An Educated Audience

“In my youth, living in the proximity of Brahms, it was customary that a musician, when he heard a composition the first time, observed its construction, was able to follow the elaboration and derivation of its themes and its modulations, and could recognize the number of voices in canons and the presences of the theme in a variation; and there were even laymen who after one hearing could take a melody home in their memory.” (Arnold Schoenberg, New Music, Outmoded Music, Style and Idea)

Kodaly vs. Wee-Sing

[Nurses] are the first people the child will hear, theirs are the words he will try to copy and pronounce. We naturally retain most tenaciously what we learned when our minds were fresh: a flavour lasts a long time when the jar that absorbs it is new, and the dyes that change wool’s pristine whiteness cannot be washed out. Indeed, the worse these impressions are, the most persistent they are. Good is easily changed to worse: can you ever hope to change bad to good? So do not let the child become accustomed, even in infancy, to a type of speech which he will have to unlearn. (Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, 1.1)

Kodaly’s five principles of child education are that

  • everyone has the right to musical literacy,
  • the child’s natural instrument for learning music in the early years is the voice,
  • in order for children to really become literate, they must start very young,
  • the natural sort of music to use is the folk music of the child’s culture, just like the natural language for him to learn is the language of his people,
  • and only music of unquestioned quality ought to be used in educating children.

I’m not going to defend those here, besides my quotation from Quintilian, which I think is quite persuasive. It’s just that Wee-Sing is (to the best of my limited knowledge) some of the better stuff that America has to offer for children’s music, so I’m interested in comparing Wee-Sing to the most successful program in children’s education to date.

As for everyone’s right to musical literacy, it’s more or less irrelevant. Wee-Sing is for any child, so way to go on that score. And, in fact, on three of the four other points, Wee-Sing is really much better than much of its competition in the market: (1) it encourages, more or less, the child to use his voice rather than just to bang on percussive instruments like many other annoying and primitive music programs for children; (2) Wee-Sing is geared toward the youngest constituency so that my 13-month-old nephew can recognize his favorite songs; (3) and, of course, the music is in our own tongue. That last point may seem odd, but Kodaly’s point is more nuanced. It’s a discussion for another time.

The final point—only music of unquestioned quality ought to be used in educating children—is where, obviously, I don’t think Wee-Sing gets it. To the best of my knowledge, Wee-Sing may be the best we have, and it’s far better to get a surmountably mediocre education than to get none at all, which is insurmountable. As I pointed out, Wee-Sing gets a lot of other stuff right. But its music is definitely not of unquestionable quality. There are several levels to this: (1) the actual choice of tunes and songs, (2) the arrangements of those tunes, and (3) the performance. My problems is really with (3). I actually find the arrangements amusing and pedagogical. I think (1) is worrying sometimes: Wee-Sing tends to the accessible song, the “fun” song rather than the song of quality. I sometimes think that the music is more for the sake of the parent than the child, because there’s nothing quite so gratifying as getting a smile on the face of your infant when you clap, clap, clap your hands as fast as you can. That may be a great song pedagogically, but just because the song gets the kid to laugh doesn’t mean it’s helping his education. Talking gibberish and being uncivilized will always make a kid laugh, and sometimes that’s fine, but the kid’s always learning, so if that’s all you’re doing, you’re giving him a nasty education.

Anyway. About (3), the performance. The real problem with Wee-Sing is that the children whom they’ve recorded to sing all their songs purposefully sing (or were purposefully taught to sing) “like children”. Their elocution can be sloppy and childish, the quality of their voices is not exemplary but just average, their intonation is usually good, but occasionally atrocious. Hopefully it goes without saying that the child won’t positively notice this, in that he won’t think, “They’re not really up to snuff.” The far more worrying thing is that the child will learn from what they’re listening to what is up to snuff. That will be their standard for good performance. The quality of your voice when you sing can be lazy, and your speech too, because that’s what it means to be a child and sing. I’m not sure if parents have noticed this, but I’ve always noticed that toddlers are far more embarrassed to sing Wee-Sing than the parents are, and if I remember my own emotions correctly, it’s because I felt as if I was being encouraged to act decidedly differently from the way parents did. Kids who grow up listening to mediocre performances as a standard will grow up to be parents who are comfortable letting their children listen to mediocre performances.

So, the alternative…well, I don’t know if it exists, but it ought to. Kodaly thought that the greatest effort in training a musician ought not to be put into the concert pianist or the conductor or any kind of performer, but into the teacher and particularly the teacher of the small child. A student, when he is mature, is like his master. Kodaly knew that you’re never going to exceed the level of your teacher, and when you have a “those who can’t do teach” attitude about music, it will be the rare student, not the average student, to be musically literate. To account for this minority, you’ll come up with silly ideas, like “musical genius”. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Kids soak up everything, and in this case, we ought to think of Wee-Sing as our children’s nurse. It’s teaching them all sorts of things about the standards of music, and in the performance area, they aren’t good things. A kid will probably not respond as well to Bach as he will to Three Blind Mice, and that’s fine, but he won’t respond better to badly-sung Three Blind Mice. I think it will make him more bashful about music.

All of which, I guess, to say, be cautious of Wee-Sing, if only for the reason that no age is more formative in standards. I enjoin somebody to re-make Wee-Sing with all its best folk tunes and do it with children who sing in an exemplary way.

Kraut und Ruben in Biber’s Battalia

Update: well, well. The melody does not become swiftly unrecognizable, but is actually pretty clear the whole way. I guess the entire idea of the passage is to introduce lots of folk melodies in different keys, which would have been obvious to people who actually sang them. Silly me! How obvious.

Original post: A friend of mine showed me the delightful passage of Biber’s Battalia that imitates the sounds of the drunk singing in “Die liederliche gselschafft von allerley Humor”. I don’t know if this is obvious, but I may have found “Kraut und Ruben” hidden fairly early on there, becoming subsequently (and swiftly) unrecognizable in the mess. Maybe there are all sorts of German folk melodies in there, but I recognized this one because of its appearance in Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

Highlighted in red is pretty distinctly (without the final passing tone between the E and C natural) the following German folk tune (“Cabbage and turnips are driving me away”):

You can find a fantastic visual aid to understanding Bach’s 30th Variation here at

Why You Don’t Like Classical Music

I’ve talked a little already about how it’s odd to think Classical music is unpopular. Or rather, how odd it is to think that’s a bad thing. Classical music was never the music of the populace. The populace couldn’t afford to go to concerts or be at the sort of soirees where the real musical conversations were taking place. For more on this, check out Julian Johnson’s book Who’s Afraid of Classical Music (despite the fact that his point may be different from mine).

But one aspect of this discussion that’s often ignored is how much Classical music relies on live performance. Personality is a huge part of CM, which is why the real CM nerds will talk about conductors, first-chair French horn players, recording labels, and who the composer was married to when he wrote the piece. The significance of those things mystifies everybody else, but they’re vital to a connoisseur. He fundamentally understands that live performance lets you into a conversation of personalities. That’s a huge part of how CM holds your interest. Nobody has the attention span to just abstractly enjoy a Mahler symphony start to finish. We’re all human beings and we need some context in order to not get antsy.

But much of that is lost when you go over to a CD recording. You don’t see the performers and their facial expressions. You can’t see how they interact with the baton. You don’t get the bass drum rattling your rib cage like the drag races. You don’t get the visceral sound of horse hair rubbing against a taut string.

The funny thing is, CM lovers expect to evangelize to the outside world of neanderthals (only kidding) by giving them a recording and expecting them to like it. But anyone’s first infatuation (in my experience) with Classical music comes in seeing it performed or, even better, performing it yourself with others. Connoisseurs love recordings best when they glimpse that human personality behind the recording, but they’ve forgotten that that’s what attracted them in the first place.

We’ve forgotten that, on any recording, real CM doesn’t happen, but only a faint shadow of it. Pop music, really, is the only kind of music that’s been molded toward the goal of recording. CM was shaped by the goal of performing live, and so consequently it will often appear more boring than pop on a recording. The competition (and there shouldn’t be one anyway) is unfair because the venue is biased.

Get Yourself Out of the Way

“The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)” C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism

It’s All About Harmony

So, of course, I think most music since the 18th century has had this fascination with the power of harmony to move the emotions, and I’m interested in recovering the more Medieval technique of the power of melody. More about that another time. This time, though, is about pop music in the broad sense. Ideas have consequences. I think this is just an area where philosophy of music has had its trickle-down effect on The Black Eyed Peas and Alabama.


1. Listen to a whole bunch of pop songs, specifically listening for melodic interest. Try to get the melodies down.

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Messiaen and Lazy Listening

Douglass Seaton in Ideas and Styles in the Western Musical Tradition says, “Messiaen’s interests ranged from the songs of birds, which he transcribed avidly, to mystical Catholicism. Much of his music is characterized by subjectivity and programmatic content or orientation.”

All of which is rather shocking. Messiaen was not a mystic and did not compose subjective music, according to none other than himself. I guess it’s because his comments aren’t widely known. After all, nobody can now seriously get away with saying that Lord of the Rings is allegory. It didn’t stop people at the time of Tolkien from asserting he was writing allegory, which is surprising considering how many times he stated the opposite. But now that’s widely known. How many times of quoting Messiaen will it take to convince people that he wasn’t a mystic and that he didn’t write (and didn’t think he wrote) subjective music?

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