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Book Report: How Music Works

Your Humble Blogger has been reading David Byrne’s new book How Music Works, which is a fascinating book on a whole bunch of levels. The man has thought about music a lot—thought about it, researched it, played it, listened to it, made a living at it. There’s a lot of stuff in here I didn’t know—stuff about him and his bands, and stuff about the business, the way the money flows, the contracts… there’s a lot of just plain old information in here. There’s also a lot of opinion, some of it really provocative. Some of it trite, some of it wrong, some of it brilliant.

In other words, it’s a good book. Worth reading, if you are at all interested in music. Particularly his music, of course, but really any modern music at all.

Even if you aren’t terribly interested in music, Mr. Byrne’s ideas about music education may interest you—we are, after all, paying for music education at the public schools, even if dilatorily, and the questions of why and how are important, as are can we do better and how would we know.

As it happens, much of the instrumental music instruction in our schools is geared to the creation of an orchestra able to play some recognizable bits of the classical repertoire. Mr. Byrne doesn’t much like orchestral music, I’m afraid. He doesn’t seem to like the buildings created for it, and he doesn’t like the audience norms it requires, and he doesn’t like the music itself, mostly. He likes the funk. Which is noticeably absent from the instrumental music curriculum in this country.

On the face of it, actually, it’s a little odd that (to the extent there is any instrumental music education in our public schools) the students are taught to play Bach and Beethoven and Vivaldi on flute and trombone and cello. These are kids who otherwise would never listen to orchestral music, never listen (intentionally and consciously) to those instruments. And perhaps just as important, their parents, by and large, never listen to that music and those instruments, lack the vocabulary to talk about them or the sophistication to listen carefully to the practicing. Or the concerts. There are arguments to be made for our program, but I think it must be admitted that it is an odd thing.

Particularly as there exists American Music—I believe that our middle grade kids have an incredible sophistication with popular music. David Byrne suggests that we teach our kids by, more or less, giving them guitars and keyboards and drum kits and letting them boogie, more or less endorsing the Little Kids Rock method. I know nothing about the actual program; I was a Suzuki kid. But it makes sense to me.

In fact, I would start out by teaching kids the blues. Simple chord changes, lots of repetition, familiar sound and instrumentation. Teach them the structure. Let them improvise a little. Play them some songs. Let them come up with words of their own.

The first line of the blues is always repeated a second time
Oh, the first line of the blues you gotta sing one more time
So when you get to the third you have time to think of a rhyme

It seems to me that you go from the blues to the Beatles, and then to Irving Berlin and then to Bach. But then, you know, I don’t actually know if any recent pop music falls into the blues structure; when I was a kid there were at least some recent recordings of popular musicians that were blues songs, even if they didn’t sound much like them. Learning (as I did eventually, in college) to recognize a blues was a big step in my musical education. Probably a bigger step than learning to play a minuet.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Maybe your public primary school music education was different from mine, but I played the violin from 3rd-8th grade and the percentage of what we learned from or performed that was classical was maybe 20%. The large majority consisted of material written specifically to be easy to play or to teach something new, or if it was a recognizable piece of music it was a nursery tune, a folksong or Christmas carol, or something else a lot of the students would probably already know. I think we got to Bach and Dvorak around the last couple of years of my fiddling, but it certainly wasn't majority classical.

If I had to compare it, I'd say first we learned to alphabet and a basic vocabulary, worked our way through Easy Reader books and YA, and only then added the Shakespeare and Austen. Is that also a wrong way to teach literature, and we should decrease the Shakespeare in favor of more Twilight?

I think it's fair to say that the stuff you're given to play when you're learning isn't funky enough, but I don't think the issue is that it's too classically-influenced. I think it's just not funky enough.

My daughter is learning piano, and I taught her early on to play a walking bass line in C. As she's been learning new keys, she's been transposing the walking bass and practicing that along with her lesson. My work here is done.

I will point out that, when I was in elementary school and learning music in school (as opposed to private lessons), it was pretty much all "Shady Grove" and "Little Liza Jane" and "This Land is Your Land". No Vivaldi.

My Perfect Non-Reader got the Ode to Joy theme and some other famous work--Minuet in G? I can't now recall--as well as the Christmas Carols and things similar to "Little Liza Jane". But even the more-or-less popular stuff was arranged to sound orchestral or in that band milieu. Which in some ways is like saying that we value William Shakespeare's plays and want kids to love literature, so we are going to start kids off with versions of the Captain Underpants and Magic Treehouse books rewritten in bad mock Shakespearean.

The walking bass line idea is absolutely fantastic! I should use that to teach The Youngest Member how music works. Except that I can't play a walking bass line, and I don't have a piano.


The lovely thing about teaching is that I can't play a walking bass line either -- I just know what the notes are that one would play, if one could.

Went to a middle-school concert this week: orchestra played five pieces: including one Mozart, one Tchaikovsky, the Skater's Waltz (which I would describe as classical-ish), a tango-ish piece about ten years old that was specifically written for youth orchestras (I think), and one setting of a recent pop song. I don't know if the students made the connection between the waltz and romcom scores; they are just about the age that they might watch such movies.

I was struck, though, by the point that the orchestra has 94 kids, and in an hour or so, all those parents heard all those kids. I think very few of us enjoyed the music, such as it was—I found it excruciating—but we enjoyed watching our kids or our kids' friends. That's my Jimmy, we say, and Professor Harold Hill wins our hearts again, and that really is a wonderful thing. We couldn't do that with guitars and keyboards, and (as Mr. Byrne points out in another context) a guitar band heavy on the groove would sound terrible in that lovely concert hall.

A friend of mine mentioned that the transition (and he says this is happening) requires an immense amount of retraining, and of course not using the training that the existing corps of music teachers actually have, so there's that, too.

But what I really have been thinking the last few days, sparked by Jacob's comment, is that I should be teaching my kids how to listen to music, because even with all my years in orchestra, I never learned how to listen to any other kinds of music until I was in college. I mean, I loved rock and pop, but I didn't know anything about it, except the lyrics.


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