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Testing Your Musical Literacy Part 2

Updated on April 29, 2010

A few years ago I found myself in Scotland. Being in the vicinity of several tourist traps inspired me to while away long hours on the bus (sorry, "coach") rediscovering some of the UK's rich musical heritage. One night I entered a small pub and started talking music with the locals. The inevitable "What are you into?" came up, and I responded with what I had just heard: "Beatles, Tull, stuff like that."
"Man, that's old! Ancient!" sneered my accented host.
Slightly offended, I retorted, "Well, what do you listen to?"
"Sam Cooke, Ben E. King..." The British pop charts were full of 50s and 60s soul, and everything old was new again. So it wasn't just an American radio thing, I mused. Radio dictates people's narrow listening habits worldwide.

The last bastions of radio diversity are National Public Radio and college stations both on air and on the net. Both are committed to broadcasting rarely heard material, NPR concentrating on the old, and college stations concentrating on the new. They're to be applauded for not playing the same old thing. The key, I'll cynically point out, is money. Neither format has its major funding come from advertising dollars. They can truly afford to take the risk.

What about grade school? Isn't there some sort of musical appreciation thing going on in schools? I remember mine. In fourth grade, every other Friday, we'd listen to jazz, classical, rock, and pop, and then discuss it. After that, there was one instance in sixth grade where we all got to bring in our favorite albums and play them for the class, sharing our tastes to broaden everyone's.

That's it. Twice. It's assumed that if you have an interest in music (or any of the arts, really) it will show itself, and you can be taught to develop your inherent musicality or whatever. But for people who choose playing the stereo over playing the saxophone, there is no guidance.

This is not to say that everyone must listen to everything and like it; that's ridiculous. But there needs to be a more open - minded attitude. Listeners should be willing to accept that there is more to music than what they've heard. Borrow from a friend, raid old record shops, turn the dial, check a new source of music online. Try something you don't think you'll like. You could be right. But even for that experience, you'll be a better educated listener.

Still, I know a bunch of people who honestly have Jaco Pastorius next to Pearl Jam and Procol Harum in their collections. You could be such a person. Are you? Find out.


For the following questions, give yourself one point for each artist named. Can you name:

1) Five classical composers whose life stories were not made into a major motion picture?

2) Five jazz artists who are not the bandleaders for late - night television shows?

3) Four rock & roll bands that you did not dismiss as "just noise?"

4) Four alternative artists?

5) Three honest - to - goodness blues artists, other than Robert Johnson?

6) Any three non - British international artists who have not been helped by David Byrne or Paul Simon? (Ixnay on Bob Marley)

7) Besides the Yankovic clan, one polka artist?

A perfect score is 25; be proud of 20 or above. I had trouble coming up with all the answers, and I wrote the questions. Just proves there's always room for expansion. If you get 8 or below, it's time to try something new. Maybe do some research into your favorite artist and find out what sources they draw on. You may not like everything you hear, but being musically literate helps you know why.

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