America outspends China on defense by a margin of more than six to one, the Pentagon estimates.  In another strategic dimension, though, China already holds a six-to-one advantage over the United States. Thirty-six million Chinese children study piano today, compared to only 6 million in the United States. The numbers understate the difference, for musical study in China is more demanding.
It must be a conspiracy. Chinese parents are selling plasma-screen TVs to America, and saving their wages to buy their kids pianos – making American kids stupider and Chinese kids smarter. Watch out, Americans – a generation from now, your kid is going to fetch coffee for a Chinese boss. That is a bit of an exaggeration, of course – some of the bosses will be Indian. Americans really, really don’t have a clue what is coming down the pike. The present shift in intellectual capital in favor of the East has no precedent in world history.
“Chinese parents urge their children to excel at instrumental music with the same ferocity that American parents [urge] theirs to perform well in soccer or Little League,” wrote Jennifer Lin in the Philadelphia Inquirer June 8 in an article entitled China’s ‘piano fever’.
The world’s largest country is well along the way to forming an intellectual elite on a scale that the world has never seen, and against which nothing in today’s world – surely not the inbred products of the Ivy League puppy mills – can compete. Few of its piano students will earn a living at the keyboard, to be sure, but many of the 36 million will become much better scientists, engineers, physicians, businessmen and military officers.
Whether this will happen for good, evil or neither is impossible to predict. Classical music is beautiful, but it is not necessarily good. Germany had the world’s best musicians in 1939, but put them in service of an evil cause, as can be seen in this Nazi propaganda newsreel of Germany’s best conductor, Wilhelm Furtwangler, performing for weapons-industry workers under a giant swastika. It is encouraging that China has even more Christian converts than pianists (Christianity finds a fulcrum in Asia Asia Times Online, August 7, 2007.)
There is little doubt that classical music produces better minds, and promotes success in other fields. Academic studies show that music lessons raise the IQs of six-year-olds. Elite American families still nudge their children toward musical study. At Brearley, New York’s most exclusive girl’s school, playing in the orchestra is a requirement. American medical schools accept more undergraduates who majored in music than any other discipline (excepting pre-med).
Any activity that requires discipline and deferred gratification benefits children, but classical music does more than sports or crafts. Playing tennis at a high level requires great concentration, but nothing like the concentration required to perform the major repertoire of classical music. Perhaps the only pursuit with comparable benefits is the study of classical languages. It is not just concentration as such, but its content that makes classical music such a formative tool. Music, contrary to a common misconception, does not foster mathematical ability, although individuals with a talent for one often show aptitude for the other.
Western classical music does something that mathematics and physics cannot: it allows us to play with time itself. It is a commonplace that our perception of time depends upon the pace of events (so that time in graduate school seems to proceed slower than time in prison). Classical music, though, gives the composer the tools to extend or elide time in the service of beauty and irony.
Take any popular song and compare it to any aria by the Italian opera composer Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835), for example. Bellini expands and elides musical phrases, so that the musical content breathes in a different time frame than the verse. This seems simple but takes great skill to accomplish. In fact, Bellini was one of Frederic Chopin’s favorite composers. Far more complex is Mozart, who writes what seems to be an irregular phrase structure on the surface, which transforms a hidden regularity. Mozart keeps the listener continuously off-balance; he is an imp and trickster, the patron saint of practical jokes, as it were.
Few musicians nowadays get Mozart’s jokes, but one of them is China’s most famous musician, Lang Lang. The 26-year-old virtuoso has an undeserved reputation for mugging. “Like a hammy actor,” wrote New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini on November 27, Lang Lang “has a penchant for interpretive exaggeration. His playing can be so intensely expressive that he contorts phrases, distorts musical structure and fills his music-making with distracting affectations.”
Another way to look at the matter is that Lang Lang gets the joke, and Tommasini does not. Deadpan seriousness is a tradition among Western performers (the great pianist and teacher Josef Hoffman told his students to evoke the memory of emotion rather than emotion itself). But whatever makes Lang Lang so beloved among audiences, in a field where thousands of other pianists evince perfect technique, surely includes his own enjoyment of what he does. He is not the greatest interpreter of Mozart, surely no Murray Perahia or Radu Lupu. But he is an engaging personality whose connection to the music is manifest.
A case in point is Lang’s reading of Mozart’s C Minor Concerto K 491, with Long Yu conducting the China Philharmonic, available on Youtube). This work presents a famously enigmatic theme that immediately chases itself into a chromatic sequence, only to be interrupted by yet another chromatic sequence in a different voice, before it stumbles into a concluding cadence. Underneath this, the informed listener senses, there must lurk the familiar four-bar phrase of popular music, but Mozart never once spells this out. He leaves us off-balance at every point. It is a romping-ground for musical surprise, an enchanted forest of tricks and track-backs in which the true path always is obscure.
When the Mozart C Minor Concerto is performed properly, there shouldn’t be a dry seat in the house. In the version available at Youtube, Lang Lang smiles and sometimes grimaces in appreciation of Mozart’s jokes. One may fault him for losing the comedian’s dead-pan, but surely that is preferable to not getting the jokes at all. The pianist is beset by a sense of wonder at Mozart. That is a very good thing, because the Chinese nation that looks to Lang Lang as one of its heroes is learning the high culture of the West with a collective sense of wonder.
Something more than the mental mechanics of classical music makes this decisive for China. In classical music, China has embraced the least Chinese, and the most explicitly Western, of all art forms. Even the best Chinese musicians still depend on Western mentors. Lang Lang may be a star, but in some respects he remains an apprentice in the pantheon of Western musicians. The Chinese, in some ways the most arrogant of peoples, can elicit a deadly kind of humility in matters of learning. Their eclecticism befits an empire that is determined to succeed, as opposed to a mere nation that needs to console itself by sticking to its supposed cultural roots. Great empires transcend national culture and naturalize the culture they require.
China’s commitment to classical music will have effects that are at once too subtle and too powerful to categorize easily. It is not that classical music helps to train good scientists, for example. Music and the sciences are different disciplines to begin with. Mathematicians who learn music, though, are more likely to cast an ironic eye upon their craft, and look for flaws and opportunity in its cracks and crannies. It is not Mozart’s sense of order, but his sense of irony that refines the mind of the mathematician. Mozart goes unerringly toward what is not mathematical in music, but instead is asymmetrical, strange and ambiguous. He can be inspiring, or frightening. Years of instrumental practice, knowledge of repertoire and study of theory are necessary to approach this sort of genius.
It is hard to explain what is important about something that most people never will understand. That is what makes America’s music gap with China so difficult to remedy. Except in a vague way, one cannot explain the uniqueness of Western classical music to non-musicians, and America is governed not by musicians, but by sports fans (the lone recent exception was Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is both). Hearing music is a skill somewhat like understanding a foreign language, and to appreciate music is like getting jokes told in a foreign language. Rare is the listener who can do this without having been reared in the language.
American musical education remains the best in the world, the legacy of the European refugees who staffed the great conservatories, and the best Asian musicians come to America to study. Thirty to 40% of students at the top schools are Asian, and another 20 to 30% are Eastern European (or Israeli). There are few Americans or Western Europeans among the best instrumentalists. According to the head of one conservatory, Americans simply don’t have the discipline to practice eight hours a day.
As a practical matter, though, American policy-makers might think about it this way. Until now, the West has tended to dismiss China’s scientists as imitators rather than originators. As a practical matter, China had little incentive to innovate; an emerging economy does not have to re-invent the wheel, or the Volkswagen, for that matter.
This was not true in the remote past, of course. China invented the clock, the magnetic compass, the printing press, geared machines, gunpowder, and the other technologies that began the industrial revolution, long before the West. When it comes time to develop the next generation of anti-missile radar, or electric car batteries, Chinese originality may assert itself once again. Chinese who have mastered the most elevated as well as the most characteristically Western forms of high culture will also think with originality. Anyone who doubts this should watch Lang Lang’s performance of the Mozart C Minor Concerto once again.