No, Music Isn’t Worse Than It Was in the Past

I can’t remember if I’ve written about this before, but I saw some interviews of musicians I respect, which reminded me of this topic. Both bemoaned the current state of music, one of them gloomily predicting the the end boundary-pushing. (This interview was from the 80s.) My sense is that the basis for their assessment stemmed from a comparison with the past. That is, they compared their perception and understanding of the music of the present relative to the music from the past. If this is accurate, I don’t think this is a good way to judge the present. Indeed, I think doing so leads to erroneous judgments and pessimism.

Now, let me make a few things clear. One, I’m not taking this position because I necessarily think the present moment is filled with great musicians and great music. Instead, I’m basing my position primarily on the way we perceive and understand both the present and the past. The difference, I think, primarily explains why the present seems bleak, relative to the past; and I’m going to explain that in this thread.

(Note: This applies to movies, and I would suspect most other art forms as well.)

One thought on “No, Music Isn’t Worse Than It Was in the Past

  1. I will now explain the way we perceive past music/musicians versus present music/musicians, starting with the past.

    Our perception and understanding of the past is greatly influenced by the effects of time. Specifically, the mediocre music falls away–from the culture and our collective and individual consciousness (and maybe even memory). What’s left is the creme de la creme. The music in the present, to some degree, also aids in this process. The best music not only tends to sound great after many years, but it sometimes will music in the present. Both this sloughing off of the bad and the good rising to the top, plus an awareness of important and influential music, characterize our understanding of the past and differentiates the way we perceive and understand the present.

    In the present, the winnowing effect has not occurred, nor do we have a clear sense of which music will prove influential. Because of this, when we perceive the music of the present, we’re perceiving both the wheat and the chaff–and there’s a lot more chaff; not only that, but some of the chaff receives much of the attention, while the some or much of the wheat remains hidden or unrecognized from the mainstream. Indeed, the more envelope-pushing music may even be disparaged by critics and listeners. It’s not surprising that committed musicians would have a dismal view of the present state of music. The thing is, had they lived in the past, I suspect they would have felt the same way–precisely because of what I’m describing above. Twenty years from now, I would predict people will bemoan the state of music, largely because the past–including the moment we’re living in now–we appear much better to them.

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