Sunday, December 13, 2009

Music in 400 years

David Morgan-Mar asked an interesting question in the notes to his latest Irregular Comic (NSF Duran Duran fans):

http://www.irregularwebcomic.net/2513.html

Do you think 400 years from now people will still be listening to any of today's pop music?

He suspects that people might still listen to the Beatles, but points out that 400 years ago, there was no Beethoven, Mozart or Bach, and suggests that most people would have a hard time naming any music that dates from circa 1600. He goes on to suggest that we have almost no hope of imagining what our society and culture will be like 400 years from now. How can we possibly say what parts of the transient musical legacy of our age will even be remembered then, let alone still listened to by the masses.

What is interesting about the question is that it cuts to the quick of what music is for and how it works.

Music as a cultural artifact is passed from person to person by those with the tools to do so. Four hundred years ago, there was no such thing as recording, so the only way that music could be transmitted was directly, by musicians. Forms of notation existed for those who could read them, but other than that, you could only pass a tune to someone else by singing or playing it. They could then only pass that tune on by singing or playing it themselves.

Morgan-Mar is a scientist and not (so far as I am aware) a musician, so he may be forgiven for leaping from 'pop' in the question to 'classical' in his attempt to make his case. By doing so he hops directly over the genre which destroys it - folk music. Folk music is handed down from musician to musician across generations, and while it is extremely hard to pinpoint just how old some songs are, many well-known folk songs are clearly at least a few hundred years old.

Take Greensleeves - which Morgan-Mar does mention as a sole counter-example. Wikipedia suggests was already a well-known tune in 1603 - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greensleeves - though sadly the article points out that there is no evidence for the myth that it was written by Henry VIII.

The version of Whiskey In The Jar popularised by Thin Lizzy has lyrics about a highwayman - making it at least a couple of hundred years old - but since the nature of folk music in the true sense is for individual singers to update lyrics for their own time and place, who is to say that this version is not itself a rewrite of something much older.

Ritchie Valens' 1950s hit La Bamba was already a very old song when he recorded it. No-one knows exactly how old, but this article - http://kathmanduk2.wordpress.com/2009/02/14/black-history-month-la-bamba-and-its-african-roots/ - dates it to 1683 and argues that it was itself at that point a reworking of an earier form.

Scarborough Fair can be no older than 1253, when the original Scarborough Fair began, but Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scarborough_Fair - tells us that there was already dozens of versions by the end of the 18th century. Widdecombe Fair, as we know it, is dated - according to this page - http://www.mysongbook.de/msb/songs/w/widdecom.html - to some time around 1794 - when the historical Uncle Tom Cobleigh died. She Moves Through The Fair is another extremely old song - there is interesting discussion here - http://www.mudcat.org/thread.cfm?threadid=869 - which clearly demonstrates the rolling person-to-person nature of folk music, as while the lyrics as we have them are around a century old, the tune itself appears to be much older.

Many nursery rhymes - a sub genre of folk song - are of a similar vintage. Lavender's Blue dates to (at least) the seventeenth century: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lavender_Blue . Ring A Ring O Roses may not after all date back to the Great Plague but is at least eighteenth century - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ring_a_Ring_o%27_Roses . The Grand Old Duke Of York - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Grand_Old_Duke_of_York - can be dated back to 1642.

And so on.

All musicians know there is no such thing as genre in music. Not really. The boundaries blur and change over time, everyone borrows from everyone else, and these ancient folk tunes are widely used in classical and pop music. Yet it is clear that many of the well-known songs we have today are indeed hundreds of years old. And all that is before the advent of recording.

Here as in all other aspects of music, recording changes everything. Folk music history is by nature a bit woolly due to the paucity of evidence and the shifting nature of the material being researched. But the music of today is largely being recorded, and not merely recorded, but recorded in a digital format. It is difficult but possible to transfer older recordings on wax, tape, wire or vinyl to new formats, but with digital formats, the technology to continue to update old file formats to new is as ubiquitous as the computer itself. As long as computers exist in some form, it is hard to see why there is any reason for any digitally recorded music to be lost.

And that also changes everything. In 400 years time, it is perfectly reasonable to suppose that some people may be listening to some of today's music, though as to how many people and which of today's music will survive, no-one can say.

There is of course another, perhaps more pertinent question: is anyone actually listening to today's pop music today? But that would be a different essay.

=end

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