Where Has the Music Gone?

Photo by Mark Kamin

A very tragic aspect of modern life is the decline of music as a popular art form. We are not saying that there is a lack of music. There is certainly plenty of music in all of its many forms, whether it be classical, country or rock. We are not referring to the pop music that crowds our airwaves and mass media. Nor is there any lack of more traditional folk music which largely reflects past times, peoples or ethnic identities. What is missing is that type of music that emerged from the work and culture of the people and makes music a spontaneous and meaningful part of our lives.

Today, music has become a passive pursuit performed by artists and played on myriad electronic devices. It serves as entertainment, stimulation or gratification and has little to do with time or place. We are used to mass-marketed music that has little connection with personal lives. Indeed, many would be hard pressed to name a popular local song or artist. Aside from a few patriotic songs or religious hymns, most people share no common musical heritage or engage in singing on a regular basis.


And yet, music used to be integrated into life and work. Before modern life changed our work rhythms and quicken the pace of life, people sang all the time. Everyone had their songs. Weavers, farm workers, travelers and even beggars had their music through which they told their stories and conveyed lessons.

In describing the role of music in nineteenth century France, historian Eugen Weber tells of how “sung dialogues engaged farmers or shepherds miles apart. Wives recognized their men returning home at eventide by their song. Old people remember that ‘as soon as we were two on the road, we began to sing’” (Eugen Weber, Peasant Into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France 1870-1914, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1976, p. 429).

Weber notes how song was often functional since it set the pace for work. There were harvest songs, walking songs and working songs that all corresponded to the natural rhythms set by the human heart and lungs. We might also add that song also corresponding to the flux of human emotions so that they might express sorrow and joy, tragedy and celebration. Song was integrated into people’s lives serving to encourage, teach and unite. In the Pyrenees, for example, Weber tells of women who were hired at harvest time not to work but to follow the line of reapers while singing to give them rhythm and heart (ibid. p. 431).

With the introduction of industrial society, popular music was cut off from lived experience and locality. Labor was divorced from rhythm. The tempo of life changed preparing people for the abrupt and more agitated sounds of jazz and later modern music. Yet more significant, the values of life changed away from the transcendent and spiritual values of those times. Music came to reflect the materialistic, massified and more sensual lifestyles that mark our days. The result is a decline in music, and all the arts, that once formed an integral part of social life and now are treated as mere commodities to be sold on the market.

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The book, Return to Order, deals with this abrupt change of life and how we have lost important elements like music that served to give meaning and purpose to life. While we cannot return to the historical circumstances of former epochs, we can return to those timeless principles that can be applied to our days.

  • Francis Slobodnik

    Some of the greatest works of classical music were based upon music that was common among ordinary people such as construction workers, farmers, gypsies and even university students.  As the author correctly states music used to be a part of every aspect of society.  Authentic music from the past sprang up organically.  Today, all forms of popular music are choreographed for marketing effect.  Today’s serious music is devoid of melody, harmony and normal rhythms.  It survives not because of popular appeal but because of government and subsidies of those who have means who have been convinced to prop up music that is so unappealing that no one really enjoys this music.  The great composers of the past used the simple and the organic and developed it in a way that was intellectually stimulating and uplifting.