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Cut the Magic

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I’m teaching a new (to me) class this semester, Introduction to Music Literature, AKA Music Appreciation. The textbook we’re using (not my pick) is Craig Wright’s Listening to Music. Let me share a brief quote with you from the first page of Chapter 1:

Want proof of the allure of music? Next time you’re riding on a bus, a train, or the subway, look around and you’ll find that about twice as many people are listening to music as are reading. This is true pretty much everywhere around the developed world. But why does music have such universal appeal? Simply said, music has power.

First of all, if this were Wikipedia, I’d log in and put a [citation needed] after that glaring statistic. “4 out of 5 dentists” works great in a toothpaste ad, but I think it’s ok to expect more out of academic writing than a 15-second spot on local television.

More importantly, can we ditch this “music is magic” stuff? Yes, music is great. I like it. I’ve spent a lot of time studying it, and I plan to spend a lot more. However, making it into this ethereal, supernatural entity makes it almost impossible to having a meaningful discussion about. The people on the subway aren’t listening to music; they’re just letting music fill in the space around them because it’s preferable to whatever other sounds (or lack thereof) are naturally there. As I see it, my job as a music appreciation teacher is to demonstrate to my students that actual listening requires something more akin to the attention and engagement of reading a book or newspaper. That, dear reader, is music appreciation.