The Solution (a small change to educational standards to improve the culture of our society)

Rite of Spring is one of the pieces of music that redefined old dying sonata form, and attempted to open peoples minds with its completely new style of composing.

The first time this piece was performed was in Paris’ Theatre des Champs-Elysees. People had been attending ballet’s for years, they know what to expect when they get there. They want to hear an up-beat, repetitive, sonata form program all the way through. Its all they knew, its all they could have known.

Perhaps as you begin to get further into the piece you may start to realize…this doesn’t sound like a ballet. This made people uncomfortable, the notes are dissonant, the rhythm isn’t metered in 4 or 3.
People had no idea what to do with these feelings that the music was making them feel. Plus, the upper class French attending that night felt entitled to the show they expected.

The crowed begain to protest, to yell, get out of their seats, throw things at the orchestra, they were confused and angry.

Today this piece is looked at as a masterpiece, one of the greatest compositions of the 20th century. How can people have such different opinions of it when nothing changed but time?

Because they didn’t understand.

When you were listening to it, I’m sure you never had the thoughts the audience in France did that day. You may have felt some discomfort as the dissonant chords refuse to resolve, and you could never quite tell which direction the song was going. The thing is, Stravinsky follows the same rules that Mozart did, the Beethoven did, that every romantic and classical era composer has followed since the method of writing music onto paper came about. He just applied music theory in a new and innovative way because it was the only way for him to express the message he wanted in his music.

Last week we found out that the largest consumer of music, parents buying music for their kids, are the ones who determine what the top 40 hits are and cause artists who make very simple and easy to make music to be all too successful.

(sorry, would not embed)

(NSFW, imminent Miley)

Sorry to jump on the make fun of Miley bandwagon but unfortunately for her she is the perfect example of what I am trying to point out.

Sing the chorus of Wrecking Ball during the chorus of We Can’t Stop, or vice versa.
Now I would like to remind you that these two songs are off of the SAME EXACT ALBUM BY THE SAME EXACT ARTIST. Same chord progression.

Since I have apparently already filled a page with words, I will get to the point. Our culture doesn’t care or notice these sorts of things because they have never learned anything about music.

The solution to our mainstream music problem? Education.

According to 2009 U.S. Census data, about 8 percent of Americans play musical instruments regularly and another 5 percent sing in a chorus or chorale. More than 9 percent attend symphonic concerts, and about 8 percent enjoy jazz concerts.”

With this data I would like to make an assumption, having been in the music education system for 10 years. Of these ~13% of people who play instruments/sing, lessof them actually have taken music classes in school. Of that percentage of people who have taken music classes, far less of them have taken a music theory class. I apologize about not having any raw data to argue my point, so think of how many friends you have that have taken music theory related class in school. They are like vegans, they aren’t hard to find, anyone who has taken music theory will let you know within minutes of meeting them that they have done so regardless of the conversation topic.

Allow me to put this into something more measurable. At the university I attended, calculus 1 had over 2000 freshmen enrolled last fall semester.

Music Theory 1 had 64.

As an engineer I understand the mind-set that math and science are more important, that music theory is a waste of time that you will never use.


I agree that music theory is not as important is the core classes, but our education system makes requirements on math and science, certain classes you must take to graduate with any degree. There is a minimum level of understanding you have to have to be a part of society. The minimum level for math and science is relatively high to other subjects, but universities often also require foreign language, humanities, history, and even english writing or speaking classes. These are things that are still important and necessary for our society to function.

Many universities also have a fine arts requirement, including the one I attended. What sort of classes do these entail though? Band, orchestra, singing, dancing, painting, drawing, the number of options is so vast that you really only get to/have to take a few of them if that. It is very un-structured and open ended as to what you can take, which causes many to take the easiest option available. Well yeah, I have to take CALC 161, CHEM 115, ENGR 195, thermodynamics etc. The attitude people have is that the fine arts credit is a waste of time, yet choose the easy classes which are in fact a waste of time.

The point is, obviously people aren’t going to take music theory or a related course when they can put minimal effort into something like an entry level band or dance class and get an A. Would 2000 people take calculus 1 by choice? From my experience, no, yet they are willing to select a major which requires difficult courses because it is worthwhile long term.

It’s difficult to make an argument for having a national standard for music education when it is not that important of a class to take to be able to be a functional member of society. It is a waste of time to teach our kids about music when we are still falling behind in test scores to other countries around the world in the subjects that kids ARE required to take.

My plea is not to get people to the same level of understanding that they have with the core classes, its simply to teach kids when they are young the fundamentals of music. I am convinced that even if our youth had a minimal understanding of notes and rhythms, the quality of the music we hear will improve.

What I am suggesting is the equivalent level of understanding that one 4 credit college class gives you by the age of 12.

You would be surprised just how little information this actually is, relative to what is available. All that I think everyone needs to know are things like scales, meter, the circle of fifths/fourths, and chord structure.

Thats it.

I’m not asking you to study in depth the methods of Bach, or the societal impacts of the romantic era, just to understand the language.

If the reason the popular music in our country is due to our youth not knowing anything better is out there, educating them about the simple concepts of music will help our society advance. Thats what education is about isn’t it? Improving out society constantly by teaching the future generations the knowledge we already know, so that one day they can add more knowledge to the endless cycle of education.

Education is supposed to improve our society, and neglecting to educate people about music is causing the music of our culture, the music which represents our society, to converge to the most simple and easy to write songs because it is the only thing that everyone is guaranteed to understand. The industry cannot evolve without our expectations to evolve first. If the point of education is to advance society, does that not spread to the realm of the arts? Are we becoming a people of only logic and reason? Do people today not care about the arts? Of course they do! EVERYONE LIKES MUSIC. I have never met a person who when prompted, said “no, I don’t like music.” Ask anyone, anyone on the whole civilized planet, its in our nature to like the fine arts, to seek them out and to appreciate them. If we can all agree on that, can’t we all agree it should always be getting better? We strive for our educational standards to improve, yet neglect to realize that cultural improvements are just as vital to our society.

If you cannot agree with my rantings, I offer an alternative argument. Lots of kids want to be a rock star because of how glamorized the industry is, yet most people (less than 85%, see census statistics above) never actually pursue music as a profession. How can they know they want to be a musician if they never know anything about it? How can you expect a person to consider studying music when they have never studied it before? There needs to be exposure, there needs to be the choice.

Ultimately the problem is that we are all just like the audience of the first playing of the Rite of Spring, we fight any change or new idea that comes to the music industry because we don’t understand. We don’t understand anything that takes us out of our 4-chord 4, 140bpm, verse-chorus-verse comfort zone. There are an infinite number of ways to write a song yet all these artists settle for only one. Doesn’t it bother you that they aren’t actually doing any creative work? Doesn’t it bother you that the industry can get away with taking advantage of our ignorance? I’m not asking for much, just a small push in the right direction.


One thought on “The Solution (a small change to educational standards to improve the culture of our society)

  1. It’s not just the education that matters, it’s the connection to what they know. For the same reason that story problems and real world examples are essential to mathematical learning, children must be shown how the theory they learn applies to the music they hear. We must teach not just Mozart but Mastodon and Miley if music theory is to be seen as anything other than an abstract, useless and ultimately forgettable waste of time.

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