As American embrace their holiday traditions and stumble out of their dining rooms and collapse in living room chairs, what follows -- an orgy of watching television or listening to digital music -- amounts to a rejection of what was once a nearly universal American pastime. They won’t, most of them, gather around the piano. They won’t sing. They won’t take up their banjos and guitars.
There was a time, toward the end of the 1800s through the early 1900s when the United States was known a nation of amateur musicians. Playing music here, unlike Europe, was not confined to the upper classes. More than 300,000 pianos a year were sold in the U.S. The 1902 Sears catalogue offered the American Home Piano for $98.50. They were as pervasive in American homes as radios in the 1930s.
But a nation in which everyone was an amateur musician has evolved into a nation of listeners, so many passive consumers of someone else’s music. John Philip Sousa, the celebrated composer of might brass marches, saw it coming.
In a 1906 essay, Sousa warned that the “menace of mechanical music” would do in America’s pervasive love of playing and singing:
This wide love for the art springs from the singing school, secular or sacred; from the village band, and from the study of those instruments that are nearest the people. There are more pianos, violins, guitars, mandolins, and banjos among the working classes of America than in all the rest of the world, and the presence of these instruments in the homes has given employment to enormous numbers of teachers who have patiently taught the children and inculcated a love for music throughout the various communities.
Sousa warned that when “machines produce music”:
The child becomes indifferent to practice, for when music can be heard in the homes with-out the labor of study and close application, and without the slow process of acquiring a technique, it will be simply a question of time when the amateur disappears entirely. The tide of amateurism cannot but recede, until there will be left only the mechanical device and the professional executant.”