If I were asked to name the most significant difference betweenlife today and life a generation or so ago, it would be that I never hear anyone singing on the street any more.
In those years one often encountered teen-agers, girls usually but sometimes boys as well, lilting along the road to the tune of ''Goody Goody'' or ''Take a Lesson From the Lark,'' whatever. Mothers sang as they washed dishes, and even 3-year-olds went clumping around the house happily chanting, ''Brush Your Teeth With Colgate's!''
All this seems now to have vanished. If one sees young people walking alone today, they are silent. If, as so often happens, they are wearing a Walkman, their lips are pressed together grimly and there is no lilt in their steps at all. Is our appalling increase in street violence, of toddlers being shot to death, the work of young people who have never in their lives learned to whistle a happy tune?
But how are they ever to hear a happy tune from the cliche-ridden musical practitioners at work now? After more than 25 years of rock, it is dismaying to see in photographs how often a leading rock group comprises the same old time-wearied components -- burly, self-indulgently overweight young men, with the same old beards, wearing the same old black undershirts or black leather jerkins without sleeves, sunglasses and cowboy hats, glowering at the camera in the customary self-satisfied and irritable way. The widowed Queen Victoria was an innovative, versatile dresser by comparison.
Is it rational to expect anything inventive or original from people who imagine they are making a meaningful social statement by exposing their overweight biceps for the 5,000th time? It is because they are incapable of writing ''With a Song In My Heart'' that they are reduced to harping incessantly on murder and rape.
I am going to be told now that this is what people want. But do they? Or are they simply offered no alternative?
Twenty years ago, the company I worked for had an annual party for its night-shift workers and their spouses. My wife and I would be invited to represent management; and we usually went, because I admire people who work at inconvenient hours in order to keep their self-respect.
The parties were held in a fairly sizable hall, with drinks and dinner and a dance afterward, attended by a couple of hundred people, mostly young and perhaps 60 percent black. When the band played rock, 15 couples might occupy the floor; but when one heard the opening bars of ''Stardust'' or ''I'm Getting Sentimental Over You,'' the young people, black and white, would pour onto the floor, so that one could hardly move; and there they would stay, dance after dance, until the racket began again and they would go back to their tables, apparently feeling that this was something to get drunk by but not to dance to.
And yet I was assured then, as I am now, that rock was what young people wanted.
Maybe. But I wonder whether the smug, scowling, intolerant cowboys in their undershirts have not inflicted so punishing a hammerlock on the music trade that it is impossible for some mute, inglorious Hoagy Carmichael of 1992 ever to get a hearing for a happy melody.
It's a shame. I would like to hear people singing on the street again.
Robert L. Taylor writes from Timonium.