What Else Do We Say When We Say Music Evolves

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  • 7/29/2019 What Else Do We Say When We Say Music Evolves


    What Else Do We Say When We Say "Music Evolves? World of Music 48(3) (2007)

    Matt Rahaim

    Abstract: Whether speaking of musical ancestors, development, adaptation, or survival,music scholars implicitly draw connections between the change in biological and musical forms overtime. These connections do not amount to rigorous applications of evolutionary theory. Instead, theyfunction as metaphors used creatively to account for musical change. I see two broad systems ofevolution metaphors, which I call progressive and situated evolution. Progressive evolution(informed by metaphors of development and linear motion) sees musical forms gradually improvingover time. Situated evolution (informed by metaphors of fitting into place) sees musical formsadapting to dynamic local conditions. Each metaphorical system carries entailments about the future,value, and proper place of music. I argue that evolution metaphors, while sometimes useful, carrypolitical implications that can easily be made explicit.

    The title of Victor Grauer's recent article, "Echoes of our Forgotten Ancestors" no

    doubt made many ethnomusicologists grit their teeth. Skimming the article quickly and

    finding the unfashionable language of human genetics and evolutionary biology would have

    only heightened their anxiety. Would the "echoes of forgotten ancestors" turn out to be

    echoes of Social Darwinism? Was this to be a retelling of the story of modern Europe's

    heroic musical ascent above the rest of the world?

    Not at all. Grauer, in fact, tells the opposite story. He undermines the evolutionist

    notion that music naturally progresses over time from simple to complex, using cantometric

    data to provide counterexamples. Instead, he says, "[musical] complexity was there from the

    beginning"(36). He suggests that the basic shape of the complex Pygmy/Bushman vocal

    style that he describes may have endured for millennia without evolution or any other kind

    of change.

    But there is another, equally significant, way that Grauers paper is a break from the

    old school of evolutionist music history: he is clear about the political stakes of his argument.

    The article is not only about an ancient music survival; it is about a system of values

    embodied by a certain way of singing. The singing reflects cooperation as opposed to

    competition; gentleness and mutual support as opposed to aggression and violencea

    legacy of interactive play, pleasureand joy (44). Furthermore, if Grauer is right, this is a

    socio-musical legacy held in common by all humanity, from hunter-gatherers to computer

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    programmers, regardless of race or nation. This picture of human musical history and

    political potential contrasts dramatically with the competitive, racialist, territorialist picture

    painted by traditional accounts of musics evolution from primitive origins.1

    Whether or not one is persuaded of Grauers specific claims, it is remarkable that his

    vision of music history would have such deep political ramifications. If his paper is a sign of

    a new, rigorous consideration of evolutionary models in music scholarship, it is not a return

    to a time when science is seen as purely objective and politically innocent. Evolution has

    been assigned various political labels in the past fifty years. When evolution is a tool of

    anthropological analysis, as the opposite of diffusionism or area studies, it is conservative.

    It implies Social Darwninism, racism, and radical laissez-faire economic policy. But when

    evolution is a subject taught in biology classrooms, as the opposite of creationism, it is

    liberal. It implies secular humanism, multiculturalism, and a state responsibility forchildren that overrides that of the family. In each case, an evolutionary picture of human

    history implies something about governance, belonging, and civic life.

    Evolution has done several jobs in music scholarship as well. Music scholars2 have

    had recourse to at least two very distinct kinds of "musical evolution" over the last hundred

    years or so, each with very different implications. The first kind shows music spontaneously

    developing from simple to complex; the second shows music adapting to temporary, local

    contexts. Neither one, as I will show later, is a direct application of evolutionary theory.

    Instead, I see each version of evolution as a coherent, effective metaphorical system invoked

    to account for musical change. These metaphors structure our understanding of the history

    of musical practices, and also contain hidden prescriptions.3

    For example, what if, like Grauer, we want to describe a non-evolutionary situation.

    How can we describe the process by which the some aspect of a musical practice has

    remained the same for centuries? Although nobody has ever lived to hear the continuity of a

    musical tradition over the course of centuries, we may imagine its continuity through one of

    many metaphors. To take three common cases, we might speak as though a musical1 See e.g. Parry 1930, Sachs 19432

    I'm referring here specifically to scholars writing about the evolution of musical forms and practices.

    There is an entirely different stream of music research that focuses on the evolution ofhumansfor

    example the evolution of neural structures of musicking.3 There is no clearer way to see this than to see how metaphors operate in classroom discussions. I am gratefulto my high school biology and undergraduate ethnomusicology students for their fine attention to nuances offigurative language, gesture, and tone of voice. Conversations with these students served as the basis for thispaper.

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    tradition is an echo (as Grauer does,) a tree, or a stream. Here are some instances4 of these

    metaphors, in Lakoff and Johnsons (1980) notation:


    We are still hearingechoesof our forgotten ancestors. The music of Amir Khusro isstill resoundingin our halls. That old hornpipe still ringsin the streets of Boston.


    The blues is rooted informs of West African music that are free of both Islamic andEuropean influences. The harmonium threatens to uprootIndian music. Bluegrasshas deep rootsin Ireland.


    The songs of his ancestors flowthrough him. The tradition runs deep in their family.Jazz has been influencedby many smaller tributaries, such as the music of marching

    bands and church hymns.

    These metaphors are not mere descriptions of musical continuity, however. They all

    tend to carry a subtle prescription as well: the tradition oughtto be preserved. The kind of

    change that is possible even under the most optimistic description of confluence or

    influence still entails a necessary connection with two past streamsor else we are left

    with a muddy rivulet. If we speak of echoes, what change can there be except for a gradual

    dying out? And what, after all, happens to a tree if it is uprooted from its native soil? For

    good or ill, these metaphors are often used in service of folk revivals and nationalism, linkingpeople and place, past and present, generation to generation.

    And yet, we all continue to use these metaphors every day. I am not suggesting we

    do without them. This critique of evolution metaphors is not a rallying cry to cleanse our

    speech of their corrupting presence, allowing some pure, perfect metaphor to claim its

    rightful place. As I will show, analogies between musical and biological evolution are very

    sketchy, and require some intellectual squinting, some imagination, and a temporary

    suspension of disbelief. But this is a sign that we are grappling with difficult problems and

    using a wide range of poetic tools to render them thinkable. My hope is to highlight some

    unspoken assumptions and implications that attend evolution metaphors in

    4 All such examples in this paper are paraphrased from written and spoken examples, without citation. I appealto the readers familiarity with these ways of speaking

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    ethnomusicology, so that we may know better what we tacitly say when we talk about


    Evolution and Music History

    Students of music historiography are familiar with evolution primarily through the

    work of historical musicologists like Hubert Parry as well as comparative musicologists like

    Curt Sachs. Broadly, this view held that music progresses through increasingly sophisticated

    stages over time. To take a familiar example: expressive howling, savage music, folk

    music, melodic art music (including the art musics of Asia), and, finally, the pinnacle of

    musical evolution: European harmony. This metaphor is commonly used not only as a

    descriptive device to arrange various kinds of musical form, but also as a prescriptive value

    ranking of the musics of the world in which the West is the most developed. Other musics

    are then seen as relatively childlike and primitive. Western classical music is celebrated assophisticated, inevitable, and victorious, as the homo sapiensamong Neanderthal musics. It is

    a statement about racial superiority as much as a statement about music history.

    This is not, however, the only possible use for progressive evolution. With some

    tweaking, the model can be used in the service of various nationalist agendas. For example,

    Swami Prajnananda, among the most influential of 20th century Indian music historians,

    adapted this evolutionary model for his histories of Indian music (1963, 1973). Following

    Sachs, he asserted the evolution of scales from few notes to many, flutes from one hole to

    many, veenas from a single string to many, etc.

    These evolution metaphors remain with us in the 21st century. Prajnanandas

    hypothetical progression from a three-note "Vedic scale through a seven-note Samavedic

    scale to the scales of modern ragas has become a common sense history among Indian

    musicians. In Western musicology, as Richard Crocker has observed, the view that

    polyphony must evolve from melody has been remarkably persistent, even if no longer

    tenable (Crocker, in preparation.) Ethnomusicologists and popular music scholars, too, still

    draw upon evolution metaphors in their descriptions of musical change (Jairazbhoy 1995,Eddy 2005.)

    This is perhaps most obvious when teaching survey classes such as, say, "Music of

    The Middle East," or even "Music of the World," that attempt to touch on a dozen or more

    genres in the course of a semester, in which we may feel compelled to give short, testable

    blurbs about the histories of various practices. As ethnomusicologists, we may be skeptical

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    about using evolution as a model. Most of us can marshall theoretical resources to critique

    glib claims to roots, origins, and evolution. But as teachers, we often find ourselves in

    situations that require us to say something in shorthand about their origins, and have few

    models at hand apart from evolution. Thus, even with the best of intentions, we hear

    ourselves saying that khyal evolved from dhrupad, or that ars novacounterpoint evolved

    from organum, or bebop from swing.

    However, there is something peculiar about the uses of the word evolution. It is

    certainly not the same kind of process that evolutionary biologists now talk about. The

    pigeons of Notre Dame, for example, did not evolve noticably while counterpoint was

    changing so dramatically between the 13th and 15th centuries. More importantly, "younger"

    species of pigeon are not necessarily any better than their older cousins. The evolution

    of musical genres generally happens very quickly, has some murky relationship with humanagency, and, most significantly, it carries with it an implication of progress.

    Progress (or directedness) is the primary criterion that I use to distinguish two kinds

    of evolution in music history. The notion that life forms are on a one-way track to

    improvement has for the most part been abandoned by contemporary biology. But it still

    forms the basis of what most music scholars think of as evolution. Non-progressive

    evolution is what I will later call situated evolution. The evolution of music from simple

    to complex is what I will call progressive evolution.

    Progressive Evolution

    Progressive evolution involves the mixing of metaphors of two distinct biological

    processes. The first kind of process is now called "development" by biologists. This

    includes, for example, the growth of a redwood tree from a seed, the metamorphosis of a

    caterpillar into a moth, and the growth of a human child into an adult. The other process is

    usually simply called "evolution" by biologists (though I will later call it situated evolution

    to distinguish it from progressive evolution.) This includes, for example, the gradual

    differentiation, over millions of years, of scaled reptiles from thin-skinned frogs, the adaptiveradiation of mammals to fill niches left open by reptile extinctions, and the speciation of

    several species of finch to fill various ecological niches on various islands. It refers to

    gradual changes in a population, over time, to maximize fitness for a way of making a living

    in an ecological nichethat is, a way of eating, staying warm, reproducing, etc.

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    Development takes place (depending on the creature) over a span of days, years, or

    decades. Evolution takes place over a span of thousands or millions of years. But typically,

    music historians in search of metaphors for musical change are dealing with a span

    somewhere between these ranges: say, hundreds of years. These traditions outlive human

    beings, but are faster than the evolution of species by several orders of magnitude. The

    mixing of metaphors, then, can be partially explained by the absence of an intuitive organic

    metaphor that takes place within the span of centuries.

    The evolution of species, moreover, can be incredibly boring. Nothing else used to

    put my biology students to sleep faster. Evolution as we know it violates every rule of good

    stories. It is slow, boring, and counterintuitive. Most of evolutionary history consists of

    long, dreary millenia of ecological equilibrium during which virtually nothing changes.5 Even

    during the periods of rapid, catastrophic speciation, evolutionary action takes place in a mostun-Hollywoodish time frame. Nearly all of it consists of the inconsequential reshuffling of

    traits from one generation to the next or failed, fatal mutations. While everyone has seen a

    child grow into an adult, almost no one has ever seen the evolution of even a single species.6

    Worst of all, while the development of an individual wasp has a beginning (fertilization), a

    middle (development), and an end (death), the evolution of Order Hymenoptera has no clear

    beginning or...