Thoughts on Evolution in Music

A Reflection


2011-08-11 — Original posting (on Blogger)
2014-10-28 — Re-posting as is (WordPress)
2016-06-19 — Brushed up for better readability


New Orleans newspapwer "The Mascot", cover for 1890-11-15 (source: Wikimedia commons)
New Orleans newspapwer “The Mascot”, cover for 1890-11-15 (source: Wikimedia commons)

Outline


Evolution?

Just some fragmentary, amateurish thoughts on a complex topic. A detailed discussion is way beyond the scope of a blog entry — I’m not qualified to provide comprehensive coverage of this topic anyway.

It is common to assume that since medieval times, cultural and technological evolution happen at an exponential pace. This is likely true for technology and related areas. However, even there I think this impression is partly because in our memory and in historical perception, the past moves out of focus, getting “fuzzy”, less detailed. So, it appears to have evolved at a much slower pace than what people in the respective period may have experienced. In historic times, the daily struggle of life barely left people time and opportunity to contemplate the speed of evolution!

Evolving Music

I don’t think the perceived “exponential law of evolution” applies to all areas. I think that the evolution in occidental music (i.e., what we now call “classical music”) has been happening at a more even pace over the past 5+ centuries. One can see music history as a succession of “styles”, with each of the styles lasting maybe 2 – 3 generations. It may now seem that the evolution of music has accelerated over the 19th / 20th century. But that is (IMO, again) largely because the broad public does not differentiate (or even know about) pre-baroque music. Plus, our ears don’t perceive changes in the pre-baroque periods very well. However, for the people of that period these changes have likely been very obvious. Maybe, such changes were even as controversial as the evolution in contemporary music of our time?

Most styles culminated in the oeuvres of a few key composers, often with periods between styles where there may (appear to) have been fewer “big guys” among the composers. Some composers were pivotal, instrumental in developing a new style. Their compositions may therefore be seen as belonging to two different style periods (think of Monteverdi, Beethoven). Then, it typically took 1 – 2 generations of composers to “digest” such revolutions, maybe complete such changes in style?

One may argue that different from previous times, in the 19th & 20th century there has been a constant stream of great composers — however I think this is a biased view, as we do not have enough distance to assess the relative historic importance of the composers from the past 150 years.

Evolution in Music Instruments — Violins

The Evolution of music instruments, on the other hand, may appear to follow a different pattern. Here, instrument builders seem to experiment with shapes, sizes, etc., until reaching a final, “perfect” form. At this point, the evolution appears to have stopped. Think of the evolution of the violin family of instruments. They have evolved from ancient instruments via fiddle to the different corpus shapes, number of strings, etc. in the family of viols. Finally, violin builders (mostly in Cremona) found the perfect form / configuration. Ever since (at least in many people’s mind) there has not been significant new development in that area. This is not 100% correct, as

  • Most Cremonese instruments indeed underwent modifications in the 19th century. People altered neck and fingerboard length and inclination, and with it the string tension. Also, the strings themselves have evolved since. It all happened in order for the instrument to have more volume, maybe brighter sound. Not all of these changes were always for the instrument’s benefit.
  • At the peak of the Cremona (and other historic schools) violin production, violin building was largely heuristic (trial and error). For a long time people could not really tell why the Cremona instruments (Amati, Guarneri, Stradivari, etc.) were superior. Violin makers kept their rudimentary empirical findings secret, of course. However, science has since been able to shed some light on these questions. There are now again violin builders that often match, if not exceed the quality of the historic Cremona instruments. Just think of the instruments built by Stefan-Peter Greiner in Bonn/Germany, played by soloists such as Christian Tetzlaff, and by members of the Hagen Quartet & others.

Evolving Keyboard Instruments

Similarly, with keyboard instruments, there was lots of experimenting, from the clavichord / virginal / spinet & harpsichord era to the fortepiano, finally to the grand piano as we know it today: apart from the addition of a third pedal there is little difference between a Steinway grand piano built 100 years ago and one built today. It seems that to some degree the invention of new instruments takes the place of continued development. Once a given instrument has reached a “classic” form, i.e., instrument evolution “sidestepped” into the development of new instruments. One can see this particularly in the area of wind instruments, more recently also with the addition of electronic instruments.

Evolution in Instrument Tuning

The evolution of musical tuning in occidental music looks again a little different, as discussed in my other blog entries on this topic. Over the past 500 years, tuning evolved from Meantone temperament tuning (featuring a limited number of usable keys) to a large family of “well-tempered” tunings. This expanded the number of usable / accessible keys, while retaining some individual characteristics of the various keys. Evolution went on to equal temperament tuning. This makes all keys playable equally well, at the expense of their individuality (and the purity of certain chords). Once equal temperament tuning became the norm, there was no room for further evolution (can’t make things “more equal than equal”), the evolution stopped.

But of course that evolution then just migrated, sidestepped into the evolution of a vast variety of tonalities and new scales over the 19th and 20th century. Here, the tuning temperament takes a lesser role: the human ear is most sensitive to tuning changes in major chords. With any other chord (minor chords, even more so other, more dissonant chords) the tuning has much less of an influence on the sensory impression through the human ear.



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