Discussion of the Month – November/16


Hello and welcome! For the next several months, this feature of the website will reprint the collection of short articles that first appeared 10 years ago in Ecclectica. The collection was edited by Wayne Bowman, and published online by Brandon University; this particular issue explored the topic, “The Future of Music Study in Canada.” Contributing authors to this collection represent a diverse range of music scholarship and interests. The MayDay Group obtained permission to reprint these articles from Ecclectica and the various authors for the purpose of discussing the ways music in higher ed has changed since these articles were written ten years ago. The original publication may be viewed at http://ecclectica.brandonu.ca/issues/2006/2/Read.ecc.asp This month’s article from the above collection is by Canadian jazz educator Paul Read, and is the eighth installment from Ecclectica to be featured on the MayDay Group website: Discussion of the Month.

Our hope is that as you read, you will think about what has changed in the past ten years, what may not have changed at all or very much, and where there are signs of shifts in both thinking and practice. While the Ecclectica issue dealt primarily with music in higher education in Canada, the issues, we believe are common to higher music studies in other parts of the world, and this reprint seems timely given the 2014 report from the College Music Society calling for sweeping changes in the approach to undergraduate education in music. Please take a moment after you read to share your thoughts, so that we may generate the kinds of discussions that will lead to the kinds of changes the original Ecclectica authors call for.

Trivializing Music Studies

James Deaville, Carlton University

Put bluntly, we need to trivialize music studies in Canada. By the word “trivialize,” I don’t mean adopting a belittling attitude towards those studies, but rather changing their content to embrace music that has traditionally been determined to be below consideration in serious music programs: aesthetically unworthy, trivial, bad. In the recent book Bad Music: The Music We Love to Hate, noted popular-music scholar Simon Frith identifies three critical arguments in defining “bad music”: it isn’t worthy of enjoyment; musicians involved in it are betraying their talent; and it corrupts music’s original integrity.1 While whole genres like country music have been dismissed historically as bad or trivial, such designations can cut cross styles as well, so that a subgenre like bubblegum pop or an artist like Dido might be deemed unworthy of inclusion in a “canonic” popular music course. Even more problematic within such a course would be entertainers like Lawrence Welk (http://www.welkmusicalfamily.com) or Kenny G (http://www.kennyg.com), who occupy terrain so foreign to elite canons that justifying their study at a job interview will almost certainly not get you hired (I didn’t get the job). Yet these are the very artists whose sounds form the “soundtrack” of our lives and the lives of our parents.

Consumers of “live” media are bombarded daily by music and its messages that fly below the radar of our “high art” colleagues, whether in television news (see http://www.southernmedia-nmsa.com/ for a complete listing of current and historical network news music) or video games (see http://www.vgmusic.com/ for a comprehensive sound archive), just to mention two examples. This is the music that surrounds us, envelopes us on a daily basis, even though we may not notice it. Often created by nameless composers working for music production companies, these powerful sounds in broadcast media remain all but unknown to us. In a recent article about music in time-based media in American Music, Claudia Gorbman argues that we need to develop an aesthetics of television music2 – how much more should we attempt to understand musical phenomena like Liberace (http://www.liberace.com/), soccer audience anthems (http://home.wanadoo.nl/maarten.geluk/), the music for film trailers (http://www.movie-list.com/), and yes, the music of ice cream trucks (http://www.thesession.org/discussions/display/7284). Indeed, Nicholas Cook made a significant splash in the scholarly community with his groundbreaking study of commercial music in 1994.3

My own career has focused on music that has been considered trivial at one time or another, whether the virtuosic creations of Franz Liszt, the cakewalks of itinerant African-American entertainers in turn-of-the-century Vienna, or television news music of today. One benefit of dealing with such repertories is that you can’t be accused of besmirching works of genius, as I was when I suggested that Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor has the air of the carnevalesque about it. In my case, sensitivity to such music arose in part from my middle-class background, which didn’t know better than to take seriously “bad” music – i.e., the music that surrounded a typical suburban family of the 1960s (and continues to do so in the first decade of the 21st century).

By advocating serious engagement with what has historically been called “trivial” or “bad” music, I am suggesting that we reconsider what is worthy of study and research. Let the genre’s popularity, “reach,” effectiveness, and impact determine its suitability for academic work, rather than the opinions of elitists. In terms of university and college music curricula, that might mean offering courses in television music (an undergraduate seminar I offered in the fall of 2003 was the first such course in Canada) and smooth jazz, just to mention two disparaged types of music. Another course might explore music in everyday life, past and present. Of course, such curricular offerings would go beyond introducing musical repertoires familiar to us from various contexts in our lives. They would probe deeply and broadly what and how the musics in question mean, and how they help construct personal and collective identity. For example, a general course on music in everyday life might explore Muzak (“bad music”) and how it achieves its purposes, drawing upon scientific studies and empirical data as well as ethnographic research.4 For courses like these, we would need to introduce elements of sociology, psychology, and communication theory, since it is through such disciplines that we can determine the factors behind the effectiveness and importance of the music under consideration. The study of music in such courses would be as rigorous as that encountered in traditional music pedagogy, only the emphasis would shift from uncovering abstract manifestations of genius to establishing specific markers of impact and success. I hope that this direction of inquiry would enable us to arrive at a new, function-based aesthetics of music, one that might ultimately replace traditional measures of value.

I propose we take the “trivializing” one step further by working these musics into theory, music appreciation and ear-training courses, as part of the core curriculum. The individual selections would be generation-specific, so that students would be working with music they recognize from their personal “soundtracks,” even as baby boomers would know the ballad from “Gilligan’s Island” (http://home.comcast.net/~millenniumbiz3/tv/Gilligans_Island.mp3), the theme from “Mission Impossible” (http://www.televisiontunes.com/m-theme-songs.html), or the Armour hot dog commercial (http://www.digitaltimes.com/kids/lyrics_for_kids/armourhotdog.html), for example.5 The more we engage with these repertoires, the better students can appreciate how they, like the classical canon, accomplish their goals. For example, in the case of Zamfir’s “covers” of favourite songs (http://www.gheorghe-zamfir.com/), students might work with notions of transcription and timbre as affective devices.

This rethinking of musical valuation would assist the instructor in breaking out of the elitist classism that is so prevalent in the North American music classroom. Not that I am advocating replacing one canon with another in the search for the “great” television news music or for the “masterpieces” of carousel music. No, I am suggesting that we look at the peripheries of music and try to determine why that music is or has been important. Instead of dismissing Mantovani (http://www.hallowquest.com/mantiindex.htm), Minnie Pearl (http://www.cmt.com/artists/az/pearl_minnie/bio.jhtml), or Neil Diamond (http://www.neildiamondhomepage.com/) as self-evidently trite or valueless, if we explore the past and present with open ears and minds, we will find music in a number of unexpected places, which will assist our efforts to understand a given culture and musical influences upon it. Take for example the music performed at sporting events, where millions of people participate in rituals that prominently feature musical anthems, chants, choruses, etc. Such music is clearly “trivial” according to the standards of musical canons (whether those of art or popular music); but it is a powerful force in shaping identity. By studying only “high” art, whether in classical or popular realms, we and our students fail to question what (and who) constitutes musical value, mistakenly concluding that the public’s tastes are misguided and malformed (à la Theodor Adorno) by the agents of capitalism. Under a new, non-elitist regime, we may discover that the musical experience is bigger and richer than ever suspected.

Social identity lies in difference, and difference is asserted against what is closest, which represents the greatest threat…
—Pierre Bourdieu6
1 Simon Frith, “What is Bad Music?,” in Bad Music: The Music We Love, ed. by Christopher J. Washburne and Maiken Derno (New York: Routledge, 2004), p. 31.

2 Claudia Gorbman, “Rhetoric and Aesthetics,” American Music, 22 (2004), 14-26. I should note that even though this special issue of American Music is entitled “Music and Moving Image,” virtually all of the articles primarily deal with film music – television music is again relegated to the periphery, just this side of “bad” music.

3 Nicholas Cook, “Music and Meaning in the Commercials,” Popular Music, 13 (1994), 27-40.

4 Muzak has already been the subject of several scholarly studies, including monographs by Stephen Barnes, Muzak, the Hidden Messages in Music: A Social Psychology of Culture (Lewiston: Mellen, 1988) and Joseph Lanza, Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy-Listening, and Other Moodsong (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003). For fans of the sound, the corporate website provides samples: http://www.muzak.com/

5In the 1993 film Demolition Man, residents of the future southern Californian megalopolis San Angeles hear and sing product jingles as the popular music of their day. Thus we see and hear Sandra Bullock and her police associate intoning the Armour hot dog jingle from the 1970s. While this humorous vision of a dystopian future might be an indictment of the corporatization of current musical life, at the same time it offers insights into our perceptions of musical value. If these musical products of corporate branding run the risk of becoming the popular music of tomorrow in the minds of film makers, what does that tell us about the role of “corporate” music like jingles and theme songs in today’s society?

6 Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984), p. 479.

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