The Three Ages of Music

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Most music we hear comes through a loudspeaker. A loudspeaker, along with the technology that informs it, is not a perfectly transparent window; nor does its influence stop at simply filtering its input.


Philosophers of earlier centuries behaved as though language were a transparent medium through which they could examine anything, even 'pure thought' itself. Nowadays both the Analytical and Continental philosophers recognise that, far from being neutral and transparent, language not only colours and shapes, but even prompts and initiates our thoughts. The medium, as Marshall McLuhan said, is the massage.

Similarly, the technology for recording, disseminating and delivering music not only colours our perception of it, but deeply affects the musical styles that emerge in its sphere of influence. The vehicle for recording music becomes the engine for its creation; music evolves, increasingly better fitted to fill the niche the technology has created.

What constitutes 'an age' for the purposes of this entry is the presence of some dominant form of storage/retrieval which so permeates the thinking of the age's population that they cannot easily see beyond that form of dissemination in the way they define music itself.

Three dominant means of dissemination and retrieval of music

The first age of music was the age of oral transmission. The second, which began for Europe only a thousand years ago, was the age of written music. We are now in the third age, which began not much more than a hundred years ago with sound recording. It didn't start suddenly, rather it has crept up on us as the technology gradually improved until it reached the position of superiority it now holds. This happened over the last fifty years, the era of recording tape, then 'hi-fi', stereo, and finally digital recording. It is still within living memory that the mandate has passed1, with the unsurprising result that education has, in places, yet to catch up with the change.

The effect on musical style wrought by the dominant medium of transmission is enormous. The dominant medium pervades everyone's perception of the subject, to the extent that the very suggestion (that it has any effect at all) can at first appear baffling. A clue however is seen in the habit from the second (written) age, of calling a piece of paper 'the music'. This habit dies hard, and the phrase is still heard today—"I can sing this piece without the music"; but in no aesthetic sense can a paper copy be called 'the music'. It may be the primary document for performers, students and historians—but it remains a copy.

Age 1: Oral transmission

In the first age of music, the greatest virtue of the 'method of storage'—human memory—was faithful conservation; and by this means the plainsong of the Church was passed on remarkably unaltered for perhaps thousands of years2. We discover that it was unaltered, by comparing the versions written down when notation was invented; they are remarkably similar over a wide geographical spread3.

Age 2: Written music

In the second age, that of written music4, conservatism is no longer a virtue; ink stays where it is put on a page, and faithful conservation is no longer a problem. Instead the challenge, quickly exploited, is to use the method invented for recording melodies as a method for composing. After a few centuries as a descriptive medium, writing became prescriptive. 'Composing' in its early sense meant not so much writing down a tune you have heard an angelic voice breathe in your ear, but more the 'fitting together of a counterpoint with' a new or existing tune. Counterpoint can be defined as the art of superimposing melodies within certain harmonic constraints. A few hundred years after the invention of staff notation, counterpoint reached a dizzying height of complexity from which it has, overall, been retreating gradually ever since. The Ars Subtilior of fourteenth-century Avignon produced scores of a complexity quite unreadable to all succeeding centuries, before the omnivorous 20th. Fifteenth-century counterpoint teems with detail like a Van Eyck painting. The sixteenth century tamed counterpoint, the seventeenth both despised and pedestalled it, and in the eighteenth Bach knocked in its beautifully ornate and mathematically perfect coffin nails. The last movement of Beethoven's Choral Symphony denounces strict counterpoint as dry, academic and oppressive ('O friends, not these notes! Let us sing an ode to Joy!') as did the revolutionary Berlioz5 (himself a brilliant contrapuntist, though a 'closet' one).

Age 3: Sound recording

In the third age, the age of sound recording, complexity of counterpoint has lost even its curiosity value as an interesting problem, and musical invention moves into other areas. The rules that once bound counterpoint have been expanded, relaxed, altered or simply ditched like the study of Latin. It is no longer a live issue, though it remains one of the many avenues of possibility.

One thing that makes the succeeding ages hard to discern is the fact that nothing really becomes obsolete. It can be objected that more music is being written now than ever before, and that all important musical facts are still learnt by ear. To this it can be replied that there are still a great many horses being ridden and sailing boats sailed in the modern world, but they simply do not dominate the roads or the seas.

Some consequences

What hangs on from the second age is not so much the values of counterpoint, but the values of the decaying age when counterpoint was out of fashion but, through fear of the results of the revolution that was happening, the skill of writing had become a shibboleth. The effect on music education of all this is that while teachers are finding it hard to discard the worst values of the second age, exploiters of the third make all the money and have the greatest influence, with some of them still keeping the pretence of being 'the counter-culture'. In music education we see mistaken values everywhere, the most extreme perhaps being of the kind observed by the ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl, in a dance band in what was then Persia before it became Iran: a band was playing traditional Persian music, but with empty music stands in front of the players, in order to look western. The same value-error is persisted in by teachers and examiners who make their pupils pretend to read music they know by heart, often taking into a piano exam a book they may never have actually handled before. The absurdity of this is demonstrated by the counterexample: a concerto soloist earns no kudos at all for bringing a book on stage6.

The reason for the pretence is the belief that reading is valuable in itself. It has value, certainly, but it is the value of convenience, the exact antithesis of aesthetic value. Staff notation is good at clarifying counterpoint, and not good at showing those details of phrasing, emphasis or character that give the performance its energy and impact. To make a comparison with painting, staff notation is literally the equivalent of painting by numbers. Music is most properly learnt by ear; yet some teachers still use 'playing by ear' as a disparaging phrase. Why? Because it has a value inimical to the establishment of written music.

One age does not die out when another succeeds it; but in a sense it goes underground. The oral tradition (disowned by the medieval pope7 who decreed the notation of all the church's plainsong chants) continued to dominate the professional dance-musicians' repertoire; and when even that became 'literate' during the sixteenth century, the oral tradition removed itself to the realm of 'folk music'.

Some side effects

In each case when a new age triumphs the older age remains current as a constant critique of the new; a counter-culture. Thus no sooner had counterpoint reached its heights of artifice than artificiality became questionable8 and composers were asked to bring a more 'natural expression' into their work. The history of western music from 1500 to 1900 is (broadly) a series of revolutions, each claiming to make music that is more natural and more expressive. Monteverdi promoted the supremacy of the word, even to the detriment of harmony; after Bach counterpoint is despised as 'dry and academic', and after Beethoven the virtue of form was subjugated to the supposedly superior weightiness of content.

An apogee of 'expressive' music was reached in the late nineteenth century. Then, suddenly, the forest of 'expression marks' on the musical page9 was threatened with eventual obsolescence, by the advent of sound recording, and written music (still dominant for a good half-century later, while recorded sound was low-fidelity) gradually veered off into new directions, led by the Orientalism of Debussy and the serialism of the Second Viennese School. It looks in retrospect as though the page was 'trying' to contain all those features that sound recording would so easily crystallise. Remarkable approximations happened in similar ways before technological revolutions in other fields: the handwriting of books became as neat and regular as print in the 13th and 14th centuries, before moveable type was invented in the 15th; and painting became photographically realistic in the last centuries before chemical discoveries allowed lens-images to be fixed on silvered paper.

The primary document for a piece of third-age popular music is the marketed recording. This holds for everything from Louis Armstrong10 to the Beatles and beyond. Professors of music in the late twentieth century11 made the mistake of drawing conclusions from the sheet music versions, which in every case falsified and omitted essential information.12.

So what should we expect our present irrational beliefs to include?

Sound recording is good at filling in the details of rhythm, nuance and accent that notation cannot cover. These are just the details which make for regional and personal differences in performance. Unlike the oral age which made a virtue of uniformity, this present age celebrates diversity. That is good news for local, folk and ethnic musicians; indeed without sound recording the discipline of ethnomusicology could not begin to exist. Now it is the written music which is the (not yet underground) counter-culture, standing on high moral ground as a critique of the new genres of popular, commercial, and world music.

One trivial but revealing example of the present age blindly according primacy to recorded over written versions occurs in the rendering singers give of the carol 'Gaudete, Christus est natus'. Everyone from your average parish choir to the Medieval Babes reproduces exactly the sibillant Ds and Ts of Steeleye Span. Why? Because it was on the record.

It is most important to see and understand that the culture of recording has not the same values—is not the same thing—as the oral culture. Recording may have freed ethnic music from the haughty dominance of the literate, but it has only done this by correspondingly devaluing both oral and written music. There is no longer any class-conscious friction between composers' music and folk music, because both are equally fair game for exploitation in the new medium.

General remarks

The attitude one age will have towards the succeeding age might be characterised as "That's not music!" or "How unmusical!". The attitude of a new age towards the previous one will vary; the second-age 'writers' may have seen the 'rememberers' as hopelessly stuck in their patterns; the present studio generation may be bemused by the writers' obsession with the pitches of notes, to the exclusion (or at least massive devaluation) of their other features, as evidenced in Schenkerian analysis.

This is gigantic over-simplification of course, as the different ages succeed each other gradually, and many different factors are in play.

The reader who has persisted so far will recognise that the drift of this entry depends on liberal doses of generalisation. Such is the nature of any wide-ranging overview. The arguments advanced are intended to show a broad overall trend, against which many local instances will naturally prove exceptional.

1Chinese historians have traditionally absorbed the various revolutions in their past by using the phrase "the mandate of heaven passed", thus suggesting continuity between violently contrasting regimes.2The suggestion has been made by Dr Mary Berry that some of the plainsong melodies of the Christian church came directly from Jewish temple chant, perhaps going back to 1,000 BC.3Of course we can only know that they are similar in those aspects that were notated! But many forms of notation were tried before staff notation was deemed elected, and it appears that the different features they recorded also agreed.4Other cultures after the Sumerian have made use of written musical notation; but it is surely fair to say that in no other did it become so overwhelmingly dominant.5See his wonderful Memoirs.6On the contrary, a conductor working without a score gains not only in enhanced communication but also in glory: Hans von Bülow entered the realms of the mythic by conducting the first performance of Wagner's gargantuan opera 'Tristan and Isolde' from memory.7Traditionally Gregory the Great, but that is doubtful.8Up to Shakespeare's time the word 'artificial' was used only in a positive sense.9Marks that show how fast, how loud, how detached or smooth the music should be, and all the changes in these parameters: forte, diminuendo, ritardando, staccato and so on. Such considerations were taken as understood in the first five hundred years of notation, but gradually proliferated from the end of the sixteenth century when Gabrieli wrote his Sonata Piano e Forte.10Despite being a fluent reader and writer of music, Louis Armstrong set the standard for a system of rhythmical values that were at once precise, and at the same time utterly beyond the scope of notation. The unequal note-values of jazz may owe more to the French influence in New Orleans than anything else; but that is material for another Guide Entry.11Such as Wilfrid Mellers, co-author of Man and his Music, who, the writer of this Entry heard from his students, found significance in the fact that 'Please Please Me' was printed in the key of E flat—a key left chastely untouched by 1960s guitar bands. 'Please Please Me' is utterly E major!12Stravinsky included in 'A Soldier's Tale' a movement labelled 'Ragtime', without ever having heard so much as a recording of ragtime music. The result is interesting: very Stravinsky, not very ragtime.

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