Monday, February 18, 2013

Are There Musical and Unmusical Nations?

I'm not sure if this is a forbidden topic or not, so I will tread carefully. It seems very obvious, despite the efforts of some scientists to deny it, that musical talent is not evenly distributed in the population. Yes, I'm afraid that it really is the case that merely purchasing violin or piano lessons for your child will not guarantee that they will learn how to play well. On quite a few occasions in my decades-long career as a music teacher, I have had to tell parents that their child was not progressing and it was probably not worth it to continue to enroll them in lessons. I regarded this as my duty. I also think that it is the responsibility of the parents to find out where their child's skills may lie. Yes, put them in dance classes, tennis classes, music lessons, art camp--give them as many opportunities as possible to discover their talents. But be aware that in most areas they may have no particular talent.

I think all that is simple empirical observation and a little common sense. But this leads to another question: are all cultures and nations equally gifted musically? According to the doctrine of multiculturalism, the answer should be yes, the cultures of all nations are of equal worth. But this seems incorrect to me. For example, some nations have enormous and brilliant musical traditions while others do not. Take Italy and Switzerland, for example. Though next door neighbors, one has an unequaled musical tradition but the other does not. Italy has given the world opera, Vivaldi, Verdi, Rossini, Francesco da Milano, Stradivarius violins, La Scala, Pavarotti and the list goes on and on.

OK, now name one important composer from Switzerland.


See what I mean?

In Latin America there are strong musical traditions in some nations like Argentina and Brazil, and very scanty musical traditions in other nations like Chile and Bolivia. By "scanty" I don't mean that there is no music--there is scads of music--but that little of it is of lasting quality. Mexico, where I live, seems to be a somewhat tone-deaf nation. True, there are some fine Mexican musicians like the composer Manuel M. Ponce or the singer Luis Miguel, and the mariachi tradition is an interesting one. But by and large, Mexican music is harsh in timbre and rhythmically stiff. Brazilian music, on the other hand, is typically fluid and charming.

Why is this? I'm not sure. The reasons are probably complex and different for every culture. One interesting phenomenon seems to be that oppressed sub-cultures sometimes develop strong musical traditions. Some that come to mind are the gypsy culture in Europe where the gypsy folk music traditions are very strong in places like Hungary, Romania and Spain. Flamenco is largely the creation of the gypsy culture of Andalusia in southern Spain. Another one is the Irish musical tradition, a Celtic one that has lived under English domination through most of modern history. A third one is the Black music culture in the US which has given the world blues, gospel and jazz.

How about some examples? First, Guinness-fueled Irish fiddling and picking:

Next, one of the original Delta bluesmen, Charley Patton with "Spoonful Blues":

Here are the virtuosic Romanian gypsy band Taraf de Haidouks:

You don't hear that kind of thing every day...


Anonymous said...

By the way, Luis Miguel's parents were not mexican: mother - italian, father - spaniard. I guess, his talent came from Italy.

Bryan Townsend said...

You're right! I didn't know that. A lot of Mexicans are of Spanish or Italian descent. Manuel M. Ponce is 100% Mexican, however.

Joel Lo said...

Very interesting, polemic and complex topic! Loved it...

Are you suggesting that there could be "musical genes" which are more distributed in certain populations (ethnic groups) than in others? That sounds too determinist from you hehehe.

I expected you to say that "musicality" in different cultures depends on musical training, education, knowledge of aestthetics, etc... But right now you are condemnig entire groups of people (even nations) that, no matter how much education they receive, they're more less likely to achieve good "musicality".

Or maybe it's not "musicality" what we're talking about, maybe it's "talent". Then, What is talent? A mistic blessing that just few countries receive more? Or something in the DNA? (That would make more sense). If it's DNA (genes, nature) then... It has to be demonstrated.

I'm a little confused but I'm excited about it. It's very interesting to read all your points and anecdotes. But I think that this requires more analysis.


Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Joel,

I'm so glad you left a comment as I'm sure you can make a real contribution. I know this is very complex and I'm really not putting forth any kind of theory here. What I am doing is just making an empirical observation that I think is true. The explanation I am not sure of. Perhaps cultural factors are involved. For example, England was long known as the "land without music" but in the late 19th and 20th century things changed and now it is a very musical place. Perhaps it is not a question of DNA so much as "cultural capital"

In order for a nation to develop a musical culture there have to be good musicians as models, good teachers, established institutions and available careers. In many places these things are not available.

Rickard Dahl said...

Hey, I recently discovered this wonderful blog thanks to Nathan Shirley. I've been reading some of the articles but I haven't commented anything yet. Either way, my first comment here:

"On quite a few occasions in my decades-long career as a music teacher, I have had to tell parents that their child was not progressing and it was probably not worth it to continue to enroll them in lessons."
That's quite harsh. I personally don't believe so much in talent, it's more a matter of dedication (being motivated), knowing the correct practice methods and how to use them. For learning new things there obviously are better ways and worse ways. Even if you know about the "best possible" methods you have to understand them well and learn to use them in practical situations (during normal practice). So maybe at least some of the students didn't really grasp how to practice those things or maybe they simply disliked being forced to play the instrument (lack of motivation or dedication). As I see it there are many other reasons than "lack of talent" (whatever talent actually means).

I don't play guitar though, only piano. There's an interesting book about piano practice called "The Fundamentals of Piano Practice". Maybe it might be of some interest to you eventhough it's for piano.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Rickard and welcome to the Music Salon.

If you keep reading the blog, you will notice that quite often I say provocative things. I put up one post titled "What's wrong with jazz" for example. The reason for this is that stating a clear position that might seem a bit extreme is a terrific way to start a debate. What I really want is the debate. So thanks for your comment on this somewhat provocative post.

Yes, my statement might have seemed a bit harsh and I know that there is some recent discussion that downplays the whole idea of talent. I talk about that in this post:

But private music lessons are costly, easily amounting to a couple of thousand dollars a year or more. It a student isn't making progress, the parents really need to be told. Perhaps the student is learning the wrong instrument or should be taking dance or tennis lessons instead.

Musical talent is pretty undeniable, though. Some students pick up everything you show them immediately while others never quite seen to "get" it. But if by talent we mean sensitivity to musical qualities like tone color, phrasing, rhythm, harmony and so on and the facility to exploit them, then it is certainly not enough. Perhaps talent should also include the ability to focus one's efforts and the determination to master difficulties.

As a teacher I do believe that teachers can be an important, perhaps even decisive influence. But at the end of the day it is the student that does all the real work.

Thanks for the comment, Rickard and I look for more discussion!