2.4.1 Progress Means Technical Usefulness
2.4.2 Why Doesn’t Music Progress?
2.4.3 How Songs Are Useful: Models In Controlled Contexts
2.4.4 The Age and Beauty of Classic Songs
2.4.5 Hit Songs vs Great Songs
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As discussed in
Chapter 1, natural selection ain’t pretty. Animals have to eat other living
things, or die. Evolution amounts to a constant arms race. Natural selection
equips predator species with adaptations such as powerful leg muscles, sharp
fangs, or long claws. Natural selection equips prey species with keen hearing,
sight, and smell, the better to escape predators and pass on their genes to the
next generation. Such favourable adaptations accumulate in the genomes of both
prey and predator species.
In this sense, cumulative mutations amount to a kind of progress,
even though natural selection has no inherent sense of direction. Suppose keener
hearing prevents a prey species such as a rabbit from getting eaten because it
can hear an approaching predator and escape to safety under bramble bushes. Then
keener hearing marks an improvement, or “progress,” over the previous state of
hearing, which would not have been keen enough to enable the rabbit to hear the
predator creep close enough to pounce and kill the unfortunate rabbit.
Progress means usefulness
of the adaptation in the evolutionary arms race. If a mutation results in keener
hearing and saves rabbits from getting caught and eaten, then it’s likely to
remain as an adaptation. If another mutation shows up in some unlucky rabbit
that reverses hearing sensitivity to the previous state, that individual rabbit
will likely get eaten before it passes on the mutated gene, thus
preventing the reversal of evolutionary “progress” from spreading to
Evolutionary progress, then, goes one way only. It does not
similar happens in human culture. Certain aspects of human culture improve or
progress, such as science and technology. “Progress” means that, once scientists
make a discovery that results in a technology that proves more useful than an existing
technology, people stop using the existing technology in favour of
the new one.
with predator-prey arms races, such progress does not reverse. Technological
progress moves in one direction only. There’s no going back. For example,
transportation technologies have shown “progress” over time. Horses and wagons
gave way to cars, trucks and trains. Sailing ships gave way to engine-powered
ships. Hot air balloons gave way to passenger jets.
Why is there such a thing as progress in science and
Ultimately for the same reason rabbits with keen hearing
procreate and rabbits with mediocre hearing get eaten. Survival
advantage. If you want to compete with FedEx in the courier business, you’d
better not rely on Model T Fords and clipper ships.
Progress applies to the scientific and technical aspects of culture.
But what about the artistic aspects of culture? Do the arts progress?
Does music progress?
The answer is no.
Music does not progress, nor do the other arts. The reason has
to do with the unchanging nature of the connection between the arts
(including music) and emotional communication.
As Darwin correctly pointed out, emotions are adaptations.
Emotions are permanently encoded in the human genome, and in the genomes of many
other animal species. Emotions such as fear, sadness, joy, and anger evolved
because they’re critical for survival.
communication systems in non-human animals (hootin’ and howlin’) evolved as
adaptations to communicate these emotions. The evidence indicates this holds for
the human animal as well. As discussed in Chapter 1, music evolved in humans as
a sound communication adaptation, a way to communicate emotion. Since the same
connections between emotions and music in humans have likely not changed in the
human species for hundreds of thousands of years, these connections are, in
they’re not permanent, because a species continues to evolve by natural
selection until the species becomes extinct. But adaptations such as emotions
and music evolve so slowly that, on time scales of tens or hundreds of thousands
of years, you can think of such adaptations as unchanging, for practical
Since the brain wiring that connects emotion with music evolved
in the Stone Age and has not changed, musical art can never
progress, the way science and technology progresses.
The only thing music or any art can ever do is communicate
Emotions evolved as survival adaptations, so when an effective
work of art makes an emotional connection, people recognize,
perhaps unconsciously, the connection with survival. A work of art, such
as a song, then, succeeds or fails on the strength of its emotional resonance.
If it connects emotionally, it succeeds. If it does not, it fails. When a work
of art succeeds in connecting emotionally, it stays connected permanently,
because human emotions don’t change over time.
A successful work of art, one that connects emotionally in
most people, is called a classic. The Canadian literary critic Northrop
Frye has this to say about classics of dramatic art, equally applicable
to classics of popular song:
Science learns more and more about the world as it goes on: it evolves and
improves. A physicist today knows more physics than Newton did, even if he’s not
as great a scientist. But literature begins with the possible model of
experience, and what it produces is the literary model we call the classic.
Literature doesn’t evolve or improve or progress. We may have dramatists in the
future who will write plays as good as King Lear, though they’ll be very
different ones, but drama as a whole will never get better than King Lear. King Lear is it, as far as drama is
concerned; so is Oedipus Rex, written two thousand years earlier than
that, and both will be models of dramatic writing as long as the human race
endures. . . . Whitman’s celebration of democracy makes a lot more sense than
Dante’s Inferno. But it doesn’t follow that Whitman is a better poet than Dante:
literature won’t line up with that kind of improvement.
a new work of art comes along, it does not have any inherent “progressive”
advantage over older works of art. The concept of progress has no meaning in art. A new song, for its
newness, has no advantage over an old song.
artist working in any medium at any time in human history or in the present day
has the potential to create a classic. Once created, a true classic never goes
away. It connects emotionally, and human emotions do not go away and do not
change from generation to generation. Humans who lived thousands of years ago
had the same inborn music-emotion brain wiring that humans have today. And
humans thousands of years in the future will still have the same music-emotion
brain wiring (assuming humans haven’t gone extinct or re-engineered the species
why, as Frye points out, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, written almost 2,500
years ago, remains a successful work of art today, as do Shakespeare’s plays.
The same goes for Leonardo da Vinci’s "Mona Lisa" and Michelangelo’s "David,"
both more than 500 years
All of this applies to great songs. Classic songs serve no
purpose, scientifically or technologically. The concept of progress
has no meaning in songwriting. New songs can never improve upon
classic songs, but might themselves become classics.
a new song moves people emotionally every time it’s played or performed for an
audience, it will probably never be forgotten. It will probably become a
classic, like the majority of the songs on the GSSL. Once a
classic, always a classic.
Progress and change are two different things. In the arts,
progress is meaningless, but change is both normal and necessary.
Music and all the other arts are in a perpetual state of transmutation and
diversification. Always were, always will be. That’s how a dozen major new
popular musical genres emerged in the 20th Century
If you aspire to greatness as a songwriter or performer, you will
find that you will have to introduce change and innovation
throughout your career, or you will stagnate artistically.
does not mean “the old” loses its meaning. Art has nothing to do with fashion. With one or two minor exceptions, all of
the new musical genres that emerged in the 20th Century remain in
place today. The new genres that emerged were not more “progressive” than
the older genres. They were just different.
Similarly, great artists enjoy long careers because they have the
imagination to embrace change, to constantly reinvent themselves
artistically: Johnny Cash, for example. Joni Mitchell. David Bowie.
And especially Bob Dylan, the Shakespeare of popular song.
Artists of this calibre do not abandon their great classic songs.
They realize that, once a classic, always a classic. So they perform
and re-record their classics in new ways. And they also continue
writing and recording new material and exploring other genres for
to reiterate, newness of artistic output has nothing to do with progress. New
material may be inventive and innovative, but it’s emphatically not better
than older material, just because it’s new.
As discussed in Chapter 1, biological adaptations such as emotions
and music do not evolve unless they confer survival benefits or
reproductive benefits, or both.
How does a work of musical art such as a song confer these
If a work of art succeeds in evoking emotions, it connects with
the survival benefits of emotions, but in a controlled context.
• A successful work of art enables you to feel negative
emotions such as fear, sadness, and anger without
experiencing the dangerous or unpleasant real-world
circumstances that would normally trigger such emotions.
• A successful work of art also enables you to feel positive
emotions such as excitement and joy, which you may not
experience very often under real-world circumstances.
A successful work of art, then,
functions as a model, as Frye points
out. A work of art must in some way model or demonstrate a
possible human situation or experience. Otherwise it will not evoke
Great art, whether literary, visual, or musical, reflects human
universals. If a work of art reaches you emotionally, it teaches you
something about survival. You may not be able to put it into words,
but you remember it.
work of art is to emotional life what a scientific paper is to intellectual
life. Songs and paintings and novels serve as emotional “lab demonstrations,” so
to speak. They teach us how to survive.
Just as science illuminates some aspects of reality using torches
of reason, art illuminates other aspects using torches of emotion.
Humans learn from both. Great works of art provide society with
benefits every bit as useful as the benefits derived from scientific
The older a
still-remembered song, the more likely it’s a song people regard as a timeless
classic. (The GSSL, for example, contains nearly 1,200 songs composed between
1900 and 1949.)
millions of people under the age of 30 hum and sing and buy zillions of
recordings of songs that were written before they were born—the songs of Bob
Dylan, Hank Williams, the Gershwins, Jimi Hendrix, Lennon and McCartney, Cole
Porter, Hoagy Carmichael, Joni Mitchell. Classics.
plays such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and classic ballets such as
Tchaikowsky’s Swan Lake transcend time, place, and interpretation. So do
classic songs, such as Gershwin & Heyward’s “Summertime,” written in 1935. Like Hamlet and Swan Lake,
“Summertime” has never lost its appeal and today is known and performed the
NOTE: Many songs on the GSSL written in the last quarter of the
20th Century will not become classics. More time
must pass (several decades) to know for sure. Some of these songs
will undoubtedly fall away and be forgotten. Selecting songs for the GSSL from the late 20th Century that might become classics was
necessarily a matter of educated guess work.
Every generation laughs at the old fashions but follows
religiously the new.
A person who equates
“classic” with “too old” does not understand the difference between fashion and
art. In popular music, fashion means current chart hits.
If you want to learn about songwriting from other songs, steer
clear of pop music fashion shows such as the Billboard charts and MTV and
all other charts and listings of current singles, albums, and videos. Nearly all
of the songs you find there will be long forgotten in 5, 10 or 15 years.
Stripped of slick production values, they’re banal songs.
While most of the tunes that make it onto the Billboard
charts eventually vanish, never to be heard again (deservedly), a small fraction
of them—a tiny fraction in relation to the total number that make the
charts—don’t fade away. Years and years later, people still play and sing them.
Artists still record them. You hear them in clubs and bars, at concerts and
festivals, in movie soundtracks and commercials.
of the 1960s were fond of reminding each other never to trust anyone over 30 (a
mantra that curiously faded away in the 1970s). With respect to songs as models
to learn from, a practical guide—not a hard and fast rule—would be, “Never trust
On My Mind,” “Dancing In The Street,” and “September Song” were once hit songs.
Now they’re classics. They continue to connect with a lot of people emotionally,
year after year.
and MTV chart-topping singles and albums may sell millions of copies today—but
that says nothing about the long-term staying power of either the recordings or
People buy new CDs or download new singles by big-name
artists for a lot of reasons that have nothing to do with the songs
• MC Mook says you gotta get it. So you get it.
• Advertising hype says you gotta get it. So you get it.
• The artist has a cool rebellious image that you identify with.
So you buy the CD in the expectation that some of that
coolness will rub off on you.
• In the video, the artist is unbelievably hot, so you buy the CD.
• Your non-conformist peers all have the CD, so, to maintain
your non-conformist credibility, you buy the CD.
sister’s birthday is coming and you have to buy a present.
• Christmas is coming and you have to buy a bunch of
presents, and CDs solve the problem relatively cheaply and
thing you know, the hit recording has sold 8 million copies—95% of them to
12-to-19-year-old males. Five years later, nobody can remember a single song
from the CD. The now 17-to-24-year-old owners of the CD have moved on to
fashionably new artists and their music.
So ... never mind the hit machinery that creates the Billboard
and MTV charts. Unless you’re only interested in commerce and fashion. In which
case, you are not an artist. You are a hack.
hey! It ain’t so bad, being a hack. Although Woody Allen’s no hack, he
recognizes the value of art to those who would seek immortality:
don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it by not
you, look at Elvis. He actually achieved immortality by not dying. He’s been
spotted thousands of times since 1977, when he decided to retire to a more
normal life. Today, he drives a cab in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Every so often he
makes a public appearance, such as the time he entered an Elvis impersonator
contest in Wichita, Kansas, and came in third.
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