Modern Music Making

Published June 22, 2014

Below is a paper I originally wrote for a class in my masters program at Portland State University in Oregon.  

Check out the slideshow for the related presentation:

Professional vs. Amateur Music Making

Author Robert Phillip suggests in his book The Age of Recording that informal gatherings of non-professional musicians were more widespread in the 19th century.  As a musician in the present day, it is easy to romanticize this notion.  To me, it conjures up the image of musicians in a Victorian parlor, playing chamber music for friends and family, everyone happy and content; they meet without fail every Sunday afternoon, as do others in their neighborhood, finally getting the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of a week’s worth of practicing individually to create wonderful music together.  This scenario is not completely accurate, however.  As Mark Katz writes in Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music:

        Amateur music making was not always considered an unalloyed pleasure.  A 1912 editorial in the Musical Courier commented with no great fondness on “the agonies of Susie’s and Jane’s parlor concerts on the untuned piano”; in 1924, a magazine columnist described home concerts as a “solemn formality, usually undertaken upon occasions of importance only and led up to by hours of trembling preparation on the part of the performer.”  


    The era of the home parlor concert waned as the decades of the early 20th century came to pass, perhaps partially for reasons such as the above.  At the same time, more and more households were acquiring a gramophone.  A somewhat prescient comment regarding the effect of the increasing popularity of the gramophone comes from composer and bandleader John Philip Sousa, who predicted in his essay "The Menace of Mechanical Music” in 1906, “When music can be heard in the homes without the labor of study... It will be simply a question of time when the amateur disappears entirely."  Starting in the 1930s, the phonograph and radio supplanted sheet music as the driving force of American popular music.  One can surmise from this that music making by the amateur declined in this period as well.

        The amateur musician today has less significance than it did in the past.  As Philip writes:

        The role of the amateur was central in musical culture in the nineteenth century in a way that it is not now.  There is still a lot of amateur music-making about, often of a very high standard, but it no longer occupies the place it did before recordings replaced it as the main source of domestic music.  One indication of this is the change in the relationship between composers and amateur performers.  From the late eighteenth century through the whole of the nineteenth century, major composers supplied both the professional and the amateur market… Chopin’s piano music ranged from the frighteningly virtuoso to the relatively simple that amateurs could play at home.  Brahms published his Waltzes in two editions, one simplified for the less accomplished performer.     

    Widespread chamber music house parlor concerts may largely be a relic of the past, but this likely has to do with the fact that chamber music itself has declined in popularity.  Research by Informa Telecoms & Media indicates that in 2012, classical music made up 5% of global recorded music retail sales.  Walk into any Guitar Center on a Saturday afternoon, however, and the legions of electric guitarists creating a cacophony of sound may lead one to believe that the amateur musician is alive and well.  Chamber music house parlor concerts have not simply been replaced by the garage band, however.  Music making in the 19th century was woven into the fabric of the culture of that time period to a greater degree than it is today.  As Katz explains:


    The first decades of the 1900s witnessed a revolution in American music education.  In the nineteenth century, the primary goal was to teach students how to make music, particularly through singing.  In the twentieth century, however, the focus began shifting from the practical to the aesthetic.  The ideal became known as appreciation - generally understood as the intelligent enjoyment of music, typically classical music, as a listener.  With the emphasis on appreciation came a change in the conception of musicality.  To be musical, it had generally been assumed, one had to perform or compose.  But many began to argue that careful and intelligent listening could also be a sign of a musical person.  


    Today we are living with the legacy of this cultural shift that began one hundred years ago.  This, aided by the proliferation of recorded music, has contributed to the decline in the percentage of modern day music makers compared to the 19th century.   

    Ironically, despite the overall percentage of musicians declining, musical skill level is increasing.  Commenting on this phenomenon, New York Times writer Anthony Tommasini in his article “Virtuosos Becoming a Dime a Dozen” published on August 12, 2011 says:   

    The overall level of technical proficiency in instrumental playing, especially on the piano, has increased steadily over time. Many piano teachers, critics and commentators have noted the phenomenon, which is not unlike what happens in sports. The four-minute mile seemed an impossibility until Roger Bannister made the breakthrough in 1954. Since then, runners have knocked nearly 17 seconds off Bannister’s time.   

    Technology has played a significant role in increasing the quality of musicianship.  With the advent of recordings, musicians are now able to reflect back on their own playing, hearing themselves more objectively.  This allows them to refine their performances.  As Philip writes:

     The most obvious effect of getting used to hearing one’s own recordings, as professional musicians do today, is to become highly self-critical about details.  Any tiny blemish or inaccuracy takes on hideously exaggerated proportions.  Making a recording becomes a process of detailed self-examination which would have been impossible a century ago… If you listen to your own performance, and do not like what you hear, you then start adjusting it to something which sounds more like what you thought you were doing… Once a musician has had the experience of listening to playbacks and adjusting to them, it is not possible to go back to a state of innocence.   

    High quality music instruction resources are at an all time high as well.  Numerous magazines, books, and of course websites are available for all interested parties.  YouTube, for example, offers a plethora of music instruction videos of professional standard, taught by celebrity virtuosos, available free and on demand.     

    The current music landscape has resulted from these disparate forces, namely the decline in amateurism combined with the increase in virtuosity.   Our society today is no longer as immersed in music making to the degree it once was.  Most people are generally unable to distinguish between world class playing and merely adequate playing.  The decline of the amateur musician, true lovers who are able to appreciate high quality, has resulted in a decrease in the value of music.  We see this played out when we hear musicians complain about being offered gigs for low pay or merely exposure.  We understand the gradual de-valuing that has happened when we hear older players observe that the gig pay rate hasn't changed since the 1970s.  We see the lack of sophistication in the audience when we hear that classical and jazz music, arguably the most complex of genres, combines for 7% of all music sales.  It is unclear what, if anything, can reverse this trend.

Copyright  2014  Lance Vallis