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Saturday morning quotes 8.11 Musical Literacy

February 6, 2021

“I have always belonged to the well-to-do classes, and was born into luxury, so that necessarily I ask much more of the future than many of you do; and the first of all my visions, and that which colours all my others, is of a day when that misunderstanding will no longer be possible; when the words poor and rich, though they will still be found in our dictionaries, will have lost their old meaning.”

– William Morris, “The Society of the Future (1887),” in A. L. Morton, ed., The Political Writings of William Morris, International Publishers, New York, 1979, p. 190–91.

An important aspect of so-called Early Music is that the surviving music found in hand-written manuscripts and from the early printing press is representative of music of the nobility. The cost of paper and books in general was dear, and only the wealthy class possessed libraries and provided private musical instruction for their children. But as we dig deeper into the past, we see a history of noblesse oblige that guided the wealthy in their responsibility for the welfare of the less fortunate, and we see a trajectory of the lower classes having access to education.

“[Prior to the Reformation] Education was generally free, so boys of the poorer classes had an opportunity of specialised training in music…Two principles seem to have actuated the teaching of music in the Grammar Schools; to help diction for the reading of Latin and Greek texts, and to train pupils to sing the musical sections of the Church Services. Apparently music was not taught with a view to fit the pupil with a necessary social accomplishment.”

– David G. T. Harris, “Musical Education in Tudor Times (1485-1603)”, Proceedings of the Musical Association, 65th Sess. (1938 – 1939), pp. 118-121. 

This trend led to the rise of an educated society that promoted literacy for all and, by extension, widespread musical literacy. The innovation of the printing press had everything to do with literacy, and the eventual decline in the cost of paper after 1650 led to an increase in access to printed materials, with the advent of affordable prose novels and almanacs in the 18th century. In Britain, 100 new titles of popular literature per year were printed circa 1750, and the number increased to 600 per year by 1825 with up to 6,000 per year before the end of the 19th century.

“In 1840, two-thirds of all grooms and half of all brides in England and Wales were able to sign their names at marriage; in 1900, 97 percent of each group was able to do so. This increase contrasts with the roughly constant proportion signing at marriage between 1750 and 1840…Surveys of reading habits in the 1840s suggest that in London most working class families possessed books and newspapers, while in rural areas printed matter was largely confined to religious material.”

– David Mitch, “The Spread of Literacy in Nineteenth-Century England,” The Journal of Economic History, Mar., 1983, Vol. 43, No. 1, The Tasks of Economic History (Mar., 1983), p. 287.

In the US, the received notion of the uneducated backwoodsman having no use for books or printed music is shattered by examining the facts. Since the US is primarily populated by immigrants, there has always been a strong tradition of European musical literacy, seen in collections such as the American Vernacular Music Manuscripts, ca. 1730-1910, where we find some 345 manuscript music books including books of fiddle tunes and song collections like The American Harmony, a manuscript music book of untexted psalm and hymn tunes, set in four parts and copied in 1798 by Aaron Cowling, the namesake of my grandfather who was born some eighty years later.

“Where urban life tended to dominate Northern culture, cites in the Upland South were small and relatively few. Southern industries were restricted to processing products drawn from the local countryside. High value was placed on family connections, maintained across generations and geographical distance. The region was populated chiefly by people of English, Scotch-Irish, and German background: people with strong cultural ties before they migrated. Their identity was closely tied to religious affiliation…[L]ong after the music of Billings and Company had all but disappeared from the composers’ native region, it remained alive and well in the South. Moreover, it continued there in a practice of sacred singing that revolved around oblong tunebooks and singing schools teaching the four-syllable New England system of note reading.”

– Richard Crawford, America’s Musical Life, W. W. Norton, New York, 2001, p. 159.

Musical literacy can be considered a given for any educated person up until the 1920s, when a convergence of factors undermined its importance. The post-WWI and post-Spanish influenza economy constituted a “great reset” that employed the entertainment industry to broadcast and instill new attitudes that converted every person from a citizen to a consumer. Moving pictures portrayed an idealized template for the modern lifestyle, and entertainment in the home could now be had with the flick of a switch, and the wireless and the gramophone cancelled the need for widespread musical literacy.

Today, musical literacy is can be described as a class distinction. Public musical education for the many now concentrates on how to use software to create synthesized sounds, and the cost of musical instruments and private tuition is such that only the wealthy can afford to teach their children actual music in the historical tradition. Sadly, the utopian future of William Morris was not founded in reality.

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  1. Christopher Barker permalink

    I have an example of musical illiteracy… There is a website called Next Door which covers about four local communities here in the Texas Hill Country. Next Door is a local information site. I have put up a question asking if there was anyone in the area interested in classical guitar. I have also asked if anyone was interested in early music. There were no replies to either question. There is quite a bit of money and college education in this area. I believe that it is not just the wealthy who give their children music education. Possibly it is that most people today are musically illiterate and have several generations of musical illiteracy behind them. I regret seeing things as I do. My remarks come after serious observation for a long period of time.

  2. Jeff Snedeker permalink

    Hi, Ron and Donna,

    We’ve been out of touch for quite awhile, although I continue to enjoy your Unquiet Thoughts postings and musical offerings.

    One of the few blessings of the pandemic is the shift to virtual performances, which, although in no way as satisfactory as live performances, at least do allow for a wide geographic audience.  To that end, I thought you might be interested in a program of late 16th and early 17th century keyboard works that I presented last week as part of Music at St. Luke.  The instrument is a 3-1/2 rank Klop that I acquired last year, and with which I am absolutely in love!  The link to the recital can be found at

    I hope that you are both well, and that when travel becomes possible again that our musical paths may cross at some future time.

    All the best,

    Jeff Snedeker

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