Monday, August 20, 2018

The Tragic Decline of Music Literacy (and Quality)

Jon Henschen: "The Tragic Decline of Music Literacy (and Quality)"



Throughout grade school and high school, I was fortunate to participate in quality music programs. Our high school had a top Illinois state jazz band; I also participated in symphonic band, which gave me a greater appreciation for classical music. It wasn’t enough to just read music. You would need to sight read, meaning you are given a difficult composition to play cold, without any prior practice. Sight reading would quickly reveal how fine-tuned playing “chops” really were. In college I continued in a jazz band and also took a music theory class. The experience gave me the ability to visualize music (If you play by ear only, you will never have that same depth of understanding music construct.)
Both jazz and classical art forms require not only music literacy, but for the musician to be at the top of their game in technical proficiency, tonal quality and creativity in the case of the jazz idiom. Jazz masters like John Coltrane would practice six to nine hours a day, often cutting his practice only because his inner lower lip would be bleeding from the friction caused by his mouth piece against his gums and teeth. His ability to compose and create new styles and directions for jazz was legendary. With few exceptions such as Wes Montgomery or Chet Baker, if you couldn’t read music, you couldn’t play jazz. In the case of classical music, if you can’t read music you can’t play in an orchestra or symphonic band. Over the last 20 years, musical foundations like reading and composing music are disappearing with the percentage of people that can read music notation proficiently down to 11 percent, according to some surveys.
canyoureadmusic
Two primary sources for learning to read music are school programs and at home piano lessons. Public school music programs have been in decline since the 1980's, often with school administrations blaming budget cuts or needing to spend money on competing extracurricular programs. Prior to the 1980’s, it was common for homes to have a piano with children taking piano lessons. Even home architecture incorporated what was referred to as a “piano window” in the living room which was positioned above an upright piano to help illuminate the music. Stores dedicated to selling pianos are dwindling across the country as fewer people take up the instrument. In 1909, piano sales were at their peak when more than 364,500 were sold, but sales have plunged to between 30,000 and 40,000 annually in the US. Demand for youth sports competes with music studies, but also, fewer parents are requiring youngsters to take lessons as part of their upbringing.
Besides the decline of music literacy and participation, there has also been a decline in the quality of music which has been proven scientifically by Joan Serra, a postdoctoral scholar at the Artificial Intelligence Research Institute of the Spanish National Research Council in Barcelona. Joan and his colleagues looked at 500,000 pieces of music between 1955-2010, running songs through a complex set of algorithms examining three aspects of those songs:
1. Timbre- sound color, texture and tone quality
2. Pitch- harmonic content of the piece, including its chords, melody, and tonal arrangements
3. Loudness- volume variance adding richness and depth
The results of the study revealed that timbral variety went down over time, meaning songs are becoming more homogeneous. Translation: most pop music now sounds the same. Timbral quality peaked in the 60's and has since dropped steadily with less diversity of instruments and recording techniques. Today’s pop music is largely the same with a combination of keyboard, drum machine and computer software greatly diminishing the creativity and originality. Pitch has also decreased, with the number of chords and different melodies declining. Pitch content has also decreased, with the number of chords and different melodies declining as musicians today are less adventurous in moving from one chord or note to another, opting for well-trod paths by their predecessors. Loudness was found to have increased by about one decibel every eight years. Music loudness has been manipulated by the use of compression. Compression boosts the volume of the quietest parts of the song so they match the loudest parts, reducing dynamic range. With everything now loud, it gives music a muddled sound, as everything has less punch and vibrancy due to compression.
In an interview, Billy Joel was asked what has made him a standout. He responded his ability to read and compose music made him unique in the music industry, which as he explained, was troubling for the industry when being musically literate makes you stand out. An astonishing amount of today’s popular music is written by two people: Lukasz Gottwald of the United States and Max Martin from Sweden, who are both responsible for dozens of songs in the top 100 charts. You can credit Max and Dr. Luke for most the hits of these stars:
Katy Perry, Britney Spears, Kelly Clarkson, Taylor Swift, Jessie J., KE$HA, Miley Cyrus, Avril Lavigne, Maroon 5, Taio Cruz, Ellie Goulding, NSYNC, Backstreet Boys, Ariana Grande, Justin Timberlake, Nick Minaj, Celine Dion, Bon Jovi, Usher, Adam Lambert, Justin Bieber, Domino, Pink, Pitbull, One Direction, Flo Rida, Paris Hilton, The Veronicas, R. Kelly, Zebrahead
With only two people writing much of what we hear, is it any wonder music sounds the same, using the same hooks, riffs and electric drum effects?
Lyric Intelligence was also studied by Joan Serra over the last 10 years using several metrics such as “Flesch Kincaid Readability Index,” which reflects how difficult a piece of text is to understand and the quality of the writing. Results showed lyric intelligence has dropped by a full grade with lyrics getting shorter, tending to repeat the same words more often. Artists that write the entirety of their own songs are very rare today. When artists like Taylor Swift claim they write their own music, it is partially true, insofar as she writes her own lyrics about her latest boyfriend breakup, but she cannot read music and lacks the ability to compose what she plays. (Don’t attack me Tay-Tay Fans!)
Music electronics are another aspect of musical decline as the many untalented people we hear on the radio can’t live without autotune. Autotune artificially stretches or slurs sounds in order to get it closer to center pitch. Many of today’s pop musicians and rappers could not survive without autotune, which has become a sort of musical training wheels. But unlike a five-year-old riding a bike, they never take the training wheels off to mature into a better musician. Dare I even bring up the subject of U2s guitarist “The Edge” who has popularized rhythmic digital delays synchronized to the tempo of the music? You could easily argue he’s more an accomplished sound engineer than a talented guitarist.
Today’s music is designed to sell, not inspire. Today’s artist is often more concerned with producing something familiar to mass audience, increasing the likelihood of commercial success (this is encouraged by music industry execs, who are notoriously risk-averse).
In the mid-1970's, most American high schools had a choir, orchestra, symphonic band, jazz band, and music appreciation classes. Many of today’s schools limit you to a music appreciation class because it is the cheapest option. D.A. Russell wrote in the Huffington Post in an article titled, “Cancelling High School Elective, Arts and Music—So Many Reasons—So Many Lies” that music, arts and electives teachers have to face the constant threat of eliminating their courses entirely. The worst part is knowing that cancellation is almost always based on two deliberate falsehoods peddled by school administrators: 1) Cancellation is a funding issue (the big lie); 2) music and the arts are too expensive (the little lie).
The truth: Elective class periods have been usurped by standardized test prep. Administrators focus primarily on protecting their positions and the school’s status by concentrating curricula on passing the tests, rather than by helping teachers be freed up from micromanaging mandates so those same teachers can teach again in their classrooms, making test prep classes unnecessary.
What can be done? First, musical literacy should be taught in our nation’s school systems. In addition, parents should encourage their children to play an instrument because it has been proven to help in brain synapse connections, learning discipline, work ethic, and working within a team. While contact sports like football are proven brain damagers, music participation is a brain enhancer.
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[Image Credit: Flickr/Eva Rinaldi | CC0 by 2.0]

This post The Tragic Decline of Music Literacy (and Quality) was originally published on Intellectual Takeout by Jon Henschen.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Trashing Waste Corporation of America

I'm done.
I've had it with WCA, and they know it.


In January, the talented team of trash collection technicians which services my neighborhood destroyed  my trash receptacle--the second such container I've had to replace in a year's time. I had little choice but to immediately replace it with another 32-gallon Rubbermaid container for the princely sum of $32.44. Oh, and by the way, these events always occur on Saturdays, when WCA's corporate offices are closed; there's no one to immediately speak with.

I wrote WCA with my complaint:


"Greetings-

Enclosed is December’s invoice for trash collection service at my residence in Lakewood Forest North... You will also find a WalMart receipt for $32.44 for a 32-gallon Rubbermaid trash can, which has been credited against the invoice amount of $54.86. I have enclosed a check for the remainder, $22.42.

This is the second trash container I have replaced in the past year. Your crews continue to destroy them at a rate of about two per year, by my count, which is wholly unacceptable. 

Please counsel your collection crews to treat these containers as if they were their own. In this case, this one is yours now.

Sincerely...

No response from WCA to this letter, but they did cash my check...and not long after, stopped picking up my trash. I called Customer Service, explained my complaint, and the guy on the other end of the line actually agreed with me, and promised to resume service (which he did). Seven weeks later, the kind and considerate neighborhood WCA crew graciously dropped off an official WCA trash container on my driveway. And they refused to pick up my trash. I called Customer Service.

This time I spoke with a very understanding woman who placed me on hold for a time, and returned with apologies and promises to restore my service, credit my account for the cost of the can, and to have the official WCA container retrieved, as I didn't want it, and didn't have room for it in my tiny suggestion of a two-car garage. Within 24-hours the WCA can had been retrieved, and my trash was collected on the next trash day. Until today.

The crews refused to pick up our trash--which happened to include this week's grass clippings, which have been rained on overnight, so they're nice and pungent  in their industrial-strength trash bag. It's Saturday (of course), and Customer Service is not accessible at WCA (if indeed it ever existed). 

It's not like when you get miffed at HEB, and you can go to Kroger.
WCA apparently has a lock on our neighborhood trash collection, so there's no competitor to keep them honest: They can destroy my trash cans and refuse trash service with impunity. They are the Trash Monopolists, sole arbiters of any and all complaints; judge, jury, and trashocutioner. 

This isn't over by a long shot, but it's certainly out there, in public now.
Stay tuned for all the trashy details...

Friday, January 19, 2018

Elegy for a Friend



My boyhood chum, Kenny Richardson, died from a heart attack this week.
He was just a few weeks younger than me.
My earliest memories of the childhood years spent on Forum Drive include Kenny.
I’m still wrestling with the fact that he now belongs to the ages.
James Kenneth Richardson
(March 10, 1955 - January 17, 2018)
Kenny lived in the house across the street. He was the youngest of three. His father was a Navy veteran who worked for the post office, and I never knew what his mother did besides keep house and chase three kids, which is quite enough for anyone. Mrs. Richardson was one of our Cub Scout den mothers, and we met in their garage. I think every third grade boy in the neighborhood was in that first scout den.

We were never in the same classes at Valley Oaks Elementary School, which is probably a good thing, but we rode Bus #55, driven by Mr. Jenke, which picked us up at the bus stop across from Dr. Chreiten’s house, and dropped us off every afternoon on the corner, at the house next to mine. We grew up in the late 50’s and 60’s, when kids could and would play outside until dark, or our parents called us home—whichever occurred first. Kenny’s dad would whistle for him from the driveway of their house—one, slightly shrill, thin, drawn out shriek, emitted by two fingers placed in the corners of his mouth. Mr. Richardson would squeeze out that whistle like a bagpipe player, long and loud, and audible for two blocks, which was the effective range of our roaming as small children.

(My mother, on the other hand, would come to the front door of our house, and just holler, “Breeeeeeeyeeeeeent!” The results were the same. We’d stop whatever it was we were doing—storming the Alamo, playing Tarzan in the chinaberry tree, or crafting a fortress from scavenged items in the neighborhood—and head to our respective abodes for supper.)

We started band together at Landrum Junior High. (Ironically, our first Band Director, Jack Miles, passed away just last week at the age of 78.) Kenny chose the Sousaphone; I picked the snare drum. Our paths diverged when my family moved from Forum Drive into a new school zone, but I remember running into Kenny when our high schools would compete in football games. He’d be sweating in his band uniform with that fiberglass Sousaphone wrapped around his torso; I was sweating in mine, with a bass drum hanging from my shoulders.

In college I commuted to the University of Houston, and Kenny went to mortuary school. He married—and divorced—found a second career and retired. I lost track of Kenny in the process of my moving out of state, marriage, making babies, and work. 

Only with the advent of the Interweb and social media were Kenny and I to reconnect within the past few years. He’d generally IM me when I was working an air shift, ask about my parents, and make general comments on photos of my wife and kids. Once a year apiece, we’d salute each other’s birthdays. 


I found out Kenny was working as a credit manager for a liquor store, and I showed up one day, unannounced, to say hello and buy a bottle of gin for my gin raisin recipe. It was not a good day for surprise visits, and he didn’t have long to talk. We exchanged pleasantries, I bought a bottle of gin, and we shook hands and said, ‘see you around.’
Only, we never did, again.


Kenny leaves behind two older sisters and a slew of friends, and a place in the tapestry of my childhood memories.