even though music is is fallen from its height, and becoming cruder (in the cultural and mathematical sense), there is still some shred of melody, albeit not much. We haven’t reached the point where nothing but drum beats and guttural chants are heard (in every public space in the land), but we’re close.
On the subject Siegel wrote:
Another debate I have been having with music friends is whether rap and hip hop can even be considered music. They are all about rhythm and patter, with no melody line as a hook and hardly any chord progressions. I rather consider it performance art and not “music,” much like performance visual or theater art I see in the streets of NYC…
Some of my music friends argue with me. They say that all music made today with few exceptions is just “dance” music, and hence the rhythm takes precedence over lyrics and melody for the most part—think of how top 40 C&W and rock pop sounds so much alike now—rhythms dominating all performance and spectacle on top of it…
I’ll let readers tackle that. But beware the Grandparents’ fallacy. This is the error people make when they say, “Your grandparents also complained about their music of day, your parents complained about their, you complain about yours, and your children will complain about theirs; therefore, there is nothing wrong with today’s music.”
It’s a fallacy because there is nothing precluding a multi-generational downward trend—which is indeed what we see.