In Praise of Small Music

Our Western culture has long held that to be truly educated you have to be musically educated. For centuries in the West, most people with sufficient resources received some kind of musical education, both formal and informal. But at some point in the last half-century or so, our cultural values shifted. Now, instead of being something that simply makes you a complete person, a good citizen, musical training has become a means to develop a hidden genius, a path to fame and fortune. Unfortunately for many, there just isn’t enough fame and fortune to go around, or at least not enough to justify the expense of music programs in public schools and the high cost of private lessons. What’s more, without the feeling that we’re helping to develop something extraordinary in our child, it’s very difficult for us modern parents to justify the hours of study, practice, and rehearsal that real musical training demands. So, we move on to the next thing that might be our child’s “exceptional talent.”

I don’t think it has to be like this, though. I think we as a culture have trapped ourselves in the notion that all music has to be “Great Music.” Certainly we need to value great works and the artists who produce them, but where did they come from? What about the everyday kind of musicians that none of us have ever heard of, whose works aren’t preserved in concert halls, or recordings, or history books? I would like to propose that for Great Music to exist at all, there has to be “Small Music” to support it and give it a reason to be considered “Great.” Moreover, I think we as humans actually have a psychological need for Small Music, and for many of us today that need is not being met by our “Great Music only” culture.

What is Small Music?

First, it’s highly social. Small Music has as its foundation some some kind of communal phenomenon: a school, a dinner party, a hang-out of friends. Think of a pub sing, or folk songs around a campfire, or Christmas caroling. Think of a high school musical, a church choir concert, a local theater production, a town dance. These are experiences of making music where the purpose is to forge bonds between people, especially in instances where people are working to develop their talent a bit, to stretch and grow. Creating Small Music together profoundly deepens the connection between the members of the community out of which it springs (and thus can be strategically used to strengthen that community). None of these contexts necessarily involve performances with a great scope of artistic vision or even an exceptional degree of skill, but they are all irrefutably musical experiences, and they all have the capacity to be immensely powerful.

This means, though, that an observer must have some involvement in such a gathering, though it doesn’t necessarily have to be direct musical involvement. Certainly, it’s wonderful to sing or play along, but I know from experience that you can get a great deal without making a sound, provided you feel a personal sense of belonging at the event. When an observer is part of the dinner party, the singing around the fire pit is beautiful. When the audience is fellow students, families, or teachers, the high school musical is fantastic. When the listener is a resident of a small town, the Christmas caroling is heartwarming. When all the congregation gathers to hear its church choir perform Handel’s Messiah, after months of practice, it’s inspiring. However, for someone outside those contexts or relationships—that is, someone who has no direct involvement in the experience, who is, as it were, objective—the musical experience might not be as good. In Small Music, partakers evaluate their experience based on a combination of its level of technical and expressive perfection and the quality of the social context from which it springs.

Second, Small Music is live. Its being live is a product of its being social. The vast majority of the music we experience today is recorded, with an absolutely phenomenal amount of skill and technology involved in the post-production process. I think this necessarily changes our expectations. For most of us today, recorded music needs to sound pretty much perfect. Not so of live music, especially live Small Music. Small Music doesn’t need to have high technical or expressive quality (though it can!) to be effective. We can still be deeply inspired and energized by fairly humble music-making in a live, social context. But that power is lost when you experience it as a recording. For many of us it’s a “you had to be there” kind of thing. This in no way means that the experience of the people making the music, or those listening in the moment, was not a deeply inspiring and moving one. It is moving, and a big part of what makes it so moving and inspiring is often the sense of immersion in the sound that a partaker of Small Music feels. It takes a lot of sophisticated speaker power to reproduce the physical sensation of having your body (not just your ears) reverberate with sound. There’s a lot more than just the audible frequencies that we’re exposed to when we hear live music. And that’s all part of the experience.

Third, Small Music is intimate. Its intimacy is a product of its being social and live. Its effectiveness is integrally connected to the size of the space in which it is created. Small Music is best enjoyed in an intimate space for a relatively small number of people—not a stadium audience or a packed cathedral congregation. The value of Small Music tends to diminish when the experience is spread over too large a crowd or too large a space. And while there is certainly room for some passive observers in the bond that Small Music creates, interestingly, there’s not room for a lot of them. The communion between partakers of Small Music does not stretch far beyond the performance itself. The need to see the performers clearly is important to a Small Music experience, as is their need to see their listeners. So, the boundary of the effectiveness of Small Music seems to be determined by the distance at which the performers and the listeners can both hear and see each other comfortably. Thus, acoustics and ambiance heavily influence the effectiveness of Small Music.

So What is Great Music?

Most of the time, Great Music is created by professional artists, i.e. individuals who spend most of their working hours honing their skill, as opposed to those who practice music as a hobby. Thus, Great Music is often quite expensive, given the exceptional level of talent and commitment required. Great Music is often the purpose for gathering an audience, rather than an accompaniment to a more social purpose. Great Music is often created in a larger space, for a larger crowd. It can be created by people who don’t know one another for people who don’t know one another or the performers. Partakers of Great Music evaluate their experience of it based primarily on its level of technical and expressive perfection. Great Music tends to be urban. That is, it’s more often found in population centers that can support a much larger audience, and where there are sufficient resources to support professional musicians. Great Music is capable of projecting a deep personal significance to each member of a possibly VERY large audience by virtue of its technical perfection and expressive power.

It’s worth noting that Great Music can be found in the places where Small Music usually resides. But it’s a rare experience (and sometimes a life-changing one) to come expecting Small Music and instead find Great Music humbly sitting in its place producing “heat and light” enough to fill a space many times its size.

Here I think it’s important to note that Great Music and Small Music alike create a communion. Even if the repertoire is the same, the more professional, flawless, expressive, strong, and visionary a performance, the further the communion extends. So the assembly around it can be larger. In fact, the assembly around Great Music can be for the sole purpose of the performance, because it has the capacity to exclusively support a large crowd—even to create a community from fans of a recording of a performance. In this way, Great Music works in reverse of Small Music. The Great Music creates the communion, which retroactively creates a community out of complete strangers. You have no idea who that guy was next to you at the performance, but you were both crying by the end of the symphony, and you will always remember him for that reason.

Which is better?

“Great Music is better! I have season tickets to the Philharmonic and I’m on my BandsInTown app getting tickets for live shows every couple of months. I’ve heard and seen the works of some of the greatest musical geniuses of all time. I listen only to the best recordings. I am blessed to have access to Great Music constantly, so I take advantage of it. I support government arts funding, subscriptions, memberships, and programs to get more young people into the concert hall!”

Wonderful! These are amazing opportunities and noble efforts! And, by definition, Great Music is better. But what happens if we partake of only Great Music as a society? I think we run into two significant problems.

The first problem is one that has had a strong influence over Western music for at least two centuries. It is the Cult of Genius. (In American culture this has morphed into the Cult of Celebrity). In it we begin to value the artist over the art and lose our ability to truly hear, see, and feel art’s value, so starstruck are we by our proximity to Genius.

The second problem has also got a firm hold on our society, but I believe its causes are more elusive. It’s the deterioration of community. The symptoms of this are so broad and unpleasant that it’s hard to imagine that a lack of Small Music could possibly be a cause. But I think it plays a role, especially in our age of digital isolation. Consider: the community created by Great Music is an anonymous one. It could be between anyone from anywhere. And the only connection those individuals will necessarily share is, at best, their having been at the same place at the same time having a similar experience. Perhaps this is still a strong connection, but it’s not strong enough to weather the difficulties that people living together encounter. And certainly not strong enough to induce these people to come together if they are already distant. Moreover, if we experience Great Music in a recorded form, as most of us do, the community becomes even more remote and anonymous.

But the bonds created by Small Music within an existing community actually serve to strengthen that community. They can be drawn on as a means to stay connected when difficulties arise. They can create understanding and sympathy. The making of Small Music can even be used to heal rifts, to re-establish a connection when a community has been broken by tragedy or conflict, and it can serve to encourage a community under persecution. We’ve seen this played out countless times, even in recent American history. Think of the songs of the Civil Rights movement or the Vietnam War protests.

“Small Music is better, then! My kids take piano lessons. I go to see the Nutcracker in town at Christmas. I go to local dances and concerts. I’m learning to play the fiddle. I sing in my community choir. I sing in my church choir.”

Fantastic! All these arts deserve—and need—support, and it’s a precious thing to share in the artistic achievements of your loved ones and community! It’s even more precious to participate in them yourself! But what happens if we partake in only Small Music?

To answer this, I have to take a philosophical detour. Everything creative strives in an upward and forward direction. There are parallels all over creation for this deliberate movement. It’s one of the characteristics of living beings. Basic survival itself is a forward action. And to create—an act of living that is not critical to survival (though I believe it is critical to the human soul, in our yearning to imitate and be united with our Creator)—requires something more than just forward motion. It requires an upward motion as well. Creativity looks to something greater, something transcendent. Artists strive for perfection, always struggling, always refining, with the impossibly great as their ultimate goal. So no matter how Small the Music, it must necessarily look to Great Music as its model. What painter wants to paint more poorly? What singer strives to sing less beautifully and accurately? What actor works to be less expressive? Without Great Music, Small Music ceases to be. Without the limb, the branch withers and dies. And so, without experiences of Great Music, we run the risk of having our Small Music atrophy and eventually die.

Great Music and Small Music exist, then, in symbiosis. Without Small Music, Great Music loses its context. Just look at the diminishing attendance at our symphonies and operas today. How does an audience know to be astounded by the technical and expressive perfection of Great Music without knowing how it feels to try to do it themselves, even in a small way? And how could Small Music exist without its artists constantly striving for a higher ideal? They are both constantly referring back to one another.

The Prescription

Make Small Music. If you can’t make it, support it, facilitate it. Have a party where people sing, even if it’s only at Christmas. Ask a friend who plays the guitar to bring it to a dinner party and play some music for your guests. Join a choir and then invite some singers over for wine and cheese and have a “reading night” and read through some music for fun. Learn an instrument and play it (with kindness) for your friends and family. Have your kids join the school band or chorus or musical or theatrical production. Attend weekly choir rehearsals at your church. Take a music workshop. Go to local performances. Become a member of your local arts organization. But always work to make your Small Music as Great as it possibly can be.

Partake of Great Music. Go to a great performance hall for a concert. Go hear a world-class musician perform. Go to a summer festival. See an opera at the Met, a show on Broadway, a rock concert at a stadium. I can give you lots of ideas for the New York area, obviously, but go explore the great art centers wherever you are. You’ll find them! There’s still Great Music almost everywhere, at least for now.

And keep doing all of these things. Don’t leave a part of the list neglected. Over time, I think we’ll find that the web of artistic culture will begin to stabilize and strengthen again. Great Music has to be firmly anchored to the ground in each of us in order to float so exquisitely above us. And what could be more joyful than to strengthen our communal bonds through music? Our culture is sick. I can think of no more pleasurable medicine.

About Talia Maria Sheehan

Talia Maria Sheehan has been a professional vocalist and music instructor for over twenty years. Her musical background and performance experience is broad, including rock lead vocals, jazz and classical piano, operatic soprano, and folk and classical ensemble singing. She recieved her musical education at Westminster Choir College, where she sang in the Westminster Choir under the direction of Joseph Flummerfelt, and appeared with them on many of the great American stages. As a professional ensemble singer she has appeared with Cappella Romana, the Saint Tikhon Choir, and the Grammy-nominated PaTRAM Institute Singers, among others. She lives at St. Tikhon’s Monastery and Seminary with her husband, composer and conductor, Benedict Sheehan, and their seven daughters. At St. Tikhon’s she teaches voice, music theory, liturgical music, and directs a children’s choir and a women’s choir. Her instruction synthesizes age-appropriate choral vocal technique, with an early music influence, and systematic Kodály-based music pedagogy.


  1. Is “small music” dying because there’s not really much “singable” small music left in our culture? Who would imagine singing Missy Elliott’s “Work It” or something from Maroon 5 or Metallica at a dinner party? Bob Dylan and the Beatles were still singable for average people, but popular music has evolved to rely on a lot of technology, or it’s just plain unpleasant in an intimate setting. I remember hearing my grandparents singing popular songs from the early 20th century while my mother played the piano. I didn’t think to learn those songs, though. They were of another era and none of my friends had probably heard of them. I have an Indian friend who sings what I presume are folk songs and songs from movies and can play along on a harmonium. As an American, I can’t really think of any song I would sing while doing some ordinary task. Folk music was never part of my suburban culture.

    1. Good point! It’s definitely true that much popular music is so produced that it’s basically impossible to reproduce as Small Music. (Though there’s still a huge amount out there that does work. And, of course, all the “old songs” are still available to us.) In that way, pop music has become Great Music–unattainable to all but the elite of the elite. And that’s pretty discouraging.
      But one thing I find particularly exciting about this age of digital music is how easy it is to listen to virtually anything. My kids’ playlists are way less determined by the billboard charts than my favorites were when I was their age. Their routine listening tastes span decades, even centuries. And I’m finding that reflected in their performance tastes, too. So, while technology has made some music less accessible, it has also, in certain ways, made ALL music MORE accessible. We listen to and sing music from LOTS of different cultures and eras in our house. It’s odd, but I feel like as modern Americans, none of those traditions are ours AND all of those traditions are ours.

  2. I like to swap music with my 15 year old granddaughter. Sort me saying, “Hey check out this Needtobreathe song.” And then she shares an Ed Sheeran song. Both I’m thinking would fall in the Great Music category. One time she played me a name-brand pop singer’s newest song. I thought it was a little weak. Honestly, she did also. I attend and perform at the local open mic (I’m definitely Small Music). I asked my granddaughter if she thought the so-so song (which probably sold a million copies-Great Music) if performed at the open mic would be the best song of the night. Without hesitation, she said, “No.” She’s right. There seems to be a significant blur between Great and Small.

    1. It’s great to have an open discussion with our kids and grandkids about music and culture! Enjoy the contact and exchange!

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