A Response To Arnold Schoenberg – The Radio: Reply To A Questionnaire

IMG_0926Style and Ideas: The Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg as translated into English by Leo Black and edited by Leonard Stein gives an incredibly in depth perspective into the beliefs and psyche of the man who revolutionized the Western harmonic language. From how he viewed his role in society to musings about the social, political, and technological issues of his time to sketches of composers both living as well as dead; the reader of his works really experiences the presence of the long-dead composer and musical revolutionary.

On July 31, 1930, Schoenberg answers a questionnaire from a Mr. Ibach,[1] the subject of which was the radio. Schoenberg’s understanding of the radio was quite different than ours as he was likely to only be aware one or both of the two choices in early radio technology. That of the primitive crystal radio (of which there are numerous patents so no true date can be approximated) or the first vacuum tube radio which according the patent by Lee De Forest filed with the US Patent Office on January 29, 1907 and issued as US Patent #879,532 just over a year later on February 18, 1908[2]. As the inventor of FM Radio, Edwin Armstrong, would not present his creation of the wideband frequency modulation system to the world-at-large until 1933[3] and Schoenberg penned this response in 1930, we can be fairly certain that Schoenberg was not addressing the FM flavor of radio.

In his response Schoenberg addresses two major issues with the radio that of tone color and what he calls “The boundless surfeit of music.” Speaking on the first matter, that of tone, we can say that in our modern time radio sounds much better and indeed more natural than it did back in 1930. It is a point, which doesn’t need to be sited since all one has to do is listen to radio recordings from then and now or obtain a vintage radio. The difference is easily observed. Though the difference in the range and tone of old radios is great and easily noticeable despite the advances in technology conventional and satellite radio are largely still inferior forms of music transmission. The inherent need to compress the snot out of a piece of music to conform to radio standards ultimately changes the sonic palette of a work. It is a kin to taking a photocopy of a Dali painting, while it closely resembles the work it is to some degree also a distorted recreation of the work. Furthermore, beyond the issue of slightly distorted sound there is a problem with signal reliability. Due to the nature of the transmission of radio one is almost always certain to at some point notice changes in volume as well as cut signal due to buffering, inclement weather, or travel outside of the transmitting region. These unplesantries, which on the surface seem bearable, are in fact quite crippling for the overall presentation of a great work of music; because what they inevitable do is break the arc of a composition something not unlike answering your cell phone and trying to carry on a conversation with your friend amid echoes, whistles, and intermittent breaks. The message is unclear.

Schoenberg also speaks of how once the ear becomes accustomed to the inferior sound of radio that the sound of instruments used in art music will seem inferior. While as stated before the radio has become better at producing sounds in a more natural tone there is a degree of truth in that people are so used to the samples and drum replacements used in popular music that their concept of good playing on an orchestral instrument is largely distorted. Further, the dominance of grid based music makes listening to art music, which may or may not be based on a metered time and which, if based on metered time often includes an incorporation of rubato, difficult for the receivers of music not familiar with the Western tradition of concert music. They are looking for something to tap their foot to while trying to pick up the girl at the end of the bar, not music with elongated phrases, developments, and linear lines to be followed.

“The boundless surfeit of music.” Schoenberg calls it. The idea that as music becomes a continuous part of every day life it will become worn out by nature of the fact that all music has been consumed. Of course Schoenberg, could not conceive in his lifetime that a mass of music would be created by a host of individuals with little to no musical knowledge with a laptop in their basements. On the other hand, in the regards to commercial radio stations his sentiment of worn out music can be observed in the Top 40 syndrome that plagues the popular world of music. The rotation of these songs does continue to a point of being worn out and consumed.

The other point he brings up in his musings on worn out music is that “people will be as hardened to this noise as any other.” Truer words could not be spoken of our age. People hear music on their way into work, at the gym; it is the background to TV shows and movies, the hold music while waiting for customer service, the smooth jazz on the elevator in a classy building. Music is everywhere and hardly anybody is listening. Hearing and listening are two different acts. Hearing is the most basic primal act of our auditory senses. “Hearing is instinct it requires a very basic understanding of an auditory event, that of registration of the sound or sounds being made. Listening in contrast requires comprehension and retention. By which I mean there has to be some auditory memory. The more advanced the auditory memory they more complicated and deeper one can listen, appreciate and analyze music.”[4] Very little deep listening happens in our culture as far as music is concern. If one is not a dedicated professional or scholar it is rare or uncommon to find people who are sitting around analyzing their music for fun, so what we have is, in general, a bunch of surface listeners who’s musical predilections are being driven by corporate fat cats who are driven by the millions of dollars which can be profited from the dreck and drivel of your Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, One Direction, Kanye West, etc. All of this is building up to one single event the devolution of the ear.

Schoenberg imagined an ideal whereby an evolution of the common musical ear was propelled by artists who would act as teacher while the at home receivers of music would play the role of pupil. Though this is in some degrees the format of many college radio stations and international culture programs (online stations and music teachers who do their own open source classes on the Internet) the other 95% of programming strays frighteningly from this model. The result is a generation of people who know Skrillex but not Rachmaninov, André 3000 but not André Previn, Gangnam Style but not Lang Lang. Schoenberg closes his letter with a momentary attempt at optimism before, much as I in this modern reflection of these same troubles, at the end of the day fall back into pessimistic thoughts of the future of music and culture.

The Radio: Reply To A Questionnaire (1930)

Dear Mr. Ibach:

Quite certainly the radio is a foe! –and so are the gramophone and soundfilm. An inexorable for, irresistibly on the advance; opposition is a hopeless prospect.

Here are the most damaging things it does:

  1. 1.     It accustoms the ear to an unspeakable coarse tone, and to a body of sound constituted in a soupy, blurred way, which precludes all finer differentiation. One fears, as perhaps the worst thing of all, that the attitude to such sounds will change; until now, one has taken them in, beautiful or otherwise, knowing them to represent the tone peculiar to one instrument and knowing that other sounds also exist –the sounds, thatis, of the instrument as it has existed until now. But as they become more and more familiar, one will adopt them as criterion for beauty of sound, and find inferior the sound of instruments used in art.
  2. 2.     The boundless surfeit of music. Here perhaps, the frightful expression ‘consumption of music’ really does apply after all. For perhaps this continuous tinkle, regardless of whether anyone wants to hear it or not, whether anyone can take it in, whether anyone can use it, will lead to a state where all music has been consumed, worn out. In Busch’s time, music was still often (at least, not always!) ‘found disturbing’, but some day it may no longer disturb; people will be as hardened to this noise as to any other.

‘The artist as the transmitter’ as ‘teacher’ is certainly a good idea. It fulfils a demand –if the transmitter can fulfil it: ‘the artist as model’.

The ‘amateur at home, as pupil’ will certainly find this useful, particularly if (as optimists like to believe) the people playing at the transmitter are always those who alone can be recommended as models. But what will our poor ‘sorely-tried’ music teachers have to say about this –even if the radio, which is a larger earner but a small spender, gave them the opportunity to put themselves on a show as models once or twice a year? (I shall not even discuss singing teachers!)

I do not want to be too pessimistic, for after all, every storm subsides some time; but not too optimistic either, for after all, things will always find a way of getting worse somehow. But one may hope that even the surfeit of music could have one good result: every human being might, after all, some time, somehow, be moved, touched, taken hold of, gripped, by music. As for the models, I hope they will do no more harm than is done by the literature appearing daily in the newspapers. And when I reflect that the discovery of book-printing has resulted in virtual extinction of illiteracy, my optimism returns. On the other hand, when I reflect on the power and influence of many who have just managed, painfully, to master the alphabet, then indeed my pessimism starts coming back again.

July 31, 1930


[1] “Ibach the piano manufacturer.” (Style & Ideas, Sources and Notes, p. 519) The original questionnaire has not been located and further we cannot be certain as to which of the Mr. Ibach’s in the German piano dynasty the response was meant.

[2] US Patent Office Online Search http://patimg1.uspto.gov/.piw?Docid=00879532&idkey=NONE

[3] Edwin Armstrong Biography http://web.mit.edu/invent/iow/armstrong.html

[4] Listen for the Toilet (Elizabeth A. Baker – Lecture to TEDxYouth2012)

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