Naming today's musical period

c: | f: Music / Society

I’ve often wondered what future civilisations will call this current era of music. My music teacher always opined it would be labelled “modern”, or “rubbish”, but maybe there’s more to it than that.

Throughout music’s chequered history, composers of the day quite rightly believe they are at the forefront of their field, pushing the boundaries of the instruments at their disposal.

As of this writing there are about ten or so broad classifications of music, defined as eras in which those forms existed. The Prehistoric, Ancient and Early musical eras ruled for a few thousand years, and then things changed. The Church got involved in some capacity, and there was an upsurge in musical notation so for about nine hundred years thereafter, Medieval music was the artform of the day.

With the advent of printing, the predominantly modal music of the Renaissance period from about 1400AD enjoyed a few hundred year reign, which allowed such delightful pieces as English composer Thomas Morley’s Phillis, I fain would die now to flourish. Yes, it’s as good as its title suggests.

Someone invented the bloody harpsichord around the turn of the 17th Century, which allowed J. S. Bach, Vivaldi and Handel to go into overdrive. A hundred and fifty years of ornate twiddling ensued before Baroque music was deemed too unstructured and made way for Classical music. This boring and mercifully short period of music was defined by rigid rules of counterpoint harmony (among other things), which made it predictable, samey and largely dull.

Luckily, after only about seventy or so years of rules, Beethoven spearheaded the revolution that broke the Classical mould and re-injected much-needed emotion into music. Free of structural constraints, the composers of the Romantic era painted the world crimson with a rich tapestry of expressive styles. Then the Russians got involved and it stepped up another gear, ensuring that this fantastic period lasted almost a hundred years before making way for what is currently termed “Modern” or “20th Century” music.

And herein begins the problem.

A shifting musical landscape

With the exception of the Romantic era which enjoyed a longer run than its predecessor (or maybe Classical was just shorter than normal because people understandably tired of it quickly), each period has generally been shorter than the last. Music as an art form echoes life. The same is true of painting and architecture, drawing influence from peers, the ruling class, politics and religious dogma. At the start of the 20th Century, radio brought music to more people than ever before and the near-instantaneous broadcast of sound meant that music entered a melting pot from which it hasn’t truly recovered.

Suddenly, everyone who could afford one, could listen to music and everyday people began experimenting. A couple of wars later and music took another leap beyond swing, big band and military song to the advent of soul music and rock ‘n roll. Music went truly international and just twenty years later there was a backlash against the formulaic sound of the 60s, allowing punk to enjoy a very short, sub-five-year reign, though its influence is still felt today.

The 1970s ended with disco and the 1980s were generally forgettable, then dance music moved in and hasn’t really evolved since. Rap and hip-hop were commerically born. Resurgence in traditional rock music came, went, and came back again along with the surfacing of vacuous boy and girl bands. Variations on dance such as jungle, drum ‘n bass, house, progressive, trance, electronica, dubstep, and breakbeat are mere semantics, merging and roiling among the airwaves with rock, punk and disco, constantly shifting back and forth.

At that micro level, perhaps the broader, prior eras could be sub-divided into decades of influence, but it seems that the advent of mass communication has accelerated the adoption of fashionable genres of music and shortened the gap between periods of popularity.

The future of music past

Picture a future civilisation, looking back with misty-eyed nostalgia at the music of the 20th and 21st Centuries. Will they lump all this tumultuous expansion of sounds as one group and apply a suitable label, like “Electronic” or “Communication-driven” or “Experimental” to this period? Or does the rapid transmission of ideas via the Internet reduce eras of music to decades, or shorter, so the number of distinct periods explode with each step change in technology as it’s disseminated?

To call this era Electric or Electronic seems too broad; too generic. Electricity is here to stay as long as the energy doesn’t expire, so it’s conceivable to expect ‘electronic’ to apply indefinitely to encompass music in future civilisations. Unless music moves into the organic, quantum or nanotech spheres of course.

People still compose orchestral music, especially as film scores, although the pieces don’t generally adhere to the classical rules so are not considered part of the Classical era. This does cause some confusion in modern society, thanks in part to Classic FM playing orchestral music spanning at least three distinct musical eras. The people who coined the name for the Classical era and named Classic FM both have a lot to answer for.

Overall, I’m unsure of the outcome. Will future history books refer to this poly-genre era as one or two, blanket classification(s), or will it be subdivided into an ever-growing set of distinct mini-eras as ideas, fashions, art and music are shared ever faster? Perhaps as genres collapse and today’s “Chaos” era becomes unlabellable due to the vast number of influences bulging its doors, we’ll take a leaf from the scientific community’s treatment of Pluto and just denounce a whole subsection of art to save having to come up with names for everything.

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