How has music evolved?

While some principles of evolution, like natural selection, do not work quite the same in music as in biological evolution, this is still a useful metaphor for examining changes in the history of music itself, as well as changes in the role of music in society.

It is easy to dismiss music as a linear trajectory of styles (see Pentatonix, ‘Evolution of Music’). However, music history is not so simple. It is a web of interrelated genres which share characteristics, histories and audiences, and coexist across time. If evolution is “variation…inherited” by intergenerational transmission through competitive selection (Darwin, 1859), how has music maintained its various forms of existence across millennia as lifeless notations or brief, transient performances?

One key concern for the evolution of music is that of ‘natural selection’. Aspects of music –  instrumental, tonal, rhythmic or stylistic – have changed and developed in different ways. However, unlike biological evolution, these elements do not cease to exist when a more popular version emerges and becomes the dominant form through reproduction. Elements become more popular, but others survive and become revitalised with new trends. Classical music continued to exist even when popular composers moved towards more Romantic forms of expression. As such, the hierarchical and progressive implications typically associated with the word ‘evolution’ feel inconsistent with the range of musical genres.  

The next question we must ask is how does music exist? Music has multiple states of being:

Music has multiple states of being: the performance, the listening experience and the notated composition
Music has multiple states of being

These three states depend upon one another in order to create music that humans can experience. However, they each have flaws which undermine traditional notions of evolution being an inherited difference. Firstly, the notated composition is a lifeless script waiting to be invigorated by a performer. Yet, each performance of it is unique; the performer(s) can neither recreate the work exactly as the composer intended nor as they last performed it. Neither can the listener experience the same piece in exactly the same way on different occasions: there are simply too many variable factors. Viewing the music as a ‘concept’ which overrides these three modes of existence enables us to engage with music in the evolutionary context.

The concept of chamber music is a prime example of musical ‘evolution’. Initially appearing in the medieval period, chamber music was composed for and performed by small groups of instrumentalists with the purpose of entertaining patrons (who employed the musicians) within their homes. Throughout history, the features of these compositions depended on the desires of the patron. Changes in style happened not out of necessity for music to survive, but so as to thrive in the private dwellings of the rich and their friends. However, with the beginnings of printed music publishing in the mid-fifteenth century, these works began to filter through to the wider public. Since then, performers have continued to perform these works to audiences. Meanwhile, composers have identified features they wished to preserve and those they wished to change: some for the sake of art, others for profit from their audiences. New genres have appeared and old genres have been modified, both with varying degrees of popularity. Musical elements remain available to be adopted into new styles and older forms can be revitalised at any time. In this way, music becomes timeless and immune to the natural selection (and subsequent eradication) associated with biological evolution. Rather than survival, adaptations in music are contingent on the desires of the composers, performers and audiences of the past, present and future. Unfavourable characteristics are able to ‘lie dormant’, as it were, and await future reincarnation through composition and performance. The fact that music’s three states of being are not fixed (or alive) enable it to be remodelled for any context or purpose. Whilst genres have developed and coexisted across time, their popularity has fluctuated according to the demands of culture.

Perhaps, then, it is music’s very essence as lifeless notation brought alive through unrepeatable performances that has enabled it to simultaneously preserve itself and evolve across time.

Dom Simpson

Dom Simpson, former Assistant Access & Outreach Officer at St John’s College

Before starting at St John’s, I read Music (BA) at The Queen’s College, 2015-2018, where I held a choral scholarship, and Musicology (MSt) at St Catherine’s College, 2018-2019. My research interests include popular music studies, protest music, and identity studies. Outside of work, I can usually be found singing in choirs or teaching music to children aged 7-15.