Discovering Music: Aesthetic Foundations
Updated: Oct 6, 2020
Rob Edgar ponders the aesthetics of music aimed at children, how they may have changed over the years, and what the effects of this change might be.
Thanks to the ubiquity of Disney, and a couple of jobs which have put me in contact with children of various ages, I have often been exposed to the music of children's films, long beyond the point where it ceased to become enjoyable.
If it has served no other purpose however, it has made me think about the differences between the music of films when I was a small child and the music children are exposed to now. It was very common for my contemporaries to watch the earlier Disney films:Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,Dumbo,Peter Panet al. The music of those films tended to be closely informed by the Golden Age cinema techniques which in turn took their point of departure from late 19th Century romanticism, but they were also filled with other styles, from vaudeville and folk to jazz. A stark difference to those films compared with the more recent ones, is the use of choral singing and ensemble playing; music-making by real people.
By contrast, the songs I most often hear now seem to focus more on the individual protagonist, sung against a backdrop of heavily electronically-enhanced music which creates an unrealistic sheen; the sound is crisper, and seems to leap directly into your ears, but is it any good? Compositionally, the songs pay far less attention to counterpoint, the maxim about treating the bass line as a 'second melody' seems often to be ignored, and the harmonies have become almost universally unambitious. The singer now sings their melody over blocks of static chords. There are exceptions to every rule of course, and this article isn't intended as a latter-day Luddite manifesto, but I think there are a lot of people who would recognise what I have just described.
We have had a number of valuable and interesting articles for the Music Haven Blog recently on education in music, and amateur music making, there is plenty more to add, but here are my own two cents. If children grow up being exposed only to heavily augmented, electronically manipulated music then what chance do they have? I remember being a child and suddenly discovering the family piano; someone was playing through finger exercises and scales, but the sound coming from the box was physical and alive (I could feel it through the floor in my feet), and different combinations of notes in different octaves produced different effects. James Francis Brown has a story about sitting at the piano as a child, hitting upon a resonant consonance, and seeing the sun coincidentally burst through the clouds, thus cementing in his mind the connection between imagination and its capabilities to affect the world around us.
Whilst education at later stages is phenomenally important, the aphorism “give me the child at seven and I will show you the man” seems to be appropriate here. Being placed at the start of the path towards high quality through those classic Disney films, and the family piano (to give but two examples), subconsciously internalising the inner workings of a piece of music, and allowing the imagination to soar stands the child in good stead. These things are too evanescent and subtle to legislate for, and very difficult to teach in classrooms with large numbers of pupils. As our previous contributors have rightly said, we need the tools to mine talent effectively, but we should remember that the ore comes from the home.