Does Music Evolve?

By: Sara Haefeli (Ithaca College) //

The founding fathers of musicology had a tremendous impact on the shape of Western music history. The “victors” craft the historical narrative in order to make their victory seem inevitable. But how has our traditional study of music history made it seem like Western classical music is inevitably the most valuable or important? And why, as avid listeners, should we care?

Nature Metaphors

One way to make a victory seem inevitable is to make it seem organic. It is interesting how often, to promote this “organicism,” we use metaphors from the natural sciences to describe music. We …

Composer and conductor Pierre Boulez wrote, “Classical tonal thought was founded on a universe defined by gravitation and attraction; serial thought is founded on a universe in perpetual expansion.”1 The repetition of these kinds of metaphors—which resonate with the concreteness of the natural world and the seriousness of the natural sciences—reinforce in our imagination the inevitability of classical music’s dominance. These assumptions become invisible, and the status of classical music is left unquestioned. It just is better than any other kind of music—even if your Spotify playlist is filled with other styles. (I won’t tell if you don’t.) 

Whether or not classical music is better, or still relevant, or valuable is not the point. (Read more about the myth of classical music’s superiority here.) Instead, we should reconsider how we reinforce the idea that classical music is more valuable through the way we tell the story of music history. The above organic comparisons are powerful, but the most convincing way we tell the story of classical dominance is with the metaphor of evolution.

The Dangers of Evolutionary Thinking

A really good anthology of Western music gives students “threads” to follow. These threads lead the student through the history of music by connecting specific melodies, forms, or compositional techniques over long periods of time. For example, the medieval chant “Pange lingua” becomes the melodic basis for Josquin’s Missa Pange lingua from the early 16th century, and the late Medieval isorhythmic motet is a formal model for Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time (1941). The “aha!” moments that students enjoy when they discover these connections are some of the most rewarding for me as a teacher. Unfortunately, this kind of construction is also dangerous. Focusing on threads sets us to thinking that this is what music does: it evolves and progresses on a direct path toward perfection. 


We use the word “teleology” (from the Greek telos for “end” or purpose”) to describe studies of nature that progress toward a specific goal. We can define musical structures that have to return back to the opening key or theme as “teleological.” And, historically, we’ve studied music history as if it too were teleological, as if all music were marching toward one great, culminating moment. Important points in history are those that are most closely aligned with this “purpose” or “goal.” The idea gives rise to the assumption that every culture is on the same musical journey, some are just in a more “primitive” state than others, and given enough time, every culture will produce a Mozart. This is patently ridiculous and offensive, not because I doubt other cultures’ ability to produce great artists, but because Mozart need not be the pinnacle of every musical culture.

These teleological histories seem silly when put to the test, but they are surprisingly hard to kill. Take, for example, the opening of the recently published book The Story of Music by the BBC music celebrity Howard Goodall: “Perhaps your favourite music was written by Monteverdi in 1600, Bach in 1700, Beethoven in 1800, Elgar in 1900, or Coldplay in 2000.  Whichever it is, it is a sobering fact that everything that had to be discovered to produce that music—its chords, melodies and rhythms—had already been discovered by around 1450.” What was “discovered,” according to Goodall, were the building blocks of music, namely, polyphony, harmony, rhythm, and notation. He claims that music that lacks notation, such as Indonesian and Balinese music, “can still be heard in forms that have remained unashamedly unchanged for centuries.” Non-Western music stood still while western music changed, evolved. Goodall continues: 

“This is not to say that Western music, as we have inherited it, is better than, say, Indonesian music. Rather, it is an unavoidable historical truth that the Western branch of musical activity developed in ways that were not paralleled in other musical cultures.  Gradually, but with a great spirit of determination and invention, the language and method of Western music became universal standards that could be adapted to accommodate, so it now seems, every musical idea on earth.”2

There are a couple of Goodall’s points that immediately stand out to me: first is the idea that Western European art music is a kind of natural phenomenon, one that presumably has existed since time immemorial, and whose rules were just out there waiting to be “discovered” by the enlightened scientific minds of European composers (as opposed to the other, lesser peoples of the world) in much the same way that they might discover the law of gravity or the speed of light. The second thing that alarms me is the claim that Western music isn’t really better than Indonesian music, but that other musics just didn’t have the same “spirit of determination and invention.” They just didn’t try hard enough. They just weren’t clever enough. 

This kind of thinking echoes nineteenth-century philosophies of history that assumed that the the different races of the world represented different stages in the teleology of human development. (Hegel’s Philosophy of History is a perfect example.) These histories are told from the perspective that primitive peoples are humanity in its very earliest stages: Africans are a bit more developed, “Orientals” still more, and on up the ladder through the Latin races, the Britons and Scandinavians, to finally, the only truly developed people, the Germans.  Music history was often structured like this up until the 1980s. 

Our textbooks no longer explicitly promote this notion of racial typology and are no longer explicitly teleological, but they are still implicitly so. We may have an opening chapter on “primitive” music (although it’s likely no longer called that) and then the focus remains firmly on the West. It’s an exclusion of other voices that we hope to remedy here at The Avid Listener as best we can.

For Discussion

  1. We can apply organic metaphors to all kinds of music, and in fact we do. Are there examples from music practices (other than “classical” or “Romantic” styles) that use this kind of language as a description of design?
  2. Do we have a tendency as Western listeners to listen for, and maybe create, teleological design in non-Western or popular music? If so, is there a reason for this predilection?


2 Howard Goodall, The Story of Music (London: Chatto & Windus, 2013).

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