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A Crisis in Musical Literacy?

The following is from Terry Teachout’s webpage:

How many of these songs do you know well enough to whistle?
• “All My Ex’s Live in Texas”
• “Back in Black”
• “Blowin’ in the Wind”
• “China Girl”
• “Hot Fun in the Summertime”
• “Hotel California”
• “Instant Karma”
• “Jailhouse Rock”
• “Jolene”
• “Light My Fire”
• “Maria”
• “Money”
• “My Favorite Things”
• “Over the Rainbow”
• “Roxanne”
• “Satisfaction”
• “Sheep”
• “Superstition”
• “That’ll Be the Day”
• “We Will Rock You”

No, this isn’t a test. Here’s why I’m asking: Daniel J. Levitin uses these songs as illustrations in the opening chapters of his new book THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON MUSIC: The Science of a Human Obsession (“For example, the main accompaniment to ‘Superstition’ by Stevie Wonder is played on only the black keys of the keyboard”). Obviously, he’s assuming that most of his readers will know most of the songs he cites. Is he right to do so?
As I read THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON MUSIC, I remembered the ear-training class I took thirty-one years ago as a freshman music major, in which we learned to recognize the various musical intervals by associating them with well-known pop tunes in which they figure prominently. That list of songs, like the ones found in Daniel Levetin’s book, assumed the existence of a common stock of musical reference—the musical equivalent of what E.J. Hirsch has dubbed “cultural literacy.”

I’m old enough to be musically literate enough, despite the fact that none of you would recognize any of them from what is, in effect, my tonedeaf whistling. I did draw a blank on "Sheep," though. It may be a sign of how aesthetically challenged I am that the only ones I would WANT to whistle are BLOWIN’ IN THE WIND, JAILHOUSE ROCK, LIGHT MY FIRE (despite the fact that it’s a genuinely stupid song). OVER THE RAINBOW, THAT’LL BE THE DAY, and (God knows why) WE WILL ROCK YOU.

But I’m certain that most of our students, even those at the most elite colleges, lack the basic musical literacy required to benefit from Levitin’s most informative cultural study.

Discussions - 12 Comments

I only did not know 4 of them and I’m musically terrible. What the heck is Sheep?

"Money" is the only song entirely in 7/8 ever to enter the singles chart.

"Superstition" is jaw droppingly awesome; Stevie played every instrument but the horns.

The only listenable version of "hotel california" is by the Gypsy Kings - it is on the "Big Lebowski" soundtrack.

correction, Money is the only song primarily in 7/8 - Gilmour refused to solo over a 7/8 riff, so it goes to 4/4 for the solo.

If they say ’Light My Fire’ is a great song, you know they are a liar.

"What the heck is Sheep?"

The best track on one of the best Pink Floyd albums ever, "Animals."

I’ve long thought there would be a market for e-books with musical links to illustrate musical theory or history. Or audio books with excerpts..I listened to a wonderful book on the history of ragtime but a few bars of each piece it discussed would have been nice.

Or do they have these already and I’m just horribly out of it??

The best track on one of the best Pink Floyd albums ever, "Animals."

I thought I’d recognized the title, but can’t for the life of me think of the melody. It seems strange that it’s included on this list, given that it’s probably not was well known as a lot of other Floyd tunes. I certainly wouldn’t call it part of our "common stock of musical reference."

I must confess that the only other song on the list that I couldn’t whistle was "All My Ex’s Live in Texas," but I chalk that up to my aversion to country music (except for Johnny Cash).

I had JM’s problem, no doubt in part because I don’t think of Pink Floyd as very melodic. I like classic country, though, especially tunes with clever lines like all my ex’s live in Texas. Not to mention my favorite, "I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy."

I recognized all the titles except SHEEP, but MARIA could either be by Leonard Bernstein or Blondie. This LIST must be aimed at readers of a certain age, if you know what I mean. And interestingly, most of it is almost completely unwhistleable.

If you don’t want to whistle the Bernstein Maria, there is something NQR.

Good points, Daniel and Ed

I think the list is aimed at readers of a certain age.

I would refer to myself as musically literate (in fact, I was a paid music critic for a smallish newspaper for some time). Nevertheless, I could think of the tunes for only five of the songs on the list. Some of them I just haven’t heard -- which is no doubt a function in part of my age (25). A lot of those songs just aren’t played on the radio stations that younger Americans listen to. Younger Americans should have an entirely different set of tunes in their "cultural literacy" list. (Ask anyone under 25 to whistle/hum the Simpsons theme song, for instance, and I bet a significant percentage could do it.)

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