Music and Vision homepage


Editorial Musings with Basil Ramsey



The Editor finds himself perturbed


A well-known performer said to me recently, 'The musical world has dumbed down so much it hardly exists'. This is a straight and unflinching comment from a professional. It needs thought as does any comment that has the effect of a blunt instrument used forcefully. Are we generally facing such a crisis that music as we know it is in serious jeopardy? I find such a notion at worst devastating and at best a jolt that requires thought and discussion.

I am aware that this contentious remark can split opinion almost down the middle, which urges me to invite reaction from readers whether they agree with the assertion or not. My own gut reaction is to disagree and to urge others to do likewise, but that implies a possible reason for persuasion, which is both wrong and inappropriate.

As our occasional invitations to readers to comment on musical matters are never taken up by a majority, please all try this time with a message stripped to essentials:

The musical world has dumbed down so much it hardly exists.

TRUE         or         FALSE

That represents minimalism at its best! But if some readers prefer to explain their reaction, do not hesitate. We will gladly publish the result.



Copyright © 31 January 2002 Basil Ramsey, Eastwood, Essex, UK


Readers' comments:

From: Walter Harp

As a teacher of history at Berklee College of Music for the past 25 years, I can attest to the fact that my students are every bit as 'smart' now as they were at the beginning of my career. Their musics have changed -- plural intended -- but the best work remains, for me, intellectually challenging and emotionally (spiritually) satisfying.

From: Glenn Harder

I think we have dumbed down since the time of Bach and Beethoven when composers were also performers who were very close to their audiences. I don't think we have dumbed down in the last 100 years. A performer that says his audience has dumbed down does not know how to reach his audience anymore and perhaps should consider taking a rest or retiring.

From: Bryant Russell

... true to form, you've alotted a small text box for any sentiments from your readers. Is it conceivable that a musical thought might extend beyond a few sentences???

Yes, of course, the musical world has dumbed down. We have begun to expect all intellectual discourse to fit on a 3 by 5 card, or else!

From: Keith Bramich, technical editor

Sorry, Bryant, but the small text box will scroll to accept a long essay if you wish! Gordon Rumson's contribution below was sent via this box.

From: Gordon Rumson

I am not convinced that the musical public has become dumber over time, in part because I believe that the musical public has not often attained a high general level of proficiency. Busoni cruelly said 'We must take music out the hands of the amateurs' and much of the music by the 19th century 'greats' must be measured against the standard of popular salon music.

Yet, while the highly informed members of the audience have always been a small percentage, this in no way diminishes the rights of others to their understanding and enjoyment of classical music as they might know it. I disagree completely with Busoni on this.

On the other hand a much greater difficulty is that modern listeners are accustomed to hearing the sound of music via recordings and audio speakers. Sadly, these give a very distorted view of what music actually sounds like. The authentic music movement omits to mention that music ought to be heard in the acoustic for which it was designed. Thus, I have often felt that listening to organ music on recordings is like eating steak tartare through a straw. It can be done, but I think you will agree something is amiss.

In my view the biggest feature lost when music is transferred to CD (LP, cassette, mp3, name your recording device flavour) is the magic. For music is a kind of magic and yet I feel that that part of it cannot be recorded. To use another analogy, I believe that recordings are to real music (live music, if you prefer) what an engraving is to a painting it copies. There are similarities of course, but the colour is missing.

I have noticed, for example, that people now seem to have difficulty hearing a voice that is not electronically amplified, even if the total volume is not that much greater than that of a normal speaking voice. It seems the artifacts of the amplification, the halo of sound around the voice added by the electronics and the spatial localization of the speakers are more and more required for comprehension.

Western Classical music (I am thinking of music from 1650 to 1900) was 'invented' at a time before recordings and for living spaces (small concert halls, living rooms etc). I believe it lives best in such places and can only truly be understood and fully appreciated there.

The issue then is not one of intelligence, but of altered sensory preferences; preferences which make the original form less successful and less appealing and hence the audience smaller and smaller.

From: Mary Jane Leach

I think the people controlling the musical world have dumbed it down, not trusting that it will exist otherwise -- which I disagree with.

From: Walter Ekelin

Sir! In no way can You talk of dumbing down as long as record companies produce jewels as

From: Donald Clarke

Most people who listen to music are consumers, like any other group, and easily led. It is not the public but the music industry, the music establishment, like most other establishments, that is dumbing down nowadays, peddling trash and insisting on the use of amplification, often of poor quality, where it isn't even needed in the first place. Blaming technology won't do; there are plenty of second-rate recordings, but the best ones are priceless.

Come to a place where there is plenty of live music, like Austin, Texas, and you will see these problems being dealt with every day in a variety of ways. The larger problem is always the same: in most places, like the midwestern town where I grew up, there is very little live music at all, and never was.

From: Peter Medard

It takes more than attending Music 101 at any school in order to be a composer. Those who pretend at the title think the quickest way to fame is by attracting attention doing something not already in the books. The public today, unable to think, because TV has flattened their brains, accept the easiest way to enjoyment.

From: Robert Davidson

On the contrary, music is now more sophisticated than ever. Which is the real problem -- there is a lack of common discourse, so that any place where people try to define what's going on in music will tend to be oversimplified and, yes, dumbed down (particularly in the mass media).

From: Gerard Winstanley

YOU have dumbed down the debate by only allowing comments in a box that's so tiny it hardly exists.

From: Steve Schwartz

It seems to me that those satisfied with the present musical scene will vote false and those dissatisfied will vote true. However, if there's a roughly even split, I suspect the statement is true, since that great a percentage seems to eliminate the explanation that it's only cranks who are dissatisfied. Nice to cling to the hope that I'm no crank.

From: U Day

The reason music appears to have dumbed down is that it now serves as background buzz. Music one has to drop everything and pay attention to is not dumbed down but then the majority don't listen to it.

From: Shirley Ratcliffe

I absolutely agree with Gordon Rumson and to follow on from the point he was making, the slow demise of the record industry -- a self-inflicted wound -- can only be for the good and live music will come back into its own.

From: Donald Ellman

One of the dilemmas of modern day culture is centred on the question of how to move on and yet retain creative and expressive potency. One of the outcomes of those who are resistant to facing this dilemma is a doubt and mistrust of attempts to change and to accuse those trying to move on with the tag of 'dumbing down'. There is so much creative activity in the world today and a proficiency in musical performance that has never been surpassed. The range of choice is huge and bewildering, to an almost unhealthy extent. I cannot associate any of what I experience and hear as 'dumbing down'.

From: Norm Strong

Thanks to the wealth of classical music available on CD, I have had my horizons broadened significantly over what they would have been in the days of the LP.

I never heard of Medtner until I ran across one of his piano concertos not too long ago. Would this have happened in the days when it was a genuine technical problem to introduce an LP to the market? I think not.

From: Walter Koehler

It seems that music is being dumbed down because we are living in the middle of it. But if we were living in Vienna in 1790, we might also think that music was going downhill, because we would see not only Mozart and Haydn but also the many mediocre composers living at the same time. Today, we see shrinking classical music sales and audiences, but that is measuring our classical world by the standards of the mass media entertainment industry.

From: Geoffrey Reed

While the lowest common denominator in the World at large often seems to be lowering, interest in music has increased among the general populace and a serious interest in serious music has also increased somewhat. I would agree that the culture of concertgoing seems to be in a downward spiral, with an influx of nouveaux-impoverished-Pachelbel Canon-Vivaldi FourSeasons-crashtest dummies occuppying many concert seats, but this is more a symptom of other changes in the culture, also the lack of monetary support for the arts, in the USA. There are a lot of people who really have a serious and sophisticated interest in music who never have the chance or the money or the time to go to concerts any more.

From: Keith Bramich

As our musical galaxy of styles expands relentlessly in each and every direction, with shooting stars heading further and further from what might be seen as a classical base, we should expect some thinning out of the starfield.

For those of us riding a fast-moving asteroid into the unknown, all may seem exciting, with that classical base increasingly distant and decreasingly important.

Remaining at home, things could seem much the same as ever. We might be aware of departures in new directions and endless expansion of horizons, or we might just experience a slight thinning of the air around us.

Whatever we perceive, it's always relative to our surroundings and modified by our experience and our knowledge.

Asking a question with a yes or no answer doesn't expand our universe. Unless we're on our guard, it tricks us into thinking along the yes and no rails, and discourages us from asking further questions, including the all important why?

It's not the size of the response box that's dumbing down the debate, but the constraints of the question!

From: James W Dickenson

I have to agree with the statement, but with the important proviso that it could also apply to the world outside the music profession. Are we not right up in a world 'dumbing-down' era where moral values have been put to the test to breaking point? Music of course has often been a breeding ground for immorality and debauchery (think of the early days of jazz, for example, or Germany in Kurt Weill's time) but in many ways music mirrors life (rather than the opposite) and your comment I feel does just that. But nobody can destroy great music!



 << Music & Vision home             Nourishment >>