What Is Your Musical Background?

There’s an interesting discussion going on in a place I can’t link to, spinning off a comment to the NEA post from the other day:

The point is that the amount of people who see value in or are trained to appreciate more esoteric, more difficult, less accessible music **may** have dropped.

The basic idea is that the decline in the audience for “high art” forms of music may be attributed to cutbacks in musical education in schools. People just aren’t educated enough to know that they ought to like classical music, or some such.

This led to a discussion of people’s experience with music education in school, which has produced plural anecdotes over there. I thought it would be interesting to repeat the experiment here, so there’s a quick poll behind the cut:

(It’s inelegant, but with all the recent server issues, I don’t want to rely on people being able to leave comments.)

My own musical education was not much more than the standard for my school in the 80’s: we had music class something like three days a week up through seventh or eight grade, which mostly consisted of singing songs, learning the basics of reading music, and occasionally playing simple instruments. The junior-high level class included a bit of music history– we did units on a couple of classical composers, and three pop-music units, one on the Beatles, one on Billy Joel, and one about Rush (go figure). I remember writing a term paper about Tchiakovsky, though all I really remember of it is some of the lurid details (he had a giant crush on his nephew, which led to all sorts of problems).

I’m pretty sure we talked about the different eras of classical music, but I don’t remember them. I’m terrible with era names that way– we spent a good deal of time on English history in high school, but I have only a hazy idea of the War of the Roses, the English Civil War, the Glorious Revolution, and the relationship between them. I could probably put them in order, but I wouldn’t want to stake anything important on it.

I was also in the band from about fifth grade all the way through high school (I played trumpet), which means I know how to read music, and have a vague idea about keys and the like, but that’s about it. I never took music theory (though it was offered), so I don’t know the formal difference between major and minor chords, or any of that.

I’m highly skeptical of the notion that lack of formal education is the reason for the decline in the audience for classical music. Instead, I think it’s related to the fact that music of that style hasn’t really been popular in thirty to forty years. Even movie soundtracks these days are less about orchestral arrangements (the occasional John Williams score or The Lord of the Rings aside), and more about selections of vaguely relevant pop songs. It’s a niche musical form these days, and we’re a whole generation away from the time when knowledge of classical music mattered.