Music, Information, and Society

I just found this and had to publish it. I originally wrote it on 28 November, 2007 — but I had not remembered it until now:

It is my observation that, in general, people like music that is analogous to their lifestyle. By lifestyle I mean cultural norms, societal norms, amount of information that bombards them, and just about everything else that would effect day to day activities. I was noticing how The Brian Seltzer Orchestra and Voodoo Daddy played popular music from the early 20th century and I was mentally comparing it to recordings from the time period. The period recordings of the same music seem rather innocuous compared to the modern versions of them, which are very rambunctious and edgy. This made me think upon how music has changed over the years from the earliest piece of music till now and I began to wonder what drove this change and I began thinking about the earliest music I learned about as a music education major during my freshman year of college.

The earliest surviving piece of music is on the Seikilos epitaph. It is written in ancient Greek and is incredibly placid, so placid that I think it would quickly put anyone from the last few centuries to sleep. If you compare that with song from the next few thousand years it does not change much. Then we come to the common era, and many things start changing within 300 years. Musicians start to develop organum, which is the precursor to the renaissance polyphony. From that simple parallel harmony of perfect fourths and fifths comes the harmony best characterized by the work of Perotin. His music uses mostly perfect fourths and fifths, but also throws in a few thirds and sixths – which are treated as dissonances.

Another era is reached when the rules of harmony are codified right before the 11th century. In this set of rules the sounds of organum are outlawed. The only allowed parallel motion between voices is that of thirds and sixths. These harmonies, which were harsh to the ears only a few hundred years ago, became the most pleasing sounds to the ear. Of course, there is an increase in the dissonance that is allowed. The leading composer, Palestrina, taught that dissonance creates space for more beauty in its resolution.

Then, starting in the late 18th century, dissonant sounds are increasingly allowed in music. Why? It is because it sounds beautiful to the ear (or it at least jives or resonates with the listener). Then the romantic period came and ushered in a era of beautiful dissonance. This progressed into the modern or contemporary period, where Arnold Schönberg wrote music with his tone row technique and atonal music reached it heights, receiving such rave reviews by famous people like, “I wanted leave after the opening phrase” or “It sounded like a bunch of cats clawing and scratching on a blackboard”.

Starting in the romantic period we see an increase in the use of rhythm and faster and heavier percussive sounds. We see Rock ‘n’ Roll evolve and take over popular music. My father still calls most new popular music “noise”. It is “noise” to him, but it is completely tolerable music to me. By the same token, he cannot stand listening to the renaissance polyphony that I enjoy – and neither can most of my friends and acquaintances. The say, “It’s too mellow,” “It doesn’t have a beat,” or “It hurts my ears.”

What is the driving force behind these changes in musical taste? I’m sure there are cop-out answers such as “People are just always pushing the limits.”, but I don’t think that really says anything. It begs the question, “Why do people always push the limits?” I think the answer comes from physics and modern research on complexity and complex adaptive systems. The real answer lies in entropy and information density of the world populace. I don’t think any other phenomenon could correctly underly such an incredible diversity of social behavior.

When I thought about this and the problem of changing musical taste, I came up with the following picture. Music must correspond in some manner to what we experience in our daily lives. Or to rephrase that, the information content of the music must correspond to the information content of our daily lives. Things may get a bit tricky here, because we need to define what is meant by information content of music. I will avoid the trickiness by not defining anything that specifically relates to music, because that is not my main goal. Information is anything that can be perceived by a human through the senses and at any level of cognition (in my papers context). It is anything that can be thought about and turn into knowledge by the brain. I suppose that my main thesis of this section is that music is a measure of a society’s entropy.

Entropy and information are related concepts. Information is something most know about from daily experience. But I want to introduce a definition that I will use. Information is a pattern that is meaningful to some entity at some level. Meaningful means that something can be done with it. It does not imply understanding. Entropy is related to information in that it measures the amount of information is a system. It could also be said to measure the disorder, but I do not like that because it is misleading in systems which are constantly self-organizing. It could also be said to measure the possible configurations you could find a system in. That is what it really means in this context. When you reach a level of information density, or enough people know about a certain trend or belief, then the entropy is increased.

It has been said that we live in the information age, but that is nonsense in some ways. Every age has been an information age. Information has always been around and will continue to be around in increasing quantities. That increase is what drives the changes that we see in society and the products of that society – including their music. I see information as a fundamental aspect that drives reality. We each respond to it by creating more information throughout our lives. Everything that we perceive is information and everything we do creates information. It is this fundamental action that causes all change and growth.

We are complex autonomous organisms that are capable of self-organizing and creating order. We are imbued with intelligence and therefore the ability to create and learn. Our basic activity is responding to information by creating more information. This increases the entropy of our society. Which increases the possibilities of what can happen and will happen. We see examples of this throughout history. Clothing, horseback riding, the radio, TV, the automobile, the microwave, the computer, the Internet, and Google: Each of these required several parts to happen, increase in knowledge, increase in ability, innovation, acceptance, mainstream acceptance, and paradigm shift. These stages can be abstracted down to three different stages: information increase, entropy increase, and paradigm change.

A paradigm is really part information and part change of practice. The relation between entropy and paradigm is that an increase of entropy will allow a paradigm to gain or loose a foothold. A change in paradigm signifies that the increase in entropy has allowed the configuration of society the change. In this context I will define a paradigm to be a functionality within a society. That is to say, it is a way of living, such as: stories & myths, social norms, customs, traditions, religions, ways of thinking & doing, philosophies, technology, and music.

Music was at first very slow and calm because that is how life moved. Their were no cars, no planes, no telephones, no computers, no fast food restaurants, no radio, no electricity. One had to grow their own food, gather their food from the naturally growing fruits and nuts and herbs, or go and hunt down some animal to eat. All of this involved a long process that took lots of time. Also one might spend a long time walking from place to place, or – if one were lucky enough – one might be riding a donkey or some other animal. The main point is that everything took time. There would be lots of time spent waiting for things to happen. The information created by this society would take lots of time to be made and would probably not be that much. Since there would be relatively little change throughout a lifetime, I think it would be safe to say that their music would be slow and calm. The major exception would be societies that did hunt large animals in herds and groups of people ran to after them to hunt them. The would have a template in their mind of the motions and rhythms that were experienced during those times. This, being a part of their daily lives, would have greatly influenced their music and aesthetic sense. It probably would have created fast steady rhythms in their music. This can be heard in African and Native American musics.

As time progressed all sort of inventions were created that would start to influence all of society and therefore music. Society clustering into towns and villages created an environment for information to increase faster. The invention of the press, industrial age, trains, electricity, light bulb, automobile, radio, telephone, computer, & Internet have influenced and still influence every aspect about society by allowing information to flow more freely to people and throughout society.


3 thoughts on “Music, Information, and Society

  1. I can use your reasoning to get some idea of why people born in different times might have a different kind of music appreciation, but what about people in the same cohort as you?

    1. I think it has less to do with what cohort one is in and more to do with the connections of one’s social network combined with one’s own preferences. How those preferences come about is another fun discussion! Is it genetic? Do certain people have certain predispositions to enjoying certain musical structures innately? Or is it learned? How much of music is learned? How much of it depends on deep linguistic structures innate to humans? I seem to have more questions than answers. 🙂

      1. I don’t have ready answers to these questions, but at the risk of mansplaining, I have a notion of how to get closer. Since I was last in a schoolroom, it has become routine to measure various social-science features in terms of a numerical measure of heritability. Studies based on different varieties of twins have allowed a kind of “laddering”, and the beginning of confidence in these kinds of results. Finally, it might be easier to get results of music appreciation than music production. The ideal paper to find would be “heritabilty of music appreciation by twins”.

        What do music-users use music for? I think you may have been suggesting that this may have changed over the years. One wants a comfort, while another wants an aphrodisiac, a third wants to synchronize his worksteps, and a 4th is trapped in a hypnotic replaying in the inner ear. A fifth identifies with a symbol of cultural defiance. Our culture develops such that purposes served by music may become evident at different times. The development of emo music may have required the internet in order to “discover” the need which it fills. Will there ever be, or has there ever been “revenge rock”, “rosary soundtrack soul”, “elevater punk”, “apologistic aria”, “singalong gregorian chants”… Silly, yes, but it helps to keep the focus on how music is used. The same piece might be incomprehensible, subversive, nostalgic, “your song”, trite, and so on at different (perhaps predictable) times in your life. And you might’ve used it as a symbol of independence, or of conformity, And then some money changed hands. As they say, follow the money. And, as you say, the social network.

        It is tempting to extrapolate from patterns that have appeared in the modern era – the music business must know everything about our patterns, based largely in demographics, and, as I mentioned earlier, cohort. The recording and broadcast made new uses of music possible.

        I guess I have a bias in thinking about these kinds of questions. Certainly there is a core of pure genetic receptivity to musical patterns and expressions. But I think since “cultural evolution” is so much faster than biological evolution, our *cultural differences* will be much greater than the underlying biological ones.

        Based on nothing but a bit of intuition, I would focus on what we know as “hooks”, and figure them as being more likely to relate to the underlying biological system, and less the cultural preference system.

        Finally, I wonder if Facebook / WordPress / etc. is changing the meaning of a cohort. Anyway, interesting questions. I’m not sure if what I’ve written touches on your interests very well. If nothing else it may have well-determined what it is we are not talking about… Thanks for the reply.

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