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New Conceptions of Popular Music

We have to revise our notion of what constitutes “popular” music when we see the thirty-cent motion picture houses advertising orchestral programs composed largely of Tschaikovsky, Dvořák, Rachmaninoff, Wagner, Grieg, Debussy and Massenet. A few years ago such an announcement would have scared away all except a few would-be highbrows, and some of these drawn more by a sense of duty than by anticipations of pleasure. Yet the cause of this revolution in public taste is plain enough. It is due primarily to the phonograph and player piano, which have brought to the humblest home and most isolated farm an opportunity to become familiar with music of all sorts. The first records or rolls bought by an unmusical household, if the people follow their own taste, are of the catchy kind; that is, tunes of such simple melody and pronounced rhythm that they can be caught at a single hearing. But before long these wear out, literally and figuratively, while it is found that music of a more involved structure and complicated harmonies—some records of which have been included for appearance’s sake in the first order—become by repetition comprehensible and enjoyable. It is only the few of inborn musical insight or of cultivated ear who can get the meaning of a difficult composition at first bearing. For people not so gifted or favored attending a symphony concert once a lifetime or once a year is not sufficient to arouse appreciation of high-class music, and most Americans did not have even this opportunity. They were therefore subjected to sneers because they did not have the taste of Italians and Germans who heard the best of music freely and frequently. This lack In American life was first relieved by machine music, and now that the demand has been created good orchestras are becoming more common. On the campus of Columbia University and in the stadium of the College of the City of New York audiences of 5,000 to 10,000 gather night after night to listen to high-grade programs. In any such gathering we can hear exclamations of delight such as “Oh, I want to hear that number, for I have a record of it,” or “I don’t see much to that now, but I think I will get the record and learn It so as to be ready for it next time.” So we are not left in doubt as to what has educated the public. It has wiped out the old snobbish distinction between highbrow and lowbrow. Classical music, as Mark Twain said, is “so much better than it sounds”—the first time; but it sounds better when we see the sense to it, as many millions have discovered.—From The Independent (New York).

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