I was recently at a local coffeehouse (a small live musical performance event.) A locally known folk singer was performing. He played his guitar and sang his own songs. It was entertaining, but I couldn’t help noticing how all of his songs sounded alike. His songs also sounded very much like the folk songs of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and others from the folk era without anything new to offer. This led me to think about why that was, and I began to suspect that the problem might very well be that the folk music genre is a self-limiting genre. I believe strumming a guitar and singing to it offers limited musical possibilities, especially when one plays just a few basic root-position open chords with the same basic strumming pattern. I believe the problem is that this playing style is what defines folk music: if one starts using extended chords, inverted chords, wide-open-voicing chords and syncopated rhythms (as in classical, flamenco and jazz), it would no longer sound like folk music.
Hearing some people in attendance speak made me realize that this was THE music (i.e., only music) for them. They weren’t listening to this music in a historical context, i.e., something that was popular some decades ago. Rather, this is their musical staple: they listen to this stuff all the time. That’s like an adult listening to children’s songs not as something that one enjoyed as a child or something to listen to with one’s children but as if that’s the only music there is, even when there are other types of music around. That’s like eating a hamburger for every meal when there are plenty of other types of food around. I think people can easily see the problem of this kind of culinary/dietary stagnation of eating a hamburger for every meal. However, most people do not appear to be aware of limiting their own musical experience to only one self-limiting type of music that represents musical development that happened many decades ago. They are stuck in a musical rut! Staying in this rut inadvertently precludes exposure to more recent or more in-depth development in music.
One problem is that most people’s cultural activities tend to be passive, whether it’s news or the arts. Studies have shown that most people in North America get their news from watching TV, rather than seeking out information on their own. Likewise, most people get their dose of “culture” through mass media and music-industry events, rather than seeking out musical experience on their own. Therefore, their idea of music is defined largely by mass media and the music industry. The problem with this is that the industry will cater to its specific market niche. If they can make money from it, all the players of the industry will play their part: the “artist” will go on writing song after a song (regardless of their musical merit), a recording engineer will work on recording the songs, coffeehouses and cafes will stage the “artist” and sell the CDs and the audience will take in their spoon-fed dose of “culture”.
But music can and ought to be so much more than this. Adults in this highly developed society should nurture their musical sensibilities by continuously exploring and expanding their musical horizons. Their musical experience should not be confined to the same-old comfort-laden auditory sensation happening over and over again, just like an LP that has a skip and plays the same segment of music over and over again. One should step out of this cultural stagnation and continue to grow, develop and refine one’s musical sensibilities- as only human beings can and as human beings should.