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  • Writer's pictureGuy G. Gorman

Are We Less Musical?

I recently became fascinated with North Sentinel Island. As a geography freak, I was surprised when I first heard of NSI. I thought egotistically that I had some vague idea about every place on earth. (Admittedly, I have learned that many of these "vague ideas" are way off the mark, but I still have an idea, right or wrong.)

Very little is known about North Sentinel Island. In an effort to protect the inhabitants the Indian government has made the island off limits to any visitors. The natives usually try to kill anyone who comes close. They are thought to be direct descendants of the first wave of humans to come out of Africa, more or less undisturbed for 30,000 years. They haven't even really made it into the Iron Age. They use the steel from a recent shipwreck for arrowheads. They can't make steel, though, because they don't seem to have a way to reliably start fires.

I've tried to imagine what life is like on North Sentinel Island: what sorts of things they have and what sorts of things they don't have.

Surely they have music.

We, on the other hand, are awash in music. alone has five million albums. Spotify has 40+ million tracks. According to one web bulletin board 24 hours of content is loaded up onto YouTube every second. So the astronomical number of songs there is anyone's guess. A person can find just about any song she wants with a few clicks online. (Although I'm unable to find anything by a 70's funk band by the name of "Earth," not Earth, Wind, and Fire.) There are numerous TV shows like "The Voice," the Eurovision song contest or "American Idol," which I guess is off the air now. The number of bands and musicians is probably at an all-time high.

At the same time I wonder whether we are less musical than we used to be. We may be passively floating in oceans of music, but are people as actively involved as they used to be? A smaller percentage of people attend church than in earlier times. That means less hymn singing. The practice of singing together at pubs has mostly died out. Does anyone remember the "follow the bouncing ball" sing-alongs they used to have at movie theaters? (By the time I was a kid they had been relegated to the cartoon hour on TV.) My grandfather's Rotary Club meetings used to begin with the singing of five or six songs. Does any American high school still learn and sing its alma mater the way mine did decades ago? How often do people sing or make music at parties nowadays?

It seems that we've turned the making of music over to the professionals. In a way that's nice. We get to listen to higher quality music in the sense that the music is more accurately presented. (Notice that I didn't say more accurately performed or recorded--Autotune, lip syncing, and computer editing only make it seem that way.)

And it's easier than ever in the Digital Age to sit back let the recording artists do the work.

But I think leaving it up to the experts (illusionists?) has given us inferiority complexes so that we don't sing or play music as often in public. We're led to believe that we're not accomplished enough or talented enough to be musicians. It's a vicious cycle. We listen to the pros, which means we don't sing or play ourselves, which makes us less confident, so we listen to the pros some more, so we're less confident, ad infinitum.*

And I wonder if this passive attitude toward music doesn't miss music's most valuable aspect. Music is a communal activity. It's about feeling. It's about the moment. Many of my favorite musical experiences have involved "bad" music: out of tune, tempo, key. We've all had these wonderfully bad moments at parties, concerts, recitals, etc, shouting out lyrics, playing the wrong notes or chords. It was a blast!

Performers don't feature sing-alongs in their concerts because the crowd sings so well.

But that excitement and fun don't translate well to recordings. That's why so many live albums include overdubs done in the studio. "Frampton Comes Alive," for example, includes a couple of mobile recording trucks in its list of venues. Some "live" albums were recorded in the studio with crowd sounds added later.

I love having hundreds of LPs, CDs, cassettes, dozens of 78's and thousands(?) of mp3s. I love being able to turn on the radio and listening to music whenever I want. I'm very thankful that I can l find almost any song online. I love being exposed to all kinds of new-to-me recorded music blasting out of apartment and car windows or stumbling onto it online.

But I can't help but wonder whether the Stone-Age tribesmen on North Sentinel Island, making music however they make it, aren't more advanced than we in one very important way.

* My learning to play harmonica is an example of how the opposite situation, a glorious musical cycle, can work. The stereo in my truck broke. Instead of buying a new one, I decided to entertain myself by playing harmonica. I'm sure a similar dynamic produced many of the great country and blues musicians as they played music on their front porches in the country for entertainment.

++A thought occurs to me: more people have running water and cars than ever before. That means more people are singing in the shower and at the wheel. That's a lot of fun, and it counts on some level as actively being musical, but people have always sung to themselves as they worked, walked, or rode.

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