bogus standards of competence, musical inhibition, dog howling, and Wagner

I’ve had young students whose parents are excited about enrolling them in lessons because they feel as if they can live vicarious musical lives through their children.

That is, they believe that they harbor absolutely no musical talent, but have always wanted to try. I’ve tried my best to convince them that it’s never too late to try, and that it would help motivate their kids to practice if they struggled alongside them. In fact, I’m proud to say that this week alone I’ve had two parents call asking for phone numbers to private teachers because they have decided to start playing, or continue where they left off years ago.

I strongly trust that inherent musical ability is a trait of humanity. So often, the concept of musical ability includes a bogus standard of required competence. I grew up in central Massachusetts where it’s okay to be a young kid starting off on a trombone – cracking notes, making the dog howl, annoying the neighbors, and interrupting mom’s show on TV. Yet after a certain age, you’re either very good or you’re not. You choose to continue by playing in ensembles, pursuing it in college, or you give it up entirely. There seems to be no middle ground – playing for the sake of playing… for the sake of having fun. There are exceptions for those who play in community ensembles – and it’s for that reason that I believe they’re so important to prize – and fund (but that’s another post).

In general, the American population is creatively inhibited by their own standard of musical competence. As we are a conflict-ready society, I can only imagine what would happen if instead of communicating with words, Americans were able to sit in musical ensembles and juggle their emotions with the help of little black notes and the expressive qualities given to them by composers.

The manic folks would love Baroque terraced dynamics, the white collar folks who have trouble emoting would delve all over the emergent Classics & Romantics, those folks who dig reality TV would slice into transcriptions and arrangements of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and all the true professional geeks would become giddy over the 2nd Viennese School and their mathematical composition techniques. I feel like it would be the equivalent of a ‘cookies & milk break’ every day for Wall Street execs – a good and necessary idea for a thousand and one reasons (plus it would drive up the Oreo stock).

Perhaps that’s one reason why New Orleans (and its music) is so different. There are no required standards of competence. Ever (at least on the level of community music). If you want to pick up a fiddle for the first time and screech that bow across a string or two in the middle of the street, do it. Instead of telling you not to quit your day job, people here would rather dance to it – then they’d either join you or give you a shortlist of musicians to jam with and learn from.

Read more about innate musical ability in the text of British ethnomusicologist John Blacking: How Musical is Man?… published in 1973.



  1. Liked this post. I grew up with a mom who was really into Baroque (OMG I still can’t handle Handel) and a dad who liked sixties folk and blues — but when I fell in love it was with The Ramones. It was even better given that I’d grown up listening to “competent” music!

  2. Funny, I was just talking to my agent about something similar. Here are a couple of nuggets he left me with.

    He has a small but interesting collection of guitars, but is a self-confessed lousy guitarist with knowledge of about half a dozen chords. He was once in conversation with someone from G&L Guitars who told him that it didn’t matter how bad he was – the worst thing one could do to a guitar (or to any musical instrument) was not play it.

    When he was young, his idol was John Lee Hooker. Listening to him, he realised that he had a very small “vocabulary” of motifs which he used over and over in his music. Also he was very liberal with the structure of a “twelve bar blues”, often ignoring modulation altogether, and often giving “twelve bars” which actually lasted anything from nine to sixteen-and-a-half. Yet his music was brilliant. “But,” said my agent, “If I had gone on stage, a white guy, and played like that, I would have been canned off!”

  3. I strongly trust that inherent musical ability
    is a trait of humanity
    You may be interested in
    looking up the research of Dale Purves et al and their discovery of
    a diatonic scale (but not the equal-tempered version) as the
    fundamental characteristic of human vowel formants. It is
    fascinating, and I believe provides the first very solid empirical
    evidence of an inherent tonality of the human animal (and perhaps
    an indisputable reason why so very few people really ‘like’
    Schoenberg and Babbitt 😉

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