On the last night of spring break, I spent an hour going toe-to-toe with a first-year from Harvard, belting out every line we could remember from “Les Misérables” at the top of our lungs. He and I successfully got through “The Confrontation,” “Look Down,” and even the frenetic “Red and Black.” Eventually we ran out of steam, sore of throat and flushed of face, but having found a new depth of friendship and joy.
I feel about singing the way I do about soccer: I’m terribly incompetent at it, yet I revel in it. Though I know that anyone with minimal training or talent is sure to sing better than me, there’s still something magical about creating the music myself. Not everything should be left solely to the experts, even though they are orders of magnitude better at what they do than what we amateurs could ever do. While Barcelona fans like me certainly love watching El Clásico triumphs like last weekend’s, there remains something uniquely pleasurable about holding your own Clásico, playing one-on-ones in the backyard against your friend in the Madrid jersey.
But some arts don’t lend themselves to amateur performances so easily. The content of Music Humanities doesn’t seem remotely approachable. I wouldn’t dare to sing Monteverdi’s “Possente spirto” or Mozart’s “Là ci darem la mano” or even Schubert’s “Erlkönig.” This music is virtuosic, the rarefied province of those who spend their lives refining their musical crafts. It’s also distinctly elite, made for the Vatican, the imperial court, or the monied middle classes. To this day, classical concert halls remain places of socioeconomic privilege and repositories of cultural capital. Lincoln Center is in the Upper West Side—not the South Bronx.
Before the 20th century, the classical music that we study in Music Hum really was remote from most “ordinary” people. But then, mass media indelibly impacted Western culture. Radio brought Chopin, Beethoven, and Bach to millions, TV made things even easier, and now the Internet has given us inexhaustible amounts of wonderful music for free. Just search YouTube or Spotify!
But no simple narrative of progress or decline will do for explaining the trajectory of a culture. So, even as many great masterpieces became accessible for the first time, the wonderful achievements of mass media came at a hidden cost. The Internet has helped carve out space for independent musicians to share their work widely and cheaply, giving sensations like YouTube violinist Lindsey Stirling a chance to shine. But culturally influential music has become more and more the province of polished experts. To use my earlier analogy: It is as if almost everyone has stopped playing soccer for themselves to watch Barcelona because the pros are so much better.
This is a sweeping claim, and of course the musical history here is very complicated. But basically, “average” Americans sing and play music in groups in everyday life today a lot less than they did 100 years ago. Part of the joy of making music lies in making it with other people. To complement each other’s voices and to harmonize and produce a uniquely beautiful synthesis are to develop community in a distinctly powerful way.
A generation ago many children grew up singing “Amazing Grace” and myriad other hymns. Church is a smaller part of our national and cultural life now. But it’s notable that folk songs, too, used to provide common ground across broad cross-sections of America. In World War I, soldiers at the legendary Christmas Truce crossed no man’s land to sing carols like “Auld Lang Syne”—commonly known because more children grew up singing together.
Instead of these usually anonymous folk songs that arose from everyday experience, 21st-century Americans know brands: Pitbull, Justin Bieber, and Rihanna. These “pop” tunes aren’t organically popular in the sense that folk songs are; they are commercial vehicles, vetted and disseminated by a few giant media corporations like MTV and Atlantic Records. Instead of the unashamedly aristocratic compositions of Music Hum or the understated dignity of the gospel-derived civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome,” most of the new songs that we hold in common today have been packaged by soullesss marketing teams from the music industry and handed down to us like pablum.
I think we should feel that there’s something precious lost when most of the music we consume has been prepackaged for us. I think there’s something lost when we no longer grow up knowing the beauty of singing together as a community. Columbia’s campus offers chances to hear wonderful a cappella, choral, and instrumental student groups, but we as a community barely sing together beyond a verse of “Roar, Lion, Roar” at basketball games. Can we remedy this situation?
We can and should invest time in appreciating the depths and riches of the world of excellent traditional music that is open to us. Cherish Music Hum, which challenges people like me—people who have no musical background—to learn to distinguish duple and triple meter. Then, seek out chances to sing together.
We’ll awkwardly come to know the twin joys of singing amateurishly and singing in community. And we have just the songs to do so—two of the great songs of our academic community in Morningside Heights should be rediscovered. “Stand, Columbia” and “Sans Souci,” Columbia’s alma mater songs should be claimed proudly.
“Mother, stay’d on rock eternal,/ Crown’d and set upon a height,/ Glorified by Light supernal.”
Luke Foster is a Columbia College junior majoring in English. He is the president of the Veritas Forum and a member of Columbia Faith and Action. Foster the Core runs alternate Fridays.
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