Is older music superior?

Category: Arts

Time and time again I’ve raised the question, has music quality improved or degenerated with time?

I’d normally yield to intuition and settle on the side of subjectivity and inconclusiveness. Assuming there even existed a set of objective metrics, do I particularly care?

Are appreciators of art forms not generally at liberty to choose from a gigantic and virtually inexhaustible range of content from all epochs? Likewise, are creators not largely free to compose/pen/design a product of any degree of innovation, cutting-edge, or avant-garde?

This obviously discounts such impeding factors as political repression, censorship, or strong bias among the industry in which the artist practices.

One evening, however, the lack of closure on the matter began to itch and irritate. I craved for a deeper analysis.

Feeling particularly obstinate and ill-disposed towards any other pursuit, I decided to first gather and aggregate a set of external viewpoints.

I explored some forums, emphasizing the more extensive, well-constructed, essay-like commentary. Thankfully, in the days of such content-ranking portals as Quora, quality introspection isn’t difficult to obtain.

As I suspected, many do consider the older objectively superior. But many do not, retaining a more open stance.

Here I’ll synthesize the primary contributing factors that cause individuals to lean towards the older, mixed with my own thought.

Emotional bias

We process music to a great extent at an emotional level, not strictly the technical. Experience and timing heavily shape those emotions.

At a younger age, with a smaller bag of accumulated experiences, we are far more receptive to new stimuli. The music we are exposed to then, whatever period that music pertains to, plays a greater role in shaping our character. It creates a greater impact.

As we age, that novelty factor diminishes. We consequently judge new discoveries more analytically, and yet tend to contrast them with our existing palate, towards which we are naturally biased. This sort of comparison lacks objectivity.

Time filtering

The test of time is the best quality measure. This is sometimes referred to as the Lindy Effect.

The innovative, the solid, the cult, and much of the best, tends to survive the passage of time and sometimes even acquire near immortality. Time determines what is best.

The overwhelming majority of the remainder - the daily sensation, the media propagated, the inferior, the ‘garbage’, the noise, on the other hand, gets swept away. Similar to natural selection.

In comparing the newer trends with the older, we again exercise biased (and plain ludicrous) analytics. We tend to consider the best of the best among the older (time having already played due course), with the aggregate of everything modern that comes to our attention, which likely does not even remotely approach the level of quality that out there exists. The reasoning for this follows in the next point.

The Lindy Effect phenomenon, by the way, applies to virtually any product, innovation, or idea. Time eventually eradicates the subpar from our attention, keeping the spotlight on the formidable.

Limiting ourselves to forms of art, however, the effect manifests itself in literature, cinema and even video games. We know with far greater certainty to identify powerful 19th century literature than we do the (propagated and manipulated) modern bestseller lists.

The industry has completely changed.

And so have the methods for discovering music of appreciable quality.

Record sales used to constitute a significant source of income for musicians. Today, ever since music had become digitally downloadable, they attribute from little to nil.

It’s mostly about performances, concerts, advertising, and the such. This has severely impacted how music is propagated among the major record labels. These labels, consequently, wield enormous influence on the music we hear across the default channels - radio, television, advertising, supermarket speakers.

Unless we hunt for our own music, if exposed to nothing more than those channels, what we hear is the safest, the most profitable, the most easily marketable to the masses.

And if you, likely of the older generation of listeners, judge music based on what incidentally reaches your hearing, and especially if you dispose of a richer background in music theory, with appreciation for more complex forms; if that represents your listening profile, then what you experience from among the contemporary will mostly sound like trash. Time has not yet filtered out the noise.

Much of the quality lies within the sector of independent performers across the (vast number of) smaller/indie record labels. Some of it will eventually pass the noise filters, but with time. Decades perhaps.

The only way to presently discover this music is to hunt for it among platforms such as Spotify, attend small underground concerts, seek word of mouth, and generally peruse independent channels.

In my experience, movie soundtracks have also served as a reliable source for incidental discoveries. Sometimes, by sheer accident, I’ll even catch an innovative tune listening to a podcast. The key lies in recognizing such moments and conducting further investigation behind the related body of work.

Now, with active measures taken, you’ll still likely hear dozens of bands before identifying one that even begins to approach the level you appreciate. And even then, it may not immediately pass your emotional bias filters.

Your inner critic inhibits you from experiencing music the way you used to. And much music demands greater time investment and patience to appreciate.

I conjecture that as much quality and innovative music exists today as had 40, 60, 80, 100 years ago. It’s only a matter of if it gains recognition, and when it will reach your ears.

Let’s take a practical case from the past - The Beatles. They’ve set a benchmark for many a listener - especially among the generation of the teens/20s during the 1960s.

Many consider the latter period of the band, the post 1966, a product of near genius. I’m of nearly the same opinion myself, although I’ve long become bored with this music. But specifically this latter period has rendered the band immortal.

Genius does not imply lasting interest.

Slight digression, but as I write this, I’m listening to the Free Jazz pianist Cecil Taylor’s 1968 album Conquistador, which I find way more engaging than I would now find the Beatles White Album, released in the same year. Our perception of engaging and quality music is not rock solid. It is quiet permeable and moldable.

Let’s return to the Beatles. The group stopped touring from about late 1966. They focused entirely on studio work. Back then they could afford to. Today, they couldn’t. Albums don’t sell.

The conditions to compose music of such degree of innovation are more challenging today, that is, if commercial success is the main driver. And yet, with high probability, it out there exists.

But you’ll likely not hear it. Not across the default propagated channels, these heavily influenced by the major labels. At least not until time has played it’s course. Unless, that is, you actively, zealously and optimistically conduct your independent music discovery.

Summary

  1. You cannot yield to passive listening sources to compare and contrast the quality of today’s music with the quality of the past, irrespective of your definition of quality.

    What you’ll hear might register as “okay” at best, although more likely sound boring, if not repulsive. You are hearing the commercial, the marketable, the ‘safe’ and the profitable spectrum of the distribution (catered to the masses or the younger generation of listeners).

    The outliers from among the whole distribution demand not only much active time investment, but certain element of chance to recognize.

  2. To assert contemporary quality, you must circumvent your emotional bias towards the older, not letting nostalgia cloud the new experience.

    Much music demands successive listening reattempt to even begin to appreciate. And this always applied to any generation of music. But we tend to forget, time having already neatly molded our listening palate.

  3. The more you relax your appraisal methods for music discovery, the more you’ll appreciate newly discovered music.

Questions, comments? Connect.