Music Quickly Becoming A Forgotten Language

“Come in on the off-beat of ‘one,’ then rest for a measure before repeating that phrase again. And watch the syncopation.”

This might sound familiar to someone with experience in a choral or instrumental group, but if I said that to the members of the a cappella group I lead, they’d probably look at me as if I were speaking a foreign language.

That’s because it is a foreign language.

Music, the alleged “universal” language, isn’t nearly as widely spoken as it once was. The benefits of a music education are no secret. Because of its repeatedly proven short- and long-term effects on memory, creativity and basic brain function, advocates have long urged parents to enroll their children in music programs lest the programs die completely.

Making music stimulates parts of the brain that otherwise sit idle, so it should be routine exercise, if nothing else. However, whether it’s because of schoolwork, extra-curricular activities or just plain indifference, students from grade school to university age are not learning music.

Growing up, my siblings and I were active in sports and maintained good grades. We also each played an instrument or two, whether through the school band or private lessons, and still had time for family and fun. Over the years, however, I came to take this education for granted, and it wasn’t until fairly recently that I realized it.

My freshman year of college, I was given a scholarship to serve as the choir’s rehearsal accompanist and soon became involved with a student-run singing group called “Bonacoustics,” for which I inherited responsibility last spring. Both groups were newly reassembled, and each enjoyed moderate growth and successes over my first four semesters, only to suffer the exact opposite over the last two.

Last fall, Bonacoustics received an encouraging amount of interest at the school’s organization fair. Though only about half of the students committed, I was thrilled to have people interested in the group – until I realized that nobody could read music. I did not expect everyone to walk in knowing the circle of fifths, but I had hoped for at least one or two people who understood the concept of a time signature.

As a result, I opted to teach songs part by part, note by note, over and over again. The progress was slow and attendance was inconsistent, but our first performance was satisfactory. Still, I hadn’t envisioned losing so much sleep over five Christmas carols.

Maybe it’s because it wasn’t as glamorous as it looks on “Glee” or “Pitch Perfect.” Maybe nobody thought it would require work. Whatever the reason, not as many people came out for the spring semester. As a result, Bonacoustics won’t have its spring show this year. Instead, the few remaining members will sing a few songs at an upcoming awards event, just so our efforts aren’t totally for naught.

I’ve wondered what I could have done differently. I’ve lost sleep over that, too. I’ve stopped beating myself up over it, unfortunate though it is, because my job wasn’t to teach music; my job was to make music. Had a few of these people gotten exposure growing up, we could have done more of that. The choir and band are suffering losses in attendance too, so it can’t be just me.

A lack of funding is one of the major reasons music education doesn’t thrive. As a high school student-athlete, I used to scoff at claims that the sports teams were getting all the attention while music suffered. But, as I said, I used to take music for granted. Having removed myself from that realm upon entering college, that claim is now more of a reality.

We pick on sports as the antagonist of music, but the issue is the lack of attention music gets, rather than how much is paid to other activities. School systems can only devote so many resources to music, so they can’t be wholly responsible for its success. Instead, it’s up to parents to initiate interest and involvement earlier on, so it’s more natural by the time kids reach school.

The welfare of college a cappella groups is not the concern; rather, the fate of music is at stake. Programs can’t survive without interest, and musicality can’t exist without these programs. Ultimately, if students don’t get excited about music again, these days of Auto-Tune will endure as more than just a fad. Many of us just recently got Rebecca Black’s infamous “Friday” song out of our heads; I, for one, am not prepared to endure that trauma again.

Most people know how to count to 10 and say “hello” in Spanish. Is adding “do-re-mi” to the vocabulary too much to ask? It’s time for music to take back its rightful rank among world languages.

Andrew Liuzzo is a 2010 graduate of Jamestown High School now studying at St. Bonaventure University.