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An homework noded.

The assignment was a very short opinion piece (which is harder than it sounds when you’ve got a lot of opinion and aren’t afraid to use it) in response to chapter three (“A State of Crisis?”) in Nicholas Cook’s Music: A Very Short Introduction.

The class is a cozy and fairly informal little conference, and the essays were meant to be read aloud, so this assumes a lot of context that a proper stand-alone paper would include. Suffice it to say that Cook is concerned by the dwindling supply of proper classical music appreciators, but skeptical of proclamations that classical music itself is dying.


The Rarity of Music and the Ubiquity of Music Listening

What music do you listen to?” I cannot count the number of times I’ve heard this. After “what is your name?” and possibly “just what do you think you’re doing?” this is the question most asked of me by strangers. The assumption is that of course I listen to music—who doesn’t? In fact, I must listen to so much of it that I’ve selected a favorite genre. And I must have so much to choose from that I barely have time to listen to all the music in my preferred genre, let alone all the other music out there.

I used to think that people asking me this question were testing me to see whether our tastes were the same, but increasingly I believe this is not the case. Popular culture is becoming more self-conscious—a meta-phenomenon—and participation in pop is the ultimate pop. We’re all our own tiny niche markets; what we have in common is no longer what music we listen to, but simply that we listen to it. There’s a place here for classical music, just as there is for any type of music you care to name or invent.

As the price of digital storage decreases exponentially, and information access becomes practically a basic right, the fear that any music ever need be “lost” seems absurd. With six billion people on the planet, classical music is in no danger of being forgotten until there are six-billion-and-one genres. What is in danger is not the music itself, but the culture surrounding it.

And here classical music is hardly alone. Classic FM’s “practice of excerpting single movements from classical symphonies outraged highbrow critics” (Cook 46). Today pop music artists and “serious” off-line enthusiasts lament the death of The Album—a complete artistic work, of which the individual songs are only components—at the hands of internet file sharing. Who wants to download an entire album just to hear that one favorite track? Music listeners, like all information consumers, are getting pickier. And it’s working.

Yet, in this fracturing of interests—in the formation of smaller and smaller niche markets—there might be hope for endangered sub-cultures. While membership in a given sub-culture is shrinking, the ease of finding other members—in your city and around the world—is growing. Eventually, we might see the death of the poseur. With so many genres and sub-cultures to choose from, there will be little point in choosing one you don’t truly believe in. Classical music appreciators will be able to keep their sense of elitism, but they’ll have to give up their embitterment and alienation as all other music appreciators become elitists themselves.

References:

  1. Nicholas Cook. Music: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

As you can see, it’s a little over-the-top. It’s possible I harbor a secret dream of writing for Wired Magazine. The “six billion people” line is especially absurd-bordering-on-offensive. Still, I think it’s an exaggerated but not entirely implausible depiction of one direction music culture could take from its present state. I’m looking forward to it.

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