In the last five hundred years, have humans gotten better at music?
Another way to ask this question is, are the best pieces of music today better than the best pieces of music produced in the 16th century? I think the answer is somewhere between “no” and “this question doesn’t make sense.”
First, “no” is a good answer because, if we had gotten better as a society at creating music, we wouldn’t be regularly listening to and performing music from a half millennium ago – we would mostly be listening to the music produced most recently. But this isn’t really what happens. We listen to contemporary music and pop for their own sake, and many people also enjoy classical and traditional indigenous music alongside the modern ones. So from this perspective, humans have gotten no better at making better music. You might even say our music-creating capability has stagnated!
Another valid response to this question is that the question doesn’t make sense, because beyond a certain basic threshold, one piece of music isn’t strictly better or worse than another one – the set of all music ever created is not an ordered set we can line up in a sorted list. From this perspective, we have classical music, which is different from rap, for example, or from jazz or the blues or traditional Korean trot music or gospel music, but which are not any better or worse than any other. They just exist in the nebulous cloud of music that humanity grows over time, without necessarily caring about making anything “better” than the “state of the art” of music.
Either way you look at it, the fact that humans continue to make music is a little paradoxical. We aren’t trying to get any better at music by doing it so consistently and diligently over time, and we aren’t inventing anything new. If music were a branch of science, it would be an extremely wasteful and counterproductive one, because it doesn’t really advance in the way science does, in a linear, stepwise path. Music is fashion, just like architecture or visual art or design or couture. It ebbs and flows, and we humans continue to participate wholeheartedly in this somewhat random walk of creative practice even though it doesn’t really lead us anywhere in the end. It’s a walk along the beach, not an ascent of Mount Everest.
In the realm of technology writ large, where the purpose of work is to improve on the state of the art, the value of your work comes from how much better it is than the next best thing. The point of science as a civilization-scale process is to constantly improve. But this is a very specific way of ascribing value to work, and I think we forget that this way of valuing work is arbitrary. There is at least one other equally successful and celebrated way of valuing our work, which we find in fashion. In fashion writ large, the point is not to improve and iterate, as in technology. I would argue that to ask fashion of a “point” is a misguided question in the first place. Fashion doesn’t have a point, and that’s okay – I think the worldview that every productive activity must also have an ultimate extrinsic purpose is an artifact of an industrial way of thinking about life that fails to extend outside of the fields where it matters, science and technology.
So, why do we keep making music? It’s not because we haven’t written the ultimate song yet, nor because we find ourselves constantly improving at the challenge of finding such an ultimate song that exists out there somewhere, if we could only discover it like the double spiral of DNA. No, we make music because we like being a part of the grand human creative practice, and we like wandering along the beach, and we like stumbling into a song that just so perfectly cradles the precise ways that the neurotransmitters in our brain facilitate the electric micropulses that make up our consciousness. And we give little regard to whether some other musician somewhere else has written a better song. And if science invents an AI that can write songs “better than a human musician” or compose orders of magnitude more efficiently than fingers tapping on a piano, humans will still write music. Because the point is not to be best, the point is to simply do. Or perhaps there is no point, and music is just the way in which we comfort ourselves in its eerie absence.
Thanks to Teresa Pho, whose thoughtful conversations with me sparked some ideas in this post.
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