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Music: Past, Present, and Future

(A Logical Interpretation of Past Musical Growth Relating to the Present Recording Industry and its Future)

Musical Progression

Music has evolved slowly within many different cultures over thousands of years. It’s growth has always been dependent upon cultural expansion, innovation, and societal acceptance or rejection. With the growth of the “music industry” in the recently industrialized and increasingly globalized human societies, there has been a shift in the sub-currents which guide musical expansion, growth and innovation.

The modern “music industry” has spawned many conventions which, in turn, lead to new, progressive conventions or anti-conventions. Eventually, through various processes of cultural rejection and acceptance, anti-conventions become conventions which spawn new anti-conventions… and so the cycle repeats.

Although this cycle is reminiscent of traditional musical growth, it is fundamentally differentiated from tradition in its current industrialized context. The adoption of capitalism, and its inarguable ties to industrialization in modern societies, has created a will among its constituents to profit from all that can be sold. Modern musical progression has unfortunately been caught-up in this modern-day “gold rush.”

Traditionally, musical composition and creativity in the utilization of compositional techniques has been a symbol of excellence and accomplishment. Commissions from royal courts or highly regarded churches were awarded to the most advanced and innovative composers, who would consistently strive to create, above all else, music for its beauty, wonder, and significance. Though restricted by various, yet progressively loosened cultural boundaries, the main goal of the most accomplished composers has always been to search within their musical compositions for a sense of musical mastery and understanding, acting centrally as scientists studying music as a natural science.

Breaking the Boundaries

Musical growth has always been slowed by the even-slower growth of societies. Social acceptance and expectations were key to the allowance of specific musical progressions (i.e. churches declaring tritones or compositions written in evenly divided meters as evil, totalitarian rulers ordering strict punishments to composers that strayed from acceptable boundaries, etc.). Finally, the imminent birth of democracy and individual liberties was to be a revolution in musical progression and the beginning of the end of such cultural boundaries…or was it?

Throughout the nineteenth century, musical creativity flourished, finally relieved from the binds of the Classical Era, leading the way to the somewhat absurd extremes of the twentieth century (i.e. serialism). At the turn of the twentieth century, the progression of musical composition seemed to be thriving at an almost unstoppable rate of expansion.

Creating New Boundaries

As industrialization began to break production thresholds in the beginning of the twentieth century, musical instruments, scores, and transcripts became increasingly accessible to capitalist constituents (the common man, woman, child, or family within capitalist societies), thus feeding the indulgences of amateur hobbyists musicians and the emerging industrialist leaders that capitalized on the venture. Under the guise of practicality, these industrialists paved the way for the eventual creation of the “music industry.”

More individuals began creating music and writing songs than ever before. Revolutionary recording technologies were being developed. The use of electricity and electronic components in recording technology and instrument design, construction, and implementation fundamentally changed the evolution of music indefinitely. The promise shown in the early twentieth century was phenomenally rich and plentiful, however, bittersweet and not without certain irreparable changes.

With the increase in recordings being produced, and the seemingly endless demand for new music, record company executives needed something to advertise to the masses. This product needed to be catchy, easily understood, and quickly and efficiently emotionally relevant. They turned to folk musicians, of which there was no shortage of eager and willing participants, to fill this demand. These advertising campaigns proved to be a capital success, leading to startling growth, expansion, and influence. The masses were hooked.

“If it isn’t broken, then why fix it?” This question, though seldom asked, was endlessly answered through decades of success and prosperity. Audiences fed upon the shallow emotions portrayed in the folk music, to which, they could easily relate. Love, despair, loneliness, spirituality, and societal themes became prevalent in almost every production. Quite immediately, the music industry became a service provided to consumers and musical progression became dependent upon demand, rather than scientific study. Ironically, for the very first time musical composition had finally broken through its boundaries and evolved into something unexpected (i.e. progressive and new expressions of tonality such as serialism, graphically notated compositions, etc.), yet the public demanded folk music.

Starting From Scratch

Folk music, now dubbed “popular music,” had begun its own evolution. Pulling largely from classic compositional techniques, simple and easily recognizable, and repackaged in a contemporary wrapper, this evolution was viewed as a continuation of compositional evolution. Blues, Jazz, Country, Soul, Rock…new forms of music? These genres cannot be regarded as new; all of these styles are derived from compositional techniques that have existed for hundreds of years.

Blues was formed as a style of music that was almost instantly playable by any musician, expressly amateurs. Its basis being, a system of dominant and secondary dominant chords. Jazz was a sloppy combination of blues and poorly executed classical techniques (i.e. German augmented sixth chords in new inversions labeled as flat sixth chords, random modal substitution, consistently different improvisation highlighting the specific musicians’ technicality, rather than compositional creativity, etc.).

Rock and Roll was glorified beyond reasonable extents as a revolution in music, when it was really just a childish and simplified take on the blues, using electronic instruments as toys to display childhood angst during the self-indulgent social shift of the 1960s and 1970s. This genre provoked a more severe and even simpler rebellion labeled “punk rock,” that seemed to almost embrace the pure hatred of conventional music and selfishly ravage musical composition in the name of trite and impatient childhood angst. These shifts spawned two related genres in the 1980s: electronic rock, a take on rock and roll, however, embracing simple melodies and the excessive use of electronic instruments, and “metal,” embracing a mixture of punk rock and traditional rock, yet lacking in lyrical content consistent with the growing trends in most genres.

Sadly, traditional musical composition became largely uninteresting to society as self-indulgent amateurs captivated the masses.

Where Does This Leave Us?

We must understand the past to understand the present, and what the future will almost inevitably produce. Considering the growth of the music industry, most technological advancements in recording and music production have catered to these trends. Whether analog to digital, live recordings to sampled recordings, tape hiss and distortion to digital clarity, all have been in the pursuit of producing a more polished product to present to the consumer audience of the now massive music industry. This knowledge is indescribably invaluable to modern music producers and recording engineers.

We need to get back to studying music as a natural science.We need to return to traditional music exploration, even if it does not lead to immediate capitalization. We need to understand, as representatives of musical creation, that our work is inherently scientific and not limited by the trivial and insignificant demands of the consumer public. The music industry needs revolution and reorganization. We are the present and the future of the music industry, and as musical creators it is pertinent that we be the change that is so sorely needed within this industry.

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Sam O'Sullivan

Sam O'Sullivan

Samuel O'Sullivan has been playing various instruments and composing within the bounds and mixtures of multiple genres for more than 10 years. Samuel, first established as a drummer/percussionist, has made his mark as a guitarist, vocalist, pianist, violinist, composer, and recording engineer. In addition to producing albums for various bands, Samuel produces his own music under the name 'A Mess of a Mind'.

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  • Randy Coppinger

    Author ignores the values of expression or in the case of the blues note bending. I want more from music than high art.

    • Samuel O’Sullivan

      This view of music history and the influence of the music industry on modern society is more from an objective viewpoint. I am looking objectively, as would an uninvolved outsider, at history and its progression. You’re right, I do ignore expression because I am observing musical progression as a scientific form studied and expanded upon by composers over time. For, example, understanding sonic character and expanding upon tonality is not unlike scientists studying other aspects of the physical world, forming hypothesis, and expanding upon them with each piece of emerging knowledge. There is a difference between tone and tonality. Tone is all that has evolved within the music industry. Music, however, much more than tone, is the study of tonal properties and bounds in composition. I feel that this has been lost through capitalization. And finally, I do value expression in music, however, if expression is all that is valuable, music study is then being seriously overtaken by selfish standards which do nothing but mirror the selfish growth of society rather than real human intellectual evolution.

    • In his book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” Robert Pirsig argues that the separation of science from art is an artificial one. In other words, rational discourse to one extreme while ignoring the other leaves us with an incomplete evaluation of quality. This is ESPECIALLY applicable to music, which most people seem to consider a form of artistic expression. As such I think a purely scientific approach is rather significantly lacking. Music (along with other forms of art) should necessarily defy logic in order to have cultural resonance. Science can speak for itself but our souls need art to help us convey how we feel. I think you’ve missed the true cultural value of music if you limit it’s value and criticism to only a scientific perspective.

    • Samuel O’Sullivan

      I understand the cultural value of music and its significance in that aspect of human evolution, however, my point is more that the music industry of the twentieth century has, quite similarly to your criticism of my views, divided the connection between science and artistic expression. While scientifically advancing in technological development, the music industry has been more of a capitalistic venture with its resultant expression and rebellions rooted within the bounds of this confinement. As the scientific expression and exploration of music has been retarded, so have the horizons of expression through musical creation. Expression, within the music industry, is confined and controlled by what the market will find acceptable. Pioneers that claim to stray from these boundaries most often consider themselves to be pioneers and stray for the specific purpose of being separated, thus appealing to rebellious markets. These walls created by capitalism and the expansion of music as a pure commodity protected by copyrights from which the composers are to receive compensation has perpetuated the association of music with capitalization. Yes, the artists are compensated for their work, but through compensation, most often the creative aspect of music, whether it be scientific or self-expressive, is lost. I do not feel that I am elitist, or that I value “high art” over “folk art,” I simply feel that through the evolution of the music industry we have lost vital aspects of creativity. Creativity needs to exist without bounds in order to really thrive. In essence, if a truly musical approach is taken toward composition, and the binds of society and its “norms” are relieved, artists will more accurately express musical invention and self-expression simultaneously. These types of pioneers will make more of a culturally significant impact, in both present-day and historical contexts, than those who simply follow the trends of the time. I do not feel that composers such as Penderecki or Schoenberg are better than folk, or “industry,” artists, only that they are less restricted by social bounds, which allows them to truly create, causing, even within the same century, a tremendous impact on our view of modern history and cultural relevance.

    • House music intentionally shuns melodic hooks in an effort to me non-commercial. Is that a negative reaction to capitalism? 90s hip hop openly embraced materialism. Is that a negative reaction to capitalism? These are opposite reactions by artists directly to the capitalization of art. Which one demonstrates limited creativity because of the constraints of capitalism? I already know your answer… both, right? Yet neither one of these forms would exist WITHOUT capitalism.

      I fail to see a causal link between reactions to capitalism and music composition becoming “retarded”. We could as easily argue that music composition has reacted to changes in technology for the worse. Or changes in political parties for the worse. Or changes in cigarette consumption for the worse. These are all interesting assertions, but I don’t think they are arguable. Nor do I think “proving” them aids the development of creativity in music.

      I believe the limit you have found is not based in any of these causes, but rather, is the limit of our 12-tone musical system. The classical composers helped create and expand this western scale. We see huge strides in the development of musical language as these folks did their work. Unless we work with different musical scales (and some have), we are bound to intersect some of the great melodies and musical ideas since the period in which the system was created.

      Perhaps you could take the position that capitalism has shaped the culture so that it is adverse to accepting an alternate system, say a 24-tone system. Even if that was true, so what? We’ve taken to exploring other aspects of music. Instead of expanding it’s outer boundaries, we’ve looked inward with improvisation, minimalism, texture and forms that challenge the very concepts of what defines a song. I don’t think you would want to argue that the microscopic world is any less important than the cosmos, but the crux of your argument seems to rest on the idea that unless we EXPAND musical composition we are “retarded.” I disagree.

  • Rob

    I have to say I think Samuel is more right here. These are the things I’ve been grappling with ever since I really started thinking seriously about composing (I’ve since gone to school for it). I’ll keep it short and sweet, and put it like this: music that is heavy on the industry end is fundamentally tainted because it is partially if not completely a means to an end. This is the exploitation of music to achieve a non-musical goal: making money or getting famous. The purest music is an end in itself. A true composer serves the music itself rather than the market. This is why the emphasis on money has a paralyzing effect on musical, and just about all other kinds of growth. Ultimately, it’s not just a problem for music- it’s a problem for all aspects of our society- the effect of hyper-capitalism, which many would say is very anti-human. This is why the viewpoint expressed in this article reflects an objective truth, and why it is important for musicians to take a stand and make music about music again.

    And one thing about Randy’s mention of house music and 90’s hip hop- we don’t have to believe that all music that is sold commercially is created equal to find truth in Samuel’s viewpoint. The negative influence money has on music is variable and dependent on the degree to which the music is dictated by the forces of the market.

    That’s my 2 cents.

    • Cambrie

      Thank you. I completely agree. We put way too much emphasis on making money and seeing your face on the cover of a magazine and that’s not what music is about. Music should come from your heart and soul and you be able to feel it, the hurt, the pain, the happiness. Today it’s just junk like “f*** this and f*** that” and it is so annoying having to hear that on the radio, it’s not even real music. In the article though, I have to disagree with the comments about rock and roll. It was a revolution, at least its better than what we have now, because it actually taught people to take a chance and stand up for yourself and not let the struggles of today get you down. I love classical music as much as the next girl, I actually play the violin and flute so I respect classical music, but I love rock and country as well. I have a deep respect for all music with one exception, rap and hip-hop. I can’t stand it because all it has become is background noise that will not cease. But high fives on everything else.

  • Pascal

    As a composer, I’ve learned that music had always been created within boundaries, like an invisible frame for a particular audience/ sponsor: strict counterpoint to please the church, minuets for the court, symphonic and sonata forms to please the late 19th century bourgoisie (or Russian ballet directors), folk, blues to entertain companions of misfortune, and eventually pop to please record companies, magazines and mass-markets.

    Yet inside those constraints, originality and innovation, even if always a challenge, and often an accident, have always been possible.

    If we like to entertain the romantic notion of the composer as being somewhere between a scientist and a priest, whose purpose is to pursue some idealistic vision detached from all material and social ties, it remains true that the overwhelming majority of the musical works we know of and love were first and foremost produced/ performed to fit a certain social function.

    Yes, the process has been industrialized, yes, market segments have become the new popes, princes and rich merchants of yore, but the simplification of the musical language used, and its ties to folk music you seem to deplore, are only a small part of the picture.

    Electronic sound design, in pop production as in academia, has taken the place once devoted to harmonic and melodic vocabulary expansion, which reached a dead end in the late 70s (whether we’re talking of hyperserialism or free-jazz).

    Once your most adventurous western composers, placed in the situation you seem to long for, reached such oxygen-deprived heights that no real audience could follow them (save for a room full of computers), they returned to tonality, minimalism, repetition… in order to make sense again. Now that they’re working with DJs, we have more than ever a chance to bridge THE gap: yes, you CAN use the most advanced musique concrete and spectral techniques to appeal to BOTH mind and body.

    The latter, having been superbly ignored by western composers at least since the minuet court days, is what ultimately caused the separation you are talking about. Just as Cubism managed to incorporate elements of African art in the early 20th century, so should have music… but mainly for academic reasons, that was considerated unthinkable at the time, and save for the Rite of Spring and a few other works, that new challenge: to re-incorporate (literally: re-embody) music was never met, not even pursued, until very recently.

    That is the elephant in the room of western “serious” music, the real cause of its demise in audience terms, and the flaw in a model you seem to idealize: the modern composer cannot be a pure spirit (“a scientist”), work for people’s heads exclusively, as if Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man didn’t exist from the neck down.

    Music is the most physical of the arts, and as such it has to move (yes!) the whole of your being.

    So don’t lament over music’s glorious past (unless you’re talking about its creators not getting paid anymore, then I will agree and lament with you). The present looks very exciting to me… watch for innovation in unexpected places -hey that’s generally where it comes from!

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