Allan Bloom on Music

By coincidence, I happen to be reading Allan Bloom’s 1987 book criticising the state of education (though primarily higher education) while this musical literacy controversy has unfolded. In The Closing of the American Mind, Bloom argues against a creeping moral relativism and an education system that tries to make students not into ‘scholars but to provide them with a moral virtue — openness’. Paradoxically, it is this same ‘openness’ that has closed minds — ‘openness results in American conformism’, Bloom writes. One thinks of the classic G.K. Chesterton line, that ‘the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.’ If you never close your mind on something, you’ll be intolerant of or indifferent to anyone who argues with you — in other words anyone who has themselves sensibly closed their minds. A rejection of certainties and absolutes and truth will limit the extent to which you can meaningfully engage with and interrogate the world. And this idea is of course very popular now on the right and the ‘anti-left’, if you will. (Though I would say the only prominent contemporary public academic who is equally as articulate as Bloom on the matter is Jordan Peterson. Mostly the discourse is pretty lousy, which he kind of predicted; I’m not sure Bloom would have been impressed by the rise of ‘alternative media’, for instance.)

Somewhat unexpectedly, there’s an entire chapter on the state of music education. In it, he argues that rock music in particular ‘ruins the imagination of young people and makes it very difficult for them to have a passionate relationship to the art and thought that are the substance of liberal education.’ Bloom follows a long lineage of thinkers who have been suspicious of many aspects of music. With the exception of Lenin, who was only suspicious of music because it encouraged beauty and niceness, most of them were religious: certain early protestants, Islamists, Augustine in his Confessions detailing the seduction of chant, and both Orthodox and Roman Catholic suspicion of musical instruments instead of voice. Bloom goes even further back to Plato who similarly saw music as ‘the barbarous expression of the soul’. ‘Music,’ Bloom writes, ‘is the medium of the human soul in its most ecstatic condition of wonder and terror’. (That sounds positively Burkean.)

He argues that classical music attempts to tame the soul’s raw passions by forming them into art. It is a civilising process, the application of reason and education to a wild passion. Bloom isn’t arguing that music is any way neutered by this process. Instead, music education should give people the means to extend and manipulate this joy in pursuit of a greater version of themselves. ‘Education is not sermonizing to children against their instincts and pleasures, but providing a natural continuity between what they feel and what they can and should be.’ But what are we to make of works that very skillfully exacerbate the intrinsic barbarism of music? Bloom seem to be suspicious of young people’s fondness for Ravel’s Bolero, for it has ‘the beat of sexual intercourse’. Where did he stand on a deliberately savage work like Rite of Spring? Do works like these discourage ‘cooperation of the sentiments’? Don’t these provide ‘premature ecstasy’? I am somewhat weary of exercising what seems to be a moral judgement on music itself. There are more reliable ways to argue that modern pop music is largely bad music and bad culture. Sure, music definitely needs to be formed into something good and meaningful, but why must the starting point be barbarism and not, say, innocence?

Bloom argues that the lack of talent or virtue in the music makes it it an easy and dangerous drug: ‘it artificially induces the exaltation naturally attached to the completion of the greatest endeavours’.  Those who take drugs and have gotten over it, ‘find it difficult to have enthusiasms or great expectations’. This extends to those addicted to rock music, whose untamed ecstasy can lead the young to find normalcy — reality — grim and harsh, once they get over rock music. Okay, but considering most people have not gotten over rock music, and that their passion for it has not really subsided, this prognosis hasn’t survived the test of time. What he is right to point out is that ‘as long as they have the Walkman on, they cannot hear what the great tradition has to say. And, after its pro-longed use, when they take it off, they find they are deaf’. In that way, it is a numbing drug. And that deafness is very real, and can be difficult to crawl out of, as I can personally attest. The best analogy is sexual, as music is arguably the most sensuous of the arts. Fetish and pornography will dull one to the beauty of sex. You have this exciting, visceral, barbarous music. But without being civilised, it only starves and steals from the soul. Bloom convincingly portrays the resulting musical culture as dystopian:

Picture a thirteen-year-old boy sitting in the living room of his family home doing his math assignment while wearing his Walkman headphones or watching MTV. He enjoys the liberties hard won over centuries by the alliance of philosophic genius and political heroism, consecrated by the blood of martyrs; he is provided with comfort and leisure by the most productive economy ever known to mankind; science has penetrated the secrets of nature in order to provide him with the marvellous, lifelike electronic sound and image reproduction he is enjoying. And in what does progress culminate? A pubescent child whose body throbs with orgasmic rhythms; whose feelings are made articulate in hymns to the joys of onanism or the killing of parents; whose ambition is to win fame and wealth in imitating the drag-queen who makes the music. In short, life is made into a nonstop, commercially prepackaged masturbational fantasy.

Ouch. Take out ‘Walkman’ and ‘MTV’ and replace them with ‘smartphone’ and ‘YouTube’, and that paragraph sounds truer today than it did in 1987.

And on that bleak note, how about some Elizabethan melancholy? John Dowland’s brilliant chromatic fantasia, Forlorn Hope Fancy:

Is Romanticising Musical Illiteracy Anything New?

There’s been a great and reassuring backlash to Charlotte E. Gill’s piffle suggesting, essentially, that to help students learn music we much teach them less, and to a lower standard. The dissenting letter warns that ‘Gill’s position could serve to make literate musical education even more exclusive through being marginalised yet further in state schools.’ I get the impression, however, that this revolution Gill advocates has been underway for some time.

In the UK, children have weekly music lessons for the first three ‘key stages’ (years 5-14). Somewhat understandably, it isn’t a compulsory subject in key stage 4 (14-16) — though quite useless subjects like computing and citizenship are. But neither is music, as often taught in schools, a particularly useful subject. The lessons I had (this is little over half a decade ago) were a great example of the aimless and undisciplined cacophony that comes with profound musical illiteracy. It was rare that students would even get to the stage of bashing out a few notes on a xylophone or flimsy keyboard. Idle chit chat would be interspersed with what resembled a kind of very childish playtime: fiddling with all the amusing sounds on the keyboard, ones that sounded vaguely pornographic or others that were just absurd, such as one key which when pressed would produce an exclamation of ‘dictionary!’. It is a struggle to come up with something we learnt in three years of music lessons (from 11-14).  Being generous, there were a couple of decent lessons on ragas (so much for Gill’s assertion about the hegemony of classical music).

So my experience runs counter to Gill’s impression that ‘for a creative subject, music has always been taught in a far too academic way, meaning that theoretical knowledge is the main route to advancement.’ And in my school at least, I and many other progressed just fine with very limited theoretical knowledge, a fact that I don’t celebrate. GCSE curriculum is very accommodating for non-classical music, and except for the Bach chorales, you could get away with very minimal music theory. A Level music can be a lot tougher. You have to have a solid understanding of Western Classical Music and be able to identify styles and periods and instruments by ear, as well as being able to notate musical extracts by ear, and in many cases you have to study — gasp! — entire orchestral works. Now, I just think, So what? But I do remember back when I was sixteen and without any knowledge of classical music that this was indeed a very daunting task. It was, and no doubt still is, quite a jump to that even basic analytical standard. If the idea of musical literacy were better introduced into the key stage 3 lessons in many schools, the numbers doing music later on would grow from their pitiful levels now, and indeed the diversity of music students, as Gill is concerned about, would increase.

However, even at A Level, there are ways to bypass musical literacy. You can study popular music, modern musical theatre or jazz in place of the Western tradition. And again, this betrays the Gill’s ignorance in thinking music education isn’t diverse enough — indeed, it may well be too diverse. I’m not sure, either, that those who actually study classical music at A Level show any great level of understanding — or at least, they are not taught or encouraged to think about music except in lifeless analytical or dubious programmatic terms. Here’s what I mean, in an apparently ‘exemplar’ A Level music essay on ‘How did Baroque composers convey the meaning of the text in their music?’:

Composers often used tonality and harmony to convey the meaning of the text. For
example, in choruses such as Handel’s Hallelujah and Glory to God, both of which are in the oratorio the Messiah, the tonality is D major and although this immediately evokes an emotion of joy because it is major, since they were in D major, the baroque trumpets were able to play and be prominent which is vital for movements with such celebratory libretto such as ‘Lord God omnipotent’ and ‘good will to men’. In fact, the entire of Monteverdi’s Versiculus Responsorium, the first movement of his Vespers is played and sung on a D major chord following the opening chant.

I remember this style of essay well: the regurgitation of ‘analysis’ which was spoon-fed to us and unsurprisingly meant we all wrote pretty much the same thing, unthinkingly. (This is, however, hardly unique to the one subject.) And how one can confidently talk of antiphonal writing or counterpoint, say, in an essay while having little idea what they mean — as well as being encouraged to be unnecessarily detailed in your writing, always including dates of birth and death, and full titles of works even when briefer ones would do, though I’ll admit that may just be personal preference.

Anyway, I’ve not experienced this great tyranny of music theory in schools that Gill describes. But one man’s meat is another man’s poison, and I rather wish Gill’s description of an ‘elitist’ music education were closer to the reality. Surely the best schools are the ones with orchestras and high levels of music theory and an ambitious and disciplined approach to music education?

I also wrote an immediate response to the article a few days ago, but it wasn’t especially interesting, which is why I felt compelled to write another.

Whither Music Education in Britain?

Music education is now only for the white and the wealthy, or so Charlotte C. Gill recently wrote in the Guardian. The gist of the article is that music education too inaccessible for most students, and that instead there should be a less formal curriculum that is enjoyable for more students and thus able to breed greater diversity.

Starting off, the author notes research that shows the ‘huge benefits that music brings to children’s happiness and learning’. It’s a good and important point that needn’t have been backed up with scientism. Everyone knows music has many useful functions. But moreover, many people also know that music is wonderful in and of itself. Advocacy for music education should not have to rely on its usefulness in combating mental health.

Music GCSEs did indeed get harder some years ago, which was about the time I took them. They didn’t get harder for snobbish reasons, though. The problem was that GCSE music students would get to A Level and be completely unable to comprehend an orchestral score, let alone analyse it. That gap had to be bridged. As I understand it, the point was to make it so that more students were intellectually able to do music A Level and do it well. And even then, there were people who got through the new GCSE with almost no grasp of music theory. 

Many of us we’re helped along by private lessons and a bit of self-study. She rightly points out such a reliance on private tuition is a problem. This could, however, be alleviated if these tougher academic materials were incorporated into the syllabus. Why not get all students to grade 8 theory standard by the end of the GCSE? It’s far easier than the complex algebra I remember struggling through. And it’s far more interesting.

‘For a creative subject, music has always been taught in a far too academic way’, she asserts. Who said it was a ‘creative subject’? It’s probably more a discipline than a creative subject. And besides, you’re not going to have much of a creative capacity unless you study harmony, for example. Music is communicative, and to have no understanding of the language is to make yourself dumb and your audience wish they were deaf. Ah, but ‘many pop, rap and grime artists have never studied music formally’!

Music notation, we are told, is a ‘cryptic, tricky language – rather like Latin – that can only be read by a small number of people’. Her solution — almost Blairite in its genius — is to make that number even smaller. Relating her personal experience, she says that despite learning Mozart and West Side Story and being able to sing in Latin, German and Italian to grade 8 standard, she still cannot sight read. Somehow, she extracts from this that being able to read music isn’t indicative of talent. I would point out that passing your grade 8 exam does not mean you are or should be a good sight reader. I did grade 8 theory and still couldn’t sight read. I didn’t then deduce from this that I would never be able to sight read. I continue to practise in a disciplined way, and lo and behold, my ability to read music is improving.

The worst is yet to come: ‘sure, we may not be able to tell the difference between the bass and treble clef,’ she concedes,’ but we can play our favourite songs. That is all I ever wanted from music.’ Uh huh. When I was younger all I ever wanted was to play fast, loud guitar solos. But even with my very inadequate music education, quite often autodidactic, new possibilities became apparent to me. (Thank goodness there was no one who took my teenage self too seriously when I thought music theory and classical music was irrelevant.) Now I listen to and study classical music for pleasure, and get a real kick out of learning 16th century lute and vihuela pieces on guitar. How much we limit education if we never push the imagination and ambition and expectations of a child!

And how patronising it is. Which is exactly why 200 musicians just denounced the article in an open letter as ‘simple anti-intellectualism’. The letter also points out that jazz, pop and non-Western traditions now occupy a lot of space in the curriculum. I remember studying ragas and and gamelan and jazz more than we ever did classical music, until A level at least. I also wish we had studied those traditions more rigorously. Instead they were treated as little more than cultural novelties.

I’d just like to point out, though, that the Guardian provide some of the best coverage of classical music in a newspaper. So while I know many will want to have a go at the Guardian and their hatred of Dead White Men, they’d probably be wrong to do so in this case. Many papers and news sites on the opposite side of that culture war contribute much less to high culture.

Everyone — Especially Every Child — Should Create Their Own Musical Instrument

One of my fondest memories from my childhood was creating a diddley bow. It’s a plank of wood, essentially, with a string nailed on. I used an old tin box for the bridge, and slightly ruined the beaten-up aesthetic by attaching a spare guitar tuning peg. Here’s me with it, when I was about 13, I think. Hence the long hair. My head, mercifully, has been digitally severed:

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It was a father-son creation, and later I made a second ‘baritone’ diddley bow, as I liked to pretentiously call it, with both my dad and my grandad. The diddley bow is (or was) a predominantly African-American invention, a sort of beginner’s instrument for black Southern kids. You adjust the notes with a bottle or slide — that metal thing on my index finger — and hit or pluck the string with the other hand. Given the right choice of bridge, which also functions as a resonator, it is much louder than a normal acoustic guitar. In many ways, it’s much more like the dobro, the metal acoustic guitar also popularised by African-American musicians.

Here’s the diddley bow in its entirety (you can tell the age of the photo by the positively archaic stereo in the top right corner):

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If anyone wants to make one it really is so simple: plank of wood, couple of nails and a tin box or bottle. I added some wooden ‘barriers’, one might call them, to stop the boxes moving, but that’s only because I wanted to be able to reliably tune it. If you want to be adventurous, I don’t imagine it would be too difficult to build a very crude fretboard.

There is something uniquely delightful about creating your own musical instrument. There are so few things left to tinker with. The digitisation of all things means that the age of fiddling with radios and cars and so on has long past. A musical instrument is a rare device in that we can understand its construction — and do it ourselves. Anyone can get some string, make it taut, and pluck a note from it. Anyone can get a bottle and blow into it, to hear a note reverberate through the glass. And anyone can add liquid to change the note.

From these fundamentals, an inventive mind, especially a child’s mind, would see limitless possibility. Get some garden hose tubing and a funnel and you’ve got at trumpet. Wrap elastic bands round an open box and you have a harp (of sorts).

With a friend, I once built, or rather rebuilt, an electric guitar from spare parts. We did almost everything, from the tuning pegs to the wiring to the makeshift tone knobs. (Thank God the frets were still in tact is all I can say.) It was by no means easy, and far from safe — we never quite completed the ground wiring — but quite possible, a testament to what I’m trying to say: creating instruments, even complex ones, is so accessible and so fun. In what other area can the laymen still tinker and experiment away so easily? It strikes me, moreover, as being a wonderful way to introduce children to music and, more importantly, the mechanics of music: to plant in them a fascination with the creation of music.

Let’s end with a very short youtube video of a boy playing a homemade trumpet he made for school. In what suggests a delightfully American imagination, he decided to call it ‘The Wizz Popper’: