Did Darwin believe in life after love?

Credit Wikimedia Commons

Sara Haefeli is a professor of music history, theory & composition at Ithaca College.

Over here at The Avid Listener, Haefeli auditions the idea of a Darwinian effect in music — that is, that music and musical ideas evolve over time. Haefeli explores a couple notions — one, that music could have an “ultimate goal;” and two, that great tunes are merely mile-markers as our favorite artists march inexorably towards some final musical perfection.

That’s a lot to take on.
For music to evolve means killing off vestigial tics and dead-ends while preserving the “good” things. Fortunately for us, “good” is subjective. If you get tired of opera, you listen to something else. If a bunch of people get tired of listening to opera and leave it en masse that’s a permanent change in taste. Or, maybe, it’s musical evolution?

Auto-tune started as a way for Pro Tools wizards to make singers sound better. For better or worse it rounded notes within melodies up or down to the nearest recognizable tones, thereby making passable singers into studio divas.

Credit Wikimedia Commons

Auto-tune also had the desirable effect of making the human voice seductively “computer-y.” When Cher smashed with “Believe” in 1998, this little engineering sleight-of-hand became huge. The T-Pains and Kanyes of the world jumped on the bandwagon. Singers sounded different, glitchy, and cool.

Strictly speaking this isn’t musical evolution at work. Songs and singers didn’t become inherently better. It was just different. You can still flip on the radio and hear a lot of auto-tune. Maybe in five or ten years it’ll be relegated to the scrap-heap of history.

I think the idea of musical evolution is suspicious. One loser historian’s idea of perfection is somebody else’s musical nightmare. A lot of superior music never makes it into the mainstream. A lot of popular stuff is just a straight-up dumpster fire.

But good ideas tend to beget other good ideas, and there is a lineage you can follow. This is about taste & trend. The brainy folks making the art we enjoy — sculpture, dance, fashion, food, whatever — try something, and we jump for it. We ride the wave until we’re tired of it, then move onto something else. And we keep circling back.

Somebody in the comments for Haefeli’s article likened music trends to sand castles — beautiful for a while, then erased by waves, then built again. The process is the point.

All right Rick Simpson, have a dab & read the whole thing, slowly, over here.

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One thought on “Did Darwin believe in life after love?

  1. Sara Haefeli

    Wow, I stumbled across your blog looking for a link to my post and I’m so glad I did. This is great stuff.

    I love your autotune example. My comment has nothing to do with Darwinian notions about evolution, but I wanted to say something about how autotune functioned for me in the late 90s and early 2000s. Sure, there was Cher, but there was also Shania Twain and a dozen others like her. I was teaching history of rock and roll at the time and had to stay up on current trends and pop country was hot in Colorado where I was teaching at the time. Autotune was so prevalent in that style that I started thinking about autontune as a *primary* marker of that pop country sound, replacing steel guitar or fiddle or even that twangy accent of the voice. And then autotune just exploded everywhere and my little theory about semiotic style markers was blown to pieces.

    I look forward to reading more of your work!

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