I’m on record grumbling like an old curmudgeon (even though I’m merely a middle-aged curmudgeon) about the diminished and devalued state of music. Not popular music, which is abundant, varied and widely-covered, but music-only music — the art of sound. I want more for music that’s artistically ambitious, music that’s refined and music that’s rooted in schooled and skilled musicianship and composing, the fields that we’ve (incompletely and imperfectly) called jazz, classical or contemporary. These mega-genres, these vast legacies and vibrant current creative scenes, make up but a small fraction of our national music diet and conversation.
I must say though that in recent years, it’s been improving. Musical genres and concepts that were in the commercial wilderness in the 90s and 2000s are faring better in mature digital media ecosystems. We’ve seen pop stars giving a leg up to instrumental artists, such as Kendrick Lamar’s collaborations with and exposure of saxophonist Kamasi Washington and Taylor Swift’s unexpected fascination with Pulitzer Prize winning composer John Luther Adams. High-skill, experimental and immersive bands like Snarky Puppy have young, grassroots followings. The Big Ears festival in Knoxville, TN has, over a decade, grown into a phenomenon that’s helped more esoteric ensembles and composers multiply their audience.
Many have argued that low demand for deep music is a problem of marketing, promotion and exposure. I think it’s fundamentally a problem of rudimentary musical literacy. Nobody would argue that citizen/fans have to be deeply schooled in music theory to fall in love with difficult music, but the public knows way too little about how musicians think and about time, tonality, timbre and the other elements of musicality. We are a nation being urged to enjoy a sport without being shown the basic rules of the game. The re-valuing of music is a function of helping folks know what they should be listening for when a song and singer aren’t the main focus of attention.
As with everything, the call is being answered online and specifically via YouTube, where a self-appointed group of music explainers and educators are revealing music at its stem cell level, in plain English. When I was a kid, it was Leonard Bernstein and Billy Taylor on public TV. Now it’s creators like the ones profiled and linked here. If you know of others, please note them in the replies.
Vox.com’s Earworm series
Vox.com is known for its policy explainers, but for the past year or so, Vox has featured video essayist Estelle Caswell explaining wide ranging aspects of music in the series Earworm. Caswell treats pop, jazz and classical as all part of the same musical family tree, illuminating connections and curiosities with sharp commentary, well-chosen interviews and concise animation. The above video about “Giant Steps” describes the circle of fifths so anyone can understand, or at least get a toe-hold. An episode about Radiohead’s “Videotape” is a dive into elusive rhythms and the importance of feeling the downbeat. Caswell flags recording studio accidents that became important sonic trends, and she dissects the revolutionary impact of producer J Dilla and his MPC3000 sampler on the wide world of rhythm, from hip-hop to jazz. These are ten-minute blasts of infectious musical insight.
The way classical musicians think and hear the world is not unfathomable to the uninitiated, but since Bernstein, few have even tried to bridge the gap. Juilliard trained pianist and composer Nahre Sol steps in with “creative videos on music performance, practicing, and composition.” But they’re so much more. What makes Bach sound like Bach, or Debussy sound like Debussy? She helps us hear it, using low-jargon English, demonstrations and whimsical on-screen annotations. She takes her electric keyboard to unexpected locales and composes miniatures that are informed by her explorations of genres that she didn’t grow up with, such as funk, the blues and bossa nova. At home she has a camera above her piano so we can watch her get things right and wrong, with explanations. Random appearances by her adorable terrier Bobby add to the overall charm.
Neely is a bass player who’s been compulsively uploading musical thoughts and encouragement to his YouTube channel for years. There is a LOT to explore, but one can dive in anywhere to inhabit the world of a thinking, wide-ranging musician. He discourses on streaming economics, synesthesia, perfect pitch and just about any aspect of musicality you could imagine. Some insider theory talk will be lost on the non-practitioner. But often, Neely helps the music fan listen more insightfully and eclectically by describing contrasting or complimentary modes of thinking across pop, jazz and classical. Neely also does expansive Q&A’s for his 600,000 subscribers.
Beato’s videos tend to fall on the high-knowledge end of the spectrum, but for those willing to hang on past the unfamiliar bits, they’re full of new ways to listen. His range of interests and expertise is remarkable, stretching far beyond theory. He’ll take a few minutes explaining the sonic feeling made by suspended chords, or he’ll spend 45 minutes breaking down what makes a specific pop/rock song great. He interviews stars and fellow professionals and hosts live Q&As, but most often he’s just amiably speaking to the camera. He teaches important jazz solos and gets inside what makes certain classical composers great and unique. He’s at 655,000 subscribers and counting.
An anonymous left-handed guy, self-realized as a cartoon elephant, talks off camera and illustrates what he’s talking about on staff paper in time lapse video with a black Sharpie. How compelling could that be? It is in fact mesmerizing and addictive. 12tone’s YouTube channel description, “something something music theory,” gets at the breezy and wry tone of these videos, which over three years have tackled a huge range of topics from the hard core (secondary dominants) to the orienting (what’s a motif?) to the meta (is music a universal language?). There’s a Building Blocks series for newcomers to music theory and extensive breakdowns of popular songs whose takeaways will help you be a more astute listener to anything.
The music animation machine
I was lucky to learn to read music growing up and in youth symphony I got to see and appreciate scores, which are in fact the work product of the composer and the critical guide to a conductor clarifying how all the parts of a piece interact and flow together. Stephen Malinowski’s animated real-time visualizations of scores, have evolved over many years from bare bones blocks like a game of Pong to elaborate and experimental ways to represent time, timbre, pitch, dynamics and all the essentials of a piece. Here, non readers and readers alike get a conductor’s view of the architecture of complex music, amplifying the brain’s hunger for anticipation and reward, tension and resolution, which is at the end of the day what music is.
Collier is a 24-year-old musical wunderkind from North London who blew up on YouTube with his dazzling multi-tracked solo recordings, where he proves he can play any instrument, sing any line, harmonize any part and generally blow your mind in any genre. He doesn’t post per se educational videos in serial on a dedicated channel like the others described here, but searching “Jacob Collier On Music” leads to TED talks, interviews and demonstrations like the one here. His mind is so quick and his musicality so comprehensive you may want to smack him, but his enthusiasm is infectious. Few have the charismatic power and intellectual wherewithal to do what Collier does, seemingly effortlessly. If anyone’s on his way to being the next generation’s Bernstein, he’s the leading prospect.