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:
That represents minimalism at its best! But if some readers prefer to
explain their reaction, do not hesitate. We will gladly publish the result.
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
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 http://shopping.yahoo.com/shop?d=c&id=183625
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
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
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
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
For those of us riding a fast-moving asteroid into the unknown, all
may seem exciting, with that classical base increasingly distant and decreasingly
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!