Many people argue that times have changed and the former times were far better. If we were to travel in time however, exactly the same arguments would arise in any time period. Are they better? Doesn't the knowledge, the science of computer technology for example, given to people let them imagine about times that had passed and are gone forever?
As our consumerist world became more and more connected, popular music became a product for a much wider audience. Music has been a product for a long time, from the first steps of the species we belong to, in fact, and to deny this is denying reality. My opinion is that all art works far better as merchandise than as something hazy. I will explain this further;
Production of merchandise, as opposed to lonesome "poetic“ pleasure involves planing, preconception, reason, and (by all means) competition — all of which better the product or in the opposite make it cheaper. It is however important to realize who is the buyer of the merchandise.
In music, most of the classical compositions we know have been thoroughly planned ahead and for a certain purpose. Usually, through the 1700s and 1800s investors would commission musicians to make new popular works for plays, operas, ballets, or other occasions such as state hymns. Examples of these are Mozart, Bach, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Rimsky Korsakov, Vatroslav Lisinski, Guissepe Verdi etc. When music became a free artistic product, the popular genre switched from classically trained musicians to those who worked for America's musical theatres and European operettas. Some classical musicians were to pursue their own ideals. But are these ideals really possible? I doubt that it is possible to truly work outside of the zeitgeist except in a few cases where an artist creates his own zeitgeist, because without the consumer there is no product, and does in this way the value of the product increase as the audience does?
Now for one thing, there are always exceptions. There have been popular composers since and there have been popular performers at that time, yet something crucially changed at the beginning of the 20th century and that was the invention of radio. Radio opened the door for performers and singer songwriters with no particular musical knowledge except the subconscious knowledge of their own ethnic music. Early blues became popular, jazz and later country music followed. Jazz later became more complex by such artists as Ellington and Strayhorn who were borrowing more musical elements from European classical music than from jazz music itself. Otherwise, simple music was to become more and more popular.
As the music becomes harmonically and melodically simpler it involves less thought in listening, if not in making. If there are constant repetitions, the better sold the music is because it becomes catchy. If the repetitions are in certain harmonic order that is currently a standard in the Global culture, the far better it is sold, and so forth.
Now, this is not a surprise since we are all biological beings evolved some time ago, probably in East Africa, and are really dependent on each other for survival. It is said that one man battling a tiger is basically the tiger's lunch while five men in combat with five tigers amount to five tiger rugs.
We were, at the very start, dependent on gatherings which amounted to social bonding and making our species more secure. Music is thought to be the first art form used in ceremonies for bonding. What creates better bonding than a mentally absent state created by repetitive rhythmic and melodic progressions?
This is important because our brains have two access points, one is emotional and far older and the other is rational and younger in the evolutionary sense. If the emotional is entered first then a person has no reason to doubt the information received or the other person. Good examples of such are religion and love. And it is no wonder that African American church music is repetitive as it is no wonder that medieval European church music was. And it is no wonder that such music is or was undoubtedly popular.
If we travel ahead to the Baroque period, to the early big band music of Fletcher Henderson in the 1920s, to the1970s discos and punk concerts, the 1990s rave parties or far into today's pop concerts we see the same pattern. Music that is repetitive and strikes the center of the primitive brain and thus becomes extremely efficient for dance, which is itself a remnant of early social bonding of humans.
Complex music generally becomes less popular as it becomes more complex harmonically, melodically and conceptually. If it demands a complex thought it is rare that a teenager will get involved in the music. And teenagers are people in making. Most people construct their whole personality and vaguely create their goals exactly as teenagers. The music that they have listened to as teenagers is the one that will give them pleasant nostalgia later and most will even remain listening to that music or that type of music through their life.
Today simple music is for one easily created and easily distributed and the listeners of music generally are teenagers. Usually it is done by young adults for teenagers or by teenagers for teenagers. This includes most electronic music, rock, pop with the exceptions of the so called world music.
Music has become an increasingly popular religion used for bonding and constructing social groups, creating subcultures and sometimes dividing young people into strict groups. This is the nature of human kind and is therefore not to be seen as wrong but as real and pretty interesting.
But a new world seems to be arising. There is a global melting pot of elements from young peoples' music, from older peoples' music, from ethnic music and from various subcultures. In some places a strong ethnic identity has again arisen after the dominance of the global culture and in some places the global culture is merely beginning.
Although I consider this imperative to the development and sustain of music as a true art form, I have not recently heard a very popular composer that has used elements of contemporary musical styles. There are many songwriters that are even creating very creative and artistic interpretations of their own work such as Hiromi Uehara, Regina Carter and Joshua Redman. But these are artists in the ever expanding and exciting jazz idiom which is not in fact popular music today. Yet these exceptions seem to bridge the gap.
I consider composition imperative because after a strong and inspirational mixing of traditions a homogeneous blend is what remains. For example, arranged music by a band themselves might seem as something new since the band members have many influences, but when the resources are exploited, homogeneity appears and the music remains the same. If we were to take this onto a global level, apparent new music such as blues and rock have been either a blend or a subsequent evolution of something that already existed, and this was done by various individuals. To develop the music further new influences arrived, but when the influences are global and in globally connected society then there are no more renewable resources. This is because connection disables divergent evolution and enables blending.
Good composers, although also depending on resources generally know exactly what their resources are and what they mean in each context. They can understand exactly what they are mixing with what and with experience know how to go against their own melodic affinities, sometimes creating new scales or chord structures. One person in this case is able to create much more diverse works than a group of people working together with subconscious use of musical influences. It is the reason, the pre-thought and learning that make a composer an artist, but the artist is only and artist when truly working in his time period using both the knowledge inherited and the elements of today. As Michelangelo was not an abstract painter and Beethoven a dadaist composer, so it is obviously strikingly weird that many so called composers of today usually compose in the idioms of the past or without acknowledging the zeitgeist of today.
Duke Ellington, as I mentioned in an earlier article, made a breakthrough when classical music was already exclusive. He took the elements of popular music and created a fairly popular complex music, and by his standards painted visual scenery rather than a musical one. What he managed was to get the young people dancing to the rhythms of their time only to subconsciously receive complex harmonies and arrangements. These people would get used to the complexity and as they would grow older they would be able to intellectually enjoy the music. Obviously this is an exaggeration since there was probably Ellington's own pursuit of the transcendent art as it is and many other factors such as popular appearances involved here.
It isn't the complexity that is important but the story that it manages to carry. If the music itself, regardless of lyrics shows for example a scenery or an event then it must itself carry pretty complex information. For example the modern zeitgeist could take reggae rhythm, a major scale melody and harmonization with sixth chords to produce the banal element of day, if it is further taught over than it can create palm trees and boats, maybe even the story of a falling coconut and its travels throughout the south seas.
Will new composers suddenly emerge and further develop the musical blending with interpretation of their own work or will the subconscious mixing continue for some time?
I think true artists should be individuals that not only react to their emotional states but people that are able to learn through analysis, because as in science, development in art is only possible by the ideas that are built on knowledge and not the lack of it.