July 8, 2008

Chicken or Egg?

A baroque-era harpsichord piece was playing on the car radio tonight, and I got to thinking how nicely the harpsichord, with its calm clockwork-like sound (due to its inability to change volume), symbolizes the spirit of the age of reason, so reminiscent of Newton's clockwork universe, which was such a popular image in the 18th Century. Similarly, the piano (originally, pianoforte or "soft-loud") represents the emotional sturm und drang spirit of the subsequent romantic era, and the electric guitar epitomizes the new thinking of the 1960s.

Isn't it striking how somebody happened to invent the right instrument at the right time?

Yet ... could it be that causation here runs partly backward? That the spirit of the age didn't just call forth particular musical instruments but that the musical instruments also called forth the spirit of the age? That people between the ages of, say, 12-30 imprinted on particular musical instruments, and the musical styles made possible by those instruments, and that this affected the whole flavor of their thinking? If so, the roots of the 1960s would lie more in the workshops of Adolph Rickenbacher, Les Paul, and Leo Fender than in the sources more usually identified.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

Paul Greenberg, the Arkansas columnist who dubbed Clinton "Slick Willie," wrote a traditional column each year on George Washington's birthday. I recall that one year he devoted the column entirely to the kinds of music the founding generation listened to: balanced, rational, complex, a cool mixture of both calm and exuberant emotions, reinforcing a reasoned and measured response to life.

Anonymous said...

Nice ideas Steve. I don't know Rickenbacher but as a German I keep thinking about Bach. Partly because I am doing part time study in that part of Germany, so I end up going to the churches where he played, and look at the old buildings etc. But also because he seemed such a decent, responsible and straight-forward person. Looking at him you'd think he was the local schoolmaster, though you can see he had an intelligent face. I wonder what his IQ was? But looking at his posture you could never guess he would create such epochal works. And he seemed to write these amazing pieces as a matter of daily business in-between giving Latin classes and music classes to the local schoolboys.

Quite refreshing when you think of these degenerate and spaced out characters who "compose" the lyrically and musically simplistic rubbish known as Rap and Pop, and then even take themselves very seriously, such as Bono and Madonna. Apart from not really doing anything worthwhile they then set about polluting our lives with all their silly ideas. What a contrast Bach is!

Anonymous said...

Are you saying the medium is the message?

Anonymous said...

Excellent post!!

Anonymous said...

Hm: most likely people fool around and develop instruments, and whichever ones fit the spirit of the age become popular. There are thousands of 'dead ends' or musical niches for every emblematic instrument. The theremin never took off, for example.

Anonymous said...

For the introduction of a new kind of music must be shunned as imperiling the whole state; since styles of music are never disturbed without affecting the most important political institutions.
- Plato

Todd Fletcher said...

One problem with your theory is that the harpsichord is known to date to at least the 14th century.

It's probably more a matter of musicians focusing in on a particular instrument that captures what they want out of the range instruments available.

OTOH, the development of the piano fits your theory. The sound of early pianos up to about Mozart's time barely resemble the modern instrument, and are a bit harpsichord-like, at least to me. The demands of the Romantics are what led piano makers to invent the modern behemoth.

Polistra said...

Interesting thought. Without pinning down the direction of causation, it's unquestionably true that new instruments mark cultural change.

For instance, we can track the advance of Islamic culture by noting the many stages of Arab instrumentation ... Oops, there aren't any.

Unknown said...

You are leaving out the era between the Baroque and the Romantic: the classical, during which the pianoforte was "invented."

Rather large omission, as Mozart, Haydn and the early Beethoven fall into this category.

A lot of instruments have changed since the 17th century, esp. strings.

Anonymous said...

I think you've got it a little wrong.

The era of rock and roll and blues began with the invention of electric amplifiers and speakers. This changed very fundamentally the way that the sound was delivered to the audience.

I think that the instrument makers are secondary to this development.

So, what's happening now? I think almost everybody agrees that the current era of popular music is unproductive and unimaginative. Derivatives of the 60s seem to be all we've got. This, despite the explosive development of personal recording equipment.

One of the reasons for the creative drought is the "i" business. The development of amplifiers and loud speakers led to the communal music explosion of the 60s. We all listened to the same music. The iPhone, iPod, etc., leads to an isolated, individual music experience.

Anonymous said...

What significance would you give to the fact that the saxophone was invented in 1880-something but nobody figured out how to play it until Coleman Hawkins in about 1930?

KlaosOldanburg said...

yet ironically the harpsicord's little brother, the clavicord, is right up there with the guitar+wah-wah in terms of evoking the funk/disco 70s, the Age of Degeneration.

Unknown said...

When Oscar Wilde indicated that life follows are more than vice-versa, he was referring to literature, but his idea applies to all the other arts as well. Really, any art in a particular period is both symptomatic and causal of the Zeitgeist. The popularity and innovation of piano music during the Romantic period were certainly symbiotic with the questing spirit of the nineteenth century, as well as the desire for bourgeouis stability. The same could be said for medieval and Renaissance instruments. The electric guitar obviously causes an altered state of mind in the listener.

Anonymous said...

What about the saxophone in jazz music?

Anonymous said...

I think it's laughable to suggest that styles of instruments, or amplification, had a greater effect than the pill, condom, the personal car, wealth, urbanization of the young, suburbanization of the middle aged middle class, air conditioning, and Television.

All those are far more dominant than the mere style of instruments and amplification. Amplification was first used in swing/country bands to cut down on the number of musicians to get a driving sound to propel the dance beat, guitars then sounded a lot more rockabilly than they do today (listen to Brian Setzer to get that rockabilly feel for the style of play).

What is responsible for the lack of experimentation is not ipods (the Walkmen were popular back in the late Seventies!) but rather the lack of a robust commercial market for new, cross-genre dance music. People, particularly YOUNG people, love to dance.

Dance music ALWAYS sells, and novelty-emotionally appealing dance music sells the biggest.

Unfortunately we have a perfect storm:

1. Declining demographics in young people. Seniors outnumber youth by 8 million.

2. Lack of new, commercial outlets for young people to hear and desire new Dance Music -- no FM radio or MTV circa 1984 featuring new bands/music. [MTV is now totally teen female oriented reality shows like "My Super Sweet Sixteen." Catering to wealth/princess fantasies.]

3. Dominance in the marketing/publicity areas of established people who either want teen-pop princess fantasies, emo-style pretty boys, or macho-posturing rappers. The "smart-ugly" guy model of say, Rick Ocasek or Mick Jagger or Steve Tyler who might be fairly physically repulsive but knows a thing or two about innovative musical styles never gets a chance because they can't publicize what they have to the youth market.

Which in any case, is constantly shrinking.

We live in a Senior Nation. As a consequence, our culture is stuck in the amber of the 1960's. The last time we had substantial numbers of young people.

Anonymous said...

Dunno, the violent, radical, anti traditional Jacobite uprisings including 1745, 1715 and the notorious french revolution - were just as radical if not more than the sixties. Maybe the problem is phrasing it the 'age of enlightment' to begin with.

Anonymous said...

On this subject, I think that it says something about where America is and where she is going that, to my ears at least, most teenagers today, white black hispanic and otherwise, listen to rap music, and that teen girl magazines have plenty of rap stars in them for the girls to idolize.

Anonymous said...

I think Steve's closest to being right with the electric guitar and the 60s...well, not the instrument itself, but the electronic alteration of the signal before it comes out of the amplifier through the use of distortion, wah-pedals, and the like.

The thing that these did was to greatly diminish the premium on musicianship. Sure, some rock guitarists were great players with or without their stomp boxes, but distortion and the rest of it make it easier to cover up sloppy fingering and technique. Most rock players would have sounded lousy on a jazz-type setup, which is electric, but without all the extraneous stuff.

And, of course, without these accessories, punk would have been unthinkable.

W.LindsayWheeler said...

Plato talked about this. It is in the Republic. Plato knew that Music forms the soul. He also said, When the modes of the music change so do the laws of the state. You may find it under "Plato's Theory of Music".

Is not the saying Life imitates Art?

Music imparts its spirit upon the listener. Plato emphasized the Doric mode to form the soul of soldiers and that of his city. You stated nothing new, just re-inventing the wheel.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous: "Jacobite" and "Jacobin" are not the same. You are right about the French Revolution, though.

Testing99: Your posts on most subjects are often the best in the thread; why can't your posts on foreign policy be the same?

Anonymous said...

Dunno, the violent, radical, anti traditional Jacobite uprisings including 1745, 1715 and the notorious french revolution - were just as radical if not more than the sixties. Maybe the problem is phrasing it the 'age of enlightment' to begin with.

Such uprisings were about forms of government. The 60s and 70s was about changing the way people lived their lives.

Anonymous said...

john of london -- The Sax was used mostly in marching band music before Jazz saxophonists got a hold of it. Sousa in particular liked it's loud, vibrato sound without the "brassiness" of the trumpet and trombone.

Some bands used it quite well, particularly in the 1980's, for rock uses. It gives a sweeter, more mellow sound than purely guitars. Power Station, Huey Lewis, the late Robert Palmer, all used it to good effect.

As for why the long lag? Economics. It was only in the 1900s or so in New Orleans (where it first appeared with other cheap, marching band type instruments like trumpets, trombones, clarinets etc) that there was enough wealth for musicians to earn a few bucks playing in clubs at night. The birth of recorded music meant even more $$ opportunities (and lured a lot of New Orleans musicians north to richer waters).

There are probably already groups that play rock without electric guitars or keyboards, with just a drum, a trumpet, and saxophone. But without clubs to play in and radio willing to play it they'll go nowhere. Especially since the Youth Market is much smaller than in 1968.

Unknown said...

Small factual fix to Testing99's comment: the Sony Walkman was a device of the 1980s, not the '70s. It wasn't introduced until July of 1979. I remember the late '70s well as an era of big, loud boomboxes.

Matt Parrott said...

Perhaps I'm tone deaf, but this sounds like a whole lot of unfalsifiable sweeping generalization to me. Perhaps you'll also conclude that listening to Mozart is the key to unlocking IQ potential and realize the error of your determinist ways.

On an unrelated topic, you are constantly bringing up books, movies, and stuff that's available at Amazon.com. Why don't you create an Amazon Partner account and link to everything you mention that can be purchased, like the movies you review. You blog full-time, so I assume that you could use the money.

Maybe you can post a thread similar in gravity and substance to this one about the "Mozart Effect" on babies. Then you could link to the Baby Einstein classical music CDs.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I lean toward the amplification and distortion being the more distinctive 60's sound. Think Leslie speakers on a Hammond, or the gradual increase in volume over the years on the bass guitar. Rhythm guitar was almost percussive in the 60's, lead guitar depended strongly on electronic effects.

What that symbolizes in terms of cultural change, and whether it drives it or is driven sounds like a book-length subject.

As to the instruments favored by earlier composers, our retrospective picture changes our perception. Bach, et alia, wrote for a variety of instruments, many of which are uncommon now. What we think of as "Bach's music" is largely "what we have kept of Bach's music." What we kept was influenced not only by how well the music expressed the spirit of its own times, but whether it expressed some spirit of the intervening times.

Anonymous said...

The Sax was used mostly in marching band music ...

The piano and solo pianists -- 1840's Romantic Franz Liszt, perhaps the first rock star.

Marching bands -- Naploeonic, American Civil War, and Wilhelmine eras. Another kind or Romanticism.

Anonymous said...

> There are probably already
> groups that play rock without
> electric guitars or keyboards,
> with just a drum, a trumpet,
> and saxophone.

The nineties alternative jazz-rock band Morphine consisted of a guitar- and keyboard-free sax-bass-drums lineup:


Then there are England's The Spaceheads


who are a rock band that consists of a drummer and one Andy Diagram, who uses a birth-defect stunted hand to play a mean trumpet, and his good hand to operate looping and audio manipulation devices to create a layered, thick funky sound.


Anonymous said...

Testing99: Your posts on most subjects are often the best in the thread; why can't your posts on foreign policy be the same?

that's a good question this thread made me wonder. It's like he's Milt Rosenberg with a touch of a LGF reader added

Anonymous said...

So far as western popular music is concerned, I'm surprised no-one has mentioned infantilisation. It seems that with increasing prosperity the age at which people reach maturity has risen. At the same time the average age of consumers of popular music has fallen. I always thought that the 20-minute electric guitar solo that originated in California in the 60s was like a baby screaming for attention.
Ian said: "it says something about where America is ... that teen girl magazines have plenty of rap stars in them for the girls to idolize." I think it says something about rap stars - they act so tough, but really they're a commodity consumed by White suburban early-teenagers.
Between the 1940s and the present there's been a deskilling of popular music - from swing bands to boy bands. The good stuff is still there, but it's not dominant. Is this related to wider changes in society?

Anonymous said...

Is T-99 also the gent shilling for Linux to become mass market? If so, another lacuna in his acumen.


It seems to me that one of the big 20th century changes in pop music styles was when couples stopped dancing while holding their partner, and instead started twisting and boogalooing. Did this portend increased freedom, or increasing social anomie?

And what about traditional rock versus disco/electronica/house etc.? Does the difference boil down to gay or not, or what?

Anonymous said...

The invention of the electric guitar(BTW,speaking of inventions,I just read an article by your buddy Malcom Gladwell,in which he states Alexander G. Bell was so obsessed with sound transmission that he purchased an EAR from a cadaver--the EAR was from the cadaver,he no doubt BOUGHT it from a still-living undertaker,just to be clear.I can see Don Ameche doing a Michael Madsen thing,dancing and talking to the ear as "Stuck In The Middle With You" is played in the background.Woulve been an interesting direction to go...),the electric guitar had a moderate influence on jazz and country,but a massive affect on blues.I cant imagine there wouldve been much of a blues music w/o it. Who cares about Muddy Waters et al w/o his guitar? W/o the electric guitar rock 'n roll--or whtever it wouldve been called-would have drawn more of its roots from folk(like your Dylan and a lot of early Beatles)and would have necessitated more emphasis on the lyrics,and been less sexual and been forced to be more coherent and smarter. I agree with testing that all the other stuff wouldve happened without the E.G.(tho I think the condom was invented in the '50's...the 1450's???)but it would be interesting,say as a Twilight Zone episode,(Yep its coming back and yep,it will suck,but...)an astronaut winds up in a parallel world,where the electric guitar was somehow never invented.

Anonymous said...

W/o the electric guitar rock 'n roll--or whtever it wouldve been called ...

You miss Steve's point entirely. No electeric gee-tars, no rock rolla. End story.

but a massive affect on blues.I cant imagine there wouldve been much of a blues music w/o it.

Never heard no acoustic Delta blues, huh? You not very knwolegable re blues.

Pleez to remind it steam engines when it's steam engine time.

Mu'Min M. Bey said...

OK, OK, I've heard enough. Time for me to jump in.

As a lifelong Hip Hopper, I kinda figured it wouldn't be long before someone, posibly not a few, would be blaming the degeneration of America on Hip Hop. Yea, there's shitty rap music, there, I've said it. But there's also tremendous creativity and skill as well.

Grandmaster Flash is the grandaddy of the DJ position within a rap group, the one man band who selects the "break beats" rappers rap over. He invented "scratching" and took blending beats to a whole new level, by literally inventing a box called a mixer, w/a device called a cross fader. Guys like Jazzy Jeff owe their very existence to Flash.

Since we know most White folks have a hard time keeping a beat imagine how difficult it is to do what Jeff does. Go look him or DJ Cash Money, or DJ Miz, or Grand Wizard Theodore, or Flash, up on YouTube. Not only is being a Turntablist a skill its also a fine art.

As for rap lyrics, I hav to ask, have you heard of Rakim? Mos Def? KRS ONE? If not, you should take a bit of time out and check them out. Doesn't mean you have to like it, just listen. Oh yea, and Chuck D/Public Enemy, too, along w/Big Daddy Kane. I have no plans whatsoever in joining the Opera, but I know very well who Wagner, Mozart, Beethoven etc was, as well as their contribution to music.

Most people simply do not get, and this is in response to another comment lamenting the "teen princess vibe" extant today, that Hip Hop is about the African American Male Experience. For better and yes, for worse. There is an entire internal system of logic within the hip hop world, listen to Snoop Dogg's very fist album Doggystyle, w/Dr. Dre as producer, or Nas' I Am or It Was Written, Illmatic or Stillmatic. All classics.

Check out the deeply religious themes in Tupac's works, Hail Mary among them. All of these guys were some serious wordsmiths and follow in the tradition of Hendrix, Bo Diddly, Prince, Jackson, Parker, Coltrane, Davis, Webb, and more. As Sailer says so well, we Black folks are excellent at innovation because we're so adept at improvisation, and the truth is, from R&B/Country to Rock n Roll, Jazz and Disco to yup Hip Hop, EVERY SINGLE MAJOR MUSIC ART FORM IN THE HISTORY OF THE USA started w/us, or, got big, when we came on the scene within it.

So fellas, don't hate, congratulate! Grab up some of your kids rap cds, sat back and learn. As Bill Cosby used to say back in the day, you just might learn something before its done. Hey, hey, hey!


PS: Suggested further reading: There's a God on the Mic, by Kool Moe Dee