What Would A New Kind of Music Sound Like?


I have always wondered what a new type of music would sound like. All modern music is an extension of the history of humanity back until our ancestors first made music. I can even imagine that the invention of music is what set our earliest ancestors apart from theirs. Just as a certain physical form is inherent in the hominid species, so might a very simple commonality lie in the musicality of our species and its earliest recognizable ancestors.

It is my theory that music was an organic extension of making tools in groups. When early tool makers worked together, chipping away at stone, a sort of rhythm probably evolved. Since music is pleasing, this would have provided a sort of bonus reward for the act of making tools, besides their practical use. This would have caused tool creation and use to expand, causing a watershed of technological evolution that gave hominids a huge survival advantage. From the basic caveman drum (rock on rock) circle, it is not hard to imagine that vocalizations began to accompany these rhythms, which themselves spiraled off into language.

If in the beginning of the hominid era success was predicated on the musicality of tool making spiraling into new human innovations and creative outlets, as I suspect it may have been, then we can perhaps suggest that there is always a strong correlation between technology and music. We will explore this important connection more later.

But first we should try to understand music in basic terms and what it means to sound ‘new.’ The following commentary was written by Redditor ‘standard_error‘ in a discussion entitled, ‘What will music sound like in 50, 100, 500 years from now?‘:

If we could guess what music would sound like tomorrow, we would make it today. That said, there are reasons to think that the rate of innovation will slow down going forward (I know that the chances of me being completely wrong on this are huge).

First, my impression of the history of western art (of which music is a part) is that innovation kicked into high gear somewhere in the early 20th century. Before this, progress had been fairly gradual, with people making tweaks to what came before until things faded into something new, but in the 20th century, it became an explicit purpose of art to push into new territory as fast as possible. Think of art music – what’s called the common practice period, where composers used diatonic harmonies and chord progressions, lasted from around 1600 to around 1900. Then in the early 20th century, we had composers like Strauss (Elektra) starting to break up harmony, with people like Debussy and Stravinsky pushing ahead. As early as the 1920’s Schönberg had finished the job with twelve-tone serialism, and after WWII people like Stockhausen and Xenakis made sure there was nothing left of recognizable harmony, melody or rhythm as we knew it in music. This is an incredibly swift development compared to what had gone before. In the 60’s John Cage finally forced us to include any sound whatsoever in the definition of music.

Jazz saw a parallel development with a culmination in free jazz in the early 60’s, and fusion jazz in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Rock music came along, and in a couple of decades people had pushed that to every conceivable extreme, with prog rock playing as complicated music as possible, doom metal playing as loud and slow as possible, punk rock playing as fast as possible, etc.

Then of course electronic music, which people also quickly used to explore all extremes, from hardcore gabba to almost inaudible minimalism.

My impression, and this might be because I’m getting old and don’t have my ear to the ground anymore, is that most new music during the last decade or two has been recombining previous styles rather than bringing something completely new. My interpretation of this is that the 20th century brought with it a frenzied exploration of the limits of all artforms, which means that what’s left is to find new recombinations within the terrory mapped out by these musicians and artists.

Second, Philip Glass made a good point in a recent interview – he said that really new music only comes along as a result of a new process. In his example, this was the electronic organ which brought with it new playing techniques, which in turn enabled his fast, repetitive music. I think there’s a lot of truth to this – think of the invention of the electric guitar, or the synthesizer, and what huge waves of innovation followed. However, we’ve had computer generated music for a couple of decades now, and this technology enables basically any conceivable sound. It’s hard to see a new innovation that would be as disruptive.

Again, I know that people have predicted the end of innovation countless times, and that I’m very likely making the same mistake, but I hope my arguments can at least spark some discussion.

At this point another Redditor ‘o0lemonlime0o’ shares some doubts about those statements:

That’s a bit of an oversimplification. Music of 1600 is vastly different from music of 1900. It bothers me when people lump all common practice period classical into one category.

That said, I would agree that over the course of history the rate of change of music as a whole has increased dramatically. During the medieval period, centuries went by with little musical development in the western world, and now you can hardly go a year without some new genre or trend being created.

Where we disagree is in your assertion that in the last decade or two, nothing completely new has been created. If you only look at rock music, then this maybe has a certain amount of truth to it (and that’s a big maybe), but tons of incredibly leaps and developments have been made in indie, electronic music and hip hop.

At this point standard_error makes a mathematically based argument about music that is worth thinking about:

Sure, music changed immensely during the common practice period, but it did so gradually and more or less within a single framework. In the early 20th century, the explicit purpose of many composers was to break from that framework in every way possible. It is this change in attitude and purpose that I think is a large part of the reason for why so many things were explored in music during the last century.

As for recent developments, you’re probably right. Still, I can’t help to think that most of what’s new nowadays are new combinations of old ideas. I’m going to use a mathematical analogy – I apologize in advance. Think about music as a multidimensional space, where each dimension is some aspect of music. For simplicity, let’s assume that music is two-dimensional, with consonances-dissonance along the vertical axis, and fast-slow along the horizontal axis. Now every piece of music can be represented as a point on a piece of paper. My claim is that for much of history, composers were pushing further and further out along these axes, into completely uncharted territory. Today, there are points all around the edges, meaning that it’s not really possible to go any further out. On the other hand, the paper is far from black, meaning that there are still many places where new points can be placed. But these new points will mostly lie within the space explored by previous musicians. To generalize, I’m thinking about a multidimensional vector space, the edges of which have now mostly been mapped out, so that new music will mostly lie in the interior, and thus be linear combinations of older pieces.

So, have we really explored the entire area of musical possibility and have only left to fill in the blank spots within those confines?

Avant Garde musicians would argue that there are still limits beyond those boundaries. However, these limits are merely limits of sound. Outlier sound creations are often inaccessible to most people because the intense focus on pushing the boundaries of sounds tends to cast aside the more subjective aspects of music and the emotionally evocative effects that even the most simple music can achieve.

When I wonder what new music might sound like, I am not just referring to the novelty of newness, but what an enduring form might sound like. From the earliest primitive rhythms to the folk music of societies to the royal artistry of classical music, and into all forms of modern music there lies a common set of elements: melody, harmony and hooks. It is these elements which give music its emotional content and ability to endure through repetition. Merely new music is meaningless if it doesn’t gain a large and lasting audience relative to human populations, cultures and societies.

For this reason I think that future music is not necessarily always so much about exploring boundaries, but filling in aural blank spots, as was suggested above by Redditor standard-error.

It is also why I doubt that things like binaural beats will replace music. Not because they do not facilitate emotional or mental state changes, but because they do it directly, and not through the subjective process of interpretation which occurs between artist and listener. While pure forms of sound might someday become a popular thing themselves, I do not think that they are necessarily musical, or at least able to serve the same purpose or create the same kind of meaning. The subjective nature of the observer is an important part of music. It is an area of human experience where the journey really is more important than the destination.

In that same Reddit thread above, the original submitter asks a question I myself have asked: is trying to imagine new music like trying to imagine a color outside of our visual range? If the sonic boundaries have already been located, and technology has already given us the ability to make any audible sound easily accessible to musicians, then have we reached a dead end? Do the limitations of our experience of sound themselves provide the answer to our question?

Imagine that you were slowly going deaf. You were able to hear music for much of your life but it slowly faded and your musical tastes tended to fulfill the increasing limitations of your hearing. Then a new technology restored your hearing, and because the limits of that technology differ from organic hearing, your musical tastes not only changed, but how music itself sounded completely changed.

This was the case for Sam Swiller whose music tastes not only changed to reflect the new heightened boundaries of his hearing while simultaneously becoming limited by the device he now uses to hear. While one set of limitations increased, his ability to hear in general, another decreased, the tonal range of his technologically-facilitated hearing.

Here we find an interesting possibility. If the new hearing technology could limit his audio range, could it eventually be used to increase the human audio range? Many devices have increased our visual range in numbers of ways. We can now see beyond color into thermal and chemical composition. Is it possible we can expand the possible range of sounds we can experience outside of the limits experienced by natural human hearing?

As I mentioned early on, technology is a huge part of human music. The advances we have experienced in musicality have often come along as the result in advances in instrumentation, organization and even the production process itself, all facilitated by new technologies.

So is it possible that we have perhaps reached a limit of musicality that is merely a function of the limits of the human hearing apparatus, and that if we were to improve this experience by creating technological instruments that actually expand the sonic limitations of our hearing, it might allow for new ranges and complexities of sound? Can we not imagine what a new music might sound like because we do not yet have the ability to hear it? Might the re-creation of the physical equipment which facilitates the human experience of sound be the next step in music?

Truly objective absolutes do not exist. Our methods of attempting to harness objectivity largely only exist for expanding our subjective experiences of existence. In the world of forms, our ability to experience anything new is intrinsically limited by the apparatus we use to gather and perceive those experiences. However, our ability to improve, or at least expand the abilities of those apparatuses, does not yet seem to have reached the same sort of critical limits music currently faces.

With music being such an important part of our species heritage and conscious experience, it is unlikely to ever lose its general importance to humanity. Nor will we remain content to simply recombine what is already possible. So it seems inevitable that as a way of increasing subjective experience and human pleasure, we will necessarily have to replace our ears.

So then what of our other sensory apparatus? Will it be necessary to someday expand our taste palettes by replacing taste buds with more sensitive instruments, once we have combined all the known flavors and can no longer generate new flavor experiences through recombination? Sight, smell and touch might also themselves be enhanced and expanded in the future by new technologies.

Our subjective experiences create meaning, pleasure and pain, joy and misery. They are the guides by which we hack out a path into the future. In a world where technology has facilitated such rapid advances in art, our ability to experience the new and novel will have to eventually be supplanted with technologies that expand our perceptive abilities.

So does the question “What would a new kind of music sound like?” lead us to the inevitability of transhuman technology? Can we physically evolve fast enough to meet the needs of our rapidly expanding consciousness, or will it become necessary to replace biological processes by technological ones in order to continue creating meaning and purpose in our lives? And given that we must do so, what will that do to the meaning and purpose we have already created through the biological processes we have evolved through since our very inception as distinct physical entities?

And if even our core values must change to facilitate our future evolution, what can we say about the permanence of anything? Are there objectively positive and negative human experiences, or are these themselves entirely impermanent conditions? Is anything always good/true/etc. or is human experience itself a creative process facilitating its own methods of evolution?

“They teach you there’s a boundary line to music. But, man, there’s no boundary line to art.” -Charlie Parker



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