A Note-Worthy Era for Composers ; Sheet Music Opened a Still-Wide Rift between Popular Tunes and Scholarly Works

By Karen Campbell, | The Christian Science Monitor, May 19, 2000 | Go to article overview

A Note-Worthy Era for Composers ; Sheet Music Opened a Still-Wide Rift between Popular Tunes and Scholarly Works


Karen Campbell,, The Christian Science Monitor


Music and dance are born into humans. One of the earliest and most natural forms of expression in children are the primal sounds, rhythms, and movements that form the building blocks of music.

Somewhere along the way most of us lose this natural tendency to express our emotions through song and dance. The process either becomes formalized or inhibited entirely.

Over the last millennium in Western civilization, a duality has sprung up between the "performing arts" as a spectator event and the arts as something we do.

For the vast majority, a large portion of serious music changed from being a normal part of civilized life to being a fringe interest.

And that is where we stand today. As we work our way into the new millennium, the performing arts are fighting hard not to be marginalized on the edges of people's consciousness.

In many other cultures, the rift between serious and popular art forms is significantly less, or even nonexistent, especially cultures in which there is a history of passing artistic traditions down from generation to generation.

Music has been used as a form of communication over long distances. Even in non-Western cultures and when study and preparation are required to be an artistic performer, the product is geared toward the common man and woman. In China, for example, skilled actors train for years in opera, yet the performance itself is considered entertainment for the masses.

So what happened in Western music to create such a great chasm between the serious and popular arts forms?

Arguably the most important development in music over the past 1,000 years has been the standardization of proportional musical notation, allowing complex musical works to be passed on in a visual form.

The earliest system began in the 7th century, but it wasn't until the turn of the millennium that proportional notation, allowing for specific pitch and duration, developed. This opened up the possibility of creating music of greater intricacy and texture. It opened the way for compositions using more than one voice at a time (harmony and counterpoint) and spawned the development of new instruments to play what the voice could not sing.

It also meant that music could travel the world via sheets of paper, providing composers in Italy access to work being created in England.

When the millennium began, halfway through the Middle Ages, it was a repressive time when the Roman Catholic Church claimed absolute power as Europe's governing body.

The church was the employer of nearly all professional musicians and composers, with the dictum that music's highest mission was to glorify God. Compositions tended to be simple and followed strict forms. Most were choral works.

Then came the Renaissance, which started around 1400 and ushered in two centuries of cultural awakening. With the invention of the printing press, music, art, and literature began to blossom with innovation.

When Martin Luther's "95 Theses" (1517) helped codify the unrest in the Catholic Church, precipitating the Reformation and the rise of Protestantism, music began to appear prominently outside the strictures of religious occasions. The wealthy often employed their own resident composers and orchestras. …

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