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.
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.