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Saturday morning quotes 3.50: Attention!

April 26, 2014

As we approach the conclusion of our third full year of Saturday morning quotes, we revisit a few of the important themes that inspired us to initiate and maintain this weekly effort.  This week, we take time to remind our readers that the study of music is an all-important element in battling our culture’s collective dwindling attention span.

Our first quotes are from Johannes de Grocheio (c. 1255 – 1320), as found in the untitled manuscript dating from circa 1300 which was later dubbed De musica by modern scholars.

“[The Estampie] is a song in which there is a diversity in its parts and its refrain, not only the rhyme of the words, but also the melody….This type causes the souls of young men and girls to concentrate because of its difficulty…”

“The estampie is also an untexted piece, having a complicated succession of concords, determined by versicles…Because of its complicated nature, it makes the soul of the performer and listener pay close attention …”

True then and true today, by learning, memorizing and playing a rather complex form of melody, performers develop and refine the skill of concentration. You can find more detailed information about Grocheio’s unique historical observations in the following articles:

– Timothy J. McGee, “Medieval Dances: Matching the Repertory with Grocheio’s Descriptions,” The Journal of Musicology, Vol. 7, No. 4 (Autumn, 1989), pp. 498-517.

– Christopher Page, “Johannes de Grocheio on Secular Music,” Plainsong and Medieval Music 2 (1993): 17-41.

– John Haines and Patricia DeWitt,”Johannes de Grocheio and Aristotelian Natural Philosophy,” Early Music History / Volume 27 / October 2008, pp 47-98.

Our next quote is by our old friend John Dowland, from his translation of Besard’s ‘Necessarie Observations’, as found in Robert Dowland’s A Varietie of Lute Lessons (1610). Dowland gives three “rules” as a guide to attain the Art of playing the lute.

“First, if he haue no great defect, and haue that naturall desire towards Mvsicke, which hath beene the founder of excellence in euery Art: Secondly, if hee stint himselfe in his learning with such labour and exercise that is moderate, and continuall, not such vnreasonable paines as many doe weary themselues with: Thirdly, if he be patient for a good long time, for commonly this brings vs whether wee will or no to the highest of the Sciences.”

For those of you who may think Dowland simply skipped the spell-checker, he implies that one must apply one’s attention to the matter at hand.

A lack of attention span is the direct result of the constant distraction provided by electronic devices.  This modern and ubiquitous problem is not necessarily due to defect, diet, disease nor disability, but it is the unfortunate outcome of normal participation in 21st-century life.  The sort of dedicated concentration essential to learning music and playing an instrument well, as outlined above by Dowland, is not reinforced by a system of education that prioritizes test scores while constantly dealing with the hard realities of crowd control in the classroom.

An unfortunate byproduct of a dwindling attention span is a general dilution of academic rigor, in part caused by ready access to an overabundance of spurious information available on the internet.  We draw your attention to a bit of disquieting evidence:

“A 1999 survey found that fifty percent of participating students admitted they had used the Internet to commit plagiarism. In a third survey, five percent of students reported they had submitted a paper obtained from an online term-paper mill, and ten percent acknowledged they had plagiarized a paper taken from the Internet. Unfortunately, this trend of academic dishonesty is likely to worsen…”

“…The Internet has provided students with new ways to avoid the processes of thinking and learning.”

– Darby Dickerson, “Facilitated Plagiarism,” Villanova Law Review, Vol. 52, Iss. 1 [2007], Art. 2

Dickerson suggests several solutions to the problem and concludes that:

“…Schools should take a comprehensive, coordinated, science-based approach to tackling matters of academic dishonesty. Steps under this paradigm include problem identification, outcome identification, research, collaborative problem-solving, program implementation and evaluation.”

How about simply restoring a tried and true method of teaching concentration, critical thinking, ethics and values, and an appreciation for aesthetic beauty – through the study of music?

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  1. Erika permalink

    There is good evidence that music education can assist with increasing children’s attention spans, as well as leading to improvements in other areas of their study.

    The evidence that the study of music leads to more ethical behaviour is much more patchy – although this was a claim made by proponents of the Suzuki method. The usual counter-argument to good music promoting ethical behaviour is that “Hitler and Stalin liked good music but they did not behave ethically.” When I did a Google search for evidence that music education does (or does not) promote ethical behaviour, I was not able to find any studies of the subject.

    The biggest problem I see with introducing a good music education problem into schools is the cost. Given the choice between a program that doesn’t need a specialist teacher and a program that requires musicians trained to be teachers and which spreads over many years, we all know which cash-strapped education authorities are going to choose.

    • Thanks for your comments, Erika. Of course context is everything, and even Plato would likely agree that if the context of one’s experience was only based upon a Phrygian ethos, training in music may lead to generally wanton behavior. Certainly, we see very little in the way of peace and love emerging from the modern pop culture’s immersion in headbanging rock and roll, dance videos that are no more than sex acts performed by leering lunatics, or angry rap “poetry” and its many derivatives.

      For instance, the founders of the US, as they were drafting the Constitution, were steeped in a standard of behavior that was informed by spiritual practice as a part of daily life. Their ideas require a basic moral standard and don’t necessarily work in a secular consumerist society. Unless education integrates the broader historical context of moral behavior along with a training in music that requires thought and involvement (e.g., not current pop music), it is only reinforcing current modes of behavior, for instance, unthinking compliant consumerism.

      As for the type of ethical behavior promoted by today’s politicians, Thomas Stearns Eliot wrote “The general ethos of the people they have to govern determines the behavior of politicians.” (T. S. Eliot, The idea of a Christian society (1939), p. 25). I guess we’re well and truly screwed unless something good happens in a hurry.

  2. Erika permalink

    P.S. regarding ethics: I wonder if a lot of the politicians and so on who bemoan the “lack of ethics in today’s youth” want them to be taught ethics or if they really want them to be taught compliance. A truly ethical population could be a frightening prospect for some people.

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