09 June 2004

Singing revisited

I am happy that my "Commercialization and the Death of Singing" has sparked some discussion from readers. Although I am an academic political scientist, I have a longstanding interest in music dating from childhood. My mother was constantly singing around the house, as did her mother before her. My father sang less than my mother, but he whistled incesssantly, a habit I too picked up, much to the occasional irritation of my wife. There is scarcely a moment in the day when a song is not running through my head -- or even something more elaborate, such as Ralph Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. I doubt that I have perfect pitch, but I have sometimes held a pitch overnight, singing on key in the morning something I took to bed the previous night. Whether or not this is an unsual ability I cannot say. But most of my siblings have carried on this interest in music in some way, while only two have gone into it professionally. Our daughter, Theresa, has picked up the singing habit. Again, like her father, she sings incessantly. She even knows some of my Genevan Psalm renditions and can sing them by heart.

When I was working on the article, I showed it to my sister, Yvonne Koyzis Hook, who saw fit to respond. She has graciously allowed me to use her slightly edited comments, which I reproduce below:

Actually, considerable research has been done on the fact that since the dawn of recording technology and sound amplification -- about a century ago -- there has been a steady decline in peoples' physical ability to sing. Children only learn to sing if they hear their parents sing, and the fewer parents who sing, the fewer kids who learn to sing. Singing is in fact, a developmental skill like reading, and children who come from an illiterate home are more likely to be illiterate themselves, to use a parallel. . . . Young children will sing all the time, but whether they learn to do it in pitch depends entirely on their environment. And it's interesting to be a part of the bluegrass community and see firsthand, from some of my friends who grew up in rural and mining communities, how folk traditions spread even now. In general, it seems to me that the singing produced by these cultures is more functional in terms of voice production than singing that is informed only by popular culture. In fact, we've reached such a nadir in singing in pop culture that I would venture to say that very few of the most famous singers in the world have anything like basic singing skills -- production technology has rendered singing talent beside the point. The one exception, of all the pop superstars out there, is Céline Dion, who is a truly great singing talent, but of course her style and repertoire look back to the golden age of pop music -- Gershwin, Porter, et al.

I can no longer recall the source, but I once read that the high water mark of musical literacy, at least in the United States, came at the turn of the last century. Pianos, along with ability to play them, had become ubiquitous in middle-class parlours. Singing around the piano -- often in groups -- was the common entertainment of the day, as seen, for example, in the 1944 hit musical film, Meet Me in St. Louis, set in the run-up to the famous 1904 world's fair in that city.

It was immediately after this that sound recording began to have its impact. Pianos were replaced by gramophones, which required no musical knowledge whatever, only the ability to shut up and listen. Then came the radio, the modern phonograph, cassette players, CD players, &c. Late in the century fiscal austerity prompted local school districts to axe musical programmes from primary and secondary curricula, all to the detriment of musical literacy.

Of course, lack of ability to read music -- generally understood to be part of musical literacy -- need hardly prevent people singing. My Cypriot grandmother was likely unable to read a note, yet she sang to her heart's content. I myself was not very good at reading music until I was in my late 20s. But this never stood in the way of my singing, which I loved all the same.

What if I were to announce in class one morning that we all would be meeting in a local pub that evening -- to sing together? I wonder how many takers I'd get?

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