Gebrauchsmusik for Today and Everyday (Liner Notes for “Practical Songs”)

Gebrauchsmusik constitutes something with which one has dealings in the way one has dealings with things of everyday use…

– Heinrich Besseler (1925)

“Gebrauchsmusik” is a German compound adopted by English speakers to name something for which they had no single word.  It means “music for use,” “utility music,” or as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, “music intended primarily for practical use and performance.”  We might wonder about this word: is not all music “for use?”  The term was coined in the 1920s, however, as an antonym to the default musical category of the time, namely, “concert music” – music to be presented by professionals and silently contemplated by everyone else.

The concept of “Gebrauchsmusik” points back to before the nineteenth century, when composers wrote much of their music for amateurs or particular occasions, and music had not yet acquired the rarefied status it took on as growing middle class audiences supported ever more specially trained musicians.  For twentieth-century composers such as Paul Hindemith, writing Gebrauchsmusik meant writing music with a utilitarian function, for children or amateurs to play, and for new media (radio in his case) to disseminate.  Hindemith’s Music Day at Plön (1932), for example, provided a full day of music-making for a children’s camp, divided into “Morning Music,” “Table Music,” “Cantata” and “Evening Concert.”  The work has been compared to the medieval “office” – the cycle of psalms, prayers and lessons chanted by monks on a daily basis, according to the hours of a liturgical day.

Today, we frequently hear that new technologies are democratizing access to music making.  We can now compose a symphony without reading music, and record a song without singing.  By enabling us to do such things, new technologies are encouraging us to emulate professionals – to make concert music.  We don’t need new technologies, however, to help us sing in the shower, in our cars, or in our heads as we decide what to do for lunch.  Perhaps we just need some modern-day Gebrauchsmusik: some practical songs for everyday use.

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