Cultural Plasticity

Clearly, what the world needs is another blogger weighing in on the Kanye West/Taylor Swift controversy. But I have no interest in castigating Kanye - I don't pick my music based on the politesse of the artists. Instead, what struck me about this peculiar celebrity moment was the fact that I really enjoy both Kanye and Taylor and their immaculate pop confections. In the last few months, my brain has been infected by the melodic memes of "Fifteen" and "Heartless", "Tim McGraw" and "The Glory".

So far, so obvious - I enjoy (with a touch of snobbish guilt) Top 40 radio. But here's the interesting thing - Taylor and Kanye create completely different kinds of music. One is a talented teeny-bopper with a touch of country-western twang, while the other is a hip-hop star with a weakness for Auto-Tune. Although it's easy to take this cultural diversity for granted, it's worth taking a moment to appreciate just how modern it is. Ninety-seven years ago, people rioted because Stravinsky wrote the "The Rite of Spring" - now we dance to the dissonance of Girl Talk. Fifty years ago, Top 40 radio consisted of Elvis, The Everly Brothers and doo-wop. (Dylan, Motown and the Beatles were still several years away from taking over the airwaves.) The point is that, until recently, we listened to (and enjoyed) a far narrow range of sounds. The rest of the sonic universe had yet to be discovered.

This isn't the place for a discussion of the corticofugal network, or the peculiar ways in which our brain cells learn how to listen to new songs and melodies. I'm simply pointing out the obvious - that the twentieth century was a powerful demonstration of human plasticity, cultural proof that that we can learn to tolerate (and even enjoy) an astonishing range of music. Kanye might have started a riot in 1913 Paris, just as Stravinsky did, but we now sing along to his choruses, and can steal some emotion from his sample driven tunes. What began with the atonality of Schoenberg, et. al. has led, somewhat inevitably, to that strange moment at the MTV Music Video Awards, where a hip-hop star interrupted a country-western dynamo, and two musical forms that didn't even exist 75 years ago reminded us that they're here to stay.

PS. Check out the comments for some excellent dissents. I certainly don't mean to underestimate the innovations of Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, et. al. I'd argue, however, that there's a more dramatic difference - at least from the perspective of our acoustic cortex - between Kanye and Taylor Swift than between Beethoven and Brahms, or Wagner and Stravinsky. We no longer simply have to deal with different musical styles - we have to tolerate and enjoy different genres.

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I can only hope you're wrong that an acceptance of certain forms of noise as musical forms signifies they are here to stay without exception. Might as well record crickets, frogs and woodpeckers and label these predictable noise sequences as music. Because of course they will probably be here to stay as long as we are.


Might as well record crickets, frogs and woodpeckers and label these predictable noise sequences as music.

You've obviously never heard the genius of the Mars Volta then. Give frogs a little credit. They sing beautifully. Which just goes to show that yes, anything can be music. And yes, I hope it's here to stay.

I think you are massively overstating the musical advances of the 20th century, and understate the advances made by 19th century composers from Beethoven, who pushed the limits of form, to Liszt and Wagner who pushed the limits of tonality. Schoenberg's 12 tone system ultimately failed - it was always an intellectual curiosity and little else, as it ignored the culture-independent (that is, innate) "rules" of tension and relief that toys with the brain's emotions (if it's done well, anyway.) All tension or all relief don't do much of anything. The lasting and widely embraced advances of the second half of the 20th century are almost entirely technology based - tubes, transistors, synthesizers, samplers, computers, etc. In terms of the actual musical content, even in what are often considered "progressive" elements (atonality, dissonance, loose form), there is very little that is truly novel in the last 50 years - it's all just re-appropriated.

che, if you are referring to what we call coqui frogs here in Hawaii, the consensus is there's nothing musical about the din that in some areas is driving people to distraction. And I used to be a drummer and had an appreciation for din.

I have two fact corrections.

Firstly, the Righteous Brothers were contemporaries of the Beatles and Motown - their biggest hits were in 1965. Maybe you meant the Everlys?

Secondly, music in the 1950s was more interesting than you give it credit for. Take the Billboard top 10 on September 14, 1959 (i.e., 50 years ago):
1. The Three Bells - The Browns (country folk ballad)
2. Sleep Walk - Santo & Johnny (steel guitar instrumental)
3. I'm Gonna Get Married - Lloyd Price (rhythm and blues)
4. Sea of Love - Phil Phillips (doo wop/gospel)
5. Til I Kissed You - The Everly Bros (harmony duo pop)
6. Red River Rock - Johnny & The Hurricanes (rock & roll instrumental)
7. Broken Hearted Melody - Sarah Vaughan (vocal jazz)
8. I Want To Walk You Home - Fats Domino (rhythm and blues)
9. Mack The Knife - Bobby Darin (crooner)
10. Baby Talk - Jan & Dean (surf rock with harmonies)

I reckon there's a fair amount of variation there, between country folk, some instrumentals, rock, r&b, jazz, and a crooner singing a song from a 1930s avant-garde opera!

Jonah, I'm not so sure that the differences in genres are actually that different. Take song structure: Verse, chorus, verse, chorus (ABAB) - That is pretty standard between Hip-Hop and Country. If you take it a step more complicated you might add in a "Bridge" to get the ABABCB or similar structure - which is common among current rock, indie, hip-hop, folk, etc.
Then, looking at chord structures, most popular music does not stray from the given key that it is played with-in. In some of the more talented bands (say Wilco or Death-cab for Cutie), you might get some temporary modulation out of the main key, but it quickly returns to its original key.
You often have different rythmic structures as well, but even still, 90% of popular music remains in 4/4 timing. (I am mainly talking about popular western music here, as I know middle eastern or other styles use other timing structures as well).
The main difference we hear between these genres is the timbre in the instrumentation and vocals - which is very similar to the differences between say Wagner and Stravinsky.

In the end, I certainly agree with you that there was a far narrower range of sounds 100 year ago, but I don't think that means that the music we listen to now is really that much more diverse.

Correction to my last post:
The timbre between Wagner and Stravinsky would have been similar (as they used the same instruments), and only different in the sense that they used different sized orchestras, with fewer or more of each instrument to achieve different sounds.

Music may be more than just sound combinations insofar as it also has an identity affiliation. It may be attached to a tribal/cultural aspect as much as any technical aside. I wonder if someone might have some parallels from outside the United States. Additionally, technology has certainly contributed to what appears as a greater diversity because not only can a very disparate arrangement of instruments be gathered together much more easily, but the distribution of music across the globe has also contributed to this phenomena.

Comparing West/Swift with Brahms/Beethoven feels like a category error, but I'm neither a neurologist nor musicologist. I don't really know their music, but correct me if I am wrong that the former write/perform within a fairly strict sub 4 min pop format, where voice is the dominant instrument, orchestration is limited or synthesised. While Beethoven straddled Classical/Romantic periods, Brahms was full Romantic. It seems to me that they worked within far more complex sound worlds, across a much wider range of instruments and vocal/choral ranges. The variation in length and complexity of classical music would tend to set it apart from most pop music.

From your "cortical" point of view, you might want to examine whether music was actually more powerful and the listening experience more intense in that earlier non-mechanised world, where music would have been heard more rarely and would contrast with the relative quiet of daily existence, at least compared with our highly mediated modern environment. I think it is actually quite hard to imagine ourselves back into that world. Conceivably, the average person before recorded music also made more music than they consumed, whereas today, the average person makes very little music.

To continue the thought experiment, I'd also suggest a consideration of Thomas Tallis Spem in alium. Written around 1570 for 40 separate voices, it is enormously difficult to perform. I wonder what a comparison might reveal of the frontal cortex of its composer and early performers and the musicians/producers today who, as you say, rely on Auto-Tune.


It may be true that the singles charts of the "golden age" of radio were more diverse. The more interesting point, though, is that what's current is not the whole of what's popular among young people. Look at a 20-something's iPod and you're as likely to see Billie Holiday and the Doors and Bob Dylan as Kanye West. It appears listeners today largely disregard musical eras, taking what speaks to them from any time.

By Bob Michael (not verified) on 16 Sep 2009 #permalink

I think it is interesting to imagine what it must have been like to hear a Mozart music piece, possibly under less than the best of modern conditions, just one time... ie, without the availability of performers, or recording devices that would allow you to listen over and over again as we are able to.

I sometimes think the theme and variation model in classical music stems from the need for the audience to hear just that, repetition within the single setting which might have been the entirety of of a listener's exposure to a piece. It is not like a Mozart CD was available for take home listening.

I would like to know the chronology of recording devices and major changes in what composers were doing once they realized listeners had multiple playing opportunities.

In a similar way, today's movies are so full of visual happenings that they almost demand multiple viewings.

By Elizabeth (not verified) on 16 Sep 2009 #permalink

There seem to be two points wrapped up in your thoughts on how our views of music change, Jonah: The first that familiarity with a certain musical form or presentation leads to it becoming less shocking and eventually part of accepted convention; And the second being that the human brain might actually change in such a way that it comes to appreciate a new musical form or presentation.

I believe that the brain can and does change and that this process is more significant to acceptance and appreciation than mere familiarity. Many people still find Stravinsky or Kayne or Mars Volta "noisy."

Scientists are learning that the adult brain still has profound ability to change and adapt. And, specific to music, this ability is promoted by things that challenge and reward us. New music, surely, can provide both of these conditions.