Mat Drogemuller

Science weighs in with musical autopsy on Rock and Roll

Rock and roll

Inspired by an experiment aimed to determine whether music has anywhere left to progress, Mat Drogemuller suggests rock and roll isn’t “dead,” as people claim, just “updated.”

 

For decades, pessimists have opined the death of the once-proud genre known by youth and the aged alike as “Rock and Roll.”

They have lamented the lame, modern sounds ejected from radio stations, clubs and convertible cars. They have sighed, shaken their fists and written verbose articles in remonstration. They have cited the greatness of The Rolling Stones, the always-falling CD sales and the wimpy attitudes of young people today.

Disdainful of all this nostalgic nay-saying, optimistic post-postmodernists have spent those same decades retorting against the supposed death of rock and so-called-good music generally. In their turn, they allude to things like Soundcloud, Jack White and the generally wimpy attitude of those who disagree with them.

Somewhere in the middle, the realists have sat, on the one hand admitting that The Beatles were, really, very good, but on the other hand, not entirely willing to concede that the peak of all human musical creativity has been reached and that everything since and from now on has and will be rather miserable in comparison.

At last the bickering can end. Fed up with the eternal debate, four scientists have tested the limits of musical evolution. Finally, science has done something worthwhile.

The London experiment, with the help of almost 7,000 online participants, has provided the answer using randomly generated audio samples to show that music can be created from noise by evolution. The sounds were presented to participants who rated them based on how aurally pleasing they were. In mimicry of natural selection, the most acceptable sounds then bred with one another, propagating the sound-species.

So what happened to the reproducing noises over time? As DJ Darwin would say, “survival of the catchiest” took place and after 500 generations of selection, the nondescript samples evolved into discernible, and sometimes even danceable, music.

What does this mean in real life? Although the samples quickly evolved into music, the progress after 500 generations was minimal. After generation 600, there was no recorded increase in rated musical appeal, a non-trend which continued until the end of the experiment at around generation 2,000. It’s almost as if the experimental subjects were afraid to better themselves.

Or, perhaps, they couldn’t get any better?

It has often been argued that The Beatles are the pinnacle of modern music. Bands from that era like The Who, Led Zeppelin and The Doors are looked at through rose-rimmed glasses.

But the same pattern is seen in other genres too. What modern composer can hope to compare to the legend of Beethoven or Mozart? A very much not-dead classical music scene is forced to live in the shadow of these long-dead forebears. Even the relatively recent genre hip-hop has its heyday, and ’90s fetishes run rampant in young hipsters minds. How long before the golden era of dubstep is pined for by ageing club-goers no longer satisfied with the latest drops?

Is this seemingly universal mentality of wistfulness caused by genuine quality changes over time? Or is it the result of evolving sounds no longer coinciding with the static tastes of former fans?

According to experimental analysis, the rapid growth in good-sounding-ness was caused by the elimination of unpleasant chords and rhythms as the online judges naturally selected the more ear-arresting clips. However, after the 500-generation peak, those less enticing morsels that were initially bred out were randomly recreated and reintroduced as “new” genetic material.

Posit that in 1969, when The Beatles went into Apple Studios and gave laborious, joyful birth to Abbey Road, it was the single greatest achievement in popular musical history. Or, if you prefer, imagine it was in 1972 in the French Riviera when the Rolling Stones made Exile On Main Street. Or maybe you like to think Led Zeppelin I has and never will be rivalled. Whatever your musical poison, why is it that everything since fails to compare?

Perhaps, according to this experiment, there was nowhere left to go within that musical framework without repeating what had already been done. Within any genre, and even music as a whole, it can be argued that after a certain point, there’s not as much to add that is really unique. All the good riffs have been taken. All the good rhymes have been rapped. All the good chords have been played, maybe a million or so times.

In Mozart’s day, popular music was transferred through sheets, learned by professionals and heard at paid-for concerts. This made for pretty slow progress and music stayed very much the same for a few centuries. Zig-zag forward to the late 1800s, and the gramophone is invented. The first musical recording takes place, which Keith Richards of The Stones describes as “emancipation” for musicians. In the 1920s the first studio-dubbing occurs, around about the time radio broadcasting begins, and soon enough after, rock and roll rockets onto Earth.

The Beatles made use of the latest technology on their most acclaimed albums and generally appropriated whatever existing music suited them – Brit-popping American blues and modernising barbershop quartets for a freshly engaged youth. Bob Dylan did the same with folk music. Musicians have always taken and built on what has already existed, but as Picasso once said, “Learn the rules like a professional, so you can break them like an artist.”

Maybe now with the Internet and ready availability of more music than ever, there is more music to learn and consequently it takes longer for bands to reach an innovative state. First, they have to learn what is out there before they can tell the difference between what really breaks ground, and what is just a rehash of their childhood music-loves. The Arctic Monkeys‘ latest album is their best and most original work to date. The Black Keys have lately applied a pop-indie gloss to their heavy-blues roots, achieving popular success as a result. There is such a range of genres now that for something to really shine through as a breakthrough would be nigh impossible. When Jimi Hendrix played Woodstock in 1969, it was a revolution. Nowadays, every long-haired teenager in every garage in the world can play Purple Haze and none of them are famous, with good reason.

But that does not mean music or rock and roll is dead. There is more music than ever now and more likelihood that a band will cater to your taste specifically. You just have to do more work to find bands like that, unless your taste corresponds exactly to the deluge of mainstream slop that Austereo regurgitates daily. Just like classical music, rock and roll will never die and bands with new takes on it will continue to emerge.

“There is nothing new under the sun,” says the Bible, handbook of the pessimist. “There are limits to musical evolution,” say the scientists. “But maybe the limits of human creativity cannot be predicted or quantified, so who knows?” retort the realists.

 

Read the full experiment here:

http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/06/12/1203182109

 

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Mat Drogemuller

Mathew Drogemuller is a freelance writer, musician and chess novice. His house is littered with harmonica corpses and he has a law degree he chooses to ignore. As well as writing for TBS, you can read his music reviews on ripitup.com.au and his band interviews in Mixdown Magazine.

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One Comment;

  1. Mel said:

    Just heard this discussed on ABC SOOOO interesting I want to be in this study!

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