Sunday, 21 December 2014

The Song Factor

This is the time of the year in which television talent shows come to their finals.

Of course there are many problems with these shows. At present, I only wish to point to the most fundamental one: They nurture the belief that it takes a talent to sing a song. Those participating in the competition think they will become stars because they can sing. Those watching the show think they will spend their evening in a meaningful way if they listen to other people singing. Both are wrong.

Doctor Faust with students and musicians in Auerbach's Cellar
(mural painting from around 1625 in Auerbach's Cellar in Leipzig)
These expectations represent a significant “rupture” in people's attitude to singing which occurred with the emergence of recorded music. Before that time, singing by oneself ranked among the most important sources of joy in people's life. Indeed, it was held in the same esteem as love and wine as evidenced by the adage “Wine, Women and Song”, variations of which were known in many languages. Please note that “song” in this context meant songs sung by ordinary people at everyday occasions, be it work, leisure or a love affair, whether on one's own or with others. It is from this cultural background that the multitude of folk songs arose.

In the twentieth century, the trinity of “Wine, Women and Song” gave way to that of “Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll”. This change of expression symbolizes a general shift towards crudity in our lives. With regard to music in particular, it shows how the enjoyment of music recorded by a few selected "stars" took the place once held by the pastime of singing by oneself.

I remember an inscription hanging in my primary school that showed a motto coined by the famous Hungarian composer and music educator, Zoltán Kodály: “Let music belong to everybody!” In my youth I felt this motto was too pathetic and sappy. Today, I fully approve of the message it conveys: People should recognize that singing is not something extraordinary, not something that only stars or would-be stars are able or supposed to do. This insight would be the first step towards rediscovering the joys that singing can bring.

Wine and love can be next on the agenda.

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