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Gone Off Pop
Should Pop Music be Taught in Higher Education?

John Robert Brown

Writing in The Infinite Variety of Music in 1966, Leonard Bernstein admitted that he found pop music exciting. He said: "God forgive me, I have more pleasure in following the musical adventures of Simon and Garfunkel or of The Association singing 'Along Comes Mary" than I have in most of what is being written now by the whole community of avant-garde composers.'

But Bernstein soon changed his mind. Delivering his brilliant Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University in 1973, just seven years later, he admitted: 'Pop music is what I listen to least these days. What seemed fresh and vital then is now jejune and commercially grotesque.'

Unfortunately, many of those who determine the direction of Britain's tertiary level education have not been so quick, so wise or so honest as Bernstein. Now, more than thirty years after Bernstein's Harvard lectures, popular music studies is taught at more than 20 of Britain's Higher Education institutions. I think that Bernstein was right, and our conservatoire and university administrators are wrong. Pop music performance does not belong in Higher Education.

Yet though I dislike pop music, where the sociology of pop is being studied I have no objection. If you can't play a musical instrument particularly well, but wish to be a professor of pop, then by all means become a cultural studies analyst, and produce wordy sociological critiques of dance music, rebellion, subversion and fashion. You are only a harmless observer. But don't teach performance! There should be no place in Higher Education for teaching the performance of pop.

Yes, I'm aware that some 'progressive metal' enthusiasts claim that their music has classical influences. And I readily concede that the rise of pop has meant that all musicians are now familiar with recording techniques and sound reinforcement technology - microphones, amplifiers and speakers. Knowing a little about how a recording studio works, about microphone craft and about the nature of digital sound, is useful for classical musicians, though not essential.

But I mount my critical soapbox when contemporary pop performance is taught alongside serious music in universities and conservatoires. Pop performance has no place in academia at this level. Jazz yes, pop no. The characteristics and values of pop are much at odds with the scholastic study of art music, and the conflicts are insuperable.

Pop music emphasises the (electric) plectrum guitar. The number of people playing the electric guitar is enormous, unbalancing the intake on all other music performance courses. Pop music has actually caused the 'endangered species' shortages. Significantly, the endangered instruments are bassoon, double bass, French horn, oboe, tuba and trombone. None of these plays a significant role in pop music, so they have fallen out of favour with youngsters. In this way, pop has distorted the whole of music education. Few plectrum guitarists in pop learn to read music fluently, even after expensive full-time college training. 'How do you make a guitarist play quietly? Ask him to read some music.' It's an old joke, but true.

The musical language of pop is ultra-conservative and old fashioned, making almost no use of the advances in musical vocabulary that have occurred since the late nineteenth century. 'A lot of it is just very simple stuff dressed up,' Dave Gilmour, of Pink Floyd, once admitted.

Pop today is mostly vocal music, designed for those who sing with limited range. The songs are predicable, lack complexity, surprise and any degree of difficulty. Most pop singers and instrumentalists have little understanding of phrasing, or even where to breathe. Dynamics are rarely used; volume levels are electronically compressed and equalised to remove variation, to make pop music sound good on cheap equipment.

Most pop music is now in 4/4 time, in the same, unyielding, tempo. Kit drums are de rigueur and ubiquitous. Rubato is rare; Pop harmony is restricted; modulation is infrequent, counterpoint is avoided.

High amplification levels are ever-present in pop performance, to create an impression of drama and intensity in music which is trite and juvenile. To paraphrase a line from Evita: nothing happens, but it happens very loudly.

Pop music is surrounded by an ethos of vulgarity, selfishness and dishonesty. X-rated rappers litter their CDs with swear words. Gangsta rap teaches youngsters how to curse, sell drugs and carry weapons.

The pampered Madonna is reported to have her dressing room toilets fitted with a new seat on every night of a tour because of her paranoia about germs. Mariah Carey has her Jack Russell flown first-class from New York to Los Angeles. Miming on stage is widespread, and not always admitted. The sampling of existing recordings often amounts to stealing. Off-pitch singing is electronically doctored to make it in tune; wavering tempi are similarly disciplined. Increasingly, pop is the province of charlatans. By allowing pop music inside the conservatory or the university, we are harbouring the enemy, and encouraging low standards.

To reach a large and sure market, pop music is hedged in by conservative conventions and needs. Despite affecting an air of modernity, it is frozen in its own limitations, tarnished by venality and vulgarity. With little to give, nothing to learn and an inability to blend with serious music, pop has no place in a university. In describing pop music as jejune - meaning naïve, simplistic and superficial, from a Latin root meaning 'not intellectually nourishing' - Bernstein chose the correct adjective. In his Norton lectures Bernstein said that 'to teach is to believe in continuity'. Surely no well-educated university administrator believes in the 'continuity' of pop? Pop performance is being shoehorned into HE music both as a response to a government drive to widen participation and to balance the books in an increasingly costly education system.

The widening participation campaign is intended to render all of Higher Education, including music, less elitist-though why high-quality, thoughtful music should be discouraged, is not clear. In this context, what is wrong with elitism? If we are going to widen participation, better that we invest in pre-school piano rather than post-school pop.

Inevitably, many college admission tutors report that the widening participation ideal is failing - certainly in music. Because undergraduates now pay £3,000 or more to enrol on HE music courses, those applying tend to come from prosperous areas. And, paradoxically, if a musical youngster seeks an easy route to a degree, the soft admission criteria and lower academic requirements of a pop music course represent a more certain return on a parent's investment. Widening participation doesn't seem to help classical music.

When considering the economic reasons for the pursuit of pop remember that universities are businesses in all but name. A university course that recruits well, attracting high numbers of applicants, will be better able to pay its lecturers, provide good resources and help to justify those 25 % pay rises (over three years) recently awarded to vice chancellors. Pop courses recruit well partly because pop doesn't require as much skill as classical music or jazz. Therefore, pop courses are easier to enter. Enrolment figures are good. Less demanding courses have a low drop-out rate, so the all-important student retention figures for pop are high. Classical music courses are relatively expensive to provide, because students require one-to-one instrumental teaching. One-to-one tuition is rare elsewhere in tertiary education, even where one might expect it in medicine, dental or veterinary courses. Colleges that offer classical music courses have to purchase, maintain and tune high quality grand pianos in practice rooms. Pop courses can use cheap electronic keyboard laboratories for group teaching instead of many expensive grand pianos. Advanced classical piano performance cannot be taught on electronic keyboards.

I have no doubt whatever that pop music performance should not take place in Higher Education. Yet to say this, to resist, or to criticise, is to risk being branded a curmudgeon or spoil sport. We educated musicians therefore succumb to a learned helplessness. We suffer our discomfort. Our helplessness is learned because we repeatedly conclude that we have no control over the situation. Dissent is deemed futile, as in the famous psychology experiment from which the term 'learned helplessness' derives, when dogs were shocked with electricity until they developed a submissive reaction.

Dissent isn't futile. We mustn't submit. Don't harbour the enemy!

First published in the Soap Box pages, Classical Music Magazine, 25 November 2006. Used by kind permission. Reproduction forbidden.
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