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Not With The Band: Is There Progress In Music?

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Music as many other forms of art has existed for a long time, we don’t know how and when it originated, not even why… and wanting to give a function to art, always seems pointless. I was listening to a podcast discussing progress in literature, a strange concept if you, like me, have been under the impression there is no progress in art, as art made 1,000 years ago can touch us as much or even more than something done today. Still, is it the case for music?

When you listen to one of the oldest melodies known, dated from 1,400 BC, played on a lyre (another version here) we have to wonder, is there any progress made when we listen to this John Cage’s Sonata composed only 60 years ago? I am certainly not going to compare compositions separated in time by more than a millennium, but they both kind of do the same effect on me, and this is why it is absolutely pointless to see music in terms of progress.

We certainly have developed more instruments since this old Syrian composition, we have now amazing technology, computers and synthesizers but what does it mean in terms of progress in art or music? Progress means going from one stage to another higher or better stage, but that would mean we attach to music a certain stage or grade, the way Pitchfork reviewers do it, in order to be able to compare these stages from year to year… logically we should see progress? That seems so subjective as reviews vary so much from one reviewer to another, but if we can agree on some sort of consensus for major compositions representing the different periods in history, could we arrive at the conclusion that there is progress in music? I really doubt.

I took Rolling Stone list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, because it was a list long enough, and compiled year by year for over 6 decades. Of course there is nothing older than 1952 and nothing younger than 2011(I took the list done in 2012), and all the data were compiled in the graph above. If music was progressing shouldn’t we see better and better albums released as the years pass? If you believe Rolling Stone critics, there is definitively no progress in music but rather an increase in mediocrity since the best albums seem to be concentrated around the late 60’s and the 70’s… except for a moderate pic around the mid 90’s, we have really been going downhill since the 00’s, big time! But appreciation of music always comes with at least 15-20 years of delay, so of course, Rolling Stone, a magazine which would never go against the flow, put a lot of famous 65′-75′ famous albums in that list,… it is a list of established facts, and they would never dare to proclaim something released after 2000 as the best album of all time, and that’s why the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s’ made the top of the list. If we believe the critics, music as an art form seriously de-progresses, the golden age was at least 40 years ago, and nothing really memorable has come out since. Really?

At the end everything is about context and place in history, if the same list is published in 40 years, there are a lot of chances it will show the same bell curve with a pic 40 years older than the date of the publication, it takes time to recognize the true value of art, and people’s tastes change slower in comparison to what they are offered. Will we see a lot of electronic music in this same list instead of all these rock & roll albums? Probably. Does it mean it will be progress? No, it will simply be different, reflecting the evolution of genres and music. As technology advances, as more people make music, music becomes more intricate and more varied, and trends vary even more than before, when only instruments were available, and there is no possible comparison between current music and music composed 1,4000 BC when only a flute or a lyre were available…

But more variation does not mean progress because the value of art is not measured like a scientific advancement. Science progresses as knowledge becomes larger and larger, but for music, it has nothing to do with advancement, as the most sophisticated piece of music made while using the most complicated equipment can please you or leave totally cold, whereas a simple song played on guitar or piano can make you cry. It just depends on your age, on what kind of music you were raised to, on your personal taste…. In fact the evolution of music could be seen as biological evolution, and a living species can’t be regarded as a ‘better species’ than one which has lived a million years ago, it is just better adapted to the current situation.

There are no big discoveries in music as there are in science, music is just there to ease the pain when we are facing the abyss which is the human condition, progress is irrelevant, only this particular song can save you when everything looks so dark, and it doesn’t matter whether it is a 40-year-old song or the most recent one.

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