Seventy-Six Trombones: How Participatory Do We Want Our Music To Be?

It's Kat Quiz time: what is the biggest challenge facing the music world today? Most likely, the response will centre on the decline of the CD industry and the challenge of monetizing music in an often portable digital world. I would have answered the same way, until I recently heard a Stanford Technology Ventures podcast presentation here by the co-founders of a U.S. start-up called Smule, here. After listening to the podcast, this Kat is prepared to entertain the thought that the "problem" with this answer is that, while it may be so very right, it also may be so very wrong. From the view of Smule, the real issue is that for a century or more, we have let technology disrupt the fundamental value of music to society. What technology has helped to destroy in the world of music, technology now has the capacity to rebuild. What does this Kat mean? Read on.

First, the problem: the basic premise is that music is a form of expression and each of us has within us to create his or her own manner of musical expression. However, as a society, we have turned the emphasis on music from active participation to passive consumption. Until the 20th century, most music was "consumed" actively. People shared musical experiences, either in the home or in social settings that placed the emphasis on "performing" the music.

There is no better example of this ethos than the story line of the mythological Broadway musical by Meredith Wilson of 50 years ago--The Music Man, here. The plot focuses on a con artist, calling himself Professor Harold Hill, who convinces the gullible residents of a small town in Iowa, the heartland of the country, that the best way for them to combat the perceived moral decline of their youth is to set up a youth band. Hill's gig was to sell the equipment and run. Soppy Broadway being what it was then, Hill takes a fancy to Marian the Librarian and she convinces him that he must stay the course and actually provide the residents with the promised youth band. And so he does, with the youngsters blaring away on their instruments, cacophonic to outside ears, but a source of uncontrollable joy for the deliriously joyful parents.

How did Hill convince them to buy into his scheme. Simple, through the iconic song, "Seventy-Six Trombones", he conjured up the imagery of a youth band, in which all of the town's youth takes part. And so the immortal lyrics:
Seventy-six trombones led the big parade
With a hundred and ten cornets close at hand.
They were followed by rows and rows of the finest virtuo-
Sos, the cream of ev'ry famous band.

Seventy-six trombones caught the morning sun
With a hundred and ten cornets right behind
There were more than a thousand reeds
Springing up like weeds
There were horns of ev'ry shape and kind.

There were copper bottom tympani in horse platoons
Thundering, thundering all along the way.
Double bell euphoniums and big bassoons,
Each bassoon having its big, fat say! 

There were fifty mounted cannon in the battery
Thundering, thundering louder than before
Clarinets of ev'ry size
And trumpeters who'd improvise
A full octave higher than the score!
As a matter of ethos, what took place in "The Music Man" could also have been imagined for a town in Europe or elsewhere. Music was social, active, expressive and participatory. But then, technology got in the way. Radio and television, records and CDs, often viewed as the means for the broader distribution of music, presumably a good thing, in fact struck at the very heart of the social experience of music, turning most of us into passive consumers of music created and performed by a tiny number of persons, being other than ourselves.

Enter Smule. Founded by a serial entrepreneur, Jeff Smith, and Ge Wang, a Princeton Ph.D. on the faculty at Stanford, its avowed aim is to connect the world through music, thereby seeking a 21st-century replication of the lost world of "The Music Man." It claims to do so by commercially offering social music-making applications for various smartphone and tablet platforms. It relies on artificial intelligence and other technologies to produce its apps. Instead of bringing together avid players across continents to play computer games, Smule seeks to enable persons in disparate locations to make music together. The technology can apparently rework one's voice, so even the strident monotones of this Kat are made sufficiently anodyne so as to enable him to join in the musical experience (and presumably to payback its well-known investors, whom after all, have put their money into Smule for hard-nosed commercial reasons).

Presumably Smule is not alone and there are other companies seeking to monetize music by reconverting it from a passive to an active, participatory experience through the use of social media and cutting-edge technology. That said, this Kat still wonders what is the realistic scope for the up-take of their products. Being passive consumers of content may well be what we want as a society. With data showing average television viewing amounting to five hours or more a day in some countries, passive is apparently what we are, and passive is what we get. Despite Professor Harold Hill, maybe there is nothing inherently preferable with active over passive when it comes to music.
Seventy-Six Trombones: How Participatory Do We Want Our Music To Be? Seventy-Six Trombones: How Participatory Do We Want Our Music To Be? Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Friday, November 23, 2012 Rating: 5


  1. Very interesting, Neil, but what you call "passive" isn't passive at all - the intellect and emotions are being engaged and stimulated in many ways. The mind is alive.

    Artistic performance was (and is) primarily narrative - with more people listening than talking, playing or singing at any one time. Technology simply removed space and time constraints and enlarged the market for such performances.

    The category error Smule makes is to assume that only clicking counts as "engagement". It's a tragically restricted view, but is only to be expected from a Computer Science PhD (Wang) and a Computer Science BSc (Smith).

  2. Perhaps technology also increases interaction in some cases: karaoke, for instance, is very popular in some cultures. Also, anyone who has sung along at a gig to their favourite track might argue we have not quite become entirely passive.

  3. Anonymous

    Thanks for the comment. One observation: from what Prof. Wang said on the podcast, he has been steeped in music from an early age. He noted that at the age of 13, he parents gave him an electric guitar as a present,and he has been actively involved in music performance and production ever since.


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