The musical world that forms the tastes of most of our students is similarly suffocating, revolving within the world of Top 40 tunes selected by popular radio stations. Even rebels from the dominating culture can only pour out their spirit in destructively obnoxious music, or at best revert to the Top 40 of a generation ago. Their musical imaginations are terribly narrow; their tastes are so passionate that anything outside their accustomed genres has great difficulty gaining any attention.
Neglecting a child’s musical education is a terrible mistake. So is underestimating what children can naturally achieve, or trying to force them to work through what is foreign to their natural capabilities and interests. Dorothy Sayers put the classical school movement on the right track with regard to both of these, and now second graders are happily learning Mark Antony’s funeral oration by heart. But she didn’t include music in her survey of subject areas, and we have been slower to extend her ideas into that crucial area of education.
Young children are wide open to enjoying music of vastly different kinds, and of receiving strong impressions even from music that they don’t immediately enjoy. When I was young, I discovered in our attic an old collection of Sing Along with Mitch albums. Long before I realized how uncool it was, before I even knew there was such as thing as cool, Mitch Miller’s albums invited me to sing with gusto any number of popular songs from my parents and even grandparents’ childhoods. As an adult, I could still light a spark in my fading aunt by singing with her songs like, “By the Light of the Silvery Moon.”
Children should be introduced to folk songs, songs that ordinary people enjoy singing without any thought of performance, from the time they can speak. They have at least as great a natural aptitude for them as they do for most poetry. But their attention is captured just as much by many of the great works of the classical repertoire. Before we had children of our own, my wife and I were astounded when a couple told us their five year old daughter loved watching and acting out Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Now we know better. Of course, Warner Brothers and Disney knew this secret ages (well, decades) ago.
Taking advantage of their openness, to what kinds of music should children be introduced? As usual, I figure that anything adults seriously like, and have for a long period of time, is a good measure. But perhaps we ourselves need to broaden our horizons. When I teach music theory to my college students, I also introduce them to at least four categories of music. In ancient times and among folk cultures, people often preferred music that left them with a longing feeling. This kind of music is called “modal," and usually emphasizes notes other than the “do” of the “do, re, mi” scale.“Scarborough Fair" and “House of the Rising Sun" are well known examples. Ancient Greek chant also falls into this category, as does Gregorian chant. All of these pieces are characterized by not coming to a perfectly satisfying end.
They are also largely monotone, with all voices singing the same melody. Polyphonic music has many voices singing different melodies (usually three or four, but even as many as 50). Each melody is beautiful in its own right (much sweeter than modal music, usually emphasizing “do”), and they blend exquisitely. You get lost as you float along with one voice, then get captivated by another, and then another, like chasing angels singing. Palestrina’s “Sicut Cervus" inspired me to join a parish choir so that I could be a part of making such heavenly music.
We tend to think of the category “classical music" as including anything that might be played on a “classical radio station." But properly, classical music refers to the kind of music produced by men like Mozart and Haydn. Their music involved many voices singing different notes. But unlike polyphonic music in which each voice sang a melody, classical music was “harmonic” -- one voice (or instrument) sung a melody, and the others contributed notes at the same time which made the melody sound richer. It is often easy to whistle or hum the melody from a Mozart concerto, but very difficult to pick out just one when listening to a polyphonic piece. The secondary voices, when heard by themselves, can sound boring or even ugly. But when sung together, they form chords that take on a life of their own. Classical music can be either pleasant/happy/majestic (if predominantly in a major key that emphasizes “do”), or sad/tense/frightening (if predominantly in a minor key that emphasizes “la”).
Finally, I will offer them a few pieces from the atonal repertoire. Atonal music is composed in such as way as to emphasize no note, to have music which is experienced as disorienting or without any determinate direction. Atonal music can work well in horror movies and some sci-fi movies. I don’t do this so much to develop a taste for atonal music, but to raise the question, “Why would people want to hear or make music like this?”
This question is equally applicable to every kind of music, and invites students to think about what they know of the historical eras in which each kind was popular. What was early 20th century Europe like? How about the Renaissance? The Enlightenment? Does the music fit what they know of the people?
Getting to know these different kinds of music expands our musical imagination, and helps to develop a taste for the best kinds. Top 40 music is often not bad; it can be fun when innocent and moving when reflective. But it is very limited, like potato chips compared to beef Wellington, or soda compared to wine. My first serious exposure to higher music came in high school, when my friends’ parents passed along their tickets to a performance of the Tchaichovsky violin concerto. I was astounded, captivated by the wild range and sweet, seductive, passionate character of the violin. I remain deeply grateful for that introduction, and I try to pay it forward every chance I get. Maybe we can start a revolution.