Music and civic life in America

Sheet music by Shutterstock.com

Article Highlights

  • America's musical culture is not a melting pot but a stew, comprised of disparate ingredients that inform one another while remaining distinct.

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  • Music has become fragmented, driven as always by the market, but recently in particular by technological developments.

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  • Aaron Copland took common folk melodies and rhythms and elevated them to compelling popular music that was also art.

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Civic life is the life we live in dealing with problems of common concern. It is our public life, as opposed to our private life. In a liberal democracy, civic life is all-embracing in the sense that it is open to all. Yet in such a regime, civic life may also be a small part of life, since liberal democracy assumes the priority of private life.

Correspondingly, the music we share in our civic lives will occupy a smaller place than the music of our private lives. Music may be more private than many other activities: it is not verbal, and through its rhythmic component, affects us bodily—that is, most privately, despite the ability of groups of people to move in unison to a beat. Speeches mark our public life more than music; we have no musical equivalent of the Gettysburg Address.

Being nonverbal, music may communicate more universally than any given language, and yet what is universal is not necessarily civic. Music is thus both above and below civic life, both more private and more shared. The naturally tenuous connection between music and civic life has been particularly evident in America, and the connection has grown more tenuous or ambiguous over time. Yet, as we hope to show, American music remains perhaps the best expression of what America is.

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