Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
Western music history attempts a straight line connecting the “greats,” whose biographies demarcate the beginnings and endings of musical periods (Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern, Contemporary). Like any effort to construct a palatable narrative from multitudinous ingredients, this image of music’s march through the ages sweeps over outliers, ignores “lesser lights,” overlooks ambiguities, excludes styles, and defines and focuses on centers rather than peripheries. Sniffing out deficiencies in this approach is nothing new. Ethnomusicologists, for instance, strive for an inclusive and holistic appreciation of “music as culture,” which embraces music of all sorts (and of all sorts of people) as group-specific repositories of information, identification, social cues, symbolism, and so on.
The Western outline of music history also presumes that creativity “progresses” or “improves” with time. For example, it is held that Medieval music was harmonically inferior to the complex techniques of later centuries. But it can just as well be claimed that intricate harmonies simply didn’t work in medieval social and spatial contexts. Similarly, the excessive orchestration and emotionalism of the Romantics are regarded as more evolved than the refinement and gentility of Classical composers. But, again, music that works in one setting typically doesn’t work in another. The same applies to folk and popular musics, which should be recognized as group-centric and purpose-serving cultural containers, rather than artifacts to be placed on an evolutionary continuum.
This revised conception resonates with the work of Ellen Dissanayake, who puts aesthetic creativity in anthropological perspective. In her convincing analysis, presented in Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why, Dissanayake argues that an artistic drive was key to the emergence, survival and adaptation of early humans. Departing from the dominant view of the aesthetic as a tangential feature, Dissanayake illustrates how art grew from an innate impulse to mark certain objects and activities as “special,” thereby ensuring their perpetuation.
It is no coincidence that art—in the form of song, dance, poetry, jewelry, painting, sculpture, engraving, costume, piercing, decoration, etc.—developed around occasions and practices crucial for group survival. These include but are not limited to: birth, rites of passage, marriage, mourning, hunting, food production, warfare, peacemaking, and religious ceremonials. Art can thus be understood as both a behavioral predisposition and a human necessity (like language and lovemaking).
This view puts into question the notion of creative progress. Creativity is an innate human trait, part and parcel of the artistic drive. Cultural conditions, social expectations, and technological advancements steer this tendency into diverse manifestations, all of which satisfy basic human needs. To be sure, some individuals are encouraged and excel in this tendency more than others; but it is present in us all. If artistic displays observable across cultures and throughout history tell us anything, it is this: creativity is a constant.
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I think of ‘evolution’ rather than ‘progress’. Whether or not our activities result in so-called ‘progress’ we can’t stop evolution, which is inextricably linked with cause and effect itself. Entropy and the Second Law come into play here where, as you will know, movement forward in time can also involve deterioration in our affairs and experience. (The Universe will end one day and how bad is that?) Music is also governed by the standards of physical efficiency prevailing. If people from long ago were able to travel here and listen to modern music the experience would be comparable with taking their first ride in a racing car. Despite my deep foray into the realms of theory I, too, still enjoy simple styles if they’re good and pure of their kind, which takes me back to ‘the relation of a tendency to its realization’.
I do like the evolutionary model, as it also implies adaptivity. But “cultural evolution” is usually thought of as “cultural improvement.”