Hi folks, I’m in studying mode at the moment in preparation for my Ph.D program’s preliminary exams. There’s lots of studying to be had (ugh) but I realized that I still need some way of updating my blog, since it’s become a pretty important tool for me as of the late.
I hate studying and taking tests in general so I figured that the only way for me to get through this was to turn it into a project — so I’ll be presenting a broad overview of music history based on my highly subjective and biased perspective. This isn’t meant to be particularly objective or comprehensive account of what history is (whatever that even means), but is just a way for me to remember broad trends, issues, and point of contentions in Western music for the sole, non-noble purpose of passing the test. What that usually means, for me anyway, is constructing a story out of things that I happen to find interesting in hopes that a few additional factoids will end up sticking in my mind enough to talk about things coherently when the time comes. Hopefully some might find it interesting to others since I have a tendency to highlight and remember more of the weirder things of a narrative in general.
My obligations for historical knowledge starts around the Medieval time period, so I’ll be going in to detail starting from the 6th century onward. The West has always been obsessed with Greek culture (even now), with many of its musical theories originating from the ideas of the first great musical theorist, Pythagoras. The philosopher/mathematician, although not being a musician himself, originated many of the ideas about tuning, scales, and harmonies that served as the fundamental framework for Western musical practices from thereafter.
It’s important to acknowledge that Western music, perhaps other than the decision to standardize its equal-temperament tuning systems, hasn’t really changed its modes of production all that much since the early days of Greece and Rome. Empires rise and fall, leaders are throned and ousted, technologies create and destroy new instruments and methodologies, but the notes and scales themselves have remained fairly similar to its original conceptions. (In fact, every so often the West goes through periods of nostalgia where the Greek and/or Roman culture once again becomes the “ideal” societal model.) This is why, even to this day, people can listen to songs/pieces created hundreds or thousands of years ago and still hear it as “music”, rather than a bunch of noise. As with reading writings of people of previous eras, perhaps the affect and mannerisms of older musics might seem strange, but there’s still something that the ear recognizes as music.
Musics of foreign cultures often have the ability to sound like noise to an unfamiliar ear, which is an interesting topic in itself, but for the purpose of this project it will stick to THE HISTORY OF WESTERN MUSIC IN THE “CLASSICAL” STYLE in all of its glories and follies. (Probably more the latter, at least until my exams are over.)
From one perspective, Lady Gaga, Mozart, Bach, the Beetles, and that kid down the street making remixes out of stolen mp3s from the internet have all used the same types of notes, chords, and rhythms in one way or another — so in essence, you could say, nothing has really changed in music for the last millennium or so. But there are actual differences between them, mostly in how the music is organized, presented, and appreciated by people in order to create context and meaning. Music is always a two way street between the musician creating the experience and the people whom its appreciated by, and these back-and-forths are also reflected in music history’s trends and developments. Incidentally, the job of the musicologist is to construct or reconstruct — as accurately as they can — what the “real” significance is of a music of any given style. Musicians often know the whys but not of the whats — audience members on the other hand, however, often have the opposite problem of knowing what they like but not why.
There were a number of broadly painted developments in music/art historical timelines that were deemed important enough to give it a label, and these macro-level shifts have been segmented into “eras” by historians in order to generate a linear timeline. Though the existence of these time-periods in themselves are rarely in dispute, what’s perceived as the “most important” or “most significant” musical development for that particular era will largely depend on who you’re talking to. If I had to choose just a few traits for each era, though, it would probably look something like this:
Key Historical Developments by Field
Music, Composers, Philosophy, Science, Economics, Politics, Military
Liturgical Songs, Guillaume de Machaut, Thomas Aquinas (Theology, Ethics), Universities, Agricultural Economies, Feudalism, Peasant Levies
Polyphony/Counterpoint, Giovanni Palestrina, René Descartes (Rationalism), Galileo Galilei, Guilds, Aristocracy, Gunpowder
“Functional” Tonality, J.S. Bach, John Locke (Liberalism), Isaac Newton (Classical Mechanics), Market Economies, The Reformation, Conscription
“Simplified” Tonality, Haydn/Mozart/Beethoven, Immanuel Kant (Transcendental Idealism), Engines/Electricity/Printing Press, Rise of the Merchant Classes, Classical Antiquity, French and American Revolutions
“Dissolved” Tonality, Beethoven->Wagner, Georg Hegel (Dialectical Idealism), The Industrial Revolution, Capitalism, Nationalism, World War I
12-Tone Music, Arnold Schoenberg, Karl Marx (Dialectical Materialism), Albert Einstein (Theory of Relativity), Mass-Production/Corporations, League of Nations, World War II
(40′s-70′s) Late Modern
Serialism, John Cage/Pierre Boulez, Existentialism, Quantum Physics, Specialized/Segmented Economies, United Nations, The Cold War
Lots, Lots, Pluralism/Multiculturalism, Telecommunications/Space Travel, Globalization, Multinational Unions, Terrorism
I’m missing a lot of things here and a few things can be said to be debatable, but I think this chart helps to paint a broad picture of how things have developed in an overall sense. Some of the details don’t fit neatly, mostly because some periods can be said to be important because they allowed thinkers to conceive of certain ideas (e.g. John Stuart Mill, during the classical era) while others were significant because they were in the process of it actually being implemented (e.g. capitalism). But over time most history tends to reveal itself as a push-and-pull between ideas and execution, as it is the case today as well. I’m looking to fill in the holes with more specifics with my followup posts, so hopefully the picture will become much more clearer as time goes on.
As time goes on, the world becomes more complex, pluralistic, and interconnected, making it more difficult to summarize everything into one word or phrase. Even within the relatively small world of the Western classical music tradition, composers start to become more autonomous, seeking to distinguish themselves as individuals rather than be part of a broader style or movement. Most scholars agree that “modernism” as we know it is largely over, and the word “postmodernism” has now come into fairly normal use, so there is some amount of agreement there — but this label is probably going to be replaced as soon as someone comes up with a better phrase to explain what had happened during the latter half of the 20th century.
But this doesn’t mean that things are now happening in a completely chaotic or random way. In lieu of Western society’s obsession with the Greeks, its history tends to play out like a dialogue between Plato and Aristotle guised under different variations and forms. The two figures often come to represent the two poles of an ideological spectrum, going back and forth in a binary manner — the idealist vs. realist, abstract thought vs. experience, religion vs. science, simplicity vs. complexity, heavens vs. the earth, community vs. the individual, and so on. And if one pays attention to the progress and developments of Western societies, they’ll find that these are recurring patterns that happen over and over, depending on what’s popular at that particular period in time. When the pendulum is pushed in one direction too far, there is always a reaction and a movement toward the “other way”, eventually pushing back towards the center and sometimes far into the other direction. What’s unknown is how far and long these trends will go in any given time period, which makes the predicting the future a difficult task, even for certified, salaried prophets with lots of first-hand experience of predicting what’s to come.
But once you get down to it, the reason why visionaries exist to begin with is because in reality, things don’t change all that much. Science and technology can progress, often very rapidly, but the fundamentals of human social structures have maintained its “see-saw” pattern throughout the course of Western civilization’s history and timeline. I’d wager that many or most of the historical figures that are remembered today had an acute sense of where they were in relation to these types of patterns, which allowed them to navigate the tides of history in ways that others unable to do. And we call them visionaries because they “see” what’s about to happen in the world and move accordingly — the myth of the “genius” is not so much that they create something from nothing, but that they pre-empt the future by effectively drawing upon what’s already known.
I’m not going to even bother writing about anything after the 70s (even the style I love the most, minimalism), since it can turn into a minefield and it’s probably not going to be on the test because there isn’t a consensus on what those periods have come to represent as of yet. But I figure that’s a good place to stop anyway since I’ll probably be writing more about those types of topics as part of my real research.
Anyway, hope someone out there finds this helpful or useful in some way! And please don’t cite this page as a source, thank you.