Our Musical Monoculture: How We Got Here, and How To Break Out

The older I get, the more I get bored with rock n’ roll. And popular music in general.

Is this just a natural consequence of getting older? Is this why find myself listening more and more to classical and orchestral music, or jazz, or the Great American Songbook?

Maybe. Or maybe there are reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with age.

Watch these three videos, the first by an Australian musical comedy act called Axis of Awesome, the second by a young musician named Roomie, and the third by a gentleman named Frank Zappa:

Okay, so music is an incredibly expensive and high-risk industry and, as a result, everything is starting to sound the same, that is, just like what has been proven to sell in the past. The bean counters really run the show.

Now what?

I’m interested in music less as background noise or a soundtrack to one’s daily life and more as a serious cultural artifact. Music is important, and yet at the same time the most trivial forms of music are treated as ways of life.

Why does this bother me?

This bothers me because the available universe of melodic and harmonic vocabulary is getting smaller and smaller (see: “The Millennial Whoop“). Music has a nearly unmatched way to reach people and it’s a shame that it seems to be getting duller and duller.

So what to do? How can we create, or re-create, a music culture? Remember, there are some countries and cultures that take music very seriously.

Overall cultural transformation, if it ever happens, will take a long time, and I’m convinced that a lot of it has to start in the schools. Music programs are always one of the first cut, and yet nobody talks about slashing administrator salaries, or getting rid of other classes that are actually useless. Worse, schools are so concerned about teaching to the test that many lose focus of their actual job, which is to teach people how to think.

But there are things all of us can do ourselves that, when taken in the aggregate, may actually make some changes in how we approach music as a country and as a culture:

  • Demystify music. Music appreciation is not just for eggheads or the highly trained. Music is nowhere near as intimidating as people make it out to be. The performance of it might not be for everyone, but I firmly believe that the appreciation of it is. It’s not rocket science, people (see “How To Appreciate Music“).
  • Paradoxically, don’t be a music snob. You can find merit in almost–almost–any music, including pop music. There are reasons why hit songs stick into your brain like sticky candy, and it’s kind of fun to pick up on the reasons why. But don’t get stuck in a “genre.” This is kind of sad, because there are billions of other combinations of notes out there that you might like and appreciate, not just to help pass the drudgery of the working day, but because such combinations of notes might elicit an emotional reaction that you find pleasurable or poignant or otherwise important that you might not be getting from your current genre of choice.
  • Find what you like. That’s to the Internet, you can find any kind of music you want by the most unknown of unknowns. This is spectacular. There is no excuse to be bored. Don’t like the way a certain type of music is going? There is plenty of stuff on the Internet for free just waiting for you to discover. That said . . .
  • Fund what you like. We live in an era where we expect music to be free. But it costs time write and perform. And time is often translated into money, since the opportunity cost of deep practice, composition, and performance is time that is not being used elsewhere to make money. Therefore, if somebody releases music that you like and is attempting to sell it to you, maybe it’s worth the ten bucks, or whatever pittance music costs nowadays, instead of just, you know, stealing it. It’s a fundamental law of human nature: IF MAN CANNOT FEED HIMSELF OR HIS FAMILY BY DOING A CERTAIN ACTIVITY, HE WILL CEASE PERFORMANCE OF SAID ACTIVITY. And you’ll end up with the same six or seven songwriters making similar-sounding music.
  • Have patience. Some music takes a while to develop, whether this is an individual song or artist or a genre as a whole. If you’re a neophyte to classical music, your first experience might make you think that it’s really, really boring. I mean, there aren’t even any words! And yet while we make our decisions in the first five or so seconds upon hearing some new music, how deep of a decision is that, really? Patience is in short supply nowadays, but I urge you to listen to something new fully at least once. And even once isn’t enough to truly “get it” so you can make a decision, but once is better than five seconds.
  • Don’t take it too seriously. I swear, people get embarrassed by music. This is the flip side of musical tastes being a badge of cultural coolness. It’s awesome to listen to X, but if your friends knew that you secretly listened to Y, they’d never let you hear the end of it. This is just kind of silly. Music is not a way of life. It’s an artform. And don’t let your entire way of life be influenced by what some singer or band does, because most of what they do is contrived as hell and is about as spontaneous as the movement of a glacier.

Music is a wonderful thing, and we have a wonderful tradition of all kinds of music. It’d be a shame if, in the future, it consists of nothing more than four chords and the Millennial Whoop.


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