Today there is nowhere one can go, it seems, without the constant presence of bad music. It’s everywhere—in every bar, restaurant, and department store; on every television commercial, online video, or Hollywood film. Wherever we go, we are relentlessly besieged by some of the cheapest, most idiotic music mankind has ever devised. Thus, as I battle this daily onslaught of inescapable cacophony, I often find myself wondering: when did music get so bad?
Like anything else, as music becomes more omnipresent, so too does its quality diminish. This is less a matter of opinion than one of sheer statistic. Today, more music is being created than in all of human history. Yet despite an ever-growing need for new music, respect and demand for the quality of the art form, and for the capability of the artists creating it, are at an all-time low. This does not bode well for the future of new music.
The decline of complexity in popular music has been well-documented elsewhere, so I won’t linger on it here. In short, however, it is clear that over the last few decades popular music has become louder, more repetitive, and less tonally complex than ever before. This trend has been driven by none other than the consumers themselves, who, given the tsunami of content now available to them online, have gravitated toward music that is simple and accessible, rather than that which is intellectually demanding. The result is a society that is overwhelmingly sustained by a diet of musical junk food.
But the problem extends far beyond the Billboard Hot 100 list. Bad music has now become the soundtrack of choice for advertisers, television producers, YouTube personalities, and even blockbuster filmmakers worldwide. The rationale is simple and almost commendable in its pragmatism: good music requires a tremendous amount of energy and resources, so use something faster and cheaper instead. But for something to be truly good or meaningful, as we all know, it cannot possibly come easy or cheap. By cutting this essential corner, producers have opened the floodgates to a deluge of lowered standards with no end in sight.
Given the traditionally high costs for original music, these creators are increasingly relying upon stale formulas, facile repetition, and, most disturbingly, computer programs to supply their ever-growing musical needs. Since the piece Hello World! was written by the computer Iamus in 2011 (arguably the first full-scale composition to hold such a distinction), the use of software-generated music has become frightfully commonplace.
Companies such as Jukedeck, founded in 2012, now allow users to pick the style, duration, instrumentation, and even “hit points” for a custom, computer-generated, instantly produced piece of music. Given the prices, which begin at just a few cents, online content creators have unsurprisingly flocked to this model for their music production. As computer-generated characters have began replacing real actors on screen, computers are now eliminating the need for composers in the creation of music.
Of course, this software and others like it cannot create anything truly original—their programs can only synthesize music based on long-established compositional techniques, many of which predate the Baroque era (indeed, once a computer does write a truly original composition, we will have entered the age of A.I. and thus will have much bigger problems to solve). But this is only the latest unsettling development in the dehumanization of music that has rapidly unfolded over the last quarter century. Computer-generated compositions can now join the likes of pitch correction, time stretching, and other technological cheats that have allowed for the sudden and violent rise of mediocrity across the musical landscape.
We mustn’t levy all of the blame on software developers, however. The process of mechanizing music was expedited long ago thanks to the efforts of such prominent composers as the hoary Philip Glass and the odious Hans Zimmer. The former, who has been aptly described as “arguably the most influential composer across the whole range of the musical world,” has seemingly devoted his entire later career to creating ever-redundant and simplistic harmonic textures for every ensemble known to man. The latter, often himself a lesser copy of Glass, seems to have made it his lifelong ambition to make an 80-piece orchestra sound like a MIDI sequencer—always with too much bass.
The basis of their shared compositional style—repeating simple ostinati ad nauseam over rudimentary chord progressions that change, at most, every half-measure—is so easily replicated that it has become the go-to technique for pop music, commercials, films, and even works by “renowned” classical composers. Both composers have left a sizable mark in their respective fields, and effect has been a remarkable sameness.
Thus it should come as no surprise that this kind of music can be so readily mimicked by computer. That repeating Philip Glass-sound, once the trailblazing technique of such genuinely innovative compositions as Music in 12 Parts, Glassworks, and Einstein on the Beach, has now become so watered-down that it appears everywhere from maudlin pop songs to tacky car commercials. At some point we cannot functionally dilute this crap any further and still hope for aesthetic returns; it’s musical homeopathy.
Pop music, meanwhile, seems to have reached the apex of stupidity in that lowest-of-low forms known as rap music. The word “music” applies only ostensibly here; anything musical, in the classical sense of the word, has long-since been reduced to a background player, a beat, to which various orators (I cannot call them singers) lay their all-too-often vulgarity-infused ramblings. What little music is attempted by these orators is manipulated to such extreme ends that what remains is often more synthetic than human. This evidently doesn’t much matter to millions of pedestrians and drivers worldwide, however, who see fit to share this wretched babel as far and wide as their speakers will carry it.
This endless exposure to mostly loud, repetitive, and overproduced clamor—from film scores to department stores, from bus stops to our desktops—has an effect on the listener that is both stultifying and deleterious. Bad music has become the white noise of everyday life. Instead of being treated as the special event that it is, music is now employed as a kind of social opiate: a drug we use in a desperate attempt to avoid the natural silences of our work, commute, and even time spent with friends or family. This is not a natural activity.
Until relatively recently in human history, the only way to hear music was through that sacred pastime of live performance. Musicians had to first acquire their skills, often through years of solitary practice and rigorous instruction, and then gather at a specific time and place to share it with their community. That was it. The rest of the everyday sonic tapestry was filled only with the sounds of nature and the bustle of human activities. There was no iTunes, YouTube, or Spotify; no CD players, phonographs, or indeed recordings of any kind. If one wanted to hear music at all, he had to hear it performed in real time by living, breathing people.
This is how Western music—and all other music for that matter—matured into the serious and complex art form that it is today. It is what made music special—something to be studied, celebrated, and revered. More important still: it was one of those rare pursuits that defined us as human. How is it then that we have so readily and carelessly turned one of mankind’s greatest achievements over to the algorithm and the machine?
Something has to give.
If we do not wish for great music to fall by the wayside, as so much art in the era of the smartphone has, we must demand something more of our listening experiences, and that begins by reducing the sheer quantity to which we daily subject ourselves. Silence, a time for thought and self-reflection, has become fleetingly rare in our increasingly connected epoch. What time do we allow ourselves to reflect on what we have just heard? When can we consider the harmony, rhythm, melody, or even the poetry of a certain piece if the shuffle immediately sends us headfirst into another tune? Indeed, so unnoticeable was silence before that we’ve hardly noticed its disappearance.
But if this state of constant noise pollution continues unabated, we will find ourselves largely incapable of sitting through anything intellectually rewarding. I hate to think that a day may soon arrive in which Bruckner, Mahler, or Wagner are no longer performed, if only because people no longer possess the attention span with which to reap their vast musical rewards. It may sound reactionary, even hysterical to suggest this, but such a world already isn’t very hard to imagine.
Orchestra attendance has steadily declined over the past few decades. Likewise, jazz, the first major musical genre originated in the United States and once a titan of record sales, has over the last century all but lost its audience, which now accounts for a pitiful 1.4% of total American music consumption. Both genres are remarkable for their mature forms and harmonic complexity, and as a result both have suffered in the age of endless content. If we as consumers continue to demand this perpetual supply of content, then that is all we will ever have: content utterly bereft of substance. This is not a musical world I wish to inhabit.
Perhaps if we all took out our headphones, turned down our speakers, and gave silence a fighting chance throughout our day, we might once again appreciate the finer things that music has to offer. Perhaps if it did not follow us through every walk of life, music might have a little more meaning when we finally do stop to listen. Perhaps—and this is probably just a foolhardy conceit—music might even sound good again.