Musical Innovation and Progress; Or: On the Meaning and Implications of Musical Change

Estimated read time (minus contemplative pauses): 10 min.

Wassily Kandinsky - Composition VIIIToday I happened to notice something I wrote back in 2010 at the end of a post about perfect pitch:

“… perfect pitch is a tool which, depending on one’s perspective, may or may not be a benefit or liability to musicians and music in general, but is most likely irrelevant either way… in the grand scheme of musical innovation and progress.”

The phrase “musical innovation and progress” jumped out at me right away due to its lack of qualification, so I’ll now take a few moments to try and parse out what I meant by it. This phrase, for me, does not necessarily mean “getting better.” The words “innovation” and “progress” refer to changes within – or otherwise related to – musical forms. These changes often appear (at least figuratively and depending on one’s perspective and tastes, etc.) as simultaneously forward and backward movement, and occur in conjunction with changing cultural and social attitudes and sensibilities, which themselves can be influenced by changes within music and similar phenomena.

Perhaps “evolution” would have been a more fitting word to use than “progress.” To say that something is evolving is not to say that it is necessarily getting inherently better, but rather that it is adapting so as to survive and thrive more effectively within certain conditions. To analogize, a certain species of small and delicious animal might do great within conditions that have led it to evolve a bright red skin. Move the animal to a beige environment and, if it’s able to survive at all, the natural selection (and based on color and other condition-appropriate features) begins anew for the species.1

The same is true with music and ideas of a certain kind (more on what I mean by “certain kind” in a moment). An evolved idea is not necessarily a better idea than an earlier version of itself. Rather, it has become more adapted to the conditions that define the idea’s context, making it fresh and new and pleasing and otherwise beneficial to those who appreciate those changes (while the contrary is true for those who don’t appreciate them; indeed, it is common – perhaps even expected – for people to claim that music is getting worse as they get older). This adaptation process is one reason that ideas that aim for contextual autonomy (i.e. to define their own context and exist outside of any cultural heritage or influence etc.) have a difficult time surviving.

The newer an idea is, or, more precisely, the further it lives from the center of the slow process in which ideas tend to evolve, the greater difficulty the idea faces in gaining cultural currency because of the challenge it poses to the context-defining conditions in which it exists. That is, the contextually autonomous idea demands that conditions adapt to it, not vice versa. This would be like if the small and delicious red animal tried to change the beige-friendly environment to a red-friendly environment (surely it would try to do such a thing by selecting those things which seem to work in its favor, though it will likely lose the red skin in the process; in this way, the evolutionary selection process can be reciprocal, symbiotic, competitive (viciously so), accidental, etc.).

As I consider all of this more closely, it becomes apparent that there are two types of idea properties at play in the musical evolutionary process I’m attempting to describe. These idea properties are (1) technical and (2) aesthetic. Ideas constituted in technical properties include things like notational systems, tuning systems, means of distribution (e.g., the gramophone or mp3 file), instrument design and construction, and perhaps even the human faculty of audition (though this last item would seem to have some significant distinguishing features; I’ll leave that alone for now). Aesthetic properties relate to our first-person experience of music. There is, in many cases, a form-content relationship between these two kinds of properties, but I’m mostly concerned here with aesthetic properties (though form-content relationships are interesting to consider; for example, in what ways are aesthetic possibilities limited or expanded by technical developments such as the Western notational system or, more recently, MIDI).

To put the idea that music does not get better (or worse) another way: The musical aesthetic experience of today is not better or worse than that of the past, nor better or worse from culture to culture or subculture to subculture . (I absolutely reject such an idea to be the case, but if it turns out that there are comparatively better or worse, valid or invalid, authentic or inauthentic, etc. levels of aesthetic experience – based, for example, on qualities such as complexity or sophistication – those comparative levels existed in the past just as they do today.)2

I mentioned earlier that I would look at the possibility of certain kinds of ideas evolving for the better (i.e., judged to be better independent – or irrespective – of conditions). I shall now do that, and in the process I’ll keep a lookout for any causal links (or any other kind of meaningful relationships) that can be observed between those kinds of ideas and music. Science seems like a good place to start.

One could argue that within the world of science, if an idea can be shown to have evolved in a way that reveals the physical nature of the world more accurately than previous versions of itself, that idea is qualitatively better. An example of this would be if a heart surgeon were to develop a new, safer method for repairing a damaged heart, such that increases patient survival rates. I will limit my response to this thought-provoking idea to two items:

(1) Yes, it certainly seems that this sort of idea would provide a comparatively better solution to that which existed before it, and would therefore be a better idea. Aesthetic ideas are different than those of science, however, in that their ultimate success is subjectively measured, and the nature of the tools (e.g., tastes, social attitudes) with which parameters of success are prescribed – and with which successes are measured – change, while the need for a blood-pumping organ does not.

(2) Ultimately, the researcher has figured out how to improve survival rates within certain conditions: within the conditions of this world, with humans at a particular bio-evolutionary point and with a particular relationship to that world, such that can lead to infection and that requires life-sustaining materials (water, oxygen, food, etc.) to be of a certain nature. The researcher’s solution is comparatively better in the context of these conditions. In other words, the more we pull back and look at the overall picture, the new idea begins to appear not inherently better, but better within specific conditions, and therefore relatively better in the sense that those conditions can change, and the idea might no longer provide the best solution for repairing a damaged heart.3

Child Labor Photo by Lewis HineTo be clear, I’m not suggesting that ideas can’t be qualitatively better than each other, though I can’t entirely prove that notion considering the difficulty of factoring out conditional contingencies. To use an example: slavery is a bad idea. There were people who thought slavery was a bad idea long before it was abolished in the United States, otherwise it never would have been abolished (Adam Smith, to cite one of  many examples, argued against slavery both on moral and economic grounds). The abolishment of slavery wasn’t due to the evolution of an idea, however, but the spread of an existing idea.4 This is quite different than the evolution of the idea itself, though it’s possible that this idea is a sub-category of a larger evolving idea involving how humans should be treated in general, which can also have a relationship to evolving ethical tools, such as empathy, as well as those means which allow for greater instances of empathy (photography comes to mind, as well as the quickly advancing early technology that allowed for the economic reproduction and distribution of photographs, all of which played an important role in U.S. child labor reform).

It may seem odd that I’m jumping into ethics, but I think it’s useful to do this because I do believe certain ethical ideas are better than others. Also, I believe that we make certain connections between ethical ideas and musical ideas, though I’ve yet to get a clear picture on the nature of that connection. I’ll explore this a bit now.

If we accept that the generally accepted notion that the experience of pain and suffering is of ethical significance, then we also must accept that social progress requires the ever-bettering evolution of certain ethics-related ideas (technical and, let’s say, empathetic). This evolution has a relationship with values in general, in that social structures are not built upon a single idea type, and in that all idea types are connected (aesthetic, ethical, economic, etc.). “Values in general” is a category that includes aesthetic experience, which includes musical experience, which means musical forms and content.

Here it starts to get sticky. Does musical progress play an integral role in socio-ethical progress, and does this mean that one musical form is qualitatively better than another insomuch as it facilitates and contributes to that socio-ethical progress? After all, music is one way in which ethical ideas are spread and developed (at individual and, in turn, societal levels). Is it possible that the music merely reflects existing ethical ideas rather than creating them? I don’t believe that to be the case, though even if it were true, music certainly enhances and encourages the ideas it reflects. Though isn’t that just done through lyrics? To examine this, we’d have to look at notions of music semiotics and representation (a simple example of this would be the use of instrumental music to represent sadness, anger, confusion, etc.), cultural attitudes about musical taste, whether aesthetic taste in itself has moral features, implications of music production means, and implications surrounding the means through which music is disseminated. But let’s not get into all that today.

Well, I have once again begun with a seemingly simple idea (the innovation and progress of music) and turned it into something that raises more questions than it answers, many of which might be ultimately unanswerable. My favorite! I’m not kidding. This is what philosophy – or the general act of contemplation – is to me: the constant revelation that there is a holistic bond between all things that precludes the possibility for genuine contextual autonomy, even for the simplest of ideas.

That said, to summarize and clarify my initial point, when I use the phrase “musical innovation and progress,” I’m not claiming that music necessarily gets better, but rather that it moves along with the broader social and cultural changes that create, along with music itself, the conditions which give music and other ideas their context and, therefore, meaning. It’s surely more complicated than this, but at least what I’ve written here is more substantive – does more justice to the complexity of the subject – than the unqualified closing statement I made in my original post about perfect pitch.

  1. This analogy – and why, I think, that it’s an analogy rather than merely another manifestation of a shared basic phenomenon – points to a deeper idea that I’m not going to explore here, but I do think should be mentioned. That is, music evolves as an object that has no internal life, no drive or will, no consciousness, etc. It survives and thrives insomuch as it serves a purpose as an object for a subject (subject = a person who creates, listens to, or otherwise experiences the music). The delicious red-skinned animal also may have an objective mode (or externally imposed functionality or utility) in this sense in that there is some being that preys on the animal as a food object, but, unlike music, is itself also a subject that needs to eat, has a will to survive, etc.
  2. Among my many essays-in-progress, there is one in which I attempt to explain why I believe all taste to be valid (aesthetic taste, specifically). Whether you like a song because it makes you feel cool, because your girlfriend likes it, because your child wrote it, or for whatever reason, your positive experience of that song is valid and authentic. Similarly, the notion of “guilty pleasures,” in my view, does not refer to having a feeling of bad conscience when enjoying a song, but instead refers to being found guilty of having bad taste by one’s cultural peers. We hide our so-called guilty pleasures not because we are judged by our own conscience, but because we wish to avoid being judged – often as a philistine – by our friends and colleagues.
  3. This points to a major ongoing question for me (a question that can also be applied even more complexly to moral systems): Is it the case that the need for new solutions in response to  changing conditions confirms relativism, or is it that the conditions themselves are holistically connected to the best solutions for those conditions, therefore implying a kind of unchanging meta-condition in which all other conditions exist? In other words, the best method of repairing the heart under certain specific conditions is itself  (itself = method) a feature of those conditions. If humans evolve so that a new solution must be developed, the solution must evolve with the humans (or, more precisely, be discovered among the existing features of the new conditions that come with being human). Whatever the conditions today or twenty million years from now, the solution that best repairs the heart at a given time is the one that’s the best in that time. So, when the nature of the heart changes and a new solution is needed, that old solution is STILL the best solution for the heart at that earlier time. In this sense, there is no relativism at play, it seems. As with so many other topics here, I’ll have to leave this one for now.
  4. Again we see the technical – or form – property possibly playing a role in content evolvement: what tools, or media, had to evolve in order for anti-slavery ideas to spread?

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