Thursday, February 6, 2014

Why Music Used to Mean Something

A topic for a book came to mind; one of those bestsellers with the interminable titles like "Why Your Life is Totally Messed Up and How It Is All the Fault of Something Really Unlikely, Like Your pH Balance or Washington." You know the ones! My title would be something like "Why Music Used to Mean Something But Doesn't Anymore". But I don't have the time or quite enough interest to actually write a whole book, so I am going to do this blog post instead.

I have talked a lot about the meaning of music, but it is a very big subject, so I'm sure there's lots more to say. This is a post from a philosophical point of view. But right now I want to look at it from a more everyday perspective.

Most music has a pretty clear social or cultural function or meaning, even if it is not the specific kind of meaning that can say "meet me for coffee tomorrow at 4 pm." It is an aesthetic or musical meaning that enhances or sometimes undermines the events it might accompany. That's a little abstract, isn't it? What I mean is that music often has a role in social events. Sometimes that role is quite powerful. We can't really imagine a wedding without music and certain music in particular:

But a lot of music has a kind of functional meaning that we don't think about too much as we encounter it detached from the original context. The work of musicology is often to reconnect a piece of music with its context. This piece of music, for example, was composed for the dedication of the Duomo in Florence in 1436:

There are some interesting theories about the unusual structure of the music that attempt to relate it to either the architectural proportions of the cathedral or to the passage in the Bible describing the Temple of Solomon.

But often the meaning or function of music is neither established by long custom, as in the Mendelssohn march, nor by internal features of the music itself, as in the DuFay piece, but rather by the context. For example, the minuet and trio, of which we have innumerable examples from the 17th and 18th centuries, was the inevitable accompaniment to social events of the nobility. It has an ancien régime feel to it. It surrounds and supports and burnishes the aristocracy.

The Viennese waltz replaced it and it has more of a haut bourgeois feel and reigned through the 19th century.

The function of this music is to accompany dance (though a lot of minuets and trios are just heard in concert), but the character of it also serves to flatter the dancers themselves.

My mother was an old time fiddler who played for Friday night dances her whole life. This was music for country people and this is what it sounded like:

Now that's just unpretentious and fun. The dancers probably didn't think their lives needed burnishing (or maybe they just didn't think that was the job of music).

As the last clip illustrates, alongside the music of the upper classes, there has always been music of the lower classes. For much of history it didn't get written down, though it certainly existed. Oddly, during the 20th century, for a lot of complex reasons, only some of which I am probably aware of, popular music became both more concrete in recorded and written versions, and by the 50s, started to replace classical music as the dominant musical form in society. It presented new kinds of meaning to suit the new kinds of listeners. Were they actually new kinds of listeners? That I'm not sure of. But the post-war baby boom seems to have been some kind of big event and those listeners were certainly new. Both Elvis and the Beatles benefitted from the huge bulge of young listeners with some discretionary cash to spend. The result was fabulous wealth (compared to previous musicians) and a new aesthetic of musical meaning.

Just to take a couple of kinds of example, the early rock and roll music was just about enjoying the thrill of being young and sexy:

Of course, when John Lennon got rolling, he used the music to describe and express more complex and personal emotions:

Now this was rather a new thing: popular music that delved into territory that previously might only have been the domain of classical lieder like this one:

But I think that the fact that, while both these are intimate personal expressions, in the realm of popular music, there are pressures and incentives that a lieder singer or composer, neither in 1840 or now, would experience. I don't want to say anything simplistic about big business, but the fact is that ever since the Beatles, popular music has become a very big business indeed. It would be a very good project to look at how the pressures of commercial competition, the competition for eyeballs and downloads, impacts on songwriters, singers and marketers. What sorts of dialogues go on behind the scenes.

In the case of Schumann and even Lennon, it is not so hard to discern what is going on. Schumann is expressing things having to do with romantic love and Lennon is talking about existential isolation:

Living is easy with eyes closed
Misunderstanding all you see
It's getting hard to be someone
But it all works out
It doesn't matter much to me

But when we look at recent pop music, it is hard to claim that what we hear is the simple and direct expression of the thoughts and feelings of the composer/singer:

It is hard not to get the impression that popular music now seems to be more and more about the lifestyles of the wealthy pop stars. We are back in "minuet and trio" territory, but instead of the music being for the aristocracy, it is sold to the masses. I'm not sure what to say about this exactly, but isn't there something aesthetically dishonest about it all?

If we ask what the function of current pop music is, wouldn't we get a couple of answers: a) to burnish the lifestyles of wealthy pop stars by making them seem cool with a soundtrack and b) to keep them wealthy with lots of sales. But why would this be of any interest to the average buyer? It really can't be the stupendous quality of the music, can it?


Shantanu said...

I guess this has to do with how the means of production of music and its distribution have been controlled through the centuries. I think we can relate to this slow decline towards a more and more meaningless kind of music to how easy it has really become to produce the music. Composition a good piece is still as difficult, but not everybody has the taste or the time to appreciate good music. Most people just need a hummable tune or danceable beat to engage their attention for a short while. These people, who do not really spend much of their minds or time on music were earlier really out of the loop. I mean, the control of production was in the hands of the aristocracy, who happened to be genuinely aware consumers of music - they knew what was good and what was not. Today, production and consumption has become much more free, and you can almost say there is no need anymore to produce good music to become popular.

Similar things are happening in many other fields. About a century ago, probably only a few hundred scientific papers were published. Today, a grad student has written about 5 by the time he graduates. The content is much more trivial and still the fact that they published these papers is supposed to be a measure of how well these students are doing in their academics or contributing.

Mostly it's just arrogance fueling the fire. A lot of people don't really care for the quality of their work - they just care about popularity. Aesthetic verity is the last thing you can expect from them. The 17th and 18th century was really a Golden Age when aesthetics and science were guarded by the wealthy aristocracy - and only the genuinely good, or at least the genuinely interested, thrived.

Bryan Townsend said...

I tend to twitch when I hear the phrase "means of production", but I think you have laid out a very plausible theory. Frankly, when I wrote this post I was sort-of hoping someone might have an idea of what is going on. Because it does seem clear that a lot of the most popular music around nowadays is fairly meaningless compared to that of the past--even if we just go back to the 1960s.

Bridge said...

I make here a reference to Sturgeon's Law, which I present to counter any argument that suggests that any aesthetic degradation is taking place. No doubt, music is now produced and consumed in greater numbers than ever before, but I still feel this simple adage explains the perceived effect rather well. People nowadays are not essentially different from their 17th or 18th century counterparts. Culture has changed for sure, but the ratio of ineptitude to greatness has not changed in my opinion. Due to the poor works not being preserved, we get a skewed view of the past. Obviously, 18th century Europe was not inhabited by a few dozen masters and nobody else. We're talking about an entire century, which is a long time. I try to say this without being condescending, I don't mean to insult your intelligence at all, but I think it is tempting to fall into the trap of saying that art is dying, which is a recurring theme throughout every epoch. Can you believe that when sound films first became a thing, respected critics actually said something along the lines that film as an artform was officially dead, and that sound was only a gimmick that added nothing to the experience (like 3D nowadays.) Oh how wrong they were.

Also, if you read mainstream history you could get the impression that Ancient Greece was a rad place where people solved the mysteries of the universe and the human condition every day when in reality most of the great people we recognize today were separated by many years or even decades (or even centuries). If you ask me, I'm not pessimistic. Yeah, it's unfortunate that this kind of vacuous music is in mass production and it is all most people have the chance to hear, but so be it. I'm content with simply not being a part of the absurdly high demand. But if you think about it mass production has resulted in the ability to record high quality music and store it in an easily accessible format. Without it, we would be forced to hear all of the works we would want to listen to live. I'm not complaining about that per se, I attend concerts as often as I can, but we simply wouldn't be able to listen to and cherish as much music. Let's see what the future holds though before we start proclaiming the apocalypse.

Bryan Townsend said...

Sturgeon's Law being that 90% of everything is crap? That's not a bad rule of thumb, but I think you are applying it too indiscriminently. People may not differ in lots of biological ways from one era to another, but cultures certainly do. 5th and 4th century Athens was a nexus of cultural richness that has probably never been equalled in human history. All those remarkable things like the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, the dramas of Sophocles and Euripedes, the poetry of Pindar and Sappho, the histories of Herodotus and Thucydides, came from a small city of about 100,000 people over a couple of centuries. And when it comes to music, 18th century Vienna seems to have been the source of an inordinate amount of great music.

But I entirely agree with you that we live in a time of astounding advances. The amazing development of music notation software and recording software allows musicians the ability to do incredible things quickly and easily. That you can buy big boxes of the complete works of Bach or Mozart for a very modest amount is another amazing thing.

Bridge said...

"5th and 4th century Athens was a nexus of cultural richness that has probably never been equalled in human history"

Of course it was, not really my contention to imply it wasn't; my point is that it spanned two whole centuries. Nobody here has any real conception of how long that is - and it is certainly ridiculous to suggest that something remarkable happened each week in Classical Athens. Likewise, it is absurd to say that art is dying because nothing spectacular has happened for a few years.

How I perceive it, and it is Sturgeon's Law which I informally use to support this hypothesis, is that in absolutely any time period, the ratio of great occurrences to mediocre ones (or at least less great) is something like 1:9, in other words long periods of mediocrity sprinkled with greatness. We are biased because we are passively experiencing history in the making and are ignoring the fact that unless it is spectacularly funny or tragic, mediocrity usually isn't recorded and preserved. All I want is to suggest is that it is important to realize that we don't examine history with a skewed perspective. That's what I meant when I said "Obviously, 18th century Europe was not inhabited by a few dozen masters and nobody else."

By using the numbers found here:

… I managed to estimate that the number of active composers in Vienna in the year 1750 was around 43. Very rough and no doubt completely incorrect estimate (seeing as Vienna was a literal city of music as you mentioned). Even if we agree that the number was definitely 43, once you subtract the big names (the masters) there are still quite a few people unaccounted for, and the real number no doubt goes well into the hundreds (perhaps even 1000+, but I really have no idea). It's just important to realize that there were a lot of people apart from the big names that weren't necessarily doing great things.

Bryan Townsend said...

If you will allow me to rephrase a bit, I think that what you are arguing is that the ratio of brilliant to mediocre is roughly the same throughout history. A few great composers in Vienna doesn't alter the fact that most composers in Vienna were mediocrities. There was Mozart, but alongside him were Vanhal, Dittersdorf, Hummel and a host of others. Quite true! (I don't think 1750 was the year to choose, though. The glory days in Vienna were later from, say, 1770 to 1825.) I think there is a sense in which this is perfectly true. Pick any decade in the history of music and the ratio of good composers to mediocre composers could be, sure, for the purposes of argument, 10 to 1. But it is also true, and more importantly so, that there have been relatively few brief moments in human history of a few decades or a couple of hundred years when there was a brilliance of quite another order of magnitude. For example, in the fourth century BC Aristotle wrote six treatises on logic, known as the Organon, that were so influential on Western thought that it is safe to say that they have never been equalled. In this same century were the dialogues of Plato and many, many other hugely significant works. But just to focus on the Organon, the situation regarding the history of logic basically comes down to, Socrates and Plato came up with some of the basic issues, Aristotle put it all together and that was logic until late in the 19th century. In other words, THE textbook on logic was written by Aristotle in the 4th century BC and it was unchallenged for over two thousand years.

Yes, this is an extreme example, but I hope it makes clear that there are some accomplishments that are so far above the ordinary run of brilliance that they are of another order entirely. There may have been works on logic written in every decade since Aristotle, but they are of very little importance. Similarly, in music, there are better and worse examples of counterpoint written in every decade since counterpoint was invented somewhere around the year 1000. But Bach's Art of Fugue stands out almost as much as Aristotle's Organon for its brilliant summation of what counterpoint can do. But yes, there are some extraordinary examples by Obrecht, Josquin and DuFay, as well.

We have no historic perspective on our time, this is quite true, but one has a vague sense that there is no-one alive today who is quite in the same league as Bach, Beethoven, Mozart or Haydn.

Of course, there could be someone, but we just haven't noticed them!!

Bridge said...

Everything you say is of course completely true, and I happily concede that I was too extreme in my illustration. But realize its purpose was merely to force a perspective rather than serve as a factual account. To say that whatever cultural conditions may be present are negligible and that things would have unfolded without them is naturally extremely naïve. However, I still feel that the general ratio of good/bad being one for every ten is perfectly applicable if you adjust the criteria for each situation, in other words it depends on what the good thing in question is to begin with. For example, if you compare Mozart (a very high point indeed) to something which may seem technically and stylistically without fault and yet is clunky and awkward and not very memorable, the latter is of course bad even if it may be okay. If you go to a different time period and examine the high point there, it's not necessary that it be exactly on the same plateau as Mozart, just that the relative quality between good and bad remain the same. In this sense, I think it is perfectly reasonable to assume that at least 50% of all artistic output that has ever been produced is incompetent in some way. To what degree is not the main point, simply that in the late 18th century there were not only Mozart levels of musical skill, likewise the 21st century is invariably not going to contain only diluted serialism and misguided attempts at neoclassicism. If you haven't heard of it, I recommend visiting a site called It's a site where aspiring composers can post their works and get critique and while it is clearly not all good there are quite a lot of gems that appear to dispel the myth that good music is incapable of being produced in our time due to some artistic degradation.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes, I am quite ready to acknowledge that we can produce good music today. As you say, the the idea that "good music is incapable of being produced in our time due to some artistic degradation" is a myth. But I think that this might clarify what it is we do want to say, which is that there seems to be a decline in the general level of taste. The good music that is created tends to be ignored in favor of some pretty crappy music. In some epochs at least, in the past, if one were a superlative composer, writing superlative music, one would achieve wide recognition. Haydn and Mozart didn't just write great music, they were recognized by all of Europe as writing great music.

But today, there seems to be something gone awry in the whole area of aesthetic evaluation. I think that is what I was trying to get at and what Shantanu was also hinting at.

Bridge said...

Oh, indeed. Still, I think one has to ask oneself - I at the very least have not studied musical history well enough to know the answer - whether the general level of taste was ever high to begin with. Art music may have once been "in" in the same way that art films are "in" today. As in, movies that attempt to express something often get nominated for Oscars and so forth. Disregarding the corruption that takes place and the Oscar-baiting, truly good movies occasionally do get the recognition they deserve. Since the Oscars are popularly perceived as absolute - in other words good movies get Oscars and bad ones don't - the apathetic general populace often takes the Hollywood "academia's" word for what is quality and what is not, and while it may go see this movies there is no guarantee they will understand or care what they are seeing. I'm not just spouting conjecture here, I've often heard people say they are somewhat confused or alienated by these more ambitious projects and yet they dare not criticize them because they don't really have any words, plus it is in general acceptance so to criticize them would mean to go against the consensus which is something not everybody is ready to do.

Perhaps you have a more enlightening of the view of the 18th century, I am regrettably ignorant about it, I just know the music and at that not nearly enough of it. It just seems to me like many people adopt viewpoints they don't agree with to fit in with the whole, whether it be temporarily or somewhat permanently, speaking from observation. I suspect that a similar kind of thing was going on in late 18th cent. Vienna, where people went to hear Classical music because it was fashionable (still a thing that occurs today) and there were certainly more superficial forms of musical entertainment available at the time, similar to operettas and musical comedy in the late 19th - early-to-mid 20th centuries.

I say this with reservation of course since it is pure speculation.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think today's post starts to address this issue!