Darwinian Music, or “The Triad Ate The Dyad”

In undergraduate music history surveys, it’s easy to develop a simple assumption: music evolves. The evidence is all around us, like trilobite fossils in an ancient sandbank. Over the evolution of Western music, things started out simply and progressed in ever and ever greater complexity, culminating in (what?) Beethoven, Schoenberg, or Elliott Carter. The music we’re reading about now – where the proverbial rubber meets the road between orality and literacy – represents the fish wiggling onto shore. Chant is the musical equivalent of a rudimentary amphibian.

This sort of thinking can be compelling and attractive. While it is true that there are countless examples of music getting simpler with time, not more complex, the general thrust of Western music is pretty tough to ignore: back in the middle ages, they sung unaccompanied modal melodies, today we have all the bountiful gifts of total serialism. It’s easy for the student of music to view every musical innovation, therefore, as an evolutionary adaptation bringing us ever closer to the present.

This way of thinking, attractive as it may be, is of course false. (And it might even be harmful – more on this in a later post.) Actually, it’s both a false reading of history and a demonstrably inaccurate take on the concept of evolution. In classical Darwinian evolution, species don’t simply evolve in straight lines towards their ultimate expression, ie. what they are today. Evolution is sprawling and messy; it doubles back on itself when survival dictates; it results in all sorts of dead-ends and false starts. Just like music. So perhaps music history and evolution do share something in common, only not the simple, commonly understood definitions of either.

But back to the text. Chant, it turns out, is not the squirmy amphibian on the evolutionary chart of music. Earlier dominant styles, actually, were far more complex, at least according to all evidence (we can’t hear it, obviously). The Psalms, in their description of Judaic practice, describe massed ensembles of drums, tambourines, singers, and – yes – even orchestras. Pagan musical practices were most probably polyphonic as well. Musically speaking, these practices were more complex than chant. In fact, chant can be seen as a deliberate step towards simplifying the raucous music that preceded it. It was, in a sense, reactionary. As monasteries were formed and the ascetic religious life took shape, a corresponding music for contemplation and spiritual equanimity was needed. Musical complexity and formal development weren’t even a consideration. So where, then, does this leave the Darwinian musicologist?

This is a topic I hope to return to as the project progresses (dare I say “evolves”). For now, I leave you with Taruskin:

Monophony was thus a choice, not a necessity. It reflects not the primitive origins of music (as the chant’s status as the oldest surviving repertory might all too easily suggest) but the actual rejection of earlier practices, both Judaic and pagan, that were far more elaborate and presumably polyphonic. (I, 10)


  1. Nice Title. These errors in thinking don’t just plague the students of undergraduate music history surveys. The Whiggish fallacy (or present-centered fallacy, or whatever you would like to call it) continually threatens to seep into the professional historian’s thinking, research, and writing, and it often does.

    I think this very issue is one of the reasons Taruskin’s grand opening to this titanic history is decidedly anti-climactic. The invention of notation during the reign of the Frankish kingdom makes the entire history possible. Indeed, literate music is the glue that holds the entire work together: “For it is the basic claim of this multivolumed narrative—its number-one postulate—that the literate tradition of Western music is coherent at least insofar as it has a completed shape” (I, xv). And yet, he takes pains to minimize the contemporary import of the invention. It is important to historians, but was not front page news at the time.

    But the anti-climax is I think Taruskin’s way of fighting our urge to move from left to right in a straight line through time.

  2. That is one aspect of the OHWM that really impresses me so far – Taruskin is really providing the more nuanced, conscientious picture of history. (This is also the most contemporary way of looking at historiography.) It’ll be interesting to see how he handles it when actual composers enter the picture.

  3. Glad you brought this up (particularly the exact Taruskin quote you cited). It should also be noted that complexity is a distinctly Western aesthetic value (other cultures such as the Japanese—or for that matter the early Christian monks that eschewed polyphony when creating their chants—highly value simplicity of gesture). It is thus no particular surprise that a Western history of a Western aesthetic area (music) would tend to view increasing complexity as evolutionary progress, but it is a cultural bias that we will definitely wish to be aware of and acknowledge (whether or not we decide to avoid it when crafting our histories—keeping in mind that for certain periods of the history of Western music, the aesthetic valuation of increasing complexity may have had a distinct influence on the creation of new music during that period).

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