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Teenagers: Do They Listen?

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Guest Feature by  Michelle Nelson

Of course, parents reading this will all be thinking, 'don't be silly; they rarely do!' And I expect most teens to have finely tuned skepticism for their parents' regular, well-intentioned offerings of sage, learned advice. I didn't listen to my parents; especially the stuff about needing a better career choice than music!

But no, I mean 'do today's teenagers listen properly to music?' Really listen. Repeated, concentrated listening that they engage in voluntarily and actually enjoy? The disappointing conclusion I've reached is that they don't; that the overwhelming majority of 21st-century teens – the so-called "Digital Natives" – are not listening to music the way that older musicians think is "normal".

Being a child of the '60s, I grew up believing music to be a powerful force for social change and personal enrichment. Without realizing it at the time, the culture I was born into taught me that listening to and actively engaging with music was good for my personal development, as well as being entertaining. And as a teen with rapidly developing instrumental skill, I was drawn to and actively directed towards a variety of fine instrumental music. By my 16th birthday I was completely immersed in the power of good music; I already believed it to be a vital life ingredient. Still do.

A few short years later, as my nascent music career began to unfold, I became a young adult in a world in which musicians had a mainstream cultural status the no longer seem to. Music was important and the music industry was big, big business. The idea that you could pursue music as a serious vocation, that you had to delve deeply into it to excel at it, was taken seriously. Even in the Pop world you were expected to be above mere proficiency if you were claiming to be a "musician". And thus, in the 1980s, I found myself absorbed into a culture of people who worked regularly at their skills, took pride in their abilities and regarded the maintenance and furthering of them to be a matter of ongoing personal discipline and work.

I never questioned it. Until recently, that is.

It's not that today's teenagers are not listening to what a 50-something musician reckons they ought to; says is "good". It's that so many of them are evidently not really listening when they are hearing music; not deeply engaged in analysing the power of a piece of music and how the components are created and blended. They seem particularly unmoved by virtuosic displays of instrumental prowess. Unimpressed by the beautiful tone in a good solo. Unaware that through becoming a skilled player of a musical instrument, you can actually derive intellectual and emotional enrichment from it, as well as give enjoyment to others "listeners". And, most disappointing of all, the seem uninterested in the fact that "harmony" is its own rich subject that requires years of study to understand and become skilled at creating and shaping.

I hate to say it – in fact, it pains me to write it – but the current cohort of teens seem so 'yeah, whatever' about instrumental music that I've recently had the dismal epiphany that music has gone out of fashion. Amongst the young – not the "old" (i.e. those over 40). The kind of music "old" musicians grew up absorbed with the learning and promulgation of. No, sorry, our Digital Natives are clearly not listening. And they don't look even mildly concerned about it. Why should they? All sorts of cultural ideas and pursuits go in and out of fashion, and sophisticated, skilled instrumental music may well prove to be no exception.

Now, every experienced music teacher reading this will be thinking, 'but I've got some terrific young students'. Yes, of course you do. So do I. Every generation produces a cohort of teens who are "natural" musicians. These are the kids who will be musical in any era, any social setting, with whatever music technology is available to them. Give them a tin-whistle and they'll do something creative with it. These kids are "one of us" and are a delight to teach. Yet they probably don't represent any more than two percent of teens. Okay, perhaps it's as much as a whopping 3%. It's the other 97% who are disappointing me.

Why? All specialist music educators know that music can enrich a young mind; that it can broaden a wide variety of related ideas and lead to many insights. Music study deepens our appreciation of our own culture and gives us a fantastic entry point into others, just as cuisine does. Most important of all, music is a unique conduit for our emotions. It gives complex feelings shape and form; provides and window to the soul. Good music takes our imagination for a joyride; interesting music is like a good story that keeps us engaged as it progresses.

The current Pop fashion is so un-musical, so mindlessly repetitive, so devoid of refined harmony, that it cannot possibly be stimulating deeper musical thoughts in many of its young listeners. Most items of it are so astonishingly predictable and shallow that they come and go through the commercial cycle within just a few weeks. The challenge for contemporary music teachers now is to find music that can motivate sensitive teens but is not too "old school". Students in the sensitive 13–17 age group need music to reflect the world around them; to feel "new". But it has become difficult to find contemporary popular music that is interesting and actually worth learning; that is current and contains more than 16 bars of "original" music material, and is available in competently notated form. Image-conscious teens need art that looks cool to their peers; there's little use trying to enthuse them about music stars from 30–60 years ago. Beyond a handful of unique pieces (think Bohemian Rhapsody), most teens are not interested.

The most damaging aspect of so much of today's Pop is its extreme repetition. High predictability of form, generic "melody", commercially sourced digital sound loops and effects combine to switch the brain into "sleep mode". You don't need your imagination to concentrate on a song that oscillates around the same four chords continuously for 5–6 minutes, over a base of cliched percussion loops sourced from popular computer programs. "Songs" like that don't require or motivate deeper listening. "Songs" like that are a mere pastiche of widely available, easily manipulated digital artifacts parading as "music".

"Songs" like that do not require actual "musicians" to create them.

And that is the Mt Everest-sized challenge all music teachers are now facing.

Today's teens are saturated by this type of "music". It is not real music; most current Pop songs are a digital sound confection that effortlessly blend into the background; that seamlessly bleed from one track into the next. This is muzak. It requires little imagination to follow. It is no more "music" than mass-manufactured supermarket bread rolls are "cuisine". Both may look great and the glossy packaging is all very "high-end", but in artistic terms, both are rubbish. Actual rubbish. Mass-produced and mass-disposable. True, it won't kill you, but regular doses of it will leave you intellectually malnourished and emotionally unfulfilled. And there's little chance of it inspiring you to become a "musician".

The great majority of today's contemporary teen/young adult-oriented Pop is designed to either blend into the background ["Chill"] or be primarily for drug-assisted dance parties [EDM]. Actively listening to well-crafted, inspiring and imaginative, emotion-engaging instrumental music appears to have gone the was of analog telephones; to have become "old school". Indeed it looks to have suffered what's become of the record industry: greatly diminished in size and economic clout, with a small, funky "boutique" rump hanging on in downtown Hipster-ville.

Are "old school" music teachers also headed the same way?

DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed in Guest Feature articles are those of the respective author/s and do not necessarily represent ANZCA policy.