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Testing Your Musical Literacy

Updated on April 29, 2010

"You like Jethro Tull?" I wheeled around to see a teenager in a Metallica T - shirt glaring at me, he'd obviously checked out my own Tull t - shirt. "Yeah," I replied.

"You suck," came the reply, and the kid wandered off.
Stuff like this has happened to me since 1988, when Jethro Tull's Crest of a Knave album won a controversial Grammy award for Best Hard Rock/Heavy Metal Performance. Since then, bitter fans of Metallica, the expected winner that year, occasionally approach and insult me. The bands themselves played a childish game of "can you top this" in the press for over a year after the incident, encouraging public taunting to new heights. Metallica went on to win the next three years' worth of Heavy Metal Grammies, but occasionally one of the groups will slander their rival, leading to a new round of ridicule.

This stunning example of musical illiteracy is scary and sad. There are many people who listen to only one genre, and rarely acknowledge other forms of music. And this is not an isolated occurrence - in no way do I mean to single out Metallica fans as being particularly close - minded.

If a classical piece was written after 1789, most symphonic supporters won't touch it. Top 40 listeners have little exposure outside of pop, and many listeners whose age tops 40 think that most of today's music is trash. What's worse, some of the artists themselves have poor attitudes and, whether they know it or not, pass those views on to their fans. Musicians may be bringing about the end of music.

There are, thankfully, some exceptions. Ask some metal bands who their influences are, and many will admit Beethoven or Mozart. Speed metal artists like Yngwie Malmsteen tend to prefer Paganini. Eddie Van Halen, rock guitar god, is trained as a classical pianist. Leonard Bernstein and Bing Crosby both sang the praises of the Beatles. They all realized that being open - minded and listening to other music is vitally important to the survival of their art. Every single artist has an influence, and many are eager to share them. The problem is, many readers and fans don't take the time to discover what moves their favorite artist to create. It's a question of musical evolution, and there's a lot to be learned from history.

So how did it happen? Why don't people listen to everything that's out there? Part of the blame goes to radio. Top 40, Album - Oriented, Middle of the Road, Alternative, Country - each radio station has a set format, never straying from one type of music for fear of losing advertising dollars. Most contemporary radio is geared toward the younger generation, and as a result, some kids grow up never knowing about Verdi, Gershwin, or even Lennon & McCartney.

Yet ask the average young person "What are you into?" and they'll reply, "Everything." Ask to see their collection of CDs and tapes, though, and it's often a different story. There's no jazz, classical, or big band.

Rather, ask those people "What do you buy?" and you will probably get the truth. Justin Beiber, Rhianna, 50 Cent, Adam Lambert... Sometimes even that can be boiled down to one or two of the artist's singles.

Music has, sadly, become a passive medium. The radio is taken for granted, always there; as a result, people are less critical consumers. People hear music, but rarely listen. Songs succeed regardless of musical merit; what gets played on the radio the most is what sells. Anything that's not rock, pop, or rap is delegated to smaller stations on the dial, and can't compete in the larger market. Radio as a medium is dying, being tossed on the historical scrap heap by the universal availability of digital music.

Continued In Testing Your Musical Literacy Part 2


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    • sweetie1 profile image


      8 years ago from India

      Hi Hal, Music is what a person like, and if he doesnt like any genre than it is his or her choice. Like me I dont like hard rock or anything which has to be listened on high volume. So my taste are totally different but it doesnt make me music illetrate, simply because i chose to ignore music which someone else like. In India, we give more emphasis on words of songs rather than all the drums you can beat with it.. But yes people should listen to all music and then decide which they want to listen.. No music is bad just individual choice.


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