Sauk Valley Community College

Humanities 210

Reading Seven



Music Before the Advent of the Recording Industry

For most of us, almost all of the music we have experienced comes from an electronic source. Television, movie soundtracks, the radio, background music in stores and waiting rooms, or CD's and tapes are the source of a full 90+% of the music we listen to.  And the fact that attendance at live concerts of all kinds of music is falling is only going to increase that figure. But also stop and think about what opportunities there are to hear live music. There are concerts, both commercial and educational, and there is the music made to accompany a religious ceremony or service. And there is the music provided at half time of football games and the like. But increasingly, the opportunity to hear local musicians perform live in bars, restaurants, wedding and anniversary receptions (even proms), or other local venues is rapidly dwindling as recorded music and DJ's become more and more popular.

In fact, I have talked with students who admit to not being very interested in live music. The reasons they give range from--they have to travel too far, the tickets cost too much, the recorded music is of a better quality and doesn't have mistakes, and/or they like being comfortable when listening to music, which they aren't at concerts. Even going to the local restaurant or bar on a Friday or Saturday night to hear a local band is "a hassle" for some people. But perhaps the most telling comment was-- "I hate it when I go to hear a band in a bar and a  musician makes a mistake--I get embarrassed for them."

This is a common  reaction nowadays to live music, that is, the expectations that performers will sound just like the record, which includes not making mistakes. When they don't sound just like the recording, they are judged inferior and considered bad musicians. Among other things, this attitude puts a tremendous burden on local and regional bands to have enough equipment to be able to copy the sounds from the records. It is not at all unusual for a local band to have $10,000 worth of equipment before they even start gigging because they know that if they don't "cover" the records pretty darn closely, they won't get hired in the first place.

This also puts a burden on established bands when they tour in support of their latest album. Often the sounds on an album are the result of multi-tracking which means that there are more parts on the record than there are members of the band to play them. This results in the band either bringing along extra musicians to cover the parts and increasing their overhead or--and this is becoming more common all the time--playing along with a pre-recorded track that has the extra parts.

But, for most musicians, the biggest problem with the audience's demand for "accuracy" is that they are no longer free to improvise or throw in something new during a concert. And for local bands, this also means that they can't get away with playing too many originals. Today's audiences want to hear music they already know. Or they want to be introduced to new tunes only when they are embedded in a stream of tunes they already know, which is why the radio is the perfect medium for this gradual introduction of new material.

If this is beginning to sound like a rant against today's listeners, it really isn't. But if we ignore the fact that music, as a cultural practice, serves a different function than it used to (and is therefore listened to differently) then we also close off the possibility of each one of us regaining some small sense of other ways of using and listening to music. However, in order to begin to regain that sense, we need to understand what the history of the cultural practice called music is and how we came to rely so heavily on recorded music.

Music and Community

Think about this for a moment. When we think of language, that is, talking, we assume that there are an equal number of senders and receivers. That is, for every person that talks, or tells a story, there is a person who is listening and vice versa. There are not just a few talkers and a whole bunch of listeners. Everyone talks. True, some people speak better than others--some people get nervous, some people stutter, some people have bad grammar, etc., etc. But no one decides NOT to speak just because other people have better sounding voices or larger vocabularies or more experience speaking in public. And when it comes to telling stories (which we all do whenever we relate an experience and say "And then he said..... and then I threw the bum out!"), we all can do so with ease. We really can entertain each other and ourselves with little short stories about work, family, shopping, hobbies, or any other normal daily activity (or even some out-of-the-normal experiences.)

Now, turn that scene around and imagine that music was the same way. Everyone can make music in some way or another--singing or playing an instrument. And although we know that some people have better voices or know more notes or have better instruments, we still all do it because we know that no one is judging us. We sit around and entertain ourselves by playing or singing for each other or as a group. We tell each other musical stories.

Well, the truth of the matter is that until about two hundred years ago, that is exactly what we did. And in many of the Eastern European, African, Asian, and South and Central American countries, that is what people still do.

In Musica Practica , Michael Chanan tells us--

Music is a form of social communication; musical performance is a site of social intercourse, and a form of social dialogue..... In surviving oral cultures  the relation between musical senders and musical receivers is much more fluid and symbiotic than in modern Western society. The anthropological evidence is unequivocal. There are no composers in such societies set apart from other musicians in a separate caste, and music is far from an exclusive activity of specialized performers (23).

In other words, no one group of people were singled out as "entertainers" or as the only ones who could make up new music. Everyone did it. Again, Chanan--

...[the] community encourages and sustains a degree of musical ability in virtually all its members through the widespread use of informal music. Moreover, music enters into the widest range of activities (24).

This is quite different from our own experiences of music. In our culture, very few people compose and perform. Most folk "consume" music, that is, they passively take in the music which others make--and do so for a price. Rarely do they make their own--even if they can play or sing. Many of us "do" music when we are children--band, orchestra, choir, piano lessons--but we give it up as they grow older, mostly because we have no cultural mechanism in place that encourages us to continue. And many more of us never "did" music at all.

 But even for us, as members of the Western society, the practice of only consuming music was not always the case. As Chanan explains-

The communal function of music did not disappear with the demise of tribal society; on the contrary, until now, every type of human society has succored them. But as the millennium draws to a close, the conditions of musical life are radically different. Music is with us all the time, but it is made by relatively few, and most of it is not heard as live performance at all. Professional musicians are socially distinct; full-time performing musicians rarely play with rank amateurs (24).

Chanan is trying to get us to think about two different things here. First, he wants us to understand that how we relate to music has changed, especially during this century. Music has become a product which a few people make and many people consume. And as it became a product, it became less and less a "behavior," that is, something people do . But, second, he is pointing out that the original use of music, for the creation of community and for communicating within the community, is dying out. 

Music as Behavior

Let us now turn to Roland Barthes to help us understand music as a "behavior," as something you do . Barthes reminds us that during the Middle Ages, the making of music was referred to as musica practica. This term was used to distinguish the making of music from the use of music theory to study mathematics. By the 1800s, musica practica was no longer understood as the opposite of "theory," but, instead, came to be the term set opposite the act of listening to music. Chanan explains what Barthes discovered--

There are two types of music, he says: the music that is listened to and the music that is played, two different types of relationships between music and the listener. People who play and sing--a certain instrument, a certain kind of music--listen differently from those who don't, even if they are indifferent or bad performers. They have a knowledge of musica practica (27) . Barthes point is that if you play an instrument or if you sing, you will be able to hear the parts of the music differently, more fully, because you can physically relate to them.    Anyone can confirm this faculty for themselves who, even if they don't now play an instrument [but once did] and remembers something of that learning: they will know that when you try and play something, or even sing a song from childhood, the memory seems to be traced by the fingers themselves (or the vocal chords), which know what to do without being consciously directed. Barthes speaks of  "a muscular music in which the part taken by the sense of hearing is only one of [confirmation], as though the body were hearing it (27).

Supporting Barthes explanation of musica practica is research done over the past few years which shows that  when just listening to music, a person with even a small amount of musical training makes small muscle movements in response to the music. For example, guitar players will almost imperceptibly move their fingers as they listen to a piece, even if there are no guitars in the music. And singers' vocal chords will lengthen and shorten in response to listening to music. But perhaps most telling is the studies of electro-encephalogram (a read-out of brain-waves)  done on people with no musical training of any kind (as they listen to music) show small, localized brain activity which is mostly confined to the left hemisphere. But when hooked up to an EEG, the brains of people with even a small amount of musical background light up in larger areas and in both hemispheres. Which leads us to--

Music and Intelligence

Most everyone has heard about the so-called Mozart Effect by now. Studies show that listening to a particular Mozart symphony for ten minutes before taking a test improves test scores by a fair amount. There is also some indication that studying to Mozart will help a person retain the information they are trying to master. Why Mozart should have this effect is not clear, but further studies are being done to see if other composers have the same effect. But what is clear is that listening to other styles of music--rap, rock, country, etc., has either no effect or a negative effect. Hmmm. Now what is that all about?

Well, whether you try listening to Mozart while you work on this course or not, another set of studies has yielded what are even more important and impressive results. Quite simply, people who have some kind of background in music are smarter than people who don't. Whoah, you say, that sounds pretty smug. And it is. The more correct way of putting it is that studying music helps people to develop the thinking skills which they already have, but to a higher level. The following websites summarize the findings. Please visit one of the first two before you continue.

Welcome to the American Music Conference!
Once there, click on Research. Here you will find the reports on the various studies done. Also try the Wellness link (under Adults)--find out how to improve your health by playing an instrument.

The Mr.Holland's Opus Foundation  Be sure to click on "Quotes and Facts."

MuSICA: Music & Science Information Computer Archive


Does all this mean that music has some magical properties? No, of course not (or does it?). But it does mean that when we ignore one of our natural attributes and inclinations, that is, the ability to make and the need to communicate through music, then, as a culture, we pay a price.

Where Did the Music Go?

So why don't we all make our own music anymore? part of the answer lies in the fact that funding for music programs in the grade schools and high schools has been steadily cut for the last forty years until many schools don't even have music programs. And if they do have programs, they are often times taught by a non-musician teacher who is simply filling up time because the school district requires it.

But the main reason we do not make music anymore stems from the fact that people who make music can entertain themselves. That is, they spend less time (and MONEY) listening to pre-recorded music. And when they do listen to music, often it is to live music. Therefore, the recording industry prefers non-music makers. People who do not make their own music make better customers. And since the recording industry dates back to the early 1900's, they have had almost 90 years to convince us, the public, that just listening to music is preferable to making it. After all, if the recording industry exists, then that must mean that-


Wrong. But almost everyone alive today has grown up with the constant presence of music. We are surrounded by music on the radio, on TV, in stores, in movies, on home stereos-- and on and on And because prerecorded music is everywhere in our culture it is natural to believe that the right and proper way to experience music is as a listener. And-- as a consumer. It has also become natural to think that the right and proper music to listen to is "store bought." That is, having musical experiences through listening to recordings is better, more normal, more real, than live musical experiences, and definitely more correct (read "hip") than making our own music.

Almost 50% of the American public has never engaged in making music. Now that you know what you know, that's a pretty scary statistic, isn't it?

Exceptions to the Rule

While almost 50% of Americans don't engage in making music, slightly over 50% have made music at some point in their lives (and you may be one of them). So now the question becomes--why don't they continue to do so? And, perhaps more importantly, why don't we still gather together to entertain ourselves? Why do we gather together to watch the Oscars or the Superbowl on TV, but not to make music?

Well, some people still do. A certain portion of these folk make music as part of their identity as Dead-heads, or as classical music aficionados, or as fans of gospel music. In other words, live, in-home, in-park, in-school, in-church performances still go on. There are still opportunities to perform live music. But what we must all learn to do is to value these kinds of experiences over the passive, prerecorded kind. For some reason, we don't tend to value music unless we can reproduce it over and over, unless it can be "owned" and accessed at any time we want. The actual process of making music has been devalued.

Perhaps we need to learn from the Navajo and their sand paintings. Using colored sand, they make very intricate and beautiful "artworks-" and then let them blow away in the wind. Why? Because it is the process they value, the community they create as several work on a painting at once. And they value the state of mind which they reach through paying attention to detail, patiently forming the images, and choosing the colors and patterns.

Below are some music sites which will help you to explore the world of music. Some of the sites have sound files for you to listen to, some have activities, one even has instructions for making several home-made instruments. There are also some more traditional music appreciation sites as well as links to information on music styles, composers, and performers. - Welcome This is great site--many RealPlayer videos of performers/composers--playing, talking, rehearsing.

Music Educators National Conference

Earth Songs

Native American Radio

Earth Drum Council

American Music Center

NewMusNet Home Page Hear interviews with composers

hildwebq A site on St. Hildegarde,  one of the first recognized women composers

cjssites.html A great list of links to all kinds of musical topics.

Altramar medieval music ensemble

Gregorian Chant Home Page

The English Server

Leonardo Music Journal



Please use Google for your research. (Be sure to click WWW for searches beyond this site.)